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.


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.

[xyz-ips snippet=”older-entries”]

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).