Steve Takes Over Publicity for the Indianapolis 500

In this issue Carl Fisher hands publicity for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to Steve Hannagan. By 1919, attendance at the Indianapolis 500 was flagging, and Carl Fisher needed a new publicity campaign to reinvigorate the Track. The existing campaign focused on cars, engines, and the technology of racing, and it was not drumming up enough new ticket sales. In order to get a different perspective on the race, he asked for Russell Seeds best press agent. Steve was assigned to work with Pop Myers, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway General Manager. Seeds knew that Steve would file stories that sports editors would run in their papers. Seeds also recognized that with Steve’s nose for news, he might even get front page news coverage about the Track.

Hannagan knew from his experience that editors and readers preferred stories about people and not things. So he changed the focus of the Speedway stories from cars to drivers and their heroics. The public craved heroes like race drivers who seemingly did the impossible. According to the notes of Edward Ross, the conduit for Steve’s stories were the” Nearly three hundred sports writers [who] covered the race each year. Very quickly, Steve got to know all of them.”i

Steve began to feed the public stories about drivers and their fears, successes, failures, hopes, families, and superstitions. Many race fans were especially interested in stories about the driver’s superstitions which they believed protected them during the race. . Superstitions often involved rituals, such as wearing the same socks, cap, pants, or shirt for each race. Other rituals could involve how the driver got into the car or who they talked with immediately before the start of the rates. Besides rituals, some drivers believed that certain actions would jinx their car or their chance of winning. A jinx could happen if a woman touched the car, the color of the car, or its number. For years, drivers at the 500 refused to drive green cars; it was not until the British invasion in the mid-1960s that this prejudice ended.

Because these stories piqued the interest of readers as they turned to his byline for the latest news from the Track. It was not long before his editors were including his columns beyond the borders of Indiana but throughout the mid-west, and into the east.

Here is a small sample from several newspapers that indicate Steve’s growing reputation at the Speedway.

  • From the Miami Daily News: “Spring may officially begin on March 21, but it is not an accepted fact until the day comes that marks the arrival of Steve Hannagan, publicity director for the 500-mile race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.”ii
  • From the Detroit Evening News: … [Hannagan is] the press agent has been greatly responsible for the success of the Indianapolis event each year.”iii
  • Indianapolis Star: “Steve Hannagan, who out-groundhogs all groundhogs as a sign of spring, arrived in Indianapolis over the week-end with a new enthusiasm to add to the weather and the 500-mile race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway [on] May 30.”iv
  • Florida Star: Some editors, such as the Florida Star’s, printed Steve’s stories without editing. For example, the Star printed this headline and his press release without a change: “HANNAGAN GIVES “LOW-DOWN ON 500 –AUTO CLASSIC.”v

Press Clippings, Conflict, and Bigger Job

When the press clippings began to arrive by the bushel at Pop Myers Speedway Office, Steve expected the Pop Myers to show his appreciation. One day, after a particularly successful set of press releases, Steve ran over to Pop Myers Office and harangued old Pop that the Speedway did not appreciate Steve’s efforts. During the middle of Steve’s diatribe, Carl Fisher stepped into Myers office, and Myers told Steve to get out. Fisher wanted to know why Steve was ranting at Myers. Steve told Fisher, whom he did not know, what he had done for the Track and how well his campaign was working. Fisher’s response was classic Carl, “From now on [you are] publicity boss around here.”vi

The press clippings about the Speedway included a side benefit to Steve. His name was front and center as the by-line on each clipping. The clippings were a very neat way of building his reputation throughout Indiana, the mid-west, and nationally.Dealing with Recalcitrant Editors

Steve was a wily publicist, who could use guile to get what he wanted from editors who refused to publish his press releases. For example, the managing editor of the Detroit Times, Joe Mulcahy, did not like press agents. He ignored their press releases, which meant that he ignored Steve’s releases.vii Steve responded by flooding all the Detroit papers except the Times with colorful stories about the Speedway. After several weeks Steve visited Mulcahy and turned a little game of praise to damn the editor. Steve’s gambit worked as follows, as reported by Edward Ross:

“I hope you don’t mind, said Steve, his mint-blue eyes all innocence, if I tell you I think your lay-out on page one was swell. Two days later he called Mulcahy on the phone: Just wanted to tell you that was a grand yarn you broke today. A few days later he popped his head inside Mulcahy’s office to grin: Good looking paper you have today!”viii

After the last exchange between Steve and Mulcahy, he snarled at Steve:

“Say, you’ve been handling me a lot of crap about what a great paper we’re putting out, but if you’re so crazy about this sheet, how does it happen that you’re breaking all your race stuff in the other papers?”ix

The next day the Times ran a three-quarter page story on the Speedway. Steve’s gambit worked. Steve and Mulcahy became lasting friends because he appreciated Steve’s dance to get the Times to report on the Speedway. From then forward, Mulcahy regularly published whatever Steve sent him.

Most News Editors printed Steve’s stories not to scratch the back of a friend. They published Steve because his stories were good copy that caught eye of the reader

Steve Becomes Synonymous with the Speedway

After several years as the Speedway’s publicist, Steve made the track a household word on Memorial Day, the day of the Indianapolis 500. For example, The Detroit Evening News said that Hannagan was the “the press agent who has been greatly responsible of the success of the Indianapolis event each year”.x

Although Carl Fisher invented the idea of the Speedway, many in the news business agreed that it was Steve who made the track and the 500 mile race famous and something more than an event held in the back waters of a prairie town in the mid-west.

Steve hawked the race as an event that lived up to Carl Fisher’s assertion that the track would be a test bed for designing more reliable and safer automobiles for the consumer market. In reality, a few years after the first 500 mile race, major auto manufacturers abandoned the idea of testing cars at the race. They opened their own test tracks because they needed a facility where they could continuously test their product. Consumers expected on-going improvement to their autos and a race run only once a year did not provide this kind of information.

The Hannagan Way’ Starts to Takes Shape

The ‘Hannagan Way’ (HW) describes Steve’s successful methods for generating publicity for his campaigns. Steve used his experience as a reporter, city editor, and Speedway publicist to frame HW. Here are several of the early components: :

    • Hang out with journalistsxi
    • Smooze editors
    • Write personal stories.

ENDNOTES

i Ross, Edward Ellis; Hannagan Research Document; source: New York University Archives; p. 50.

ii Ross, Edward Ellis; Hannagan Research Document; source: New York University Archives; p. 46.

iii Ross, Edward Ellis; Hannagan Research Document; source: New York University Archives; p. 46.

iv Ross, Edward Ellis; Hannagan Research Document; source: New York University Archives; p. 46.

v Ross, Edward Ellis; Hannagan Research Document; source: New York University Archives; p. 47.

vi Ross, Edward Ellis; Hannagan Research Document; source: New York University Archives; p. 40.

vii Ross, Edward Ellis; Hannagan Research Document; source: New York University Archives; p. 46.

viii Ross, Edward Ellis; Hannagan Research Document; source: New York University Archives; pp. 46 – 47.

ix Ross, Edward Ellis; Hannagan Research Document; source: New York University Archives; p. 47.

x Ross, Edward Ellis; Hannagan Research Document; source: New York University Archives; p. 46.

xi Ross, Edward Ellis; Hannagan Research Document; source: New York University Archives; p. 307.

xii Photograph of Steve Hannagan (January 1950); Image 50712327 Photo Lofman/Pix Inc. /Time Life Pictures/Getty Images.

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