INDY 500: A History Of British Racers in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing (Part One)

It’s Indy 500 weekend – one of the most exciting events of the motor racing calendar. To whet your appetite, Adrian Rickard gives us a run-through of all of the British racers who have participated in the great race.

From the outside, the Indianapolis 500 is a very American affair, glitz, glamour, celebrity and a splash of military colour. But, even dating back to the very start of the now world famous race in 1911, there have been competitors from these shores who have taken on the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. Over the coming weeks we will take a look at those who have competed from or connected to the United Kingdom.

Part One – 1911 to 1941

    The very first International 500-Mile Sweepstakes Race took place in the heart of Indiana in 1911, built across 328 acres of former farmland. And the very first race had a British born driver competing…

    Hughie Hughes – Very little is known about Hughie, other than he was born in London in 1886, or possibly 1878…he moved to the US in 1906, where he became part of Ernie Moross travelling Motorsport show, he was known as ‘Lord’ Hughie Hughes, due to his English upbringing, not a bona fide title. But as a racer, he competed in the first two 500’s, with finishes of twelfth and third, earning him a $5000 prize. Hughes would die in tragic circumstances at Uniontown Speedway, PA in 1916. After crashing himself was out of the car talking to a team mate when another driver Frank Galvin crashed and hit Hughes.

    Johnny Jenkins – Born in Cardiff in 1875, immigrating to the Ohio area and becoming a US citizen. Jenkins would go on to serve with the US military in the Spanish-American war in 1898. As for his racing career at the International 500-Mile Sweepstakes racing twice in 1912 & 1913. In 1912 qualifying his White car in 11th place would complete all 200 laps finishing with a top 10 in seventh place. The following year did not go so well, this year driving a Schacht started in 17th but would retire after only 13 laps with a crankshaft failure. He died in 1945, Brownsville, Texas. Still to this day, the only Welsh born competitor at the 500.

    Noel van Raalte – The phrase of ‘Gentleman Driver’ is often banded around, but Noel, born into a rich family, really was the epitome of that label. Born in 1888 in London to parents who were wealthy land owners. In 1915, after having his interest piqued during his younger years competing with friends and his families’ wealth enabled him to pursue his passion in fast cars. He was in fact one of the first people to own a Bentley car. Noel only competed once at Indianapolis, in 1915, in a Sunbeam, which had competed in two previous Indianapolis 500 races and had become a reputable car producer. Due to his inability to get up to speed to qualify the car, Barney Oldfield would qualify the car in 14th place. The race started well for van Raalte but engine problems dropped him back and eventually finished in 10th place, earning $1,400 in prize money. He continued to race the Sunbeam cars at Brooklands, but died in 1940 after a long battle with illness.

    Dario Resta – The first British winner Dario Resta, was born in Livorno, Italy. At the age of two, his family moved to London. In 1915, Dario moved to the US, taking part in a number of races before making his début at IMS in May. Driving a Peugeot, for whom he was an employee. For 1916, the race was reduced to 300 miles, after Carl Fisher reduced the number of laps as he thought that is what the fans wanted. Resta was to dominate after starting on the second row, he took the lead after 60 miles and by 75 miles, lapped the whole field. He would not return to the speedway until 1923, finishing 14th. He would continue to race around the US but returned to the UK and Brooklands in 1924, to attempt to set a new land speed record, driving a Sunbeam, he crashed, killing him instantly.

    W Douglas Hawkes – Born and raised in Gloucestershire in 1893, Hawkes began his racing career in 1914, but was put on hold with the onset of The Great War, eventually returning to the track in 1920 racing at Brooklands and across Europe, but in 1922 he took his first trip to the United States. The 1922 Indianapolis 500 was the first race that a Bentley car was entered into. The car was slow, off the pace in qualifying eventually managing a starting position of 19th, and in an attempt to show that the British were at Indy to show they meant business, sadly, and even despite finishing the race, did not make the top ten to secure a share of the prize money. Hawkes brought the car home in thirteenth. Hawkes continued to race in Europe, not making a return the Speedway until 1926. The Indianapolis News was, shall we say, less that complimentary, “Hawkes is not a brilliant driver, as driving goes, but he’ll be there when the hard going is over and have his car in good shape”. Driving an Eldridge-Anzani, he qualified in 17th. Sadly for Hawkes, the camshaft broke on the car, and he was not there, at the end, when all was said and done on lap 92, resulting in a 14th place finish, with winnings of $593. This was Douglas Hawkes last visit to the Speedway. He continued his career back home in England and across Europe, particularly in the new endurance race taking place in Le Mans. He married in 1937 and died in 1974 in Athens, Greece.

    Count Louis Zbrowoski – The son of a racing driver Polish Count and a wealthy heiress, Louis Zborowski was born in 1895. His early career behind the wheel took him to races in Grand Prix events and at Brooklands. It should be noted that after the death of his mother, his father had died years before in a racing accident, Zborowski inherited vast amounts of money, said to be fourth richest man in the world under the age of 21, owning land in Manhattan, which took him to America. With the interest in cars, racing it was almost inevitable that he would end up competing at the Indianapolis. And in 1923, he would make his one and only start. After purchasing a Bugatti, he joined the four strong team, but the cars were not as competitive as hoped. But over practice and eventually qualifying, he would achieve a fifth place starting position. Sadly for Zborowski, and his team, the cars were not reliable, and his race ended on lap 41 with a broken con rod. As was with the time, a racing accident would claim the life of Zborowski at Monza after crashing and colliding with a tree in 1924. His legacy lived on, inspired by the cars built and raced by Zborowski, Ian Fleming would later use the names and designs his book, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

    Alfred Moss – The father of Sir Stirling and Pat Moss competed in one race as an entrant at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. According to Sir Stirling, his father was a dental student and convinced his father to send him to Indianapolis to study combining his desire to also compete in motor racing. He was a relatively inexperienced racer by the time he got to Indy but that did not stop him, qualifying his Barber-Warnock (entered by Henry Ford) in 1924 in the twentieth position. He would complete 176 laps, still taking the chequered flag 24 laps behind the co-winners LL Corum & Joe Boyer. It was the only 500 Alfred Moss would start, although the following year he did act as a relief driver for Herbert Jones in 1925. He died in 1972, having established a successful dentistry career.

    Ernest Eldridge – Only one attempt for Ernest, born in London in 1897, at the 1926 Indianapolis 500 driving both an Eldridge-Anzani and a Miller Special in the lead up to the race. He qualified in 23rd position in his own car. During the race he was relieved, as was accustomed to the time, by Herschel McKee, who was a member of the Lafayette Flying Corps, returning to the car on lap 32 retiring from the race with carburettor problems on lap 45 (of 160 due to rain the race being shortened to 400 miles) with a finishing position of 19th. After racing at Indianapolis, Eldridge would enter his cars into other races in the US before returning to Europe, where he continued to break records. He would die from pneumonia in 1937, he was survived by two wives…

    John Duff – Born in China in 1895 to Canadian parents, but we will claim him as one of our own as a subject of the monarch. Duff came to the United Kingdom in 1914 when the First World War broke out, he was injured at the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917, returning to England to recover. He would soon marry the nurse, Clansa, who looked after him during his recovery from his injuries, he learnt how to drive and took up racing. He won at Le Mans in 1924, and would set his sight on competing in more famous races around the world. In 1926, Duff travelled to America to race. His opportunity came at the 14th Indianapolis 500 Mile Sweepstakes Race following the death of Herbert Jones in qualifying. In the race Duff drove a Miller, with support from the Elcar Automobile Company. He started the race in 28th place, finishing in 9th completing 147 laps, 13 laps behind the winner Frank Lockhart in a rain shorted race (160 laps), The man who was described by the Indianapolis press as ‘a famous English driver’ winnings of $1,500. Later in life, Duff would take up horse riding, but would lose his life in a riding accident at Epping Forest.

    Henry Banks – Banks was the only British born driver to have competed in the Indianapolis 500 over three decades. Banks was born in England on the 14th June 1913 and at a young age moved to the US living in Michigan. Overthe course of 14 years, from 1936 through 1954, excluding the break for the Second World War. Of these 14 attempts, Banks would qualify for six of them. He would also act as a relief driver and as first alternative when he failed to qualify or failed to set a time. A best starting position of 12th would come in his last 500 start in 1952. As for finishing positions, Banks placed in the 20s until the end of his 500 career with a top six in 1951, then 19th in his final start driving a Levosky. After retiring from racing, Banks would take up a role with USAC, and in the mid-sixties, would eventually hire a young British Indianapolis 500 fan in the role of historian, Donald Davidson.

    George Robson – Born in Newcastle in 1909, George Robson was to move to Canad, then to the United States in 1924 with his family. He would become the first British born winner of the 500 in 1946, competing in his third and final 500. Robson had his first visit to the Speedway in 1939, but failed to qualify for the race, but did relieve Harry McGuinn during the race. Returning in 1940, Robson qualified in 23rd, finishing in 18th, retiring on lap 67. In 1941, qualified in 16th, again retirement forced him out of the race in 25th, after 66 laps. But after the break for the Second World War, the reopened speedway saw Robson take victory after starting 15th, driving an Adams, continuing on at racing speed passed the chequered flag for a couple of laps, because he did not know what to say having won the race. Robson won $42,350 for his efforts. Sadly he would not return to the Speedway to defend his title, Robson was killed in an accident at Lakewood Speedway later that year.

    In Part two we will look at the drivers who competed from 1946 to 1995.

    Adrian can be followed on Twitter @IndycarUK.

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