In this issue, Steve turns over publicity at the Indianapolis 500 to his top assistant Joe Copps, and then at the end of World War II, says goodbye to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. By the mid-1930s, Steve’s public relations business was expanding far beyond his ability to serve his first love of the Indianapolis 500. He needed someone as his surrogate at the Speedway well. He assigned his top assistant Joe Copps who had partnered with Steve since the mid-1920s.
Steve initially brought Joe to the Speedway to help him expand his publicity efforts there. He also knew that Copps had the style to be an effective representative of the Speedway with the government and leading citizens of Indianapolis. It did not take long for Copps to endear himself with the citizens of Indianapolis and to the ownership of the Speedway.
Joe’s fondness for the Speedway was evident when he and his wife chose to be married by the Speedway Chaplain at St. Francis Roman Catholic Church in Miami. Eddie Rickenbacker, by then the owner of the track, showed his admiration of Joe and his new wife by hosting a wedding breakfast at the fashionable Indianapolis Athletic Club (the Club is now a condominium).
Steve’s relationship with Copps blossomed into a strong friendship with Copps asking Steve to be his best man at his 1939 wedding to Ruth Recops.
Steve was the Best Man at Joe Copps Wedding to Ruth Edith Recops.1
Steve’s Mother Admonishes Steve
Steve’s mother, the famous Aunt Jo, was at the wedding breakfast and heard Steve complain about his sore knees. Steve had to kneel on cold marble during several periods of the famously too-long high Catholic Mass conducted during the wedding. His mother “looked at … [Steve] sharply and said: [Stavia, as Aunt Jo called him], it’s probably because you haven’t had enough practice [kneeling] lately.”i
Joe Copps Daughter Kathleen
By 1940, even Copps’s daughter, Kathleen, had joined her father in the headlines of the Indianapolis Star.ii The paper announced the news of the birth of Joe’s daughter back in Florida.
Joe Copps was an outstanding press agent and knew how to navigate the labyrinths of the Speedway, the Indianapolis news media, and the city’s social circuit. Joe followed the Hannagan principle and flooded the newsprint media with press releases about the Speedway and its drivers. Copps, like Steve, became synonymous with the Speedway.
Rickenbacker Sells the Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Steve was the chief publicist at the Speedway for nearly twenty years until racing ended when the United States entered World War II. The Track closed during the War. During World War II, the Speedway was a fallow field on the outskirts of Indianapolis. Pictures at the time showed weeds growing on the main straight in front of the checker flag stand.
When the war ended, Eddie Rickenbacker had to decide whether or not to reopen the track. Rickenbacker had owned the track since 1927 and was now pursuing the development of Easter Airways, where he was President, into a national powerhouse. Rickenbacker determined that renovating the Speedway and restarting the Indianapolis 500 would divert him from his business goals at Eastern. He decided to either sell the Speedway or close it.
Rickenbacker found a buyer for the Speedway in 1946. Tony Hulman, the starch-king of Terre Haute agreed to purchase the Track. When the Speedway passed to Hulman, Steve ended his involvement there. Steve’s career had taken a different trajectory. Coca-Cola was now his major client and he and the Speedway believed that it needed someone new to act as Director of Publicity.
Sale of the Track Ended Steve Hannagan’s Connection
Pop Myers (left rear) at Sale of Track to Anton Tony Hullman (left), Captain Eddie Rickenbacker (seated) and Wilbur Shaw, Speedway President (seated right)iii
Steve Leaves the Track
Steve greatly enjoyed the Speedway. He craved the excitement, the drivers, and the crowds. Of course, Steve’s biggest kick was the attention he garnered from the press as he roamed the Speedway during racing season.
When Steve left his beloved track, friends from the press gave him a parting present – “Ye Olde Hokum Bucket. ” The bucket was a play on the Old Oaken Bucket2 football game played between Steve’s quasi alma mater Purdue University and Indiana University.
1 The maid of honor is the bride’s sister, Gay Recops Zehner.
2 The Old Oaken Bucket was supposed to be a relic from the famous raid of Southern Indiana during the Civil War by the notorious Southern Cavalier, John Morgan.
i Ross, Edward Ellis; Hannagan Research Document; source; New York University Archives; p. 55.
ii Copy of Picture in the Indianapolis Star of Kathleen Copps with Joe Copps; date according to picture: April 2, 1940; copy provided from the private collection of Kathleen (Copps) Katz (Received on June 18, 2012).
iii Picture of the Sale of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (Retrieved July 3, 2016); http://www.gannett-cdn.com/-mm-/e1bfacf8ef2e30822b99ffcd663a1d0338be3ae2/c=58-0-4673-3470&r=x404&c=534×401/local/-/media/2016/03/18/INGroup/Indianapolis/635939121556499313-hulman-2.jpg.