Archive for May 18, 2008

Speedway Sightings …

By: Wm. LaDow
Daily Trackside Reports from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Published in the Post-Tribune — Chicago Sun-Times News Group — May 18, 2008
Speedway, Indiana

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Ask any engineer what makes an IndyCar go and you will likely get a long dissertation about the internal-combustion engine, gearbox ratios and the aero effects created by the car’s downforce. In fact, if you listen long enough, you will be bombarded with enough physics to make your eyes glaze over and head swim.

Ask any car owner what makes an IndyCar go and they will say one word … money.

The faster you want to go, the more money it takes.

One of the greatest misconceptions in motorsports is that race team owners can operate on the money they win on the track. Nothing could be further from the truth.

It takes sponsorship from either a privately held company or a corporation to adequately field a viable entry in IndyCar racing. And that doesn’t mean just writing a check; it means building a partnership between the car owner and the company that they both feel can successfully market their products.

A classic example of the pitfalls encountered in developing a solid relationship between a race team owner and a quality sponsor reared its ugly head here at the Speedway during the month of May, severely challenging the people at Sarah Fisher Racing.

Fisher’s trailblazing journey through IndyCar racing has produced several Indianapolis 500 and Indy Racing League records that still hold: youngest woman to compete (2000), fastest woman to qualify (229.439 mph, 2003), first woman with a podium finish (third place, 2000, Kentucky Speedway), first woman in North America to win a pole position (2002, Kentucky Speedway) and voted Most Popular Driver (2001, 2002, 2003).

So when the 27-year-old Fisher decided to start her own race team in 2008 with her husband Andy O’Gara and his father, John O’Gara, both IndyCar racing veterans, it was clearly a labor of love that drove her.

To complete in the IndyCar series it’s estimated that it takes $7-10 million, per car, to run with the leaders. Fisher’s effort is substantially shy of those figures. She operates out of a small shop on Rockville Road in Indianapolis and came to compete at the Speedway with one car, one engine, no wind-tunnel testing and virtually no laps on the car. But she was ready to compete and has qualified for her seventh Indianapolis 500.

What she wasn’t ready for was her primary sponsors disappearing during the first week of May. After trumpeting the arrival of her new sponsors at a news conference in April, in front of a crowd of 75 media members in attendance for the ribbon cutting of Sarah Fisher Racing’s new shop, it appeared that both ResQ, a sports drink company from Gulf Breeze, Fla., and Gravity Entertainment of Fort Lauderdale, were the very type of sponsors she needed.

Neither copmany has come through with the promised dollars, leaving Fisher’s sidepods virtually bare this month. She’s been successful in lining up several associate sponsors that, along with contributions from fans, are helping to keep the operation going, albeit day to day.

Northwest IndianasContribution

The terrific challenge that Sarah Fisher Racing has encountered in the last few weeks is not without precedent in Indianapolis 500 or big-time auto racing history.

Probably the most glaring example of a race team laying it all out on the line for a sponsor who was never really confirmed as paying his way was the run of the 1972 “Mystery” Eagle. Dan Gurney and his company, All American Racers were building some of the most technologically advanced Indycars (labeled the “Eagle”) in the world when they showed up at Indy for the month of May in 1972.

Gurney’s primary car, the No. 6 Olsonite Eagle, was the class of Gasoline Alley. Bobby Unser took the pole for the race at a new track record of 195.940 mph, beating the former pole speed record by 17.244 miles per hour, the largest track record incremental increase in the history of IMS.

Team owner Gurney was thrilled. Even more inviting was the proposition that if he could find sponsorship, he could run a second car.

Enter Chris Vallo, then of Highland. Vallo was the man behind CV Enterprises, whose logo sported the slogan “You Name It.” Vallo fancied himself an entrepreneur and was introduced to Gurney by Unser, who met him while driving for Nichels Engineering in 1971.

Gurney was desperate for sponsorship and Vallo was looking for another avenue to pursue his financial goals.

What wasn’t apparent to many at the time was that Vallo was being sued by Ray Nichels, who alleged Vallo had defaulted on his agreement to sponsor a $7 million stock car program preparing Pontiacs in NASCAR for David Pearson and Plymouths for A.J. Foyt and Unser in USAC.

Before anyone knew it, the No. 48 Mystery Eagle, driven by Jerry Grant, appeared on the track with the big CV Enterprises oval logo. The car ran so well it almost won the race. Grant was leading with 12 laps left when he unexpectedly pitted because his right-front tire was out of balance. During the confused stop, he was given fuel from Unser’s tank and subsequently was disqualified and scored 12th.

There was much discussion about who the man was behind the “Mystery” Eagle at Indianapolis that year.

Not long after Indianapolis, Vallo vanished from the Indy-car scene as he continued to fight a handful of lawsuits in Lake and Porter counties. He eventually would be imprisoned on two separate occasions and died in 2000.

Interview requests about Vallo and his relationship with Gurney have been politely refused by Gurney over the last several years. Gurney’s company would weather its involvement with Vallo and continues to build race-related vehicles to this day.

Nichels and Nichels Engineering were not so fortunate. Nichels’ financial challenges related to being associated with Vallo and CV Enterprises would sap his business of much-needed capital just as Chrysler Corporation pulled its support from all of auto racing in 1972.

Nichels would close his world-class race-car construction business and enter into a series of other business in the automotive and aircraft markets until his death in 2005.

Make no mistake about it.

It takes money to make the race cars go fast.

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By: Wm. R. LaDow

Daily Trackside Reports from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Published in the Post-Tribune – Chicago Sun-Times NewsGroup
Speedway, Indiana – May 18, 2008

As the son of a Chicago South Sider, I learned long ago that if you want to get something done, “It takes a guy, who knows a guy.”

Michael J. “Umbrella Mike” Boyle was just such a guy.

One of most colorful and controversial labor leaders in the history of this country, Boyle ruled the Windy City’s most-powerful electricians’ union for more than a half century.

In a time when corruption and lawlessness gripped the city, Mike Boyle walked the fine line between crooked politicians and the Chicago Mob. He did it all the way to the pinnacle of the American labor movement, constantly doing it in a shroud of mystery.

When he wasn’t in Chicago dominating union politics, he was racing at Indianapolis with his Boyle Racing Team, winning the Indianapolis 500 three times.

The Early Years

Born in rural Minnesota in June of 1879, Michael J. Boyle was one of 11 children raised on a potato farm. His early years were spent in parochial schools until he joined the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) at the age of 16.

By 1905 he became certified as a full-time electrician for the Chicago Tunnel Company, the firm responsible for the construction and management of some 60 miles of underground tunnels that linked Loop businesses — 40 feet below the streets of downtown Chicago.

Boyle joined the IBEW in Chicago 1906, and by 1909 was a business manager for Local 134. By the 1920s he rose to the position of vice president within the local and ruled it with an iron fist, eventually amassing a union membership of 10,000 steadfastly loyal electricians.

Early in his career, “Umbrella Mike” Boyle reportedly earned his nickname for his ability to gather “tributes” or “donations” if you will, from contractors and other citizens who sought his much-needed support for various business projects.

Boyle would simply hang his umbrella on the edge of the bar at Johnson’s Saloon, his unofficial headquarters on West Madison Street, when he entered early in the evening. Those requesting his favors or guidance would then drop cash in the unattended umbrella. At the end of the evening Boyle would then retrieve the cash-laden umbrella on his way out.

When once confronted on how he was able to amass a grand total of $350,000 on a weekly paycheck of $35, Boyle replied, “It was with great thrift.”

Rising to the Top of Labor

The early 1900s was a period of great unrest between the corporate owners of American industry and the American worker. Long hours and low pay, coupled with abuse of the worker’s rights, gave rise for the need of unions to protect the rights of working men and women.

As the country’s industrial base prospered, workers across American united under the guidance of men who showed no fear in the face of overwhelming odds. Mike Boyle was such a man.

In one of the clearest examples of Boyle’s power, in January of 1937 he yanked 450 of the 800 city-employed electrical workers off the job at 8 p.m., shutting off 94,558 municipal street lights, along with all of the traffic lights in Chicago’s Loop and put 38 of the 55 drawbridges that cross the Chicago River, in the up position.

Automobiles, streetcars and pedestrians were trapped, with the city’s police force helpless as the power to their telephones was shut off, too. Two hours and 40 minutes later, Boyle acquiesced and turned the city back on, all with a simple phone call.

Racing at Indianapolis

Mike Boyle was a sportsman at heart who loved competition. That was what drew him to IndyCar racing. Once Boyle made up his mind up that he wanted to go racing, he pursued his quest with abandon. Starting in 1926, Boyle first got his feet wet with a single-car entry in the 13th running of Indianapolis 500. In his first showing at Indianapolis, the No. 36 Boyle Valve Miller driven by Cliff Woodbury overcame a flat tire to capture third place, earning a purse of $5,000.

Over the next seven years Boyle entered a total of 15 cars in Indianapolis 500 competition with the best finish being a seventh place. He always entered top-notch equipment and hired the best drivers, such as Woodbury, Ralph Hepburn, Billy Arnold, Peter DePaolo and Lou Moore.

In 1934, all of Boyle’s efforts came to fruition when “Wild Bill” Cummings in the No. 7 Boyle Products Special/Miller took the checkered flag in record time, earning a record purse of $29,725.

Having won the Indianapolis 500 only made “Umbrella Mike” thirst for more.

The next four years saw him enter 13 cars in the Memorial Day Classic, garnering three top-five finishes.

In 1939, having tired of trying to wring out more speed from the oversized Millers and Stevens-Offy he owned, Boyle reached across the Atlantic Ocean to a tiny Italian automobile company and without fanfare quietly purchased a Maserati 8CTF. The car was shipped to Boyle Racing headquarters in Indianapolis.

There Boyle turned the car over to his crew-chief, Harry “Cotton” Henning, a former riding mechanic. Henning was greatly respected by his peers and along with Boyle’s money was able to outfit a pristinely kept racing operation that was second to none.

Then Boyle hired arguably the best “shoe” in the business, Indiana native Wilbur Shaw.

The marriage between Shaw and the Boyle Special Maserati was magic, dominating both the 1939 and 1940 Indianapolis 500s. Boyle’s combined winnings for the two successive victories was $58,100. In addition, Boyle’s other driver, the legendary Ted Horn, copped successive fourth place finishes to add another $9,325.

Following his two-year domination of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Mike Boyle raced again in 1941 and 1946, with the best results being sixth-place and third-place finishes, respectively. But the war years took their toll on Boyle and he left Indy-car racing for good after 1946, while in his mid-60s.

During the course of his racing career, it was never clear where the money was coming from that funded one of the most well-equipped racing operations in the business. “Umbrella Mike’s” livery on the cars was seemingly changing from season to season. Boyle Products, Boyle Valve, Boyle Racing Headquarters, the IBEW — all these names were seen on the side of Mike Boyle’s cars.

After retiring from IndyCar racing, “Umbrella Mike” still dominated union politics in Chicago through his role as a vice president of Local 134 of the IBEW. He died from heart failure in 1958 while in Miami Beach, Fla.

The Chicago Daily Tribune reported on the filing of Boyle’s estate in probate court. It was revealed that his entire estate — which included a 40-acre ranch in Texas — was valued at only $19,000.

It would appear that “Umbrella Mike” left us with one more mystery.

Photo Courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway