Pole Position At Indianapolis – The First Fifty Years 1911-1961

Speedway, IN (May 20th, 2012) – The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is rich in history, not only for its 95 500-mile races, but also on Pole Day when usually the first row and first half of the field is filled in. In 1911 and 1912 the starting positions were decided by postmarked entry. Thus, Lewis Strang and his Racine, WI-based J.I. Case entry lined up inside row one on race day. Gil Anderson did the same in his Stutz the following year.

In 1913 and 1914, starting positions were drawn, as a result Caleb Bragg and Jean Chassagne were on the pole for third and forth running.

In 1915, Howdy Wilcox won the pole with a speed of 98.900-mph in his sturdy white Stutz machine. The Frenchman, Rene Thomas broke the track record in 1919 along with the 100-mph barrier, with a speed of 104.780-mph.

Ralph DePalma who nearly won the 1912 race and came back to win the 1915 event became the first two-time pole winner (1920-1921). However, DePalma’s Ballot was under the speed of Thomas’ record run.

Smaller lightweight chassis and engine development pushed the qualifying speed 123% between 1920 and 1928. Harry Miller built chassis and engines dominated the sport in the 1920’s. Single seat cars such as the Tommy Milton’s H.C.S. Special pushed the track record to 108.170 in 1923. Two years later Leon Duray pushed the track record to 113.196-mph and later, speedy Frank Lockhart went 120.100-mph in 1927. Miller powered cars won fifteen poles between 1922 and 1938. Their descendents including the Offenhauser engine were a fixture at Indianapolis into the late-1970’s.

Duray’s 1928 track record held until 1937 when “Wild Bill” Cummings drove Mike Boyle’s Miller-Offy to 123.343-mph. Boyle, the colorful Chicago union boss, had his mechanic, Cotton Henning listed as owner. The Boyle cars were always threat in qualifying as well as during the race.

Chicago milkman Jimmy Snyder drove Joel Thorne’s Big-Six, a supercharged dual overhead cam monster past the 130-mph barrier in 1939. Taking advantage of the rules, Art Sparks built the 336-inch six cylinder which he estimated pushed 450 horsepower. Unfortunately, mechanical woes during the race prevented victory.

Rookie, Walk Faulkner surprised the railbirds with a track record run in 1950 in J.C. Agajanian’s new cream and red Kurtis KK2000. At the end of the first day of qualifying, the speedy Faulkner took some advice from fellow driver, Freddie Agabashian and became a part of Speedway lore.

The first driver to win the pole for the Indianapolis 500 four times was the popular Californian, Rex Mays. Mays won the pole back-to-back in 1935 and 1936 in the Miller-powered Clyde Adams built Gilmore Racing Gasoline Special. Paul Weirick worked the wrenches on the car and Mays pushed on the gas. Mays came back in 1941 to win the pole in the Bowes Seal Fast Special. The popular powerful Novi helped propel Mays to his final pole position in 1948. Duke Nalon also won the pole in the Ed Winfield / Jean Marcenac Novi in 1949 and 1951.

The aforementioned Agabashian came back in 1952 with a Cummins Diesel, and took the pole with a new track record of 138.010-mph. The low profile yellow and red Cummins car was the only diesel to win a pole at Indianapolis. However several diesel-powered cars did participate in earlier races.

1955 saw a windy blustery day which the drivers agreed to not to make runs. However in the final hour of the day, Tony Bettenhausen and rookie, Jerry Hoyt made runs. It was Hoyt braving the wind and taking the pole in his dark red Jim Robbins Spl. At just over 140-mph.

The popular Watson ‘roadster’ made its first appearance on the inside of row one in 1956 when Pat Flaherty broke the track record with a four-lap average of 145.596-mph. A Frank Kurtis-built KK500G won the pole with North Vernon, Indiana’s Pat O’Connor behind the wheel. It was the only time different drivers with the same first name won the pole consecutively.

In 1958, Dick Rathmann broke the four-lap track record in the McNamara Special after a spirited duel all month with Ed Elisian trading fastest speed of the day. Elisian was second fastest, however did break the one-lap track record.

The year 1959 saw the original Flying Scot, Johnny Thomson put the ‘shocking pink’ Racing Associates laydown Epperly on inside row one. Eddie Sachs and Parnelli Jones won back-to-back poles (1960-1961, 1962-1963) for the last of the pole-winning front-engine cars. The Clown Prince of Racing as Sachs was known put the Dean Van Lines Watson-styled roadster on point in 1960 in car No. 6. Conversely, the car was built by Wayne “Fatboy” Ewing who was an A.J. Watson disciple.

The speeds at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway went from 98-mph in the pre-war days to 150-mph in the heyday of the ‘roadster’ in the early 1960’s. However, the speeds were about make a big jump with the coming of the lighter rear-engine Indianapolis cars.

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