When is winning the Indianapolis 500 three times not your crowning achievement?
When your name is Wilbur Shaw.
It was 60 years ago today that we lost Warren Wilbur Shaw, who was one day shy of turning 52 years old. The Shelbyville-born driver is still the last native Hoosier to win the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. He was the first driver to win back-to-back at Indy (1939, 1940), and the second person to win it three times. Even more impressive, he finished in second place three times. In terms of finishing positions at Indy, this chart comparison really puts it all into perspective.
Early on, Shaw had a lot of the same luck at Indy that Tony Kanaan experienced before he finally won in 2013. With a couple more breaks, he could have been a six-time winner.
It was what Shaw did after those victories though, that defined his legacy.
During WWII, the Firestone Tire and Rubber company wanted to test a synthetic tire at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Wilbur worked for Firestone at the time, and made his first trip to the Speedway in more than two years. The facility was in terrible shape, with sections of the track cracking, the grandstands falling apart, and weeds overtaking most of the land. It was after this test, that Eddie Rickenbacker (owner of IMS at the time) informed Shaw that they were going to demolish the Speedway, and turn it into a housing subdivision. Shaw began reaching out to anyone that might be interested in purchasing the historic landmark.
The video below details that Firestone tire test in 1944, with Shaw at the wheel.
After unsuccessful pitches to many car manufacturers, Wilbur ran into Tony Hulman. He was able to convince Tony that they could save the Speedway, and the 500-mile race. They met with Rickenbacker on November 15, 1945 and the deal was made. The price ($750,000) was the same amount that Rickenbacker paid 18 years earlier. Hulman appointed Shaw as the President and GM of the Speedway, putting him in charge of reviving the facility. It was Hulman’s money (and faith in Shaw) that kept IMS in tact, but it was Shaw’s one-man crusade that saved it.
A quick synopsis of the situation is explained in the video below. The pictures of the Speedway tell the story.
During the course of WWII, about the only human activity at the Speedway involved kids swimming in the tunnels after heavy rain, and hunting rabbits and mushrooms in the winter and spring. Wildflowers sprouted up between the bricks on the front stretch. Seeing this first hand, Shaw vowed that he wasn’t going to stand back and let the place die. Within six months, he had the Speedway back up and running, with enough cars to field the 1946 Indy 500, which was a massive success. It was nothing short of spectacular.
Together, Shaw and Hulman not only restored the charisma of the Speedway, but they created the golden age that exploded with popularity. Without the efforts of these men, we would have missed out on decades of racing, and all of the glory we’ve witnessed here. Without them, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway would have been demolished 7 decades ago. Imagine erasing the last 70 years of the Indy 500, not to mention everything else outside of that race. Unfathomable.
Shaw served as the President of IMS from 1945, until his death in 1954. Much like the current President, Doug Boles, Shaw was a perfect fit for the position. A couple of months ago I was working with an IMS staff member on a project. He told me something that really stuck. He said, “If you were God and you could build the perfect human being to be the President of this place, he would be exactly what Doug is.” The Speedway means so much to all of us, and these guys have such an appreciation and a strong passion for everything that it represents. We’re lucky to have had them.
Today, the largest single-day sporting event in the world is still run at IMS, along with many other incredible events. Imagine how different things would be if it weren’t for driver, mechanic, writer, entrepreneur, and President Wilbur Shaw. What if the last Indy 500 ever run was the 29th running, in 1941? No four-time winners, no Andretti, no Spin and Win, and no epic finishes, etc. Who knows if the sport would even still be around today.
Shaw summed things up nicely shortly before his death in 1954. “To me the track was the last great speed shrine, which must be preserved at all cost. I felt that all I was, or ever hoped to be, I owed to the Indianapolis 500-mile race.” The passion that we all have for the Speedway today, lived inside of Shaw, yet it was magnified by a million. Sixty years after his death, he is still remembered as an icon of the Speedway, and he always will be.
To me, IMS is all about nostalgia. I loved the early years, and everything that transpired over the first few decades. Still, what Shaw did for the Speedway, the drivers, and all of us, is something that I feel isn’t appreciated enough. I don’t think people realize just how close we really were to “the end” of this spectacular palace. Thanks to this man, generations of people have experienced the cultural touchstone known as “Race Day” at Indy. You can call it mystical, or you can call it magical. In a sense, it is both.
To most IndyCar people, today is the much anticipated release of the 2015 schedule. While that is understandable, I think it’s very important that we remember this incredible man, and all that he did. Were it not for him, there might not even be a schedule to announce.
IMS Historian Donald Davidson said it best. “I think if you were to make up a list of the most important people in the entire history of the track – not just drivers, but people in general – I think Wilbur Shaw has to be one of the three or four most important people ever.”
Thank you, Mr. Shaw.