Old "Jap" Clemens - May 1910


If you can believe Internet references Hoosier race driver W.F. "Jap" Clemens, the man behind the wheel of the new Westcott Motor Car Company racer pictured here, was born in Indianapolis in 1864. If that's true he was 41 years old when he teamed with 17-year-old Charlie Merz to set the world record for distance covered in 24 hours across two days during November 1905 at the Indiana State Fairgrounds.
The event was promoted by Carl Fisher, already well established in the burgeoning Indianapolis automotive industry with his Fisher Automobile Company sales dealership and garage as well as the Concentrated Acetelyene Company - the makers of the hugely successful Prest-O-Lite headlights for cars. Despite using compressed gas, the headlights were the first viable solution for night driving, the precursor to electric headlights. Jim Allison was his partner and they became millionaires.
The cars used at the 24 hour grind were Nationals from a local factory headed up by Arthur C. Newby, who, with Fisher, Allison and Frank Wheeler went on to incorporate the Indianapolis Motor Speedway three and half years later. Legend has it the four of them discussed the need for such a speedway around an infield bonfire long into the night as Clemens and Merz traded shifts pounding around the dirt track previously the exclusive domain of horses.
There isn't much known about Clemens, such as how he got the nickname, "Jap," or exactly what he did in the automotive field - and before there was one. The best information has it that he was a mechanic and a daredevil driver. He was a bit older than some of his driving contemporaries and that may be why there is no record of him driving in any Indianapolis 500s although he well could have done a stint as a relief driver in one of the earliest editions of the classic as record-keeping of the contributions of those men was notoriously poor. Keep in mind that by the 1911 date of the first Indianapolis 500 Clemens was nearly 46 years old and probably approaching the end of his driving career.
Given what we do know about Clemens there can be little doubt he was on hand at the first "500." Even though no one could predict that the race would still be conducted 100 years later it was apparent that it was an extraordinary "game changer" event and an automobile man like Clemens almost certainly would not miss it.
Clemens did race in the Speedway's inaugural race meet in August 1909, prior to the brick paving of the running surface. This image demonstrates he was in the mix for the May 1910 Memorial Day race weekend - the track's first as the Brickyard.
We do have reports on First Super Speedway that Clemens raced for National (1905 - 1906), for Stoddard-Dayton (1909) and Westcott in 1910. Such companies were enjoying success and from every account we have collected about Clemens, he was widely respected. He was certainly seen as favorite son to central Indiana race fans.
If you haven't heard of "Jap" Clemens before and love auto racing history - especially information about Indianapolis - this man's name is a good one to remember. He helped build automotive and racing history - especially in Indiana.