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