On the centennial of the Indy 500, controversy still reigns over who won the inaugural race, as this lively account of a tumultuous event makes plain.
History comes alive through the research and prose of Leerhsen (Crazy Good: The Story of Dan Patch, the Most Famous Horse in America, 2008), formerly the executive editor of Sports Illustrated. The early days of auto racing ignited plenty of controversy—whether it was even a sport, whether it should be allowed (it seemed far more dangerous than bullfighting, outlawed in the States) and whether, as the New York Times wrote in an editorial headlined “Slaughter as a Spectacle,” the races “bring out the very worst of human nature by providing a most barbarous form of excitement…They are an amusement congenial only to savages and should be stopped.” If such controversy didn’t already give this book enough of a charge, the characters do, led by the entrepreneurial racetrack co-founder “Crazy” Carl Fisher, whose own wife characterized her impulsive, adulterous, reckless spouse as a “lusty and incomprehensible personality.” Then there are drivers such as Barney Oldfield, “the Daredevil Dean of the Roaring Road” who “didn’t have an altruistic bone in his body, but he had a very low threshold of boredom, and plain-vanilla racing excited him as much as it did the average citizen.” For years, plain vanilla appeared to be the only alternative to banishment, as the fledgling sport succumbed to offering a series of short races, much like horse racing, rather than the longer ones that would be more likely to push drivers to destruction and even death. “Which was, of course, why a lot of people came to the auto races,” writes Leerhsen. “Not to see death, exactly, in most cases—but to spend some time luxuriating in its titillating possibility.” And a surprising number of those most titillated were women, as the macho sport proved quite the chick magnet, and anything that suggested strategy was dismissed as “weakness, even femininity.”
By the time the big race rolls around, Leerhsen has already spun a fascinating tale.