How Did We Get Here? Pt. 2 When Did It Go Sideways?

(NOTE: This post originally appeared on OpenPaddock.net on 1/20/2014. My writing at OP will all be archived here to keep my work compiled in a single location at least one week after originally appearing at OpenPaddock.net.)

(NOTE2: Part one here.)

Welcome back to the weird and wonderful world that is AAA and INDYCAR history. Racing through the 20’s was political, but more or less straight forward in its execution. The late 20’s bring a whole different problem. Instead of making history, AAA was finally interested in documenting its history correctly and accurately. You can decide how successful they eventually were.

In 1926/1927, AAA Assistant Secretary Arthur Means, for reasons unknown, created false season tables for 1909-1915 and 1917-1919 and reworked the 1920 season  stripping the championship from Gaston Chevrolet and awarding it to Tommy Milton. By 1929 Chevrolet reappeared as the champion and the Motor Age picks were considered cannon. Means’ work had slipped into oblivion and was filed away for the time being.

This version of history persisted until Russ Catlin found the Means crib sheets in early 1951. He, in his eyes, recovered history, and “restored” Milton as the 1920 champion; going as far as to award the still living Milton with a championship medal. (Chevrolet’s brothers were still alive in the late 20’s but had passed by this time; coincidence that no one was left to fight for Gaston?) Catlin also created champions from 1902 through 1908 to coincide with AAA’s golden anniversary. He wanted 50 years of champions for 50 years of operation and were folded into the ever changing cannon.

All of the early nineteen-naught picks were totally bogus; proof can be seen in his 1905 pick. Catlin chose Victor Hemery (the years Vanderbilt Cup winner) instead of Oldfield, the official 1905 champion. Showing that Catlin probably had no idea the proper 1905 season existed, not to mention period media is at complete odds with Catlin’s accounts. Why he did not reference contemporary media is unknown. Now it is thought that Mr. Catlin may not have been the crack historian he was once thought of as. Why did he choose some of Means’ work, but not all of it?

Sometime during the CART era, the 1902-1908 listings were finally dropped, but Catlin’s 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.

CART historian Bob Russo had always sided with Russ Catlin through many, continued attacks from up and coming 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.

Throughout the years, the AAA records had been stolen, thrown away or simply lost, leading to a few records finding their way to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway collection, with the bulk of what little surviving paperwork exists residing in the Racemaker Press storage room. By all accounts, a single box remains, its contents tainted by Russ Catlin.

Donald Davidson’s, the current IMS historian, connections with the Automobile Competition Committee for the United States  (ACCUS), the same organization that Bob Russo was part of, is probably what is stopping him from looking too closely at these early seasons. It’s easy for him to stay relegated to IMS history, and I’m not sure I blame him.

What our media guide holds now are the 1952 Catlin picks from 1909-1915 and 1917-1919. There is no official entry for 1905, and Gaston Chevrolet is the 1920 champion. But, of course, there is an asterisk and a lengthy admission that something is indeed funky with early history along with the Motor Age picks from 1909-1915 and 1919. The 1902-1908 picks are long gone.

When did our history start? 1896? 1899? 1902? 1905? 1909? 1916? Do our roots lay with the ACA and MCA as well as AAA? Is early Grand Prix racing included? I believe it started in 1905 with the first championship, took 11 years off and started again in 1916, was cancelled for WWI and fired up a third time for the 1920 season.

What do you think? How important is it that INDYCAR presents its records correctly and accurately? This discussion is about things over 100 years old, it can be difficult to change that much history, even if it is changed to reflect what actually happened. It surely did not start in 1909 when The Indianapolis Motor Speedway opened, or in 1911 when the first 500 was contested. How The Speedway fits into all of this will be looked at in detail next week along with even more confusion at the hand of AAA.

Eric Hall

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2 Responses to How Did We Get Here? Pt. 2 When Did It Go Sideways?

  1. Eric,

    INDYCAR does not have a clue regarding its history. It is far more concerned with statistics and records than history, which is clearly shown in the rather shoddy IndyCar Series Historical Record Books that it published from 2011-2013.

  2. Pingback: How Did We Get Here? Pt. 3 The Indy Effect | anotherindycarblog

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