"You know me, Barney Oldfield" was the classic catchphrase of one of America's earliest celebrity sports figures. Indeed, during the nascent period of the automobile, most every American knew Berna “Bernie” Eli Oldfield (1878–1946). He became the best-known race car driver at a time when the motor buggy was catching the imagination and passion of a rapidly changing society. Oldfield cut a populist swath across turn-of-the century American society and, in the process, helped define an emerging cult of celebrity.
One of the consistent themes of Oldfield's early years was a restlessness and desire for bigger, brighter, and better things in life. As a teenager, Oldfield worked odd jobs in Toledo, Ohio, earning money to buy his own bicycle to ride in local and regional road and endurance races. An attempt at professional boxing ended after Oldfield contracted typhoid fever. He returned to racing bicycles for company-sponsored teams and sold parts in the off-season. Throughout the 1890s, Oldfield was part of a team of riders that barnstormed across the Midwest, racing in the new "wood bowl" tracks that were sprouting up across the region. Oldfield quickly realized the need to appeal to audiences beyond the track. He branded himself the "Bicycle Racing Champion of Ohio" and promoted a "keen formula for winning," wearing a bottle of bourbon around his neck during races but telling reporters the liquid inside was vinegar.
Shift to Auto Racing
Tom Cooper and Barney Oldfield Seated in Race Cars, circa 1902 / THF207346
Americans were fascinated with quirky and expensive motor buggies. These boxy, carriage-like vehicles appealed to Americans’ desire for new, loud, audacious, and fast entertainment. During the winter of 1899, Oldfield reconnected with an old bicycle racing companion, Tom Cooper, who had just returned from England with a motorized two-wheeler (an early motorcycle). Cooper was going to demonstrate the vehicle at a race in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, near Detroit, in October 1901. He asked Oldfield, who began riding motorcycles himself around this time, to come along. Cooper and Oldfield were a preliminary exhibition before the main event: a race between local "chauffeur" Henry Ford and the most well-known and successful automobile manufacturer of the day, Alexander Winton.
After the Grosse Pointe event, Oldfield and Cooper pursued gold mining in Colorado. When that ended in failure, Cooper headed to Detroit to focus on automobiles. Oldfield took the motorized cycle on a circuit of Western bicycle tracks, setting records along the way before returning to Detroit in the fall of 1902 at Cooper’s request. Cooper had purchased Henry Ford’s “999” race car and wanted Oldfield to drive it. "The Race" between the “999” and Alexander Winton's "Bullet" captured the imaginations of not only Detroit's automotive elite, but the general population as well. When Oldfield piloted the “999” to victory over Winton's sputtering “Bullet,” the news spread like wildfire across Detroit, the Midwest, and eventually the nation.
Beyond the immediate thrill of the race itself, Barney Oldfield, the "everyman" bicycle racer from the heartland, appealed to a wide segment of American society rushing to embrace the motor car. As the Detroit News-Tribune reported after the race, "The auto replaced the horse on the track and in the carriage shed. Society sanctioned yesterday's races. And not only society, but the general public, turned out until more than five thousand persons had passed the gatekeepers.” Barney Oldfield became the face of racing for the "general public" and helped to democratize not only racing entertainment, but also automobiles in general, as vehicles moved out of the carriage house and into backyard sheds.
Barney Oldfield Driving the Ford "999" Race Car, circa 1903 / THF140144
Over the next 15 years, Barney Oldfield established multiple world speed records and gained notoriety wherever he went. He added an iconic unlit cigar to his racing persona and perfected the roguish image of a daredevil everyman. After a brief stint driving for Winton, Oldfield took the wheel of a Peerless racer, the "Green Dragon," and established himself as America's premier driver.
Barney Oldfield Behind the Wheel of the Peerless "Green Dragon" Racecar, circa 1905 / THF228859
By 1904, Oldfield held world records in the 1-, 9-, 10-, 25-, and 50-mile speed categories. In 1907, Oldfield tried his hand at stage acting when he signed on to appear in a new musical, The Vanderbilt Cup. Over a 10-week run and a brief road tour, Oldfield “raced” his old friend Tom Cooper in stationary cars as backdrops whirled behind them and stagehands blew dirt into the front rows of the theater. The following year, Oldfield entered the open road race circuit and quickly added to his legend by sparking a feud with one of the emerging stars of the day, Ralph De Palma. In March 1910, Oldfield added the title "Speed King of the World" to his resume, driving the "Blitzen Benz" to an astonishing 131.7 miles per hour on Daytona Beach in Florida.
Barney Oldfield Driving the "Blitzen Benz" Car on a Racetrack, 1910 / THF228871
Oldfield flouted the conventions of his time, both on and off the track. He was notorious for his post-race celebrations, womanizing, and bar fights. Oldfield’s rebellious streak kept him under the scrutiny of the American Automobile Association (AAA) and, in 1910, he became the first true "outlaw" driver when he was suspended for an unsanctioned spectacle race against the heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson. Undaunted, Oldfield and his manager set up dates at county and state fairs across the country, holding three-heat matches against a traveling stable of paid drivers. Oldfield padded his reputation by adding an element of drama to these events—he would lose the first match, barely win the second, and, after theatrically tweaking and cajoling his engine, win the third match. During this time, Oldfield also became a product spokesman (perhaps most notably for Firestone tires) and began racing a fellow showman, aerial barnstormer Lincoln Beachey, in matches pitting “the Dare Devil of the Earth vs. the Demon of the Skies for the Championship of the Universe!”
Barney Oldfield and Lincoln Beachey Racing, Columbus, Ohio, 1914 / THF228829
Towards the end of his driving career, Oldfield made a final splash in the racing world with the Harry Miller-built "Golden Submarine," establishing dirt-track records from one to one hundred miles. Throughout the 1917 season, Oldfield drove the Golden Sub in a series of matches on dirt and wood tracks against his old rival Ralph De Palma, eventually winning four out of the seven races. Oldfield retired from competition racing in 1918 after winning two matches in Independence, Missouri. In typical Oldfield fashion, he ran the last race under AAA suspension for participating in an earlier unsanctioned event.
Barney Oldfield Driving "Golden Submarine" Race Car at Sheepshead Bay Board Track, Brooklyn, New York, 1917 / THF141856
Oldfield continued to keep himself at the fore of America's sports entertainment culture. In addition to ceremonial "referee" jobs at various races, he rubbed elbows with American movie, stage, and music stars and continued his rambunctious lifestyle. Between 1913 and 1945, Oldfield appeared in six movies (usually as himself) and also tried his hand as a road tester for Hudson Motor Company, salesman, bartender, club owner, and spokesman. Finally, in an attempt to raise funds to build another land-speed racer with Harry Miller, Oldfield staged a unique publicity and fundraising event. In 1933, outside Dallas, Texas, he drove an Allis-Chalmers farm tractor to a record 64.1 miles per hour.
Barney Oldfield Advertising Postcard for Plymouth Automobiles, circa 1935 / THF228879
Fittingly, Barney Oldfield's last public appearance was at the May 1946 Golden Jubilee of the Automobile Industry held in Detroit. Oldfield was fêted for his foundational role in what had become one of the largest industries in the nation. He shared the main speaker's table with automotive icons including Henry Ford, Ransom Olds, and Frank Duryea, and he accepted a “trophy of progress” for his role in automotive history. Barney Oldfield passed away in October 1946, having lived—in the words of one passionate fan—“such a life as men should know.”
You’ve probably heard this one before, and maybe you’ve even wondered it yourself: Are race car drivers really athletes? After all, isn’t the car doing all of the work? And how much different can it be than driving down the interstate, if only a lot faster?
Anyone in the business of motorsports will answer unequivocally “yes” to the first question and a resounding “no” to the second. So, too, will just about anyone who has spent time driving a race car or go-kart at speed on a racetrack.
Jim Leo, the founder and owner of PitFit Training in Indianapolis, is one of those who wholeheartedly endorses the fact that race car drivers are indeed athletes; however, his arrival at that answer came in a very methodical and hands-on way.
Leo has a degree in exercise physiology and biomechanics and early in his postgraduate career set up a health and wellness program for the employees of Detroit Diesel (now Detroit) in the early 1990s. At the time, the majority shareholder and CEO of Detroit Diesel was one Roger Penske of Penske Racing fame and an 18-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 as a team owner. At the time, Leo was not involved with motorsports and had only a passing interest in them when he approached Penske about creating a fitness regimen for his race teams—specifically, the pit crew members.
Soon after, PitFit Training was born, and Leo found himself training not only the Penske Racing crew members but crew members from other teams as well. This coincided with an increased emphasis on athletes across nearly every sport training more scientifically and specifically for the demands of their particular sport. It wasn’t long after that that drivers were coming to Leo for advanced fitness training.
Driver James Hinchcliffe (left) training. At PitFit, it’s common practice for physical exercise to be immediately followed by mental acuity challenges. / Photo by Walter Kuhn
Now, after more than 20 years in the sector, Leo has honed and refined the techniques he uses to keep drivers physically and mentally performing at their peak. “There’s no question that race car drivers are athletes,” said Leo. “But I’ll take it one step further and say that they are more akin to fighter pilots.”
“If you look at a driver’s physical requirements, such as the elevated heart and breath rates, enduring g-forces (the force of gravity or acceleration on a body) and near-instantaneous reflexes in addition to the high demand on cognitive ability, they align closely to the traits of combat pilots. Every athlete has to make split-second decisions on the field of play that have ramifications that may end in a game-losing situation, which is true of race car drivers as well. But drivers have the added weight that their decisions can not only affect the outcome of their race result but could also cause themselves or a fellow competitor potentially grave harm or their team hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of car damage.”
At PitFit, driver James Hinchcliffe (right) completes strength training for his shoulders and arms, key areas of concentration for Indy car drivers since they endure high cornering g-forces without the benefit of power steering. / Photo by Walter Kuhn
Added Leo for further clarification: “Physiologically, we know that a driver’s blood lactate levels rise while in the car as well as cardiovascular demands that are similar to running a 10K at an elite pace.”
Jim Leo likens the cognitive prowess, aka mind conditioning, of a race car driver to that of a combat pilot. It makes sense. Like a fighter pilot, a race car driver must be able to withstand the effects of sustained g-forces on the human body for long periods of time. Consider: An Indy 500 race can sometimes last up to five hours, with drivers often experiencing g’s spiking to three or more. And these drivers, like those pilots, consistently need to have unbelievably quick reaction times and sensorimotor functions, not only to succeed in their mission but to survive.
For a race car driver, reaction times and mental focus are paramount. Driver Charlie Kimball (sitting) tries to keep up with randomized light patterns during a training session at the PitFit facility. / Photo by Walter Kuhn
Imagine yourself having to react to a car that crosses your path at more than 200 miles per hour or to be constantly battered by continuous braking and accelerating forces in a cockpit where temperatures are likely above 100 degrees. Due to the high speeds and g’s alone, the average human on a racing oval would black out.
Where PitFit takes its motorsports training to the next level, and further parallels combat pilot training, is with its approach to incorporating neurocognitive (having to do with the ability to think and reason) elements with physical fitness. PitFit’s brain training is three-pronged, targeting vision, reaction time, and sensorimotor functions to give racing’s athletes the greatest developmental improvements that will lead to success on the tracks.
PitFit incorporates Senaptec’s strobe glasses as part of its neurocognitive exercises. Using liquid crystal technology, the lenses flicker between clear and opaque, removing visual information and forcing an individual to process more efficiently. / Photo courtesy Senaptec
That means workouts are often a combination of neck-centric strengthening exercises matched with ladder-type movements to improve hand-eye-foot coordination that are then paired with high-end virtual- and augmented-reality games and tasks based upon advanced biometrics, artificial intelligence, and data analytics.
PitFit has a custom-built sensory station, for example, created by Oregon-based Senaptec, a startup that’s bringing new visual training technologies to market that are specific to improving eye-to-brain connectivity. (Senaptec has the New York Yankees, Red Bull, and the Air Force on its client list.) PitFit’s station requires drivers to interact with moving images on a screen through activities that an article on thedrive.com compared to the arcade game Whac-A-Mole. Skill levels are then measured to help indicate the driver’s ability to make quick decisions under pressure.
Through high-end virtual and augmented reality games and tasks at the sensory station, you can assess your hand’s reactions to visual signals and find out how well you can see through distractions, judge depth, and track multiple objects in space. / Photo courtesy Senaptec
Race Trainer, another PitFit exclusive, is a homemade steering-resistance machine centered around a weighted steering wheel paired to pedals. A lighted control board behind the wheel prompts the driver to simulate a turn on the track, which then prompts the trainer to pull on resistance bands strapped to weighted headgear worn by the athlete. The exercise, according to PitFit, mimics the effects of those lateral g’s.
The light on PitFit’s Race Trainer serves as a reaction trainer—green means turn now—and it’s all about how the driver responds when the steering wheel and headgear are weighted. / Photo by Walter Kuhn
There are also low-tech training exercises. For instance, a trainer drops playing cards from chest height, and the driver has to try and grab one before the card hits the ground. The cards may fall in different directions, and this builds reaction-time skills that result in better, safer results on the track.
Mind + Matter
To get a sense of what a race car driver deals with, imagine this: You are out in the parking lot of your local shopping center in full sun at high noon in July wearing a pair of thick flannel sweatpants and sweatshirt, with gloves, shoes, and socks, atop an exercise bicycle that you must pedal hard enough to maintain a heart rate above 130 beats per minute. On your head is a helmet that has bungee cords attached, pulling your head randomly in four directions. With your left hand, you’re doing 15-pound bicep curls, while with your right hand you are throwing darts at a board every two seconds and each must hit the bull’s-eye. Meanwhile, a tennis ball machine is firing balls at you from 10 feet away, so you must duck out of the way to avoid being hit. To top it all off, through a set of earphones, you are being fed complex math problems that you must solve instantly or face the possibility of an electric shock if you answer incorrectly or if you miss the bullseye.
Taken as a whole, this hypothetical may border on the absurd, but each element gives us a sense, through ordinary tasks that we can all identify with, of the physical, reflexive, and mental rigors of driving a race car, along with the physical jeopardy that can result from bad decision-making.
“Drivers are always analyzing what they see on track or what information they are being fed from a spotter about track position or an engineer about strategy,” said Leo. “We spend a lot of time training a driver’s neuropathways to better cope with the physical and cognitive demands of racing by having them train at specific intensities, immediately followed by a cognitive skills test like repeating a pattern on a light board or visual recognition test, even sometimes adding some kind of auditory distraction to really create a chaotic environment while their heart and breath rates are still high.
Driver Zach Veach spends time at PitFit doing exercises designed to perfect hand-eye-foot coordination, which is part of the program’s brain training to improve success on the track. / Photo by Walter Kuhn
“The idea is to have them practice focusing on the task at hand to push beyond the physical stress,” elaborated Leo. “This trains a driver to cope with both the physical and mental demands they are required to exercise on track in competition.”
Consistency Is Key
That kind of focus may not be apparent to the spectator trackside or on television, but one need only look at the consistency of a top driver’s lap times to get the real picture. Over the course of a race, discounting laps where there is a yellow flag or a pit stop, it’s common to see a string of 25 or more lap times that never vary by more than half a second—the equivalent of throwing 25 darts in quick succession all within the bullseye.
While the romantic lore around a race car driver may be of a brazen daredevil driving by the seat of his or her pants, the reality is far from it. Drivers are highly fit athletes with astounding cognitive ability—meaning there is far more to winning a race than standing on the gas.
A Fitting Connection
Early in 2019, Matt Anderson, Curator of Transportation for The Henry Ford, along with other staffers, was on the phone with racing legend Lyn St. James. They were talking about themes and stories for Driven to Win: Racing in America, The Henry Ford’s permanent racing exhibition, then in progress. St. James, a longtime supporter and partner of The Henry Ford, was an integral source of ideas and insights related to Driven to Win since its conception—and she is one of the drivers showcased within the exhibit.
Lyn St. James (left), photographed by Michelle Andonian, instructs a student at her Complete Driver Academy in 2008. / THF58776
It was during this call that St. James recommended The Henry Ford investigate Jim Leo’s story of entrepreneurship and innovation. A who’s-who of auto racing had been having great success on the tracks using Leo’s PitFit Training approach, including drivers such as Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Dario Franchitti, Will Power, Kasey Kahne, Sam Hornish, Jr., Larry Dixon, Morgan Lucas, Pippa Mann, Levi Jones, and James Hinchcliffe.
Soon after that call, Anderson and team were in Indianapolis, meeting Leo and touring his industry-leading motorsports training facility. “Jim couldn’t have been friendlier. He opened his doors and gave us an up-close look at his methods and machines,” noted Anderson, who admitted to being a bit starstruck when driver Pippa Mann walked into Leo’s gym to work out while The Henry Ford team was on-site.
“Jim had us try some of the physical and mental workouts,” Anderson continued. “We did our best, but, needless to say, none of us will be starting in the Indy 500 anytime soon.” The team decided then and there to incorporate elements of the PitFit program into the exhibition. Leo enthusiastically agreed to help adapt some of the training machines he uses into interactives for visitors to experience in Driven to Win. We also received assistance from Senaptec, who customized their app specifically for museum visitors.
“Our visitors will be able to use some of the same training machines, and some of the same sensory performance devices, that top drivers use,” Anderson said. “Once you realize the physical strength and mental acuity required of these racers, you’ll never doubt their athletic abilities again.”
The mangled wreck of driver David “Salt” Walther’s 1972 McLaren M16A is on exhibit in Driven to Win: Racing in America in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.
Search the 1973 Indianapolis 500 on the Internet, and you won’t find a bunch of happy headlines. Words like “fatal,” “tragedy,” “cursed,” and “unforgettable” pop up.
Three deaths and multiple crashes are attached to the ill-fated race. One of the day’s most dramatic headlines, and still considered one of the worst crashes in Indy 500 history, involved driver David “Salt” Walther and his 1972 McLaren M16A, an artifact on display in Driven to Win: Racing in America in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.
On the race’s first lap, Walther’s car crashed into the outside wall, exploded, and overturned. Images of the ripped-apart vehicle with Walther’s feet dangling outside of it are disturbing, but although badly burned, Walther did survive the accident. Miraculously, he didn’t lose his passion for auto racing either, coming back to the sport to drive again in 1974. In fact, Walther started in seven Indianapolis 500s, five of which occurred after his terrible crash (his best finish was ninth place in 1976).
American auto racing traditionally has been a white, male activity. In the early 20th century, people of color were outright banned from participating in several series. After those bans were lifted, Black drivers like Wendell Scott still faced discrimination from some fans and officials, and even from some of their fellow competitors.
Several racers fought intolerance by forming their own sanctioning bodies and sponsoring their own contests. Others worked within the existing system. They created associations to support marginalized drivers and teams, and to recognize the achievements of groundbreaking Black racers who had come before. Few people did as much for the cause as Leonard W. Miller, racing team owner and co-founder of the Black American Racers Association.
Leonard Miller became a lifelong gearhead after working on his parents’ 1937 Ford. / THF91674
Leonard Miller was born in 1934 and raised in suburban Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He traced his love of automobiles to his parents’ 1937 Ford. As a boy, Miller devoted countless hours to hot rodding the car—tweaking the engine in pursuit of a few more horsepower and a little more speed. His considerable mechanical skills grew even more in the late 1950s when he served in an automotive support company in the U.S. Army.
Miller’s interest in automobiles remained a lifelong passion. As a co-owner of Vanguard Racing, he entered a car in the 1972 Indianapolis 500. White driver John Mahler piloted the #31 car for the Vanguard team, but a broken piston forced him out of the race after 99 laps. Regardless of the results, Miller made history that day—Vanguard was the first Black-owned team to compete in the Indy 500. (It would be another 19 years before Willy T. Ribbs became the first Black driver to race in the 500.)
In 1973 Miller formed a new team, Black American Racers (BAR), with headquarters in New Jersey near Miller’s consulting firm. Over the next few years, and with African American drivers Benny Scott and Tommy Thompson added to the team, BAR raced in Formula 5000 and Formula Super Vee competitions. Miller obtained a corporate sponsorship and began planning a return to the Indianapolis 500 with Black American Racers.
Wendell Scott co-founded the Black American Racers Association with Leonard Miller. As the first Black driver to win a NASCAR Cup Series race, Scott knew the hardships that Miller fought. / THF147632
At the same time, Leonard W. Miller championed Black racers everywhere. Together with Ron Hines, Wendell Scott, and Malcolm Durham, Miller formed the Black American Racers Association (BARA) in 1973. BARA provided support and recognition for African American drivers, mechanics, and car owners in all forms of auto racing. The organization had nearly 5,000 members at its peak. BARA celebrated Black racing history too, and it published a review of past achievements in its Black American Racers Association Yearbook in 1974. In recognition of Miller’s efforts and achievements, he was inducted into the Black Athletes Hall of Fame in 1976—along with BAR driver Benny Scott.
Just when Miller’s dream for a return to Indy seemed within reach, his sponsor ended its racing activities after the 1975 season. Miller was unable to attract new sponsorship dollars. Then in 1978, Tommy Thompson died from injuries he suffered in a crash at Trenton International Speedway. Thompson’s death left Miller and the Black American Racers Association heartbroken, and the organization never really recovered. BARA disbanded in 1981.
Current racers like Bubba Wallace continue Leonard Miller’s work to diversify the sport. / THF146999
We are saddened by the passing of Al Unser, Sr., on December 9, 2021. Over his nearly 40-year racing career—ranked as one of America’s top drivers for much of it—Unser added immeasurably to his family’s rich legacy in motorsport. He earned 39 wins in national championship races and three national titles. Unser won two overall victories at Pikes Peak. He earned a championship in the IROC series. Most famously, Unser won four times at the Indianapolis 500.
Some families farmed, and some ran small businesses. The Unsers raced. Al’s father and uncles grew up near Pikes Peak, Colorado, where they competed in the celebrated Pikes Peak Hill Climb starting in 1926. Uncle Louis won nine victories there between 1934 and 1953, while father Jerry scored a personal-best third-place finish on the mountain.
An American racing dynasty: Jerry Unser (rear) with his sons (front, left to right) Bobby, Jerry Jr., Louie, and Al. / THF227428
By the time Al was born in 1939 (on the day before Memorial Day, appropriately enough), Jerry and Mary Unser had moved their family to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where Jerry operated a service station on well-traveled Route 66. Like his older brothers Jerry Jr., Louie, and Bobby, Al grew up helping at the station where he was surrounded by cars and racing culture. Jerry Jr. and Louie went to Pikes Peak for the first time as competitors in 1955. Jerry Jr. earned class wins there in 1956 and 1957. He started in the 1958 Indianapolis 500, but was knocked out of contention by a collision on the first lap. The following year, Jerry Jr. was killed in a crash while attempting to qualify for Indy.
Louie earned class victories at Pikes Pike in 1960 and 1961, but multiple sclerosis forced his retirement from competitive driving in 1964. It was Bobby who became “King of the Mountain,” earning 13 wins—including 10 overall victories—at Pikes Peak from 1956 to 1986. Bobby made his mark at Indianapolis too, winning the Indy 500 in 1968, 1975, and 1981.
The Unsers reigned at Pikes Peak, and Al earned overall wins in 1964 and 1965. He posed there with Wes Vandervoort (left) and brother Bobby (right) in 1964. / THF218643
Al launched his own competitive driving career in 1957. Fittingly, his first taste of success came at Pikes Peak. He interrupted his brother Bobby’s successful streak on “America’s Mountain” by claiming the overall victory in 1964. Al then turned in a repeat performance with another overall win in 1965. That same year, he made his debut in the Indianapolis 500. Al finished ninth, ahead of Bobby (who placed nineteenth) but behind Jim Clark and his rear-engine revolution.
Al’s Johnny Lightning cars of 1970–71 remain Indy fan favorites. / THF148071
Al scored a second-place Indy 500 finish in 1967 and, the following year, he joined Vel’s Parnelli Jones Racing team and chief mechanic George Bignotti. Al’s first win at the Brickyard came in 1970, when he dominated the race by leading 190 of the 200 laps. Just as he had done at Pikes Peak, Al posted a repeat win at Indy by taking the checkered flag again in 1971. In both years, Al turned heads not just with his performance, but with his distinct blue and yellow cars sponsored by toymaker Johnny Lightning.
Unser notched another Indy 500 win in 1978. That year’s victory was followed later in the season by wins at Pocono Raceway and Ontario Motor Speedway. The trio of checkered flags gave Al the Indy car “Triple Crown”—victories in all three of the 500-mile races on the 1978 calendar.
Al’s 1987 Indy 500 victory made him only the second driver (at the time) to win the race four times. / THF225018
Unser’s fourth Indianapolis 500 win shouldn’t have happened at all—which made the triumph that much sweeter. Al was without a ride heading into the 1987 race. But when Team Penske’s Danny Ongais went into the wall during practice and then withdrew from the race under doctor’s orders, the team offered Unser the chance to take his place. Al was less than a week from his 48th birthday, but he was game for another run at the greatest spectacle in racing. Unser started the race in 20th position but steadily moved toward the front, taking the lead on lap 183. He held off the opposition long enough to take the checkered flag with an average speed of 162.175 mph. At that moment, not only did Al become the second driver to win the Indianapolis 500 four times (after A.J. Foyt), he also became the oldest driver to win the race (beating a record set by his brother Bobby, who’d won in 1981 at age 47).
Al retired from competitive driving in 1994, but not before racing several times against his son, Al Unser, Jr. “Little Al” earned two Indianapolis 500 victories of his own, taking the checkered flag in 1992 and 1994. Altogether, an Unser won the Indy 500 nine times from 1968 to 1994—one-third of the races held in those 26 years!
For 30 years, Al Unser, Sr., was one of only three drivers to win Indy four times (along with A.J. Foyt and Rick Mears). Helio Castroneves joined the exclusive club in 2021. / THF146847
We join the racing world in mourning the death of Al Unser, Sr. His passing is especially hard coming in the same year that saw the loss of his brother, Bobby, and his nephew (and Bobby’s son), Bobby Unser, Jr. Al’s achievements and his impressive record will endure, as will the incredible legacy of the Unsers of Albuquerque, the first family of American racing.
You can hear Al Unser, Sr., describe his career and accomplishments in his own words on our “Visionaries on Innovation” page here.
Al Unser, Sr., in 2009 (photo by Michelle Andonian). / THF62695
Our new limited-engagement exhibit, Collecting Mobility: New Objects, New Stories, opening to the public October 23, 2021, takes you behind the scenes at The Henry Ford to show you how we continue to grow our vast collection of more than 26 million artifacts. One key question the exhibit asks is why we collect the items we collect. To get more insight on the artifacts on exhibit and future trends that may impact our collecting, we reached out to several of our partners. In this post from that series, our friends at General Motors (GM), donors of the General Motors first-generation self-driving test vehicle in the exhibit and contributors to our Driven to Win: Racing in Americaexhibit, tackle questions about autonomous vehicles (AVs), electric vehicles (EVs), and racing.
Our latest permanent exhibit, Driven to Win: Racing in America, is presented by General Motors. How has GM’s racing program evolved over time?
GM’s Chevrolet and Cadillac brands have both had long, storied histories in motorsports. Racing is a fundamental part of what we do—from transferring technology learned on the track to help us build better vehicles to connecting with consumers through something they love.
Racing driver Louis Chevrolet co-founded GM’s Chevrolet brand with William C. Durant in 1911. / THF277330
Chevrolet has been successful in professional motorsports in the United States and around the globe, capturing many manufacturer, driver, and team championships in NASCAR, IndyCar, IMSA, and the NHRA. From stock cars to advanced prototypes, Cadillac Racing has a rich history—more than half a century—of racing around the world and around the clock on some of the world’s notably challenging circuits.
Off the track, our racing programs have evolved with the help of our GM facilities. In 2016, General Motors opened the doors to the all-new GM Powertrain Performance and Racing Center—a state-of-the-art facility designed to enhance the development processes for the company’s diverse racing engine programs.
In 2021, General Motors broke ground on the new Charlotte Technical Center, a 130,000-square-foot facility that will expand GM’s performance and racing capabilities. The facility is a $45 million investment for GM and it will be a strong hub for the racing and production engineering teams to collaborate, share resources, and learn together, delivering better results more quickly, both on the racetrack and in our production vehicles.
The Chevrolet Corvette has a long, proud history in professional and amateur sports car racing. This pair of Corvettes is seen at a Sports Car Club of America race in Maryland in 1959. / THF135778
Engineering has become incredibly advanced over time, and leveraging tools between racing and production has become extremely important. We use tools like computational fluid dynamic models, which uses applied mathematics, physics, and computational software to visualize how a gas or liquid flows. These CFD models help us predict things like powertrain performance and aerodynamics.
Also, our Driver-in-the-Loop simulator allows us to test vehicles on courses virtually. It is the combination of two technologies: a real-time computer (with vehicle hardware) and a driving simulator. The driving simulator allows our development engineers to drive and test the real-time computer simulation and added hardware system on a virtual track, just like they would a physical prototype. The simulator was used extensively during the development of the mid-engine Corvette C8.R race car.
The 2001 C5-R Corvette is currently on loan from General Motors and can be seen by guests inside Driven to Win: Racing in America. Why was this vehicle selected to go on display inside Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation?
The Corvette C5-R made its debut in 1999 at the Rolex 24 at Daytona and was a fixture of global GT racing for the next five years. From 1999–2004, Corvette Racing and the C5-R set the standard for racing success with 31 victories in the American Le Mans Series, along with an overall victory at the Rolex 24 in 2001.
During six years of competition, Corvette Racing—the first factory-backed Corvette team in the car’s history—led the C5.R to an overall victory at the Daytona 24-hour race and three 1-2 finishes in the GTS class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. During the 2004 season, Corvette Racing won every race the team entered and captured every pole position in the American Le Mans Series.
2001 C5-R Corvette, on loan from General Motors Heritage Center and currently on exhibit in Driven to Win: Racing in America in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. / THF185966
This specific car raced 17 times from August 2000 through June 2002 with 10 wins. It brought home the first win for the factory Corvette Racing program—Texas 2000 in the ALMS’ GTS class. Then it went on to become 2001 overall winner at Rolex 24, which was quite an accomplishment for a GT car. The car went on to win its class at Le Mans 24 in both 2001 and 2002. The modern era of Corvette’s factory racing program continues today, after over 20 years and 4 generations (C5/C6/C7/C8).
The success of this C5-R essentially started it all and we are proud to have it on display.
This vehicle represents a huge step forward on the journey to fully autonomous driving. With Cruise, our majority-owned subsidiary, we’re determined to commercialize safe, autonomous, and electric vehicles on our way to a driverless future—one with zero crashes.
General Motors tested a series of autonomous vehicles in San Francisco, California, and Scottsdale, Arizona, in 2016. These cars used a combination of cameras, radar and lidar sensors, cellular and GPS antennas, and powerful computers to drive themselves on public streets in both cities. GM donated this one, now on exhibit in Driving America in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, to The Henry Ford in 2018. / THF173551
Cruise was the first AV company permitted to give rides to the public in its current driverless vehicles in the San Francisco area. Expansion of our real-world test fleet will help ensure that our self-driving vehicles meet the same strict standards for safety and quality that we build into all of our vehicles.
GM became the first company to assemble self-driving test vehicles in a mass-production facility when its next generation of self-driving Chevrolet Bolt EV test vehicles began rolling off of the line at Orion Township, Michigan, in January 2017.
The self-driving Chevrolet Bolt EVs feature an array of equipment, including LIDAR, cameras, sensors, and other hardware designed to accelerate development of a safe and reliable fully autonomous vehicle.
Reshaping cities and the lives of those who live in them has tremendous societal implications. Since we believe that all AVs will be EVs, these efforts will clearly advance our vision of zero crashes, zero emissions, and zero congestion, and help us build a more sustainable and accessible world.
This vehicle was really the first of its kind and its display is a sneak peek at the future of autonomy.
By 2025, General Motors plans to offer more than 30 electric vehicles globally. What does an all-electric future look like for Generation E?
For electric vehicles to make an impact, we need consumers to embrace them in mass numbers. So earlier this year, General Motors introduced the world to EVerybody In.
This is our brand commitment toward advancing a world with zero crashes, zero emissions, and zero congestion. EVerybody In is more than a brand campaign, it's a global call to action for everybody to join us on the road to an all-electric future.
GM introduced the EV1 in 1997. It was among the most sophisticated electric cars built during the 20th century. / THF91060
GM wants to put everyone in an EV. Thanks to Ultium, our EV architecture, GM is able to reimagine the vehicles it produces today as electric vehicles with equivalent power, excellent range, and a manufacturing cost different that is expected to diminish as EV production increases.
Not only will our EVs be fun to drive and cost less to own, they will also provide an outstanding customer experience. This is how we will encourage and inspire mass consumer adoption of EVs. GM has the technology, talent, scale, and manufacturing expertise to do it.
The all-electric future we are creating goes beyond our vehicles, it is inspiring us to do even more to help mitigate the effects of climate change. We plan to source 100 percent renewable energy to power our U.S. sites by 2025, and to become carbon neutral in our global vehicles and operations by 2040.
General Motors wants to impact society in a positive way and these are some of the steps we are taking to make it happen.
General Motors is committed to electrification—what types of current EV projects from the company might we expect to see in the museums of tomorrow?
With more than 30 EVs being introduced by 2025, we have a lot of exciting vehicles coming. From sedans, to trucks, to full-size SUVs, we will have a wide range of offerings in terms of size and design.
We are entering an inflection point in the transportation industry, a transformation the industry has not seen in decades—the mass adoption of electric vehicles. The first of any of these entries will be a sight to see in the museums of tomorrow for generations to come.
Lish Dorset is Marketing Manager, Non-Admission Products, at The Henry Ford. Todd Christensen is Strategy and Operations Manager, Chevrolet Motorsports Marketing & Activation, and Gina Peera is Corporate Strategy and Executive Communications at General Motors. General Motors is a global automotive manufacturer, driving the world forward with the goal to deliver world-class customer experiences at every touchpoint and doing so on a foundation of trust and transparency. See Collecting Mobility for yourself in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation from October 23, 2021, through January 2, 2022.
Auto companies often justify their participation in auto racing by quoting the slogan, “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday.” When Henry Ford raced in “Sweepstakes,” it was a case of win on Sunday to start another company on Monday. On October 10, 2021, we commemorate the 120th anniversary of the race that changed Ford’s life—and ultimately changed the course of American automotive history.
In the summer of 1901, things were not going well for Henry. His first car company, the Detroit Automobile Company, had failed, and his financial backers had doubts about his talents as an engineer and as a businessman. Building a successful race car would reestablish his credibility.
Ford didn’t work alone. His principal designer was Oliver Barthel. Ed “Spider” Huff worked on the electrical system, Ed Verlinden and George Wettrick did the lathe work, and Charlie Mitchell shaped metal at the blacksmith forge. The car they produced was advanced for its day. The induction system was a rudimentary form of mechanical fuel injection, patented by Ford, while the spark plugs may have been the first anywhere to use porcelain insulators. Ford had the insulators made by a Detroit dentist.
The engine had only two cylinders, but they were huge: bore and stroke were seven inches each. That works out to a displacement of 538 cubic inches; horsepower was estimated at 26. Ford and Barthel claimed the car reached 72 miles per hour during its road tests. That doesn’t sound impressive today, but in 1901, the official world speed record for automobiles was 65.79 miles per hour.
Ford entered the car in a race that took place on October 10, 1901, at a horse racing track in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. The race was known as a sweepstakes, so “Sweepstakes” was the name that Ford and Barthel gave their car. Henry’s opponent in the race was Alexander Winton, who was already a successful auto manufacturer and the country’s best-known race driver. No one gave the inexperienced, unknown Ford a chance.
When the race began, Ford fell behind immediately, trailing by as much as 300 yards. But Henry improved his driving technique quickly, gradually cutting into Winton’s lead. Then Winton’s car developed mechanical trouble, and Ford swept past him on the main straightaway, as the crowd roared its approval.
Henry Ford behind the wheel of his first race car, the 1901 "Sweepstakes" racer, on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit, with Ed "Spider" Huff kneeling on the running board. / THF116246
Henry’s wife, Clara, described the scene in a letter to her brother: “The people went wild. One man threw his hat up and when it came down he stamped on it. Another man had to hit his wife on the head to keep her from going off the handle. She stood up in her seat ... screamed ‘I’d bet $50 on Ford if I had it.’”
Henry Ford’s victory had the desired effect. New investors backed Ford in his next venture, the Henry Ford Company. Yet he was not home free. He disagreed with his financiers, left the company in 1902, and finally formed his lasting enterprise, Ford Motor Company, in 1903.
Ford sold “Sweepstakes” in May of 1902, but eventually bought it back in the 1930s. He had a new body built to replace the original, which had been damaged in a fire, and he displayed the historic vehicle in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. Unfortunately, Ford did not keep good records of his restoration, and over time, museum staff came to believe that the car was not an original, but a replica. It was not until the approach of the 1901 race’s 100th anniversary that the car was closely examined and its originality verified. Using “Sweepstakes” as a pattern, Ford Motor Company built two running replicas to commemorate the centennial of its racing program in 2001.
Ford gifted one of the replicas to us in 2008. That car is a regular feature at our annual Old Car Festival in September. Occasionally, it comes out for other special activities. We recently celebrated the 120th anniversary of the 1901 race by taking the replica to the inaugural American Speed Festival at the M1 Concourse in Pontiac, Michigan. The car put on a great show, and it even won another victory when it was awarded the M1 Concourse Prize as a festival favorite.
The “Sweepstakes” replica caught the attention of Speed Sport TV pit reporter Hannah Lopa at the 2021 American Speed Festival. / Photo courtesy Matt Anderson
Bob Casey is Former Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford. This post was adapted from our former online series “Pic of the Month,” with additional content by Matt Anderson, Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.
Art Arfons and Wally Parks with the Trophy for Top Speed, NHRA Nationals, Detroit Dragway, 1959 / THF122663
Loud, fast, intense. On the surface, drag racing looks fairly simple, but it’s much more complex than it appears. Especially in the professional classes of the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA)—Top Fuel, Funny Car, and Pro Stock—the cars are technologically ultrasophisticated, with truly awesome capabilities. A Top Fuel dragster—today’s ultimate—has a supercharged, 500-cubic-inch V-8 engine that can produce 11,000 horsepower burning nitromethane fuel. It propels that car and driver to well over 300 mph in a 1,000-foot charge that can take as little as 3.7 seconds.
Drag racing’s roots come from the 1930s on California’s dry lakes and the country’s back roads, where people raced each other in a straight line to see which car was fastest. Especially after World War II, speeds were getting up over 100 mph, and Wally Parks, who himself was a performance enthusiast, decided it was time to “create order from chaos.” Parks formed the NHRA in 1951, with the goal of getting hotrodders off the streets and into safer, more controllable, and legal venues. The NHRA legitimized the sport with safety rules, as well as performance and performance regulations, and today it is America’s largest, most important drag racing organization, with a multitude of classes for professional and amateur racers.
In the 1950s and 1960s, drag racing fans loved the “gasser wars”—duels between gasoline-burning coupes and sedans. "Ohio George" Montgomery was among the most famous, and most frequent, winners. He owned, built, and drove this Willys gasser, and scored class wins in NHRA national championship events six times. It is based on the Willys coupe—a small economy car from the 1930s, favored by drag racers for its light weight.
Montgomery called his car the "World's Wildest Willys," and frequently used his considerable talents as a mechanic and machinist to modify the car to make it even wilder. He kept it winning races and championships from 1959 through 1967.
This is its final version, with the top chopped four inches; fiberglass hood, fenders, and doors; and a supercharged, single-overhead-cam Ford V-8 engine.
Dragsters are designed for a single purpose: cover a quarter-mile from a standing start as quickly as possible. Builders throw out anything that does not contribute to that goal, and they concentrate weight as close to the rear wheels as possible to maximize traction.
Slingshot dragsters were popular from the mid-1950s through the early 1970s, so named because the driver sat behind the rear wheels "like a rock in a slingshot." This design was the ancestor of today’s Top Fuel dragsters.
Bob Thompson and Sam Buck, from Lockport, Illinois, built and drove this car and were very successful in the Midwest from 1960 to 1963. They bought the chassis as a kit and did extensive modifications to the 1948 Ford V-8 engine, with special cylinder heads, crank, pistons, magneto, camshaft, and fuel injectors.
Essentially a factory-built race car designed more for the track than the street, this next-generation, ultra-high-performance Camaro is designed and executed for “out-of-the-box” weekend racing.
In addition to a supercharged 6.2L V8 engine rated at 650 horsepower, the ZL1 carries a track cooling package with engine oil, differential, and transmission coolers. Additionally, an exposed weave carbon-fiber rear wing adds up to 300 lbs. of downforce, and integrated front dive planes contribute to ultimate downforce and grip.
Engineers also paid extra attention to ensure the Camaro ZL1’s immense power could be reined in just as effectively with a short stopping distance. The Camaro ZL1 can go from 60-0 mph in just 107 feet, ensuring both remarkable track time and safety, thanks to its specifically designed performance brakes.
Overall, the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1’s incredible performance is the end result of carefully considered engineering decisions that have resulted in a vehicle that redefines what a sports car can do on-track, without compromising its on-road manners.
The modern race shop encompasses a combination of scientific research, computer-aided design and engineering, prototyping, product development and testing, fabrication, and manufacturing. Here you can go behind the scenes to see how experts create winning race cars, using their knowledge in planning and problem-solving.
You can learn about key elements for achieving maximum performance through an open-ended exploration of components of the cars on display, as well as through other activities. STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) principles are a key focus here.
This is the actual car that won the LMGTE Pro class at the 2016 24 Hours of Le Mans. The win was historic because it happened on the 50th anniversary of Ford’s first Le Mans victory in 1966, but over that half-century, racing technology advanced enormously, and the engine is half the size (a 3.5-liter, all-aluminum V-6 compared with a 7-liter, cast-iron V-8). But twin turbochargers (vs. naturally aspirated intake), direct fuel injection (vs. carburation), and electronic engine controls (vs. all mechanical) gave the GT engine almost 650 horsepower, versus slightly over 500 horsepower for the Mark IV.
Computer-aided design and engineering, aerodynamic innovations to maximize downforce and minimize drag, and electronic controls for the engine and transmission all combine to make the 2016 Ford GT a much more advanced race car, as you would expect 50 years on. The technology and materials advances in the GT’s brakes, suspension and tires, combined with today’s aerodynamics, make its handling far superior to its famous ancestor.
You can’t talk about American sports car racing without America’s sports car. The Chevrolet Corvette was in its fifth styling generation when the race version C5-R debuted in 1999. The Corvette Racing team earned 35 victories with the C5-R through 2004, including an overall victory at the 24 Hours of Daytona in 2001. This is the car driven by Ron Fellows, Johnny O'Connell, Franck Freon, and Chris Kneifel in that Daytona win.
Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon earned Ford its first win at Le Mans with the #2 GT40 on June 19, 1966. Ford celebrated that victory with another one on June 19, 2016—exactly 50 years later. / lemans06-66_083
Learn more about sports car performance with these additional resources from The Henry Ford.
Tiny Lund in the pit at the 1965 Daytona 500 / THF117040
“Rubbin’ Is Racin’” — Robert Duvall as Harry Hogge in Days of Thunder
Stock car legend Dale Earnhardt once said, “The winner ain’t the one with the fastest car—it’s the one who refuses to lose.” This form of racing blends innovation, teamwork, and a bit of “trading paint” with rivals along the way.
Stock car racing is famously close-fought—often a contact sport. Few cars come out of a race, particularly on the shorter tracks, without at least a scrape, scratch, or dent from “trading paint” with another car. NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) is an extremely popular stock car series that evolved from Southern moonshine-running during Prohibition. The spectacle is characterized by the color and noises of high-speed, ultra-close racing, highly efficient teamwork during pit stops, and the added conflict of long-standing rivalries among auto manufacturers.
The term "stock car" originally meant a car from a dealer's stock—one that was unmodified. When NASCAR ran its first series in 1949, it was called “Strictly Stock,” and for many years racing stock cars were indeed based on real production automobiles. By 1987, however, racing stock cars only looked stock, and since then, further rules changes have given NASCAR stock cars only a passing resemblance to their production counterparts, with just a few design cues to make the connection. Underneath the bodywork is a purpose-built steel tube frame chassis, racing suspension and brakes, and a pure-bred racing engine.
The Stock Car Racing section of our new exhibit, Driven to Win: Racing in America presented by General Motors, will delight people who enjoy real, hands-on pit crew teamwork with an activity for four or five people to see how fast they can change the tires and work the gas can. You’ll also see an actual stock car and other related artifacts.
This car, driven by Trevor Bayne, won the Daytona 500 in 2011. His was a milestone victory in several ways. It was Ford’s 600th win in NASCAR’s premier Cup Series, scored by a legendary team that has been involved from NASCAR’s beginnings. It was the fifth Daytona 500 win for Wood Brothers Racing and the twelfth by a Ford car (Wood Brothers also scored Ford’s first, in 1963). For Trevor Bayne, who had celebrated his 20th birthday the day before, it was his first victory in NASCAR’s top series, making him the Daytona 500’s youngest winner. (Coincidentally, in Wood Brothers’ first Daytona 500 win in 1963, it was also driver Tiny Lund’s first NASCAR cup win.)
The Wood Brothers are celebrated for revolutionizing NASCAR’s pit stops. They pioneered the fast, meticulously choreographed and coordinated actions of the team’s “over-the-wall” crew, who jack up the car, change the tires, and fill the gas tank with blinding speed. Their pit stop fame prompted Ford and Team Lotus to hire Wood Brothers to service Jim Clark’s car in the 1965 Indy 500.
This car also benefits from safety advances instituted following Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s fatal crash at the end of the 2001 Daytona 500. That tragic event launched a revolution in NASCAR’s safety regulations and procedures. Arguably the most important of these is the mandatory use of the HANS (Head and Neck Support) device that restricts the movement of a driver’s head in a hard crash. In addition, SAFER (Steel and Foam Energy Reduction) barriers, mandatory crash data recorders in the cars to advance knowledge of crash dynamics, and more energy-absorbing deformation zones were introduced into the next generation of NASCAR stock cars.