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Rickenbacker in Maxwell - 1915
Eddie Rickenbacker in his Maxwell racer at Tucson, Arizona in 1915.
Eddie Rickenbacker was a courageous, determined man with a vast array of experiences. While some complained he could be an insufferable bore, Rickenbacker's story is an inspirational tale of achievement and believing in the American dream. Despite losing his father at an early age, Rickenbacker found his compass in a fascination with engines and automobiles. Just 13 years old, he took responsibility by leaving school and generating an income to help his mother raise their family. He found a job in a local garage and soon was mentored by 31-year-old Lee Frayer, the driving force behind Frayer-Miller automobiles.
Eddie Rickenbacker’s life was a relentless marathon of achievement with enough accomplishments for several people. By age 28 he had already established two brilliant careers, one as a fighter pilot and another as a championship auto racing driver. In just seven months of wartime flying, he downed more enemy aircraft than any other American in World War I with his 26th kill in October 1918. Later, in 1939, he received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his accomplishment.
Rickenbacker's wartime heroics were preceded by a terrific auto racing career that began as a 16-year-old riding mechanic in the 1906 Vanderbilt Cup and extended through six Indianapolis 500s to end in 1916 by leading his Prest-O-Lite sponsored Maxwell racing team to seven victories in 13 events. While these could be lifetime accomplishments for many, they were merely a warm-up act for Eddie Rickenbacker.
Born October 8, 1890 to German speaking Swiss parents, Rickenbacker lost his father when only 11 years old. At 15 he took a job in a garage while studying mechanical engineering through a correspondence school. Within months, he moved to the Frayer-Miller Automobile Company. His relationship with the then 31 year-old Lee Frayer filled a void left by the loss of his father.
Frayer mentored Rickenbacker, providing a practical education in engine mechanics and business. Rickenbacker’s determination and sense of principles were strengthened by Frayer’s rewards for hard work. Later, when Lee Frayer drove in the first Indianapolis 500, Eddie was his relief driver.
While his first foray into big business ended in disappointment when the Rickenbacker Motor Company he founded in 1921 failed five years later, his internal compass remained intact. After making good on substantial debts he incurred in the car business, Rickenbacker found the financial backing to purchase the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in November 1927. He guided it through the Great Depression and World War II before selling to Tony Hulman in 1945.
Beginning in 1928, Rickenbacker held a number of executive positions with General Motors, primarily in their aviation businesses. In 1938 he realized his crowning achievement in business when he assembled $3 million to win a bidding war and purchase Eastern Airlines from General Motors.
Just four years later, Rickenbacker served as a consultant to Secretary of War Henry Stimson during World War II. His larger-than-life story continued when the military plane he was traveling in ran out of fuel and ditched in the middle of the Pacific. He survived an incredible life and death struggle while stranded in a raft for 24 days. His implausible rescue in October 1942 was front page news.
In 1953 Rickenbacker was appointed chairman of Eastern Airlines, a position he held for 10 years. In the final ten years of his life he completed his autobiography and lectured. He died in 1973 of heart failure while traveling in Switzerland with his wife of 51 years, Adelaide.