Preamble to Legend of the First Super Speedway

05/23/2020

This is the preamble of my upcoming book, "The Legend of the First Super Speedway, the Battle for the Soul of American Auto Racing."
 

Preamble By Mark Dill
 
This book is a fact-based novel. With apologies to many auto racing historians whose work I have learned from, I decided a narrative approach was the best way to communicate a previously untold story. The Legend of the First Super Speedway presents a detailed description of facts, that takes the reader beyond more academic text and record tables that are understandably light on interpretation.
 
I see this as the saga of a red state – blue state cultural battle for the soul of the sport. I wanted to paint a picture of the people and events of the age. More than facts and figures, I take you inside their heads – and their hearts.
 
The racing events occurred as described and, on the dates, noted. I assume poetic license in illustrating the personalities and habits of the primary characters, all of whom were actual people. With rare exceptions, the dialogue of the characters is born of my imagination informed by years of research. I believe I know these people – their personalities, their ambitions, and their quirks. The story is told from the alternating point of view of two men, Barney Oldfield and Carl Fisher.
 
From my extensive study, I came to the conclusion that Carl and Barney probably had more influence and lasting impact on establishing the enduring format of American auto racing than any other individuals of their era. Fisher was the driving force behind the construction of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and Oldfield, more than anyone, popularized the sport to rival the other primary pastimes – baseball, boxing, and horse racing.  Neither of these men would be politically correct by today’s standards, but they were the product of another age.
 
What was considered socially acceptable during that first decade of twentieth-century America would trigger outrage today. I thought it was essential to convey that reality because the context of history must be fleshed out to truly understand anything within it. I do not dwell on racism, but I can’t ignore it. There are a handful of passages that contain the infamous “N-word.” Its use was every day in newspapers, along with other terms such as "darkies." What's most distasteful is that such language was not just tolerated, but used matter-of-factly, just as you might describe a rose as red, yellow, or pink.
 
Gender roles are underscored as well, as only a few women appear in this story. Among these are Jane Watts Fisher (Carl’s wife), opera singer Gertrude Hassler (his girlfriend), Bess Oldfield (Barney’s wife), Helen Fea Winton (Alexander Winton’s daughter), Betty Blythe (Indianapolis Star journalist), Blanche Scott (aviator and all-around daredevil), Sarah Oldfield (Barney’s mother), and Carrie Coey.
 
Among these women, Blythe and Scott are the most assertive and rare examples of females who carved out exceptional careers in a “man’s world.” Coey, who I gather was a dutiful trophy bride to her husband, wealthy sportsman Charles Coey, earned the distinction of being the first woman to ascend to the sky over the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in a passenger balloon. She was not the pilot.
 
Anyone interested in learning more about these women and other characters (see Author’s Notes) who appear in the book can do so by searching my Website, www.firstsuperspeedway.com. That site contains the bulk of my source material from in-period newspaper articles. It is the most extensive consolidated collection of such news coverage from pre-1920 American auto racing on the planet, and it is available at no charge.
 
Another female character, Madame Winfield, is purely a fictional device to lend insight to Barney’s character. She greets him and his friends Tom Cooper and Spider Huff when they visit a Detroit house of prostitution. This brief passage is again the product of my informed imagination and the kind of activity I am certain Barney participated in. You just can’t fully appreciate his character without it. Be assured that I did not feel it was necessary to elaborate with details beyond the fact that the three men simply visited such a place.
 
While Helen Fea Winton was a real person, there is not much known about her. I insinuate a hint of a dalliance between her and Barney, who was betrothed to Bess at the time. That’s just the kind of person Oldfield was – and by my best information, his wife knew, but turned a blind eye.
 
Another such imaginative passage comes when Barney and his friend Tom get the worst of a drunken brawl at a dive bar in downtown Indianapolis. The specifics of that passage in the book is again an extraction from the general habits of these characters. Think of these more fanciful passages as the connective tissue of the narrative that presents the truth about this era of auto racing history and its characters.
 
Among the historical figures that play supporting roles in the story are Fisher's fellow founders of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – Arthur C. Newby, James Allison, and Frank Wheeler. The history books don't attempt to understand their personal relationships because there is a dearth of information about how they treated one another. From my readings, I believe that Newby had chronic medical issues, probably intestinal. Wheeler suffered from diabetes, a condition that worsened and drove him into such despair that he took his own life in 1921. 
 
Of the four founders, I came to believe that Wheeler, a salesman at heart, was most likely to bluff his way through business and life. I depict him as someone who needled the mild-mannered Newby. I am convinced that he was the black sheep among the founders.
 
Ernie Moross looms large throughout the book. He worked extensively as a publicity agent and manager for Barney and then was hired by Fisher as contest director of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
 
Tom Cooper is another prominent figure in the story. He may have been Barney’s all-time best friend. He partnered with Henry Ford to build the first Ford race cars, which became the vehicles for the initial successes of Barney that established him as a national sports hero.
 
William K. Vanderbilt, Jr. is a factor as well. A successful amateur race driver and founder of America’s first major auto race, the Vanderbilt Cup, he emerges as a rival and even an antagonist to Barney. Even more so, one of Vanderbilt’s right-hand men, Arthur Pardington is frequently at odds with the driver. All of this sets the stage for Oldfield's career-long strained relationship with the American Automobile Association, where both Vanderbilt and Pardington played executive roles. The friction between Oldfield and these men, who used what was then a derisive term, “Westerners,” to describe people like Barney and Carl, is an example of the culture war. People beyond the northeast were seen as crude and uneducated. They scraped for a living and some even accumulated wealth, but they were never a member of the aristocratic class.
 
My goal is to thrust you into the era with vivid interpretations of racing but also what it would be like to walk among these people and grasp their world view. I worked hard to capture their lexicon. I use terms like “bully” for enthusiasm, “corned” for getting intoxicated, “weed benders” for countryside farmers, “fellas” as the default reference to men, “Gibson Girl” for attractive young women, “little honey,” for their girlfriends, “scorcher,” for fast drivers, and “cheroot” for cigars.
 
They chew “chaw” (tobacco) and have spittoons in their offices. These characters attend “smokers” where cigars were passed around in a banquet hall. You will ride trains, bounce across craggy terrain, and step over dead horses rotting in the street. Most importantly, early auto racing's good, bad, and ugly will be put before you in unvarnished fashion. Why? Because it really happened. No storyteller needs to dramatize a single detail because the following amazing events actually happened, and the awe-inspiring people behind them walked the Earth just as you do now.