This Week in Motorhead History: Happy Birthday to the Man Who Saved Indy

by | Oct 30, 2017

One hundred and five years ago, on October 31, 1902, Wilbur Shaw was born in Shelbyville, Indiana .  Today, few people know who he was, which is a shame, because he is one of the most important people in American racing and in the history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Shaw won the Indianapolis 500 race three times, in 1937, 1939 and 1940.  While he was the second person to win the 500 three times (Louis Meyer won in 1928, 1933, and 1936), Shaw was the first to record consecutive victories.  Shaw raced at Indianapolis 13 times, making his first 500 start in 1927, and his last in 1941, earning a pair of second place finishes in addition to his three wins.

Shaw’s racing savvy was best displayed by his 1937 race victory.  With 20 laps to go, Shaw had a comfortable two-minute lead over Ralph Hepburn.  However, he noticed that the oil pressure in his car’s Offenhauser engine was dropping, so he backed off in order to nurse the car to the finish.  In a remarkable display of timing, Shaw’s two-minute lead fell to just 14 seconds at the white flag, and to a mere 2.16 seconds ahead of Hepburn at the checkered flag.  That 2.16-second margin of victory was the closest 500 finish ever to that date, and the record stood for an astounding 45 years.

In the 1941 race Shaw was injured when his car crashed; whether or not he would have returned to driving became moot, however, as World War II brought all racing to a halt and there was no Indy 500 in the years 1942-1945.  Following the war Shaw did not return to the cockpit.  Instead, he became the man who saved the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

During the war years the Speedway sat unused, and the facility deteriorated significantly.  Weeds were growing through the track surface, fences were falling down, and the grandstands were on the verge of collapse.  The track at the time was owned by “Captain Eddie” Rickenbacker, the World War I flying ace and president of Eastern Air Lines. When the United States entered World War II, ending racing at Indianapolis and elsewhere for the duration, Rickenbacker had simply padlocked the gates and let the facility crumble.  In late 1944 Shaw, who had taken a position with the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, went to the track to aid in the testing of a new synthetic rubber compound, and was appalled when he saw the condition of the Speedway.

After seeing the disheartening conditions, Shaw rightfully feared that what was left of the track would be demolished and the land developed as a housing subdivision.  Shaw then took it upon himself to find a backer or a buyer who would keep the Speedway as a racing venue.  He first sent out letters to the major car manufacturers and suppliers, but they all indicated that should they buy the track they would turn it into a private testing facility for their purposes only.

Shaw’s ongoing search eventually led him to Terre Haute, Indiana, where he met Anton ‘Tony’ Hulman.  Hulman’s family business, Hulman & Company, was a wholesale grocer which had attained considerable success with the Clabber Girl brand of baking products.  Hulman was a lifelong fan of automobile racing and the 500, so in him Shaw found a sympathetic soul.  Hulman was able to see past the weeds and deterioration at the Speedway, and envision what the future could offer.  He purchased the Speedway from Rickenbacker in November 1945 for $750,000.

Hulman then named Shaw President and General Manager of the track, granting Shaw control over day-to-day operations.  To this position Shaw brought his extensive knowledge of the business of auto racing, while Hulman financed the restoration of the facility and ongoing improvements.  Over a ten year period (1945-1954) Hulman and Shaw grew and promoted the Indianapolis 500 into what radio announcer Sid Collins came to dub “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”  Hulman generously gave credit to Shaw whenever possible, and to this day the Speedway itself credits Shaw with the phenomenal growth of the Indianapolis 500 during those years.

The work that Shaw did enabled the Indy 500 to continue to enjoy growing worldwide popularity even after his tragic death in a plane crash on October 30, 1954, just one day shy of his fifty-second birthday. 


Photo courtesy of the Detroit Public Library Digital Collections

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