In this issue get a feel for Steve’s love for his job at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Steve’s love of the race is readily apparent by his pictures in the 1926 Chrysler shown below and with his close friend Ralph DePalma, 1915 Speedway Champion. As a side note, the winner of the Indianapolis 500 in 1926 was Louis Chevrolet, the namesake of today’s Chevrolet.
What is amusing about Steve’s affection for a race of supremely designed mechanical equipment is that he never exhibited any interest in machines. This deficiency is surprising because his father was a master metal worker.
Hannagan’s fondness for the Track was directly related to his abiding respect for Carl Fisher. Hannagan believed that “Fisher was the greatest and most-natural press agent who ever lived. He had a real public touch.” iii While Fisher brought his considerable marketing creativity to his enterprises, his stunt promotions did not translate into an understanding of how newspapers work. He needed a Steve Hannagan, who knew how to work with news editors, to devise publicity campaigns that attracted larger audiences.
Steve’s Writing Style
Steve wrote in a style typical of sports writing. He used snappy over-the-top leads and short descriptive sentences. Here is one example of Hannagan’s writing style from his lead to a headline story printed in the May 27, 1923 Sunday edition of the Pittsburg Press:
“The wings of Mercury, god of speed, are spread over Indianapolis. The hum of racing motors, the recounting of famous racing exploits, words of praise for heroes, heated speculative arguments – all tempered with speed are heard at every turn.”iv
Steve was a fast writer. His typewriter usually perched on a wooden box in the back seat of his car.v He used the internet of the day; teletype machines to quickly send his press releases to editors and radio stations across the country. He often reworked several smaller press releases into a full-length article for the slick weekly and monthly magazines of the day like the Saturday Evening Post, Colliers, and Redbook. His magazine articles added to his track income.
New Kid on the Block
Steve had a soft-spot for neophyte reporter assigned by their editors to write stories about an event which they did not understand. He took them under his wing, introduced them to the Track, and helped edit their stories. Later these neophytes showed their appreciation by sending his press releases to their editors.
For example, Stephen Richards was assigned to the Track by United Press.. Richards’ headed to Pop Myer’s office when Steve intercepted him. Steve accompanied Richards to the interview and sat to the side. Steve did not think that the kid’s interview was going well. He leaped in and told the kid;
“Instead of [Pop] answering all your questions, I’ll write your piece for you … with this lead: Looking toward the fastest speed in history, the Grand (sic) Prix of American racing ….”vi
The next time Richards saw Steve, he asked if his piece had been published. Richards said that it had. However, Mark Wright the Indianapolis Editor of United Press, “….did not like a lead to begin with a clause.”vii Steve was not happy to hear that UP edited his lead. Even though he eventually worked for UP, he never liked their interference with his work.
Drivers preparing for the Indianapolis 500 usually arrived early in May to practice. Steve sent press releases with biographical information about each driver. The daily parade of press releases kept the Speedway in front of the race fans, and drivers liked having their names bandied about in the press. This practice continued after Steve turned the Speedway account over to his associate Joe Copps.viii
On the day of the race, Steve worked the press box located in the five story wooden pagoda like a politician at a political convention1 (picture shows the pagoda as Steve would have first seen it)ix It was one of the largest press boxes in the world.
Steve catered to the whims and needs of 300 members of the press attending the Race. Press photographers had access to a dark room on the ground floor so that pictures of dramatic events could be sent immediately to their news.
The Press box also held the latest technology – phone switchboards, telegraphic wires, and radio transmitter –that connected journalists, radio announcers, and telegrapher to their newsrooms and radio stations.. He greatly enjoyed playing the role of the server at the altar of racing.
Steve Just One of the Fellows at the Track
Steve’s affection for the track was steeped in tradition, gossip, and good will just like a small town where everyone knows everyone else. Steve wanted to be accepted as one of the boys among men who were often little more than big boys themselves.
The next story is hard to believe but is part of the lore of Steve Hannagan at the Speedway. In the early 1920s, he took several of Indy’s top race drivers for an old fashioned Irish dinner at his mother in Lafayette. The dinner covered the range of Irish cooking from A to Z – chicken livers, white chicken gravy and overcooked vegetables. However, Steve’s father almost ruined the meal when he fed the chicken livers for the cats.x
Aunt Jo was mortified by Uncle Billy’s foolishness and was only mollified by a good stiff glass of bourbon. After dinner, he escorted the drivers to a vaudeville show and cigars all around. Of course, Steve’s racing friends thought that the visit to his Mom was worth several days of ribbing of the boy wonder press agent.
Steve’s affection for each drivers was evident, when Steve walked the starting line-up on the day of the race and shook the hand of each driver. In some instances, the last cars were already moving when Steve reached out to touch the driver.xi He did his walk knowing that in some cases he would never see the driver live again.
Don’t Cross Steve
Even though Steve idolized the race drivers, he had little patience for prima donnas. One driver made the mistake of trying to get some cheap publicity by telling some of the press boys that he was going to install a beer box in his car. He became a press magnet, as the reporters tried to find out where and if he was going to actually put the box in the car. Steve fixed the driver by sending a letter to sports editors telling them of a hoax perpetrated by one of the drivers. He said rules would never permit the driver to have the box. This cooled the beer box hysteria and chastened the driver who was publicly identified as the perpetrator of a hoax.xii
Another driver encountered Hannagan’s treatment for dealing with prima donna’s. This driver whose name has been lost to history, asked Steve to stop mentioning him so much and to publicize the other drivers. It was not an altruistic move by the driver; it was a left handed way of telling Steve that he wanted more coverage. To the driver’s chagrin, Steve issued a press release saying this would be the last time that the driver’s name would be included in press releases at the request of the driver.xiii It is assumed that the driver was forced to mollify Steve to get back in his good graces.
1 The pagoda was built by Carl Fisher in 1913; it burned in 1925, and a new, more elaborate pagoda was built.
i Photograph of Steve Hannagan in the 1926 Pace Car; (Retrieved June 28, 2011); copy from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Photograph Library.
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