In this issue, Steve deals with death and destruction at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Since the technology in the 1920s and 1930s of the cars and Speedway was primitive, death and severe injuries were real possibilities whenever drivers took to the track for a test drive, qualifying runs, or the race. For example, guardrails were wood. Drivers who lost control of their cars easily crashed through the wood barriers sending the car flying into trees or into the crowd. Cars were inherently dangerous because brakes and suspensions were inadequate for high-speed driving. Also, the cars were fueled with highly flammable gasoline that acted like a bomb when sparked during a wreck.
Moreover, drivers believed that safety rules somehow diminished their heroic virility. It was not until 1935 that drivers started to wear helmets. Barney Oldfield was the first driver to devise a seat belt harness in 1922, but seat restraints were not mandatory until 1951. Because drivers and car owners ignored driver safety, a wreck of any velocity usually meant that the driver and mechanic, if there was one, were thrown from the vehicle. There is a picture of a car flying off the track and the driver flying in tandem with the car.
Danger and Wrecks
The accompanying pictures show what could happen to an Indianapolis race car in a wreck. In most cases, the extent of the driver’s injuries or death of the driver was simply a matter of chance. One of Steve’s more onerous jobs was to prepare press releases and meet with officials and members of the press whenever a driver was seriously injured or killed. Steve had a basic rule at the Track; stories of a driver’s death could not be released until he had released his report to the press.i News reporters tried to get around the Hannagan rule by arranging for someone at the hospital to signal waiting sports writers if a driver died.
Louis Fontaine’s wreck in lap 33 of the 1921 raceii
Milt Jones was killed in this wreck prior to 1933 Memorial Day Race.iii
Steve Spin on Safety
Steve took umbrage if anyone claimed that the race was unsafe, which commonly occurred after a particularly deadly crash. Even the highly regarded Barney Oldfield, known for his speed records, claimed in 1933 that “automobile racing had outlived its usefulness. It has become merely a morbid and brutal spectacle. The carnage should end.”iv This statement by Oldfield raised Hannagan’s hackles; he took it as a personal insult. Steve was ready with a statement affirming the Speedways’ founding principle steeped in what he believed was the validity of the race.
“Indianapolis has had a tremendous influence on the development of motors and our equipment. It is the laboratory of the industry and countless improvements have come from its long series of races. It is not as dangerous, comparatively, as football. Why for ten years there hasn’t been a fatality. And as equipment improves, due to the testing of the races, we expect that there will be even less danger.”v
There were twelve drivers killed during Steve’s tenure at the Track from the early 1920s to the last race run before World War II. The Track’s management professed and Steve asserted that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway sought the highest level of safety; but the reality was and is that racing is a deadly business. Steve Hannagan believing that true stories had to be printed released the stories of the deaths and severe injuries of drivers.
i Ross, Edward Ellis;Hannagan Research Document; source: New York University Archives; p. 53.
ii Photograph of the wreckage of the 1921 race car driven by Louis Fontaine at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (Retrieved June 18,2012); http://www.indianapolismotorspeedway.com/indy500/galleries/show/5740-1921-indianapolis-500/.
iii Photograph of the wreck of the1932 race car Milt Jones car at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (Retrieved August 23, 2012); http://www.racing-reference.info/driver/Milton_Jones.
iv Ross, Edward Ellis; Hannagan Research Document; source: New York University Archives; pp. 53 – 54.
v Ross, Edward Ellis; Hannagan Research Document; source: New York University Archives; p. 54.
vi Photograph of Steve Hannagan (January 1950); Image 50712327 Photo Lofman/Pix Inc. /Time Life Pictures/Getty Images.