Post by RRO historian Jim Smith
The 1916 Harvest Auto Racing Classic
The year 2020 will go down in history as the year of the Corona Virus pandemic that resulted in world wide social upheaval. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway also fell victim to the pandemic and was forced to hold all racing events without spectators.
This weekend October 2nd and 3rd The Harvest Grand Prix will be held on the road course with a maximum of 10,000 spectators. Many race fans may not realize that this was not the first time that the word “Harvest’ was connected to a racing event at the Speedway and held at this time of year.But first a brief look at history.
It has been well documented that four mutual friends James A. Allison, Carl G. Fisher, Arthur C. Newby and Frank H. Wheeler in a joint venture originally purchased320 acres of ground northwest of Indianapolis. Fisher was the driving force behind the venture and the group created what was destined to be the greatest race course in the world. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The articles of incorporation filed on February 8, 1909 carried the name Indianapolis Motor Speedway Company. Fisher was listed as President, Newby as first vice-president, Wheeler as second vice-president and Allison as secretary-treasurer.
Carl Fisher was the leader of the group and his aggressiveness and vision contributed greatly to the Speedway’s success, as a racing facility, in its early years. One little known fact is that Fisher loved to vacation in the Miami, Florida area and there he met a man named John Collins. Together they developed a strip of land east of Miami that is now known as Miami Beach.
After the 1916 Indianapolis 500, won by Dario Resta, at the annual June meeting Fisher suggested a series of races in September. He reasoned that if the war in Europe continued that the Untied States would become involved and the Speedway would have to close for the duration.
At first the group opposed the idea, but Fisher felt they might show a profit of $ 20,000 to tide them over. As usual, he gained their approval and the first Harvest Auto Racing Classic was scheduled for September 9 with a three race program. One consisting of a 20 mile race for $1,000, a 50 mile race for $2,000 and a 100 mile feature for $9,000. He also proposed a band contest for silver trophies of which 21 bands accepted.
The tremendous speeds at a Labor Day event on Cincinnati’s board track resulted in engine problems and 21 of the 28 entries failed to finish. There were only 16 cars in running condition by the following Saturday. One of the entrants, 1915 500 winner Ralph DePalma’s Mercedes, was among the missing because it had thrown a connecting rod through the crankcase.
DePalma was offered a Speedway owned Peugeot which he accepted. Other prominent drivers such as Johnny Aitken , Howdy Wolcox, Eddie Rickenbacher (future owner of the Speedway) and Dave Lewis all drove Speedway owned cars.
No more than 10,000 people turned out for the event that saw Aitken win all three races. It was also the only official event to be held from 1911 to 1993 with the exception of the Indianapolis 500. It was also the last event before the United States became involved in the war.
Carl Fisher announced that the Speedway would suspend all racing activities and the facilities were offered to the United States government for any purpose it desired. It was turned into an aviation repair facility and landing field. The track was shut down for racing for 1917 and 1918 and resumed racing in 1919.
Johnny Aitken was born on May 3, 1985 and ironically died on October 15, 1918 of bronchopneumonia from the Influenza pandemic of 1918.
He never won the 500 and he competed in only three. He started and led the first lap of the 1911 race. He won the pole in 1916 and finished 15th. In 1915 he didn’t start the race, but was a relief driver for two different cars.
Here are some amazing statistics : He had the most startswith 41 and with 15 wins the most of any driver to compete at the Speedway. The second greatest number of wins was 1911 winner Ray Harroun with 8 wins from 1909 to 1911. A.J. Foyt has the second greatest number of starts with 36from 1958 to 1994 with four Indianapolis 500 wins.
Although he never won the 500 as a driver he was the team manager for Joe Dawson’s 1912 500 victory and for 1913 500 winner Jules Goux.