Remembering, and Thanking, Wilbur Shaw …

Posted: March 17, 2020 in Uncategorized

Wilbur Shaw won his first Indianapolis 500 in 1937 — Photo credit: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

By: Jeff Majeske — Jeff’s Indy Talk

This May, the Indianapolis 500 will be run under new leadership for the first time since World War II as Roger Penske takes the helm. Penske’s record-breaking success as a car owner (18 victories, including the last two with Simon Pagenuad and Will Power) and global stature as an accomplished businessman has fans optimistic about the future of the race, the track and the NTT IndyCar Series, all of which are now his.

From the 1976 Indianapolis 500 program …

Penske bought everything from the Hulman-George family, of course. Tony Hulman purchased the dilapidated facility, which had been almost totally neglected during World War II, on Nov. 14, 1945. Under Hulman’s leadership, the Indianapolis 500 bloomed again in the postwar years, grew in stature and defined automobile racing in the United States, if not the world.

That legacy might not have been possible if not for the efforts of one man: Wilbur Shaw. Shaw, who was born in Shelbyville, which is about 35 miles southeast of Indianapolis, was the first to win the 500 back-to-back in 1939 and 1940. These wins followed his first victory in 1937. Shaw finished second in 1938 and crashed because of a wheel failure while leading in 1941, so he came close to winning the 500 five times in a row.

Still, his greatest achievement might have come after he hung up his goggles. Shaw was heartbroken when he saw the condition of the track while testing a new synthetic tire for Firestone during the winter of 1944-45. That heartbreak soon turned to determination, and then action to save the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, as Shaw recounted in his autobiography, “Gentlemen, Start Your Engines.”

But, to me, the track was the world’s last great speed shrine, which must be preserved at any cost. I felt that all I was, or ever hoped to be, I owed to the Indianapolis 500-mile race. I accepted the situation as a personal challenge and started a one-man crusade to get the job done.

Shaw, of course, succeeded in persuading Hulman to buy the track from Eddie Rickenbacker. It remained in the family’s possession until Tony George, Hulman’s grandson, approached Penske about buying it last year.

As a sort of tribute to Shaw, I had a shirt made inspired by his 1937 winning car, the Shaw-Gilmore Special. This Gilmore had nothing to do with Jim Gilmore, a longtime sponsor of A.J. Foyt’s cars during the last half of Super Tex’s career.

This trading card offered one of the few clues to the car’s color scheme.

Instead, it was the Gilmore Oil Company of California, which had slogans like “Roar With Gilmore” and used a leaping lion to promote its products. (Roscoe Turner, a barnstorming pilot and an important aviator who lived in Indianapolis, touted the Gilmore line as well and actually flew with a real lion, named, naturally, Gilmore. Turner also served as an official at the Indianapolis 500 for many years.)

Hulman wisely named Shaw the President and General Manager of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and certainly his leadership was a key reason why the Indianapolis 500 rebounded so quickly. Shaw died in a plane crash in 1954. How much more he could have accomplished is something to ponder, but all Indianapolis 500 fans are forever grateful for Shaw’s love of the race, the track and his determination to save it for future generations.

This might be this year’s raceday shirt.

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