Meet Webb Jay


Webb Jay was an interesting and little-known driver of the early days of American auto racing leading up to the construction of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. There's not a lot known about the guy, so it's exciting any time I can pick up on an artifact - like the one you'll find at the at First Super Speedway - that casts a little light on his life.


Dial back to 1905, a far more important season of American auto racing than hardly anyone alive today understands. There we find Jay at the wheel of "Whistling Billy," a product of the White Motor Company, which was (did you know?) a subsidiary of the White Sewing Machine Company.


Yeah, sewing machines. If you dig around a little bit in the history of the fast-paced business world of the turn-of-the-20th century industrial revolution from the automobile angle it seems just about any manufacturing company at least considered getting into the game of car production.


Not unlike apps, software in general and networking devices today, the automobile was the center of the hottest market going. A younger generation pounced on it - guys like Carl Fisher, Barney Oldfield, Louis Chevrolet and a host of others were in their twenties when they saw opportunities galore. Webb Jay did too, as well as Rollin White, son of White company founder Thomas. The elder White cordoned off some square footage of his manufacturing complex and turned his boy loose.


It may seem hard to believe today, but in these times auto racing was so authentic, so purely a test of product, you have to really stop and soak that fact in to appreciate the national conversation of the times. The product category was still emerging and the market adoption rate was still climbing the arc of product life cycle. Enough of the MBA talk...this was a time when most Americans still did not own cars.


True, but there was an air of inevitability that people needed a car. They needed motorized transport for their businesses, but also for their personal lives. It was a distinction of social status but also it became essential as lifestyles and ways of working evolved to exploit the efficiencies of redefining the barriers of distance. This was the backdrop to the 1905 racing season.


The super star driving hero of the age had emerged in late 1902 when Barney Oldfield defeated the most recognizable name in the sport, Alexander Winton and his Winton Motor Carriage Company "Bullet" racer in a five-mile sprint race for the Manufacturer's Challenge Cup at the dirt horse track in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. From there the grassroots hero reinforced his legend by becoming, in June 1903, the first driver to cover a mile on a closed-circuit course within a minute. On to 1904 and we find him criss-crossing America establishing every speed record from one to 50 miles.


Entering the 1905 racing season, Oldfield, now driving for the Peerless Motor Company in a 60 HP four-banger he dubbed, "The Green Dragon," was the acknowledged American Speed King. Track promoters packing their grandstands - and they did pack their grandstands - often pronounced him, "The World Champion."


One of the reasons the 1905 AAA racing season was significant is that it was the first to offer a points-paying national championship. This fact has been obfuscated by poor record keeping, revisionist reporting by PR managers and, more recently, the craziness of ego-rooted squabbling in the infamous Indy Racing League - Championship Auto Racing Teams days.


The championship was really a kind of sprint car contest staged exclusively on dirt ovals. Interestingly, it did not attract tremendous interest. In the politics of those days it was more about asserting AAA-branded events as higher quality than the those of barnstormers who wanted to cut deals with track promoters directly and eliminate the middleman slice the AAA took out of proceeds.


Regardless, new forces emerged, and Webb Jay was one of them. Another was Louis Chevrolet who had just a few years earlier immigrated to Canada from France as a crafty, skilled young mechanic. By 1905 Chevrolet was in the United States. Here he steered the privately-owned Fiat of Major Charles Miller, a spoiled brat of a man who was virtually gifted his national guard Major's title by his father, who earned his Major General rank through hard work. His father - Charles Sr. - was also a steel tycoon.


As for Jay, he was White's man. The Whire was a steam car, which is another reflection of the exciting times. The market was still collectively ruminating on technology choices: gasoline-fired engines, steam cars and electric were the viable options. Webb's car got its name from the steam-kettle whistle sound it emitted. More than that, it captured attention because it fast as blazes.


Oldfield was caught with his metaphorical pants down. Chevrolet's 90 HP Fiat and Jay's massive-torque steam engine were more many times more than he could handle with his smaller Green Dragon.


The thing about "Whistling Billy," though, was that car manufacturers with internal combustion engine products hated the machine. They dismissed them as "freaks" and in subsequent years by lobbying the politicized AAA, diminished their role in competition.


The nature of the steam engine design applied power to the wheels immediately. It's instant torque gave it massive acceleration and certainly for short distance contests it had an unfair advantage. The nature of the power unit was hard to calibrate, so slapping a horsepower rating on it was pointless.


Both Jay and Chevrolet came out of the gates of the 1905 season with victories. The threat of Chevrolet soon dissipated as Miller, his mercurial owner, absconded with the wife of boxing champion Bob Fitzsimmons and basically disappeared from the scene.


Meanwhile Jay and his blazingly fast steamer began dismantling Oldfield's track records of the previous year. His undoing came on August 19 at the Kennilworth horse track near Buffalo, New York. A mechanical malfunction cast him through the thin wooden rails lining the track to cascade down an embankment and into a temporary pond formed by recent heavy rains collecting water in a big ditch. Concussed, Jay would have drown if not for a pair of teenage boys who dove in and yanked him out.


Jay hovered in the Netherlands between this world and the next for weeks. He did survive though, and that's part of the significance of the article you'll find at the link. Jay retired from wheel-to-wheel high-speed racing but continued on with automobile industry. He drove in moderate speed reliability contests like the Glidden Tour. In the attached article we find him as the Chicago branch manager for the Indianapolis-based Premier Motor Car Company.


As for Oldfield and Chevrolet, they continued with their racing, each earning iconic status and numerous victories. Oldfield ended 1905 as the first points champion in America, as sanctioned by the AAA. As noted, the prize was not a centerpiece of the sport then and barely ranks an asterisk today. There would not be another points championship until 1916 when Dario Resta earned the crown.


The marvel of First Super Speedway is that you can start almost anywhere and pick through the numerous links you'll find on any page to drill deep into glorious tales of the Heroic Age. The link in the first paragraph is a good example. It is tangental to the larger story of Webb Jay, "Whistling Billy," Oldfield, Chevrolet and the 1905 season - but by drilling down you can learn about all those subjects and much, much more.


So be confident. Boldly go where thousands have gone every month according Google Analytics. Click through to the wonder of First Super Speedway. You'll get to know amazing people who gave so much to create the sport, the stories and the cars you love. You'll learn about their wonderful machines and the events that showcased their impressive skills and accomplishments.


Say hello to Webb Jay for us...