Fox on the Run

When we last spoke about our intrepid new employee, he was lurking about the lair of my dark corporate overlords, causing mayhem and worry. That was 2 months ago, and I am happy to report that despite the best efforts of the “Wildlife Control Professionals”, our resident Robin Hood, continues to strike blows for the common man by leaving piles of fox scat in front of my boss’ window. Also of note is a decided decline in the number of rodents running about the grounds, and a total lack of goose shit in the parking lot.

For people that don’t live in northern areas, the Canadian goose must seem like a majestic waterfowl. To those of us who live within the Twin Cities they are just large, surly pigeons. After we moved into our new building 5 years ago, a flock of geese had taken up seasonal residence in the drainage pond by the parking lot, and had taken to leaving piles of goose crap all over the pavement, and sidewalk leading to the front door. Calls we made to building operations, and complaints were lodged, but in those days before wildlife control specialists, they were powerless to stop them. So we became accustomed to stepping over gooseshit on our way into and out of the building. At least until the next meeting of the board of directors, whereupon building operations showed up with a power washer and brush, and scrubbed the sidewalk leading into the building lest the gods of Corporate governance soil their slippers. Personally, I think spreading the rose petals on the sidewalk would have been good enough, but that’s why I’m only a middle manager.

So while the goose shit may have been an inconvenience, in the grand scheme of things, it was a minor one. I had once worked in an office park where the geese would routinely take shelter in the revolving doors, and hiss at any unsuspecting employee. If only management could have trained them to only do this at quitting time, productivity might have soared. Thankfully for us, our resident flock of incontinent Minnesota geese were only passive aggressive, in the great tradition of all native Minnesotans.

However, since the arrival of our furry highwayman, even the geese have decided to vacate the building. Shitting in front of the boss’ window, eating mice, and scaring away geese; much to the dismay of my Dark Corporate Overlords, Mr. Fox is proving to be a man of the people. Which has given me hope that maybe we can train him to bite the board of directors.

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30 days

In 30 days, 20 Prospect Jr. and I will be sitting right here as the green flag drops for the 96th Indianapolis 500 mile race.

A Stand, Box B25

Neither one of us can wait. We going down for the weekend, and camping in the IMS “family” tent and trailer campground, across 16th Street from the track. We’re praying for good weather, so keep your fingers crossed for us. It should be a fun weekend of loud noises, and strange sights. There’s always something interesting to see when you get 300,000 people together in the same place. What’s great about IMS is that it’s big enough to accommodate all types. The drunken party crowd in the snake pit in the infield, to the white wine and brie crowd in the Tower Suites. We’ll be sitting at the end of the main straight, across from the pit exit, in the center of it all. 13 rows up, I’m hoping we get some shade from that upper deck.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

Bowler hat week continues as I turn the dial on the wayback machine to April 25th, 1928 and tell the story of Frank Lockhart. Well pull up a chair, and let me tell you a story…

This post is a reprint of an article I wrote for George Phillips over at Oilpressure.com, one of the racing blogs that I frequent. I came across Frank Lockhart while reading a book on the golden age of motor racing in the 1920’s. I had never heard of him, but after reading his story, I felt it was amazing that he wasn’t more widely known. So began a few weeks of research on his life. The result is the article you see below, with actual reference notes! Like a real writer! In the 2+ years since I wrote it, it has even been quoted, and referenced by real writers. Kinda frightening, but I’ve made a career out of pretending I know what I’m doing, so I figure why should this be any different. If I ever finish my book, this will most likely be the second historical novel I write. It almost writes itself.

Anyway, I thought it would be appropriate to honor his memory by reposting this on the 84th anniversary of his death.

His life story reads like a Hollywood script. Born into a poor family, he burst onto the American racing scene, jumping into a car at Indy, and driving it to victory in his first attempt. A natural mechanic with a stubborn spirit, he was a technical innovator, working long nights with his engineering team, advancing the state of automotive technology, and pursuing his dream with a relentless focus. He dominated the Championship racing series for 2 years, and blazed across the landscape of the late 1920’s. In the end it was his stubborn pursuit of the land speed record in an innovative car of his own design that led to his tragic death. In 1927 he was as famous, and as widely known as Babe Ruth, Red Grange, Jack Dempsey, & Bobby Jones, but he is all but forgotten now.

Frank Lockhart

Frank Lockhart was born in 1903 in either Dayton, or Cleveland, Ohio depending on which biography you believe. There is an apocryphal story about his growing up in a house in Dayton next door to the parents of Wilbur and Orville Wright, where he was supposedly inspired to pursue mechanics by the fatherly influence of Mr. Wright, but the facts supporting this are hard to find. Perhaps it is just the journalistic myth making of the early 20th century, an attempt to place the young Lockhart firmly in the pantheon of “Yankee Ingenuity”, alongside Edison, the Wright Brothers, and Franklin.

His father died when he was six years old, and his Mother moved the family Los Angeles. He grew up poor in Inglewood, his Mom doing other people’s laundry to support him and his brother. Frank struggled in school, but displayed his mechanical gift from an early age. He took apart everything he could get his hands on to see how it worked. In class he spent his time day dreaming, and drawing streamlined automobiles. He turned down an opportunity to attend Caltech, and found work as a mechanic, to help support his Mother. With money he saved, he bought an old Model T Ford, and built it up to race.

His mechanical talents were matched, if not exceeded, by his driving skill. He quickly became a wonder of the local dirt tracks like Ascot. He caught the attention of Harry A. Miller, who signed him to drive a 3.0 liter car on the Southern California dirt track circuit. In 1926, at the age of 23 years old, Miller brought him to Indianapolis as a relief driver for the Miller team. Hanging around gasoline alley, Frank persuaded Bennett Hill to allow him to take his car out and “warm it up”. It was Frank’s first time driving a real racing machine, and his first time out on a paved track. He turned heads immediately, by proceeding to lap the track at speeds faster than Hill’s practice times. Frank drove the bricks like a dirt tracker, keeping his foot on the gas and drifting the corners. Leading up to race day Pete Kreis, an independent Miller driver fell ill with the flu, and Frank was given the chance to drive. He set an unofficial record of 120.918 mph in his first qualifying run, but flatted on the second lap. Choosing to take a more cautious approach after another failed qualifying attempt, he put the car solidly into the field in 20th position.

The 1926 Indianapolis 500 mile race took place on May 31st, having been delayed one day due to rain. Earl Cooper was on the pole, Harry Hartz of the Miller works team in the middle and Leon Duray on the outside of row one. Hartz took the lead on the first lap, followed closely by Duray and Cooper. By the end of the third lap, Lockhart had moved up from 20th, to 5th position. Dave Lewis took the over the lead from Hartz, and Lockhart moved up from third to second position on lap 16. Lewis and Lockhart battled for the lead from Lap 20, until lap 50 when Lewis pitted, and Lockhart took over the lead. When the race was stopped on lap 71 because of rain, Frank was leading.

During the hour and a half rain delay his teammate Hartz hoped to ice the rookie by talking with him about the dangers of the slick brick track. But when the race resumed Lockhart quickly moved into the lead. He battled with Harry Hartz on the wet and oily brick surface, until Hartz flubbed a pitstop, mistakenly leaving his ignition turned off. From that point onward Lockhart ran away from the field. The conditions worsened and drivers began slowing. Frank was leading by two laps when the race was red flagged after 400 miles by another burst of rain.

At 24 years old, Frank was the youngest winner of the 500, a distinction he would hold for a quarter century, until Troy Ruttman won in 1952 at age 22. Harry Miller offered Frank a full time ride, but Lockhart astonishingly refused it. Instead he took his winnings, and bought the Miller car outright and began making his own modifications. After a broken connecting rod cost him a race, he replaced the connecting rods with ones of his own design. He also designed new valves, added a locked differential, and rear radius rods to his Miller. Harry Miller was infuriated by Lockhart’s tinkering, but other Miller owners were quick to copy Lockhart’s modifications.

Lockhart proved his Indy win was no fluke, by winning five more championship car races in the 1926 season, the 25-, 50- and 150-mile races at Charlotte, N.C., the 250 mile-race at Altoona, P.A., and a 25 mile race at Salem-Rockingham, N.H. He ended the season second to Hartz in the National Championship.
In 1926 and 1927 Harry Miller was successfully developing a front-wheel drive version of the famous straight eight Miller Championship car. The front wheel drive layout enabled the driver to sit lower in the car, and Earl Cooper, Dave Lewis, Leon Duray and Pete DePaolo won a dozen races between them aboard front drive Millers. However, Lockhart stuck with the earlier rear-drive cars modifying them with his greatest innovation to stay competitive. Working closely with his engineers, John and Zeinas Weisel, Lockhart designed an intercooler for his supercharged Miller engine that added 10 hp, and gave him a significant speed advantage over his competition. He kept it a closely guarded secret for over a year, hiding it under the hood, and passing it off as an external oil cooler.

Lockhart's intercooler.

In May of 1927 on the 1.5-mile Atlantic City board track, Lockhart set a qualifying record of 147.729 mph with his supercharged 1.5 liter Miller. Over thirty-three years would pass before any driver lapped another American speedway at a faster speed! He followed that up by winning the pole in Indy at a record speed of 120.1 mph, and led the first 110 laps before a broken connecting rod put him out of the race. That season Lockhart won the 200-mile race at Altoona, the 25-mile race at Charlotte, and the 65- and 75-mile races at (Rockingham) Salem, N.H., for a total of nine AAA wins in two years.

Picture from Library of Congress, showing auto racing on the board track in Laurel, MD in the late 20's.

Despite finishing the season 2nd again in championship points behind Pete DePaolo, Frank was a household name. During 1927 he had established a world record of 164.28 miles per hour on the dry lakes of Muroc, California; in his standard race car powered by a tiny 91 1/2 cubic-inch displacement Miller engine. With that experience whetting his appetite, Frank set his sights on becoming the fastest man alive.
At the time, the Land Speed Record was still something pursued by professional racers, and just beginning to become specialty in its own right. Barney Oldfield, Ralph DePalma, and Bob Burman, had all held the record at one time. During the teens and 20’s the cars had changed from traditional open wheel race cars, to behemoth locomotives powered by two or more aircraft- type engines, with piston displacements up to 4,900 cubic inches. Lockhart felt that a smaller, lighter, more aerodynamic car would be capable of overcoming the limitations of weight, and wind resistance. Working night and day with the Weisel brothers, he sketched out a revolutionary vehicle, that would become known as the Stutz Blackhawk.

The Stutz Blackhawk during shakedown tests at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway

The “Blackhawk Special” was much smaller in every respect than the Land Speed Record machines of the time, being powered by one 16-cylinder engine (two banks of 8 cylinders, set at an included angle of 30 degrees), and having only 181 cubic-inch displacement. With $50,000 in sponsorship from the Stutz corporation, Lockhart began building his machine at the Stutz factory in Indianapolis. Convinced that rotational drag from the typical disc wheels was resulting in the instability of cars at high speed, Lockhart designed articulated wheel spats to cover the wheels. The chassis was slim, with an enclosed engine compartment to eliminate drag under the vehicle. Models were tested in a wind tunnel, to balance the forces on the steering. The resulting car was smaller, and sleeker than anything the world had seen at the time, and would set trends for future automotive design.

In February of 1928, the Stutz Blackhawk Special was ready for the record attempt. Frank and his team arrived in Daytona, but struggled to find speed. After days of frustration, it was determined that the aerodynamic design was starving the engine compartment of air, and modifications were made to the bodywork. During a trial run at Daytona Beach on the morning of Feb. 22, 1928, at a speed of approximately 225 mph, the tires apparently struck an irregularity in the sand and catapulted the “Blackhawk Special” end over end into the sea. Lockhart was trapped in the vehicle and nearly drowned. He was rescued from the water by spectators, and was uninjured except for a few bruises and cuts to his hand. The “Blackhawk Special” was sent back to Indianapolis for repairs. With the winter speed season winding down, the car was rebuilt and returned to Daytona in April for another try. As his finances were running low, and his expenses to rebuild the Blackhawk special were ballooning, Lockhart had accepted $20,000 in sponsorship money from the Mason Tire Company to switch from Firestone to Mason tires for his run.

On Wednesday, April 25, 1928, Lockhart made his second attempt at the world speed record. It was late in the season, and the condition of the beach was deteriorating. The AAA officials were anxious to leave Daytona. Ray Keech had set a new record at 207 mph only three days before, but Lockhart was on a mission, and could not be dissuaded from his goal. Frank began a series of shakedown runs, slowly working up to speed. On his third pass down the beach he broke the 200 mph mark running against a headwind. At the end of the run he made the mistake of locking up his rear brakes, unknowingly cutting the right rear tire on a sea shell.

Although it was standard practice to examine the tires after each run, it took a long time to remove the Black Hawk’s wheel spats, and Lockhart was in a hurry to finish his runs before the tide came in. He decided on a quick, visual inspection of the tires, and set off once more. Bringing the Blackhawk up to speed along the beach, with the wind at his back, Frank barreled down the hard packed sand racing the morning tide to set the land speed record. He was flying at an estimated 225 mph when the right rear tire exploded. The Black Hawk snapped right, and then left before catching in the sand and going airborne. The car tumbled wildly 140 feet down the beach toward the spectators. Lockhart’s lifeless body came to rest a further 51 feet from where the car stopped, almost at the feet of his poor wife.

Frank Lockhart’s life burned hot and fast. Like the car he designed, he sped across the landscape of the golden age of racing. And like so many others before and since, he paid the ultimate price. He died shortly after his 26th birthday, but left behind a legacy larger than many who spent whole lifetimes chasing the same dreams. The fact that his name is lost and forgotten today is a shame. Frank Lockhart gave so much in the relentless pursuit of speed. He deserves to be remembered.

Youtube video of the fateful crash here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e0y2b7mJqhs

Golden Age of the American Racing Car, 2nd Edition, by Griffith Borgeson, SAE, ISBN 0-7680-0023-8

The Racing Campbells: http://www.racingcampbells.com/content/campbell.archives/stutz.black.hawk.asp

Motor Sports Hall of Fame: http://71.6.142.67/revize/motorsports/hof/lockhart_frank.htm

Al Blix Auto Racing History: http://71.6.142.67/revize/motorsports/hof/lockhart_frank.htm

Photos 1, 5, 6, & 7. courtesy of the Florida State Library & Archives http://www.floridamemory.com/PhotographicCollection/

Photo 2 courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway http://www.indy500.com/photos/1926/01/01/133/Indianapolis_500

Photos 3 & 4 courtesy of RM Auctions and The Miller/Offenhauser Historical Society. http://www.rmauctions.com

Wolverines!

“All that hate is gonna burn you up kid.”

“It keeps me warm”

It seems hard to believe now, but back in the day when Red Dawn came out, we really did think the world would end in some sort of World War III scenario. Being a teen during the waning days of the cold war we pretty much assumed that we were all doomed one way or another, so when we saw a movie about a bunch of kids taking to the hills to fight a guerrilla war against the Russians it resonated. What teen doesn’t fashion themselves to be fighting a guerrilla war against the adult world? After all, the thought of camping out in the woods with a bunch of guys, and gals, with lots of red meat, and firearms is as American as hotdogs, baseball, apple pie, and Chevrolet.

In our own little world our enemies weren’t as clearly defined as European actors with bad Russian accents, and no one parachuted into the school yard to gun down our teachers, so we never did find a good excuse to arm ourselves and take to the hills. Instead, we substituted cases of tepid Old Milwaukee, and we took to the woods behind the Blind School. Sitting there on the old broken concrete rubble of construction waste, and learning how to shotgun a can of beer, we decided to christen the place “Wolverine Rock”. Rebels without a cause indeed. Even now I’m not exactly sure what we were rebelling against. Small town boredom most likely.

Like all kids in a small town, we couldn’t wait to shake the dust of the place from our shoes and leave for somewhere exciting. We were a bunch of overachieving working class kids, who were all on the college track. The “good” kids, that never got into much trouble, and did well in school. I don’t think you could have found a more straitlaced group of “rebels” if you tried.

It was the end of our Junior year, and we were all dying to get out of town. It was time to start looking at schools, and making plans for life outside the safety of our little bubble, and we couldn’t wait to start. We had no idea just how good we had it. 30 years later, I think most of us would gladly trade a few weeks of real life for another few weeks of life in May of 1985.

We are scattered to the four winds now. Of the 9 people that sat around drinking that night, not one of us is left in B-town. Only 3 are still in Western New York. The rest in Massachusetts, Maryland, Virginia, California, and Minnesota. A Diaspora of Batavians, boring people from other states with our sordid tales of small town life. I cannot tell you how much I wish we could all get together again for just one night. No spouses, kids, or adult responsibilities, just hanging out in the woods drinking beer and acting stupid. Was life ever really that simple? Will it ever be that simple again?

So instead, as the sun slips below the edge of the world tonight, and the stars blink on overhead, I will sit on my back porch and raise a toast to you all, wherever you may be. Then looking up at the sky above, I will howl in my best Patrick Swayze imitation, “Wolverines!”

Return to Lilac Time

What is it about middle age that makes sleep so elusive? Why do I wake in the middle of the night, and find it impossible to get back to sleep. Is my mind working too hard? Am I not eating right, and exercising enough? Is it the government mind control rays? I knew it was the government mind control rays. I’ve got to start wearing my tinfoil hat to bed again.

The birds were awake and singing at 4 am this morning, so at least I wasn’t alone as I sat in the predawn glow and tried to lull myself back to sleep. Sitting in the lilac bushes outside my bedroom window they sang away with empty headed joy. I wish I could do the same. The sunrise was beautiful though. Driving to work the scraps of clouds were glowing creamsicle orange. It’s times like this that I remind myself I should just be happy to be alive. Waking up early beats the alternative of not waking up at all.

Lilacs always make me nostalgic. They are the most democratic of flowers, growing in unkempt clumps and bushes, that defy any gardeners attempt to control them. Which is why you seldom see lilacs on the lawns of the rich and famous. They are the anti-rose. They grow like weeds, and defy any efforts at pruning. Kind of like Catholics.

Growing up on Prospect we had a forest of lilacs leaning over the 8ft. high chain link fence separating Ellicott Ave from Prospect. They hung over into our back yard and filled the air with their glorious scent. It is one of the most comforting scents I know, and when they bloom in our backyard now, it always takes me back to those childhood days, when the world was a simpler place, and Cheez Itz only came in one flavor. Of course, any time is a simpler time when you are 10 years old, and your biggest worry is Friday’s spelling test.

So forgive me if I seem lost in a lilac daze today. Blame it on lack of sleep, and the government mind control rays.

Bitter Harvest

The great concrete bulk of the building still looms over the street. Its heavy shadows a cool relief from the heat of the sun.

The tracks where trains once flashed by on their way from New York to Chicago are empty, and hidden in weeds. My car bumps across their rails, as I pull down the street.

Across from the old factory, the wrought iron fence of the cemetery continues its centuries long surrender to rust. The factory and the cemetery, surround me like two shores of a river as I drift past.

Three generations of immigrants squeezed into this space between work, and death. Walking up from the South Side every morning, with their exotic meats and slabs of homemade bread, wrapped in wax paper, carried in buckets, and empty tobacco tins.

If I close my eyes, I can see their ghosts in denim, and overalls.

Three blocks away they could already hear the ringing, and pounding from within the echoing halls, a world of steel and stone, turning out reapers and threshers for a nation of farmers.

Knife blades of sunlight slant down from the vents in the roof, and pierce the darkness. They stand at the lathes, and presses, and watch the hours drip like beads of sweat from their brows.

My car rattles over the broken pavement, past the bar where they quenched their thirst after a day inside the dark, and dusty halls. Thick hands, and thicker accents were wetted by the mugs, whose drops of condensation fell like tears onto the sawdust floors.

They are all gone now.

The workers to their humble graves in the Catholic cemetery down the street , the threshers and reapers to rust and weeds, the jobs to places where men and women sacrifice limbs to feed their children.

But the great hulk of the building stands.

Its weather beaten face is scarred by the years, and crumbling around the edges, but its heart is still as hard as granite.

A head stone for a city we used to be.

The Time Traveller’s Brother in Law

As I said to Bella in yesterday’s comment section. Perhaps all I needed to get hooked on a computer game was to find one appropriately pretentious enough. Which is why it’s not enough to just play Strat-o-matic baseball. No, I am playing the games using the major league teams from the 1909 baseball season. Oddly enough, having read several books about the dead ball era, like The Glory of Their Times, and Crazy 08, I am more familiar with the players from 1909 than I am with the current major leaguers. If that’s not pretentious, then I don’t understand the meaning of the word.

Which is all a lead in to saying that I spent my hour of free time last night playing games instead of writing a blog post. So today’s posting is going to be light on words, and heavy on pictures. I’m turning the dial of the Wayback Machine to 1909. It’s time to put on your bowler hats folks, we’re gong to the ball game.

Clark Griffith of the Washington Senators, taking batting practice in the stadium that would later bear his name.

Same vantage from Ebbets', looking out at the field. Back in the days when Brooklyn was rural.

The Red Sox, playing the White Sox in 1904 at South Side Park, Chicago

The Philadelphia Athletics, getting ready for their opening day game against the Highlanders (Yankees) at Hill Top Park in NYC.

George "Slats" McConnell, warming up before the game with Michael Cann. Even the nicknames in 1908 were awesome.

The 4th game of the 1912 World Series, between the NY Giants and the Boston Red Sox, at the Polo Grounds in NY.

Fred Snodgrass of the Giants, at the 1911 World Series

NY manager John McGraw, one of the finest cusser's in all of baseball, with catcher Chief Myers. Every player in MLB with a drop of Indian blood was called Chief back then.

Cincinnati's audaciously named "Palace of the Fans". A ball park that looked like an outdoor Opera House.

Speaking of architecturally significant ballparks, here's Shibe Park in Philadephia

Shibe Park, crowd milling about before 1914 World Series

Washington Park, Brooklyn New York. Flag Raising before game between the Buffalo Bisons, and Brooklyn Federals, of the upstart Federal League. 1914

White Sox vs. Cubs for the City Championship Series, at West Side Park in 1909

Smoky Joe Wood of the Red Sox, at Fenway. One of the greatest fastball pitchers of his day

League Park, Cleveland, Ohio. Back when the ballparks were made of wood, and the men were made of steel.

Boston vs. New York, at the Huntington, Avenue Grounds in Boston. For big games they would sell standing room tickets for the outfield, just to get more people in the gate.

and that’s enough for one day. All photos are from the Library of Congress. I’ve downloaded them over the years because, obviously. Click on them. Some of them have amazing detail.