Today is the sixty-fourth anniversary of Wilbur Shaw’s death in a plane crash near Decatur, Indiana. Shaw was returning from a race car demonstration in Michigan at the Chrysler test track. Tomorrow is the 116th anniversary of his birth. Gentlemen, Start Your Engines, The Rest of the Story… is an updated version of his autobiography, originally published in 1955, that continues the Shaw story through his son Wilbur “Bill” Shaw, Jr. The chapters about Bill were authored by Bob Gates, author of Vukovich. Part II Thursday will review Bill’s part of the book.
I read this book in seventh grade and instantly became a Wilbur Shaw fan. While reading it again, I was shocked by how much of it I remembered- not just the episodes, but the exact wording. My mind is weird. But you knew that. I have read many books about racing and the Indianapolis 500, but this one is still one of my top five.
Shaw’s autobiography covers his life from childhood through the start of the 1952 Indianapolis 500. It is a first hand look at the world of racing from the late twenties up through World War II and the first years following the war. Shaw also tells how he met Tony Hulman and saved the Speedway. The photos are a great visual record of the era. Any fan of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway should give profuse thanks to Shaw. If not for his efforts, 16th and Georgetown would now be the site of apartments, homes, or a strip mall.
Some impressions of Shaw the person I got were that he was always very self assured, sometimes to the point of cockiness; he had very good car builder and mechanical skills; and Shaw was a good businessman. From the time he entered his first 500 in 1927, Shaw thought he had a chance to win every time. He dropped out of four of his first six races, but earned a fourth place and and a second in the other two. From 1935-1940 Shaw won three times, had two second place finishes and a seventh place. He also started on the front row five times.
The drivers of that era were quite hardened to death on the track. It occurred with regularity in those days and was just taken as a fact of life. When Shaw speaks about a driver who was killed in a race, he says a few kind words about him, then moves on. He heard of Floyd Roberts’ death during one of his pit stops in the 1939 500, and while stunned by it, he went on to win. The only death which seemed to really move him to tears was that of Ralph Hepburn.
Hepburn had been one of Shaw’s biggest rivals on the track. Hepburn was president of ASPAR, American Society of Professional Auto Racing, a drivers’ group that was asking for 40% of gate receipts as the purse from tracks running 100 mile races. They also made this request of the Speedway. Shaw and Hulman countered their offer, but the group did not accept. It appeared there would be a drivers’ strike for the 1947 500. A compromise was reached allowing some ASPAR members to get into the race. Hepburn sat out the 1947 race but entered the next year. He crashed and suffered fatal injuries during practice early on qualifying afternoon.
In August, 1951, while officiating at the Soap Box derby Finals in Akron, Ohio, Shaw suffered a heart attack. It was a near life threatening event. He spent the rest of the year recuperating. In May, 1952, he had recovered and could give the command, “Gentleman, start Your Engines!” to begin the 1952 Indianapolis 500. How nice it would be to hear those words again before the start of the race.
Gentleman, Start Your Engines, The Rest of the Story may be purchased through the Boyle Racing Headquarters. Email: email@example.com. Part II Bill, Jr.’s biography, will be up on Thursday.