The First Harvest Classic

As we prepare for the Harvest Classic at IMS next week, here is a brief history of the last Harvest Classic.

Photo: Johnny Aitken prepping his tires before the 1916 Harvest Classic at IMS. No, I did not take this photo.

Seven years into his venture of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Carl fisher and the other founders were still searching for their footing. It had not been the success they had hoped. The 500 mile races were a hit with fans, but in 1916 the race was shortened to a 300 mile contest because Fisher thought 500 miles was too long. The fans were not happy about the decision. Dario Resta, who narrowly lost the 1915 500 to Ralph DePalma, won the 1916 event.

With war on the horizon, Fisher decided to add a September race meeting to the Speedway calendar. He was looking for extra income in case the 1917 race couldn’t run because of United States involvement in the European conflict. The Harvest Classic on September 9 featured three separate races of 20 miles, 50 miles, and 100 miles. There were separate purses of $1,000, $2,000, and $3,000. The first two races were not heat races for the 100 miler.

Attendance was disappointing. The event was a week after the Indian State Fair. People had spent their money going to the fair. Also, as the name of the evnt implies, the farmers were beginning preparations for harvest. Some estimates out the crowd at less than 10,000.

The event itself featured several current and future stars. 1915 500 winner Ralph DePalma entered in a Duesenberg. Eddie Rickenbacker drove a Maxwell. Tommy Milton, a future 500 mile race winner, made his first appearance at the speedway. Speedway star Johnny Aitken entered the event in a Peugeot.

Aitken won all three races. The 20 mile race was the easiest victory. In the fifty mile race, Aitken and Hughie Hughes had a wheel to wheel battle with Aitken winning by 0.28 seconds. There was more drama to come in the final race of the day.

In the 100 mile race, Aitken led most of the way, but battled with Rickenbacker during the last 50 miles. With four laps to go, Aitken’s steering broke, and Rickenbacker took the lead. He had his own issue, however. A loose right rear wheel buckled with two laps to go giving the lead back to Aitken.

This would be the final race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway until 1919. After the 1916 event the speedway announced that the May race would again be 500 miles. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, racing halted until the war ended. Johnny Aitken never got a chance to race at Indianapolis again. He died in 1918 of pneumonia during the flu pandemic.

The Indianapolis 500 was the only race at the Speedway from 1919 until 1994, when the Brickyard 400 NASCAR event debuted. The stock car race was the first race outside of May since September 1916. Will this year’s Harvest Classic also be a one time event? I’m not so sure.