INDYCAR – How Did We Get Here? Pt. 2 When Did It Go Sideways?

(Note: Part one can be found here)

Welcome back to the weird and wonderful world that is AAA and INDYCAR history. Racing through the 20’s was political, but more or less straight forward in its execution. The late 20’s bring a whole different problem. Instead of making history, AAA was finally interested in documenting its history correctly and accurately. You can decide how successful they eventually were.

In 1926/1927, AAA Assistant Secretary Arthur Means, for reasons unknown, created false season tables for 1909-1915 and 1917-1919 and reworked the 1920 season  stripping the championship from Gaston Chevrolet and awarding it to Tommy Milton. By 1929 Chevrolet reappeared as the champion and the Motor Age picks were considered cannon. Means’ work had slipped into oblivion and was filed away for the time being.

This version of history persisted until Russ Catlin found the Means crib sheets in early 1951. He, in his eyes, recovered history, and “restored” Milton as the 1920 champion; going as far as to award the still living Milton with a championship medal. (Chevrolet’s brothers were still alive in the late 20’s but had passed by this time; coincidence that no one was left to fight for Gaston?) Catlin also created champions from 1902 through 1908 to coincide with AAA’s golden anniversary. He wanted 50 years of champions for 50 years of operation and were folded into the ever changing cannon.

All of the early nineteen-naught picks were totally bogus; proof can be seen in his 1905 pick. Catlin chose Victor Hemery (the years Vanderbilt Cup winner) instead of Oldfield, the official 1905 champion. Showing that Catlin probably had no idea the proper 1905 season existed, not to mention period media is at complete odds with Catlin’s accounts. Why he did not reference contemporary media is unknown. Now it is thought that Mr. Catlin may not have been the crack historian he was once thought of as. Why did he choose some of Means’ work, but not all of it?

Sometime during the CART era, the 1902-1908 listings were finally dropped, but Catlin’s 1909-1915 and 1917-1919 champions proved to be a bit more persistent. It seems to me that sometime during the Champ Car era, as they had control over the old CART records, officials rectified some of the issues that had plagued history books for nearly 75 years. Gaston had been rightfully restored and at least an asterisk had been placed beside the false early seasons.

CART historian Bob Russo had always sided with Russ Catlin through many, continued attacks from up and coming revisionist historian John Glenn Printz. Starting in 1981, Printz actively lobbied CART to change its historical records to reflect what really happened. CART held firm, but in the 1985 CART media guide, the original, unaltered championship list was present with Chevrolet as the 1920 champion. CART had printed the listing by mistake and in 1986; the false list replaced the correct one. Printz and Russo proceeded to engage in a public feud carried out on the pages of “Indycar Racing” over the next few years.

Throughout the years, the AAA records had been stolen, thrown away or simply lost, leading to a few records finding their way to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway collection, with the bulk of what little surviving paperwork exists residing in the Racemaker Press storage room. By all accounts, a single box remains, its contents tainted by Russ Catlin.

Donald Davidson’s, the current IMS historian, connections with the Automobile Competition Committee for the United States  (ACCUS), the same organization that Bob Russo was part of, is probably what is stopping him from looking too closely at these early seasons. It’s easy for him to stay relegated to IMS history, and I’m not sure I blame him.

What our media guide holds now are the 1952 Catlin picks from 1909-1915 and 1917-1919. There is no official entry for 1905, and Gaston Chevrolet is the 1920 champion. But, of course, there is an asterisk and a lengthy admission that something is indeed funky with early history along with the Motor Age picks from 1909-1915 and 1919. The 1902-1908 picks are long gone.

When did our history start? 1896? 1899? 1902? 1905? 1909? 1916? Do our roots lay with the ACA and MCA as well as AAA? Is early Grand Prix racing included? I believe it started in 1905 with the first championship, took 11 years off and started again in 1916, was cancelled for WWI and fired up a third time for the 1920 season.

What do you think? How important is it that INDYCAR presents its records correctly and accurately? This discussion is about things over 100 years old, it can be difficult to change that much history, even if it is changed to reflect what actually happened. It surely did not start in 1909 when The Indianapolis Motor Speedway opened, or in 1911 when the first 500 was contested. How The Speedway fits into all of this will be looked at in detail next week along with even more confusion at the hand of AAA.

Eric Hall

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5 Thoughts to “INDYCAR – How Did We Get Here? Pt. 2 When Did It Go Sideways?

  1. Where we begin I believe depends upon one’s point of view. If you look at when did championship auto racing begin, then I think you’re selection of 1905 is correct. if you ask when did the history of Indy car racing begin, then I think it is with 1911 with the first Indianapolis 500 Mile Race.

  2. A nearly perfect answer, but without tipping my hand too much about the next few posts think about this: What was the racing called and what type of machinery contested at Indianapolis pre 1911? What does it mean when INDYCAR includes pre 1909 statistics, official or not, in the IndyCar Historical Record Book? Did Indy cars compete at all facilities during the entire championship trail during all contested years?

  3. Indianapolis is a unique place and the 500 a unique race. …or at least it used to be. Many of the cars that competed were one-off builds designed specifically for the Speedway, but perhaps I’m running ahead of things. Loving the history!

  4. Ernie Longoria

    I agree with Doug. Indy Car started with the 500 race. Everything else could just be open wheel racing in America.

  5. “IndyCar Racing” is a recent, anachronistic term created for commercial purposes in the wake of the unrest that has plagued the American racing scene for most of the past four decades. It also symbolizes the centrality of a single venue and event in this type of racing, a centrality whose negative aspects seem to be more often than not missing from any historical interpretations of American racing in general and this type of racing in particular.

    RE: “Throughout the years, the AAA records had been stolen, thrown away or simply lost, leading to a few records finding their way to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway collection, with the bulk of what little surviving paperwork exists residing in the Racemaker Press storage room. By all accounts, a single box remains, its contents tainted by Russ Catlin.”

    During the early Eighties, Eliot White managed to have whatever material he was given access to at the IMS placed on microfilm. There is a great deal of Contest Board material on many rolls of microfilm, which while certainly nowhere being complete contains far more than most would assume. Prior to its being placed at the IMS, the material was located at the Triple-A library in Washington, DC, where it was apparently pilfered, “borrowed” or simply checked out and never returned over the course a number of years. Mixed in with all this material are odds and ends from

    I have had access to the Russ Catlin material held by the Racemaker Press Archives. While there is, alas, much missing of the Arthur Means material enough to establish how he went about doing what he did. There is also enough Catlin material to establish that he should be posthumously awarded the David Irving Award for Historical Fallacies.

    By the way, we have to give Eric great credit for being among the few to realize that the long-accepted “history” of whatever you wish to call this sort of racing — an discussion which is essentially irrelevant and largely misses the point in the first place — is fatally flawed and who has begun to develop his interpretations of the past on something besides mythology.

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