The 1920 Season and Other Debacles in AAA History

The earliest years of AAA racing have always been a sore spot for historians interested in said era. Concerning these times, the “official” history, as printed by the different sanctioning bodies of American open wheel racing, has often been more fantasy than fact; just reproductions of results tables from previous sanctioning bodies. The heavy truth of the matter is that until only recently, historians have not been concerned with accurately preserving the most ancient relics of our history.

There is a long, muddy story concerning big time racing history circa 1920 and earlier. The pre WWII era has always been a fascination of mine with a focus on what was happening in the naughts, teens and twenties. This was a contributing factor in starting this whole blog thing to begin with; to tell these stories that have often been forgotten or accepted as cold hard fact for so many years. Regrettably, I have not really dove into any of these interesting nuances of history, but that all changes now.

AAA history from pre 1921 is simply a mess. It will take pages upon pages to tell the truth about what actually happened, but we have to start somewhere. Some issues brought up here will be expounded upon in later posts, but I will first focus on the 1920 season and the case of the false records.

What Really Happened

The 1920 season was contested over five races that year; starting in February and ending in November. The effects of WWI were still being felt as the AAA Contest Board regrouped and organized the second official year of the National Championship. The inaugural 1916 season went off without a hitch, but the championship was interrupted for three years before resuming in 1920.

Gaston Chevrolet, that years Indianapolis 500 champion, would go on to win the 1920 points championship after his fatal accident on lap 146 of the season finale held at Beverly Hills Speedway. The current point standings after each event can be found in media of the period, including the program for the fatal November meeting. Gaston was credited with the championship posthumously and, again, media of the time supports this.

AAA confuses Itself

Sometime during 1926 AAA assistant secretary Arthur Means, for reasons unknown,   recreated the points table for 1920 to include ten events instead of the official five that actually took place. No one knows why, but in late 1927 AAA Secretary Val Haresnape, based on this false table created by Means, changed the 1920 champion from Gaston Chevrolet to Tommy Milton. The earliest publication that held Milton as champion was Motor Age in the October, 1927 edition; before this, Chevrolet had always been considered champion.

Even more mysteriously, by late 1928 Gaston Chevrolet had been restored rightfully as the 1920 champion. Was this because his two brothers were still around and able to fight their late siblings case? Again, the reasons are unknown. Unfortunately Means and Haresnapes assault on early history was not complete. In 1929, they released false championship results tables for the 1909-1915 and 1917-1919 season when none had previously existed. Whether these tables and the bogus ten race 1920 table are connected is not known, but in an ironic turn of fate, this jiggering with history was most likely an attempt to re-create lost results tables, not fabricate them out of thin air. The reasons for changing 1920 however, remain a mystery.

The Catlin Effect

For over twenty years the bogus champions resided with the true winners from the early era, and Gaston held his rightful place in history. All is mostly well until the then AAA secretary Russ Catlin stumbled across these false results tables after WWII. Catlin had found a gold mind of historical information, or so he thought. By this time, the 1909-1915 and 1917-1919 results had been considered cannon, but it was the 1920 season that rubbed Catlin the wrong way.

1952 was AAAs fiftieth year of operation so Russ decided it was time to revise history again. He corrected, in his mind, the atrocity of awarding the 1920 championship to Chevrolet. This was the first year since 1929 that Tommy Milton had been considered the 1920 champion. Russ event went as far as to award, then still living, Milton with a championship metal for his 1920 victory. To add insult to injury, Catlin then creates champions for 1902-1908, so the AAA could have 50 years of champions for 50 years of existence. This version of history first appeared in the Indy 500 program from 1952. Remember; media from the 20’s is completely at odds with this version of history. Why Catlin never referenced any of this is unknown.

So now we have 17 false winners for completely fabricated championships, plus Gaston Chevrolet had been stripped of his 1920 title. This prevailed through the USAC takeover and into the CART era. League historians had no reason to think the records provided to them by the previous sanctioning body were in anyway false at all.

It should be noted that in his 1961 book “500 Miles to go”, Al Bloemker attempts to end the 1920 debate. He surmises that there was an issue with sanctioning fees paid to AAA by Uniontown Speedway, therefore precluding their race dates from the championship trail. This has never made any sense to me because if Uniontown had paid but not been included, they surely would have taken legal action, but no trace of such an outcome exists. Plus adding two races to the original five race schedule does not equal the ten race, false results table.

CART takes the reigns

CART historian Bob Russo had always sided with Russ Catlin through many, continued attacks from revisionist historian John Glenn Printz. Starting in 1981, Printz actively lobbied CART to change its historical records to reflect what really happened. CART held firm, but in the 1985 CART media guide, the original, unaltered championship list was present with Chevrolet as the 1920 champion. CART had printed the listing by mistake and in 1986; the false list replaced the correct one. Printz and Russo proceeded to engage in a public feud carried out on the pages of “Indycar Racing” over the next few years.

I do not know when the 1902-1908 listings were finally dropped, but the 1909-1915 and 1917-1919 champions proved to be a bit more persistent. It seems to me that sometime during the Champ Car era, as they had control over the old CART records, officials rectified some of the issues that had plagued history books for nearly 75 years. Gaston had been rightfully restored and at least an asterisk had been placed beside the false early seasons.

In the 2011 INDYCAR media guide, the first total and correct collection of historical records that I am aware of since unification, 1902-1915 and 1917-1919 were rightfully absent, and Chevrolet is listed as the 1920 series champion, albeit with a bit of explanation concerning the continued debate on the authenticity of past records. It finally seems like the controversy about what happened in the early years of AAA racing can finally be laid to rest. INDYCAR and its historians have done a fine job distinguishing fact from fiction, and I appreciate their continuing efforts to document our rich history correctly and accurately. Congratulations Gaston, you truly deserve it after so many years of controversy.

Eric Hall

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13 Responses to The 1920 Season and Other Debacles in AAA History

  1. Zachary says:

    WOW! What a post, Eric! Well done!

  2. KF4LMT says:

    Great Stuff, Eric! I look forward to reading some more historic posts.

  3. jpindycar says:

    I thought Paul Tracy won the 1920 championship only to have it taken away and given to Chevrolet….

  4. BoardTrackRacer says:

    Where can I find a complete listing of race results (both AAA and otherwise) from 19-teens?

  5. H. Donald Capps says:

    Eric,

    Not so fast regarding the problem of the 1920 championship being “resolved” by the INDYCAR historical record books. Read the note carefully regarding 1920 and you will realize that it simply regurgitates the nonsense that Bob Russo parroted from Russ Catlin. There never were two championship calendars and to even suggest that is complete twaddle and still suggests doubts about the championship.

    There is also a factor that seems to be overlooked in all this is that is the assumption that the Contest Board accepted the championships that Means concocted as official. A close reading of the actual bulletins in which all this appeared does not necessarily lead to the automatic conclusion that the Contest Board accepted these as official championships.

    It was not until Catlin managed to convince a gullible Contest Board already wrapped up in the celebration of the AAA’s 50th anniversary in 1952 that these became “official.” The 50th anniversary also provided Catlin with an opportunity to create a champion for each season of the AAA, the WW2 years being the exception, of course.

    However, saying something is so historically and it being so are two entirely different things. This Orwellian approach to the past is a legacy that Catlin has inflicted upon American automobile racing history and one that will take years and years to undo.

    Giving credit where credit is due, without the doggedness of John Glenn Printz and Ken McMaken this the lies that were created by Catlin would still be accepted as truth.

    • BoardTrackRacer says:

      Extremely interesting discussion. After you boys get this one resolved, maybe you would tackle the question of who actually won the 1911 Indy 500. “Smilin” Ralph K. Mulford went to his grave saying a scoring error falsely awarded Ray Harroun the victory. Apparently, there was more than a little evidence to support this belief. What say you all?

      • Eric Hall says:

        I say Donald Davidson has more than squashed that fun, but misguided rumor. Ray Harroun correctly holds his place in Indianapolis history.

      • H Donald Capps says:

        I would say that probably meant to say there there is little evidence to support the notion that the winner of the 1911 International 500 Sweepstakes was won by Ralph Mulford. If not, then I would certainly say that.

        I am in complete agreement with Donald Davidson on this point, that whatever else might have been an issue regarding the 1911 500 mile race, they got the winner correct. I have found nothing in the contemporary accounts or other related materials that would otherwise indicate that someone other than Ray Harroun (and Cyrus Patschke, of course) won the race. Believe me, I have waded through no end of accounts regarding this race, and those pushing the revisionist notion of Mulford as the winner all tend to be written well ater the event — as well as being quite selective in the basis of that notion along with often playing quite loose with the evidence.

  6. Bruce Boertje says:

    As long as the true and correct results have been ascertained and credited. That is all that counts.

    • H Donald Capps says:

      To restrict all this to simply the results is to quite the miss the point of the difference between what is merely statistics or factoids and what might be actually considered history. Those who reduce it all down to race results are mere statisticians at best and certainly are not — or are very rarely — historians. Just as sleeping in the garage at night does not make you an automobile, playing around with the past does not make one a historian.

      There is far more to the history of automobile racng than the dry statistics. That those race statistics tend to often be copied and accepted without any regard as to their accuracy or any inkling for the most part where they came from in some cases, is commonplace. Indeed, few seem to have any real interest in races or racing per se, only the results. There is no question that the results of race events are important and do form an essential element of the history of automobile racing, but they are simply one element of many.

      On the other hand, there are those whose focus is squarely on the machinery with everything else secondary, much as in the case of those whose focus is the race data. Both tend to and, alas, very often do, miss the broader picture. Then again, to enjoy or have enthusiasm for auto racing certainly does not require an iota of interest in its history or even an awareness of any issues related to that history. To be an enthusist is not a sin, regardless of how much historians grouse about it. Both can easily share the small universe of auto racing in a state of peace and harmony, again despite any moaning and groaning on the part of the historians.

  7. H Donald Capps says:

    Just a quick note to point out that John Glenn Printz has made available several letters that Russ Catlin wrote regarding auto racing history. They tend to make the case that Catlin really and truly did not have a very firm grasp on this history, making the hypothesis that JG Printz has offered that Catlin totally misunderstood what Means and Haresnape wrote and then was very fierce in his attacks on those who questioned his findings or version of things, a fight taken up by Bob Russo after Catlin’s death.

    That history can also be akin to sausage making is often overlooked — and even less often understood.

  8. H. Donald Capps says:

    Having now read the unpublished chapter for the book on the A.A.A. national championship that Russ Catlin wrote, as well as an article that was sent to the editor of Speed Age in 1958, “The Unfortunate 1920 Championship Goof” — which was never published in the magazine, the conspiracy theory that Catlin concocted regarding Kennerdell in particular looks even more like the twaddle that it is. The frustrating problem is a lack of any available documentation in form of something from the Contest Board as to why there is an Arthur Means worksheet for the 1920 season changing the champion from Chevrolet to Milton in the first place, much less why it was changed back — with the change from Chevrolet to Milton that occurred in 1951 also lacking any documentation on the part of the Contest Board. Catlin does state in one souce that the decision to make the change for 1920 was in an excecutive meeting of the Board in 1924, while in another, he suggests that it was December 1920 — the decision regarding the change being held back dues to the newspaper stories. Catlin states that the Board balked at Kennerdell’s arbitrary decision that Chevrolet was the champion and refused to endorse his decision. Catlin also has a story that it was Eddie Edenburn who had to make the changes the schedule — after Chevrolet’s death — to conform the championship result to the newspaper stories proclaiming Chevrolet as the national champion for 1920. Also, it was either December 1920 or 1924, according to Catlin, that the Board accepted the 1917, 1918, and 1919 championships as official, they having been kept secret by Kennerdell.

    What becomes obvious from the 1920 nonsense and twaddle alone is that even without Russ Catlin and his conspiracy theories, the Board had already made a fine mess out of things.

    Even without any documentation regarding the reasons or rationale behind its 1920 decision — in the 20’s or 1951 — as to why it did what it did, it is clear that what was done was anachronistic, historical revisionism in its worse form. History by fiat is not history, but, at best, conjured up mythology.

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