I found Blood and Smoke, the 2011 story of the first Indianapolis 500, to be a mixed bag. It is part Carl Fisher biography, part origin chronicle, and part conspiracy theory. Charles Leerhsen presents a well researched case that perhaps someone other than Ray Harroun may have won the inaugural 500. There is, however, an argument supporting Harroun’s victory.
The book mainly focuses on the life of Carl Fisher, who is the Hoosier P. T. Barnum. Fisher never met a publicity stunt he didn’t like. He has a penchant for tossing vehicles from the roofs of downtown buildings to prove their strength. Fishrer jumps from one project to another. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is one of his more focused and persistent endeavors.
The early days of the track are a financial and presentation disaster. Fatalities and accidents due to the rough track surface mar the 1909 and 1910 race meetings. the decision to brick the track surface and hold one 500 mile event are the beginning of the Speedway’s salvation.
Fisher has other motives besides running a successful race track. Indianapolis and Detroit are competing for the honor of being the nation’s auto manufacturing center. Fisher thinks the speedway will give Indianapolis the edge. He wanted a local manufacturer to win the race. He is best best friends with Howard Marmon, the owner of the car which is awarded the victory.
The 1911 race itself is a long day of confusion as to the standings. The situation is made more difficult by the inadequate timing system and the complicated way in which laps are recorded. The situation gets worse when cars begin pitting and after the accident in the pits. Ralph Mulford believes he wins the race, but when he gets to victory lane he sees Harroun in the Marmon Wasp already sitting there.
Race officials spend the next two days going over the timing and scoring records. Early in their review they make it clear that any changes in the finishing order will not include changing the winner. Fisher orders that the records be destroyed after the official finish is published. What we see as the standings today is what we have to accept as official. Is it correct. Leerhsen doesn’t think so.
What I most enjoyed was the biographical information on Fisher, Harroun, Mulford, and others. The author gives some long overdue credit to some of the riding mechanics as well, telling some of their stories. The author does not gloss over the danger of auto racing in its infancy. This is a gritty, graphic depiction of the early days of the sport.
Blood and Smoke is a good book for background on the origin of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the 500 Mile Race. It deepened my understanding of what the event has grown to be. After a very difficult beginning, it is rather amazing that the 500 still exists.