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.