Notes on Joe Dawson and the 1912 Indianapolis 500
By William ‘Bill’ Blaylock - Dallas Texas
All photos courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection in the IUPUI University Library Center for Digital Scholarship
All photos courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection in the IUPUI University Library Center for Digital Scholarship
At some point over the past year or so, I became interested in Joe Dawson and the 1912 500, probably in part because the big, bright blue National he drove is always on display at the Speedway Museum. Apart from the dramatic finish, I never knew much about him or the race, or for that matter, the times. So I have tried to read up on Dawson and the race. As a part of that, I thought I should also read up on what the country was like in 1912.
Indianapolis must have been exciting in 1912. America was thriving and changing rapidly, and nearly all of the change was for the good. The country had prospered through the Gilded Age, a period of strong economic growth and accumulation of wealth, and it had endured but recovered rapidly from the Panic of 1907, a two-year recession where unemployment peaked at 8.5 percent. There were several new and powerful economic and social forces that were shaping the country.
One was transportation – publicly accessible transportation of people, products and information available from railroads, automobiles, the telephone and an extensive network of newspapers capable of reporting almost any national event within hours. This was possible “by new technologies in steelmaking, the production of oil and gas and an expanding electrical grid. By 1912, we could form and shape metal like never before, with foundries, precision machine tools such as lathes, milling machines and planers, and with both acetylene and electric welding. We had steam, electric, gasoline and diesel motors.
These advancements were putting the country through what was arguably the most rapid change through innovation in the country’s history. To put the speed of change in context, thanks to the Wright Brothers, we had been flying for nine years. Yet it had been a mere 26 years since Captain Lawton and Lieutenant Gatewood set out with a unit of the 4th Cavalry to find Geronimo.
Part of the changing times was our growing appetite for entertainment and spectator sports. We had acquired the economic wherewithal, leisure time and access to news to pursue them. By 1912, we had amusement parks in cities throughout the country, including Indianapolis, which were modeled after Coney Island, with roller coasters, midway rides, games of chance and entertainment. We had vaudeville, nickelodeons and motion picture theaters. The first generation of baseball stadiums had been built. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway had been operating for three years. By 1912, entertainment and professional sports had become industries.
In the midst of all of the progress at the national level, Indianapolis was at the leading edge. In the late 1800s, Indiana had undergone an oil and gas boom with the discovery of the rich Trenton gas field east of Indianapolis. The boom set the stage for the economic base that still defines Indiana to this day -- manufacturing. It was access to abundant and inexpensive natural gas that brought the great steel mills to northern Indiana. Other manufacturers set up throughout the state. The gas fields had pretty well played out soon after the turn-of-the-century, but the manufacturers turned to coal for energy, stayed on and flourished.
Inside Indiana’s manufacturing boom was the automobile boom. It is both easy and accurate to compare Indianapolis then to Silicon Valley today, with its community of entrepreneurs creating car companies and a broad array of accessory companies with new ideas and new technologies. This community included the Speedway’s founders: Carl Fisher and Jim Allison of Prest-O-Lite, Frank Wheeler of the Wheeler-Schebler Carburetor Company and Arthur Newby of the National Motor Vehicle Company.
Joe Dawson's official IMS photograph
Joe Dawson was ready for the 1912 500. Born in 1889 in Odon, Indiana, he had been a Marmon mechanic and later factory driver. He gained notoriety racing for Marmon in some of the pre-500 events at the Speedway and the bloody 1910 Vanderbilt Cup, where he finished second. He also won the Savannah Challenge Trophy race in 1910 and finished fifth in the 1911 500. After Ray Harroun’s victory in 1911, Marmon withdrew from racing. Dawson took a leave of absence from the company to drive a National factory car in the 1912 500. He also brought Harry Martin over from Marmon. Martin had ridden with him six times during the 1910 season. To get in physical shape for the race, Dawson worked out at the downtown Indianapolis YMCA.
The rules for the second 500 were pretty much the same as with the first, except that two-man cars were mandatory. The second man was officially designated a “mechanician.” Only 24 cars started the race, a count way down from the 40 that started in 1911. Several car companies decided not to re-enter a team. Personally, I had been under the impression that in its early years, the 500 field was made up of factory cars. But in fact eight of the 24 cars were entered by individuals, such as the Fiat entered by E.E. Hewlett, a successful attorney and businessman from California who enjoyed racing. The rules allowed for engines up to a massive 600 cubic inches. Eleven of the 24 cars had engines larger than 500 cubic inches, but others were smaller, from the 491 cubic inches of the four cylinder Nationals down to the 301 cubic inch engine in Hughie Hughes’ lightweight, wire wheeled Mercer. In his Design and Development of the Indy Car, the late Roger Huntington tells us that the typical engines of the era were T-heads that might put out 100 HP at 2,000 rpm, and that the top speed for the cars was probably 90-100 mph. Further, in describing the handling of those early cars, he says,
“Probably the most notable characteristic of those early chassis was the twisting and bending of the frame. This prevented any degree of precise suspension tuning. You couldn’t predict what path a wheel would follow when rising over a bump.”
There was a lot of buzz about the second running of the 500, but it wasn’t clear until race day that attendance would be up from the prior year. The local press reported that the Union Railway Company and the Ben-Hur traction line began special runs to the track at 4:30 am. Between them, they moved 60,000 fans by the 10:00 am starting time. Automobiles poured into the infield over two wooden bridges and through a new tunnel on the main straight next to Grandstand C. Estimates of attendance ranged from 70,000 to, according to The Indianapolis Star, a “throng near 100,000.” The late Al Bloemker in his book 500 MILES TO GO says it was 90,000, as did the race coverage from The New York Times. To understand the significance of that level of attendance, think about this: according to the census for 1910, America’s population was about 92 million; if we assume that by 1912 it had grown to 95 million, it means that roughly one out of every 1,100 people in the entire country was there for the race. That is a remarkable statistic.
The 24 cars were lined up for the start with five cars in four rows and four in the fifth row. The fastest in qualifying had been David Bruce-Brown at 88.45 mph in a National which was identical to Dawson’s. Dawson had qualified at 86.13 mph. However, the pole position went to Gil Anderson’s 390 cubic inch Stutz, with a speed of 80.93 mph. The rules provided that to qualify, the car had to run at least one lap at 75 mph or more. Otherwise, the cars that qualified were lined up in the order that the entry forms were received.
Only one car failed to qualify, which was Lee Oldfield’s 243 cubic inch Mason. Dawson was slated to start on the second row in the eighth position. However, Louis Disbrow’s crew made a last minute change to the gear ratio in his 450 cubic inch Case. He arrived late to the grid. The officials moved him from the front row to the last starting position, which moved Dawson up a notch.
All of the drivers and crew learned from practice sessions that the key to a good race would be good management of tire wear. As Ray Harroun demonstrated in 1911, running a few miles per hour below a car’s potential would extend tire wear significantly.
Carl Fisher drove the Stutz pace car and brought the field around for the start at 40 mph. Teddy Tetzlaff’s 589 cubic inch Fiat grabbed the lead from his middle starting position on the front row, finishing the first lap at 86 mph. He hung on for one more lap, then Ralph DePalma and Spencer Wishart blasted past in their powerful 583 cubic inch Mercedes.
By lap eight, Dawson was running seventh, behind DePalma, Wishart, Bruce-Brown, Tetzlaff, Ralph Mulford (in a Knox) and Howdy Wilcox (a third National). By the 12th lap, the fast pace began taking its toll, as the two Case cars of Louis Disbrow and Eddie Hearne, along with Wilcox, had to pit for tires.
On lap 15, Dawson was running in sixth behind Tetzlaff and, as reported by The Horseless Age, he “outguessed Tetzlaff going into the first turn and moved in toward the pole.” After a few more laps, Wishart fell off the pace with tire trouble and Dawson inherited fourth. DePalma stayed in front, but by only a few seconds. He was closely followed by Bruce-Brown, Mulford and Dawson. At the 40 lap mark, the race remained anyone’s guess, with Dawson and Tetzlaff closely following DePalma. But soon thereafter, the Mercedes started pulling away, averaging 81 mph.
On the 108th lap, Dawson came in for relief. Don Herr took over for 36 laps, or roughly one hour of track time. At 160 laps, the race was clearly DePalma’s to lose. Dawson was back behind the wheel in second, but four laps down. Behind him were Tetzlaff and Burman, seven laps down from the leader. There were 12 cars running.
Mulford, who ran with the leaders early on, had made two lengthy stops for clutch repairs and was back in 12th, 51 laps down from DePalma. With ten laps to go, DePalma had stretched his lead over Dawson to five laps. His Mercedes was running flawlessly and he showed no inclination to slow down and cruise to the checkered. Many spectators started heading to the exits.
And then it happened.
As DePalma came down the front stretch to start lap 195, his big Mercedes was leaking a visible trail of oil and the engine was noticeably rough. It had broken a connecting rod, and the ragged end of the rod had punched a hole in the crankcase. DePalma slowed down to 60 mph and tried to limp home on three cylinders. Dawson’s crew alerted him with the pit board. The fans who remained in the stands realized a drama was at hand. Will DePalma make it to the finish? Is a five lap lead enough?
By the time he completed his 198th lap, DePalma had slowed to 40 mph. His lead over Dawson was down to three laps. At some point past turn one, the engine seized and the big white car coasted to a halt, but accounts differ on where that was on the track. The Horseless Age said the car stopped at the beginning of the backstretch, two miles from the finish line. Bloemker marks it one mile further down the track to the beginning of the fourth turn.
DePalma and Jeffkins push their disabled racer past the pits
Race winner Joe Dawson looks on in the foreground
Wherever it was, DePalma and his Australian mechanician, Rupert Jeffkins, got out and started pushing the car toward the finish line. It did not take long for Dawson to pass them, complete 200 laps and drive two laps more as insurance against a scoring error. DePalma and Jeffkins eventually pushed the Mercedes down the front straight to the line, to the applause of the crowd. But the resounding ovation had gone to Joe Dawson. He was the hometown hero and a favorite Hoosier son.
There were 10 cars on the track at the finish, with Ralph Mulford still running. He pulled in, but was informed by Speedway management that he would not get the $1,200 prize for 10th place unless he completed 500 miles. He returned to the track and continued on at a leisurely 60 mph pace. With 17 laps to go, he stopped so he and his mechanician could have some fried chicken and replace the shock absorbers. They continued on, completing the 500 miles some two and a half hours after Dawson, at an average speed of 56 mph.
The famous photograph of Dawson accepting the checkered flag
Dawson’s speed for the 500 miles was 78.72 mph, 4 mph faster than Harroun’s run the year before. A post-race article reported that “never before has a man traveled so far and so fast.” The National’s four cylinder, 491 cubic inch engine, with its 5.0 inch bore and 6.25-inch stroke, was the largest ever to win the 500. Nearly every part on the car was a stock part from a National passenger car. The race would be the only instance where a car with Michelin tires won Indy. Dawson had made four pit stops, three of which were for tires. Including contingency prizes, he won $25,000, a princely amount for 1912. It exceeded Harroun’s 1911 winnings by more than $10,000.
Joe Dawson accepts the congratulations of Speedway founder Carl Fisher
When he pulled in, Dawson was exhausted but ecstatic. After a brief ceremony, he got in his personal car and drove to his home at 2828 North Illinois Street in Indianapolis. He ran up the steps and told his mother, a widow, that he had just won the Indianapolis 500. She prepared supper for him and then, according to Bloemker, he took a trolley downtown to the YMCA for a steam bath, and “savoring an expensive cigar, he strolled through the dusk to his home two miles away.” Joe was 22 years old. He remained in record books as the youngest driver to win the 500 for the next forty years, until Troy Ruttman won in 1952.
It was a safe race with only a few incidents, mostly due to tire failures. Bert Dingley’s 597 cubic inch Simplex caught fire, was doused, but later dropped out with a broken connecting rod. On Burman’s 157th lap, both of his rear tires failed and his car rolled over. Thankfully, he and his mechanician sustained only minor scrapes. He had suffered tire wear all day and had been in seven times for replacements. Likewise, both rear tires failed on Mel Marquette’s 425 cubic inch McFarlan. The car straddled the outer retaining wall on the front stretch then scooted along it until coming to a halt against a telephone pole. No one was injured. Anderson’s Stutz blew a tire and rolled over twice on the north end of the track. He and his rider were thrown clear without serious injury.
Arguably, one might credit the best driving of the day to Hughie Hughes for his remarkable run in the diminutive and underpowered Mercer. It has largely been unrecognized by history, but he drove to third place despite tire troubles that forced him to make six pit stops, and the fact that the Mercer ran out of gas and coasted to a halt near the fourth turn. Like DePalma and Jeffkins, Hughes and his mechanician got out and pushed the car to the pits, some three quarters of a mile. They refueled and rejoined the race.
Ralph DePalma was of course very disappointed after the race, but the press credited him for being a gentleman. His grand moment on the bricks would come three years later, in 1915. Again, he was leading in a Mercedes with just a few laps to go. Again, his Mercedes threw a rod, ventilated the crankcase and started spewing oil. And again, he slowed down, running on three cylinders, and tried to nurse the car to victory. In 1915, DePalma made it.
Joe Dawson’s racing career tapered off dramatically after his win. He ran in two more AAA events. One was on the Elgin road course in 1913, and the second was the 1914 500. There, on his 46th lap, he swerved his Marmon abruptly to avoid hitting Ray Gilhooly, a driver who had crashed and was thrown onto the track. The car turned over and severely injured Dawson. He recovered but wore a back brace for a year. His career as a driver in championship racing was over; however, in the years that followed, he remained engaged with automobile businesses and the sport, including serving as a test driver for Chalmers and as a race official for AAA. He died of a heart attack in 1946 while inspecting the track at Langhorne on behalf of AAA. He was 56.
Going into the month of May 1912, the Speedway management must have had some concerns and doubts about the second 500, especially in view of the light car count and reduced participation by car companies. But the race turned out to be a thriller and a success. Both attendance and ticket prices were up significantly. The 1912 race confirmed the event’s viability and its status as the largest one-day spectator event in the world. It also confirmed the Speedway’s role as the Grand Lady of all sports facilities. And it all got better and better for years to come.