Every Indianapolis 500 is special, but none quite as much so as that of 1946. World War II was over and the men were home again craving entertainment and excitement. Many found it in auto racing. Four years without racing had whet appetites of both fans and participants so the weeks leading up to the biggest race of all were filled with anticipation. There had been neither time nor money for building many new cars so most were veterans of pre-war races carefully preserved for the day when once again the roar of the engines would be heard on 16th Street.
Many of the drivers, too, were veterans of earlier events including racing legends Rex Mays, Ted Horn, and Mauri Rose along with Emil Andres, Tony Bettenhausen and Joie Chitwood. There were old-timers, men who had raced in many 500s: Ralph Hepburn, Chet Miller, Cliff Bergere and Shorty Cantlon. Rookies included Jimmy Jackson, who defied tradition by driving a green car.
Watching them practice was an eye-opening experience for me. There were no fire-resistance suits and the small helmets of that era did not conceal a driver’s face so they were easily recognizable. Many wore white T-shirts that rode up their backs as their cars ran lap after lap. Others drove in dress shirts or, on race day, special ones of shiny, silk-like material. Most used safety belts across their lap but a few hard-chargers such as Rex Mays scorned even that simple device.
As is still true today, those who qualified on the first day started at the head of the field. For one reason or another, many of the top cars were unable to qualify on opening day. Pole position was won by the veteran Cliff Bergere – pronounced Berz-air. Beside him on the front row would be Paul Russo with Sam Hanks on the outside.
As more qualifying days passed, the fastest time was recorded by Hepburn driving a futuristic-looking Novi. It was one of only a few new cars in the field. He would start the race in the seventh row. The second fastest time was recorded by Rex Mays in his sparkling white Bowes Seal Fast Special trimmed in black and red. He would be in the middle of the fifth row and next to him on the outside would be George Robson, who had been in two pre-war 500s with unspectacular results. His qualifying time had been fast, yet few regarded him as a serious contender to enter Victory Lane.
Memorial Day dawned clear and bright. Two new innovations that would become traditions preceded the race. Opera star James Melton sang “Back Home Again in Indiana” and then the magic words were heard on the public address system for the first time: “Gentlemen, start your engines!”
And they were off. Bergere jumped out to a quick lead with Russo fighting the steering wheel of the odd, blimp-nosed Fageol twin-engined car close on his heels. The veteran Mauri Rose, who had started in the third row, soon overtook and passed both. Other hard chargers – Ted Horn, Rex Mays, and Mel Hansen were battling their way toward the front of the pack. Mays, while passing a car at the second turn, grinned as he slapped his left hand against the tail of his racer in a defiant challenge of, “Let’s race!”
As was so often the case, Mays was stronger and tougher than any car he was driving. After only 26 laps the Bowes Seal Fast Special breathed its final gasp of the day. Russo, who completed only 16 laps before crashing, Hanks and the rookie Hal Cole were on the sidelines ahead of him. George Barringer and Shorty Cantlon quickly followed Mays to the garage.
The grind was a bit too much for many of the old cars and one by one they fell by the wayside. George Connor’s Offenhauser gave up after 38 laps and then in quick order Mauri Rose crashed and Duke Nalon, Tony Bettenhausen and Chet Miller saw their cars fail. Bergere, Duke Dinsmore, Mel Hansen, and Billy DeVore soon followed.
Most exciting for the crowd was the swift move to the front by Hepburn in the Novi. Mays had passed Rose for the lead but Hepburn soon overtook him and it was obvious to everyone that the Novi was by far the fastest car on the track. It quit, however, after 121 laps.
Meanwhile, little George Robson slowly made his way to the head of the pack as one by one the leaders fell by the wayside. Once out front on the 56th lap, he remained there most of the way, taking the checkered flag and the top prize money of a little more than $42,000.
Only nine cars were still running at the end. Among them was the surprising rookie, Jimmy Jackson, who pocketed about $14,000 for finishing second. Trailing well behind were Ted Horn, Emil Andres, Joie Chitwood (Sam Hanks took over as relief driver after 51 laps and drove the rest of the way) and two more rookies, Louis Durant and European racer Luigi Villoresi.
And so it ended, that very special 500. George Robson’s moment in the sun proved brief as he and George Barringer were killed in a horrific crash during a race later in the summer.
Other drivers in that first race after the war would also die in crashes, several at Indianapolis. Among them were Horn, Mays, Hepburn, Miller, Cantlon and Bettenhausen. A crash left Hansen a paraplegic for the final fifteen years of his life.
Countless safety measures have changed racing dramatically for the better since 1946. Having eight of the 33 drivers who started a 500 eventually die behind the wheel is beyond imagining today. Still, there was something special about that rare breed of men who would step into the cockpit of a car and do everything possible to win a race without the aid of fire resistant suits, radios, spotters, electronic dashboard equipment, highly trained pit crews and just concrete walls, no SAFER barriers to protect them. By the standards of the 21st century the purses were meager too, almost laughable, but who was in it merely for the money?