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Black-and-white photo of man sitting in early open race car in front of building
Frank Kulick sitting in a 1910 Ford Model T race car. / THF123278


Frank Kulick (1882–1968) was a lucky man who beat rivals and cheated death on the race track. But his greatest stroke of luck may have been being in the right place at the right time. Born in Michigan, Kulick started his first job—in a Detroit foundry—at age 12. He was listed as a spring maker in the 1900 census. But in 1903 he was working for Northern Manufacturing Company—an automobile company founded by Detroit auto pioneer Charles Brady King.

That’s where Frank Kulick met Henry Ford.

Ford stopped by Northern to borrow a car. Impressed with young Kulick, Ford lured him to his own Ford Motor Company, where Kulick signed on as one of Ford Motor’s first employees. Kulick was there at Lake St. Clair in January 1904 when Henry Ford set a land speed record of 91.37 miles per hour with his “Arrow” racer. Not long after, Ford told Kulick, “I’m going to build you a racing car.” By that fall, Frank Kulick was driving to promote Ford Motor Company on race tracks and in newspapers.

Matted black-and-white photo of group of men around an early open car; names written on the mat
Frank Kulick scored his early victories driving this four-cylinder Ford racer. Its engine consisted of a pair of two-cylinder (1903) Model A engines mated together. / THF95388

Kulick went head-to-head with drivers who became legends in American motorsport—people like Barney Oldfield, whose cigar-chomping bravado set the mold for racing heroics, and Carl Fisher, who established Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1909 and the Indianapolis 500 two years later. Kulick firmly established his credentials with an improbable win at Yonkers, New York, in November 1904. Through skillful driving in the corners and a bit of good luck (which is to say, bad luck for his competitors), Kulick’s little 20-horsepower Ford pulled out a win against a 90-horsepower Fiat and a 60-horsepower Renault. Kulick covered a mile in 55 seconds—an impressive racing speed of 65 miles per hour.

Black-and-white photo of three men standing near and three men working on early open race car on a beach
Frank Kulick (second from right) and Henry Ford (third from left) were photographed in New Jersey with the Model K racer in 1905. / THF95015

Frank Kulick’s four-cylinder, 20-horsepower car was superseded in 1905 by a larger car with a six-cylinder, 60-horsepower engine. It was one of a series of cars using engines based on the six-cylinder unit that appeared in the Ford Model K. The bigger engine did not bring better results. Henry Ford himself drove one of the cars twice in the summer of 1905, chasing new land speed records on the New Jersey beach. But the car came up short each time.

With Kulick at the wheel, Ford tried again for a record at Ormond Beach, Florida, in January 1906—this time with the six-cylinder engine improved to 100 horsepower. But Kulick had trouble with the soft sand, and he managed no better than 40 miles per hour on the straightaway. (The record was broken at the Ormond Beach event—but by a steam-powered Stanley that hit 127.66 miles per hour.)

The end of the road for Ford’s six-cylinder racers nearly ended Frank Kulick’s career—and his life. It happened in October 1907, on the one-mile oval at the Michigan State Fairgrounds near Detroit. Kulick was trying to lap the dirt track in fewer than 50 seconds—a speed better than 72 miles per hour. His latest car was dubbed “666”—a name that simultaneously called attention to its cylinder count and paid homage to Henry Ford’s earlier “999.” In retrospect, that nefarious name was a bad omen.

Black-and-white photo of two men staring at the crashed remains of a car in a field
Miraculously, Frank Kulick survived this crash in 1907, but it left him with a broken leg and a permanent limp. / THF125717

As Kulick was going through a turn on the fairgrounds oval, his rear wheel collapsed. Car and driver went careening off the track, through the fence, and down a 15-foot embankment. When rescuers arrived, they found Kulick some 40 feet from his wrecked racer. He was alive, but with his right kneecap fractured and his right leg broken in two places. Frank Kulick survived the crash, but his injuries healed slowly and imperfectly. He wore a brace for two years, and he walked with a limp for the rest of his life—his right leg having come out of the ordeal 1 ½ inches shorter than his left leg. The “666” was repaired, but it never competed again.

Henry Ford was horrified by Kulick’s accident, and he very nearly swore his company off racing for good. It wasn’t until 1910 that Kulick competed again under the company’s colors. By then, Ford Motor Company wasn’t building anything but the Model T, so Kulick naturally raced in a series of highly modified T-based cars. Arguably, his first effort in the renewed campaign was more show business than sport. Kulick went to frozen Lake St. Clair, northeast of Detroit, that February to challenge an ice boat. He easily won the match and earned quick headlines for the Model T.

Black-and-white photo of two men sitting in an early open car on a street with other cars, people, and buildings in the background
Kulick posed in a Model T racer at the Algonquin Hill Climb, near Chicago, in 1912. / THF140161

Over the next two years, Kulick and his nimble Model T racers crossed the country competing—and frequently winning—road races and hill climbs. Despite Kulick’s success, Henry Ford remained lukewarm on racing. Ford Motor Company built nearly 70,000 cars in 1912 and still struggled to meet customer demand, so it certainly didn’t need the promotion—or problems—that came with an active motorsport program. Kulick later recalled that, after a race at Detroit in September 1912, Henry pulled $1,000 in cash from his pocket and told Frank, “I’ll give you that to quit racing.” Despite the generous offer (almost $30,000 in today’s dollars), Kulick continued a bit longer.

Frank Kulick may have started having second thoughts the next month. While practicing for the Vanderbilt Cup road race in Milwaukee, he grew concerned about the narrow roadway. There wasn’t enough room to pass another car without dipping into a ditch, so Kulick protested and dropped out of the contest. His concerns proved well founded when driver David Bruce-Brown was killed in the next round of practice.

It was the 1913 Indianapolis 500 that finally changed Kulick’s career path. Then in its third running, the Indy 500 was well on its way to becoming the most important race in the American motorsport calendar. Henry Ford was determined to enter Kulick in a modified Model T. But Indy’s rules specified a minimum weight for all entries. The Ford racer weighed in at less than 1,000 pounds—too light to meet the minimum. Indy officials rejected the modified T, and a frustrated Henry Ford reportedly replied, “We’re building race cars, not trucks.” With that, there would be no Ford car in the Indianapolis 500—in fact, there would be no major factory-backed Ford racing efforts for 22 years.

Black-and-white photo of three people sitting in an early open car with text on side, parked in front of buildings and a masonry arch
Kulick’s later career involved more genteel assignments, like driving the ten millionth Ford on a coast-to-coast publicity tour in 1924. Here, he takes a back seat to movie stars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. / THF134645

Frank Kulick’s racing days were over, but he remained with Ford Motor Company for another 15 years. His assignments varied from research and development to publicity. In 1924, Kulick was charged with driving the ten millionth Ford Model T on a transcontinental tour from New York to San Francisco. Three years later, Kulick was called on to help celebrate the 15 millionth Model T. This time, rather than driving it across the country, Kulick—as one of Ford Motor Company’s eight senior-most employees—had the honor of helping stamp digits into the engine’s serial number plate. It was perfectly fitting that, as someone who’d done so much to promote the Model T through racing, Kulick was there to make his mark on the ceremonial last T. Kulick left Ford not long after that. He had done well investing in real estate, which afforded him a comfortable retirement.

Frank Kulick passed away in 1968. He survived to see Ford Motor Company achieve its great racing triumphs at Indianapolis and Le Mans during the “Total Performance” era. He also lived long enough to sit for an interview with author Leo Levine, whose 1968 book, Ford: The Dust and the Glory, remains the definitive history of Ford racing in the first two-thirds of the 20th century. Levine wrote a whole chapter on Frank Kulick—but then, Frank Kulick wrote a whole chapter in Ford’s racing history.


Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.

Michigan, Model Ts, Indy 500, cars, by Matt Anderson, Ford workers, Ford Motor Company, Henry Ford, race cars, race car drivers, racing

"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.

Bicycle Beginnings


Man hunched over riding a bicycle on a steeply-tilted wooden track
Barney Oldfield Riding the "Blue Streak" Bicycle on the Salt Palace Board Track, Salt Lake City, Utah, circa 1900 / THF111772

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


Two men pose at the wheel of two very minimal open early race cars on a track next to a covered pavilion
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.

Man crouches at wheel of an open early race car on a dirt track
Barney Oldfield Driving the Ford "999" Race Car, circa 1903 / THF140144

Celebrity Status


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.

Man sits behind wheel of early open race car on a dirt track
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.

Man behind wheel of early open race car on a track; also contains text
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!”

Early airplane flies low above a race car on a dirt track
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.

Race car on steeply tilted wood track
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.

Advertisement with text and image of man with cigar in his mouth behind the wheel of a car
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.”

For more, check out our archival collection on Barney Oldfield, browse artifacts related to him in our Digital Collections, or visit the “Showmanship” zone of the Driven to Win: Racing in America exhibition in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.


This post by Peter Kalinski, former Archivist at The Henry Ford, originally ran in 2014. It has been updated by Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.

archives, Detroit, Michigan, Henry Ford Museum, Driven to Win, racing, race car drivers, race cars, cars, bicycles, by Peter Kalinski, by Saige Jedele

Man in t-shirt and shorts stands under a sign reading "PitFit Training"Jim Leo of PitFit Training / Photo by Walter Kuhn


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.

Man in shorts and t-shirt prepares to throw a medicine ball to another man in shorts and a hoodie
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

Pilot Parallels


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.”

Two men in t-shirts stand on either side of a fitness machine in a gym
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.”

Drivers’ Training


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.

Man in t-shirt and shorts sits in front of lighted device in gym with hands raised as another man kneels next to him
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.

Pair of thick gray glasses or goggles with an elastic band
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.

Woman stands with hand up to a black digital board with lighted circles, triangles, and squares within white circles
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.

Man wearing large oblong headpiece sits holding what looks like a video game controller in front of a digital dashboard
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.

Man in t-shirt and shorts sits with hands and one foot raised in front of a piece of lighted equipment in a gym
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.

Two women, one holding a piece of equipment in her hand, stand in a gym looking leftward
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.”


George Tamayo is Creative Director at RACER Studio and has more than 20 years of experience in motorsports communications and marketing. This post was adapted from an article first published in the January–May 2020 issue of The Henry Ford Magazine.

technology, sports, Henry Ford Museum, Driven to Win, The Henry Ford Magazine, race car drivers, racing, by George Tamayo

Tight shot of a man in racing helmet and jumpsuit sitting in race car sunlit from behind

Vaughn Gittin, Jr. / Photo by Larry Chen

Deconstructing Drifting


Drifting is one of the fastest growing forms of motorsports in the world. It is the sport of losing traction, a driving technique where a driver purposely oversteers and causes the rear tires (or sometimes all the tires) to lose grip on the road. A car is said to be drifting when the rear slip angle is greater than the front slip angle, and the front wheels are pointing in the opposite direction to the turn. Basically, the car is turning left, but the wheels are pointed right. What’s extreme here is that the driver is controlling these factors the entire time. Drifters don’t cause a car to drift and then try to straighten things out. They just over-counter so the car goes into another drift. That’s the whole point.

Two race cars drift and spew smoke on a racetrack surrounded by fencing, palm trees, and spectators in stands
Drifter Vaughn Gittin, Jr., demonstrates skill and showmanship in his No. 25 Mustang during the 2019 Formula Drift championship series. / Photo by Larry Chen

In a drift turn, the frictional force acts centripetally, meaning that it pulls the car in a circular motion, precisely the motion that is required to maneuver a turn. During a drift, you essentially make a turn too fast, causing the rear tires to lose their grip on the road. As a result, the rear tires over-rotate in the direction of the turn, which makes them go into a spin. To compensate for this over-rotation and spinning of the rear tires, you have to turn the front tires in the opposite direction of the turn that you were originally making. Drifters balance the amount of traction they lose on the rear wheels by constantly balancing the wheel speed and the slide.

Composite illustration of car "drifting" with inset showing aerial turning
Drifting. / Illustration by T.M. Detwiler

Drifting is not about being the fastest or crossing the finish line first. Drifting is all about skill and showmanship, with each driver being assessed and awarded points for things like speed, angle, line, and personality X factor.

One of those drifter personalities, Vaughn Gittin, Jr., is living a gearhead’s dream. The 2010 Formula D champion is a regular winner on the drifting circuit in his Monster Energy Nitto Tire Ford Mustang RTR. He has expanded his motorsports activities into road racing and off-road racing, where he won the 2018 Ultra4 4500 East Coast Championship. The star of viral videos, television, and video games, Gittin also became involved in the 2000s in the creation of custom Mustangs under the RTR—Ready to Rock—brand. In late 2019, The Henry Ford Magazine interrupted his busy schedule to get the answers to some burning questions.

Two men in racing jumpsuits and baseball caps stand by cars in front of a track and spectators in grandstands
Vaughn Gittin, Jr. (right), with RTR Motorsports teammate and fellow Spec 5-D driver Chelsea DeNofa at Formula Drift New Jersey 2019. Gittin finished fourth. / Photo by Larry Chen

1) How did you first become attracted to drifting and what makes you so good?

Vaughn Gittin, Jr.: My love for cars in general stems back to being a child. My dad was a used-car salesman, and he was a warm-blooded hotrodder. He was always bringing unique, cool cars home. At four years old, I got a go-kart. I vividly remember going out, going as fast as I could and pulling the little brake and making the go-kart slide. Fast forward through skateboarding, riding BMX, motocross…. When I was 18, I got my first rear-wheel-drive car, and I would go to the industrial parks and parking lots where I used to ride my go-kart and do donuts, burnouts, powerslides. Eventually, I saw videos of this sport called drifting, and my perspective was that it was about showing your style and personality with really awesome cars. It was something I just really, really enjoyed.

Right about that time, drifting was coming to the U.S. from Japan. I went to my first organized drift event in 2001 or 2002 and immediately realized that all these things I’ve done—the playing around, the motocross, the skateboarding—really taught me good car control. And I was pretty good, naturally, at drifting. I fell in love with the culture, the scene, the people, and the camaraderie.

2) You describe yourself as a “professional fun haver.” What is a professional fun haver?

Vaughn Gittin, Jr.: To me, fun and fun-having is a mindset. We all have our bad days, and we all have the things we have to do that we don’t necessarily want to do to achieve our goals and dreams.

But I always find something fun in just about everything I’m doing. It’s very similar to what kind of person you are: an optimist or a pessimist? Is the glass half full or half empty? I think a fun haver always looks at life and challenges with the glass half full and creates fun out of it. I truly believe that my purpose is to put smiles on faces and hopefully inspire people to have fun on a daily basis because I think it’s important. And anybody can be a fun haver. I’ve dubbed myself a professional one, but it’s a very inclusive movement and something the world needs more of.

Woman holding umbrella stands with man in racing jumpsuit in front of racecar on track with spectators in grandstands behind them
Drifter Vaughn Gittin, Jr., with tire model Christen Dye. / Photo by Larry Chen

3) What’s next for you in motorsports?

Vaughn Gittin, Jr.: I’m really torn because I have only so much time, and there are so many cool opportunities and things that I’m excited to be a part of. You’re going to continue seeing me having some fun in drifting and competing. I’m definitely focused on doing more festival events, like GRIDLIFE, where I can go and get my fix on the track and have fun and perform and then chat with fans and get people in the passenger seat. Certainly, I have taken a liking to off-road, not just the racing, but the culture and being outdoors. Ultra4 is what I’ve kind of just fallen into the last couple of years, and my perspective is that it’s the most challenging type of off-road racing there is. You race in the desert, you race on the short course, you’re going over massive boulders and driving up waterfalls. It’s an absolutely incredible challenge, and it’s so beautiful when you’re out there.

4) Where do drifting and racing come together?

Vaughn Gittin, Jr.: Drifting is the epitome of car control, arguably one of the most challenging sports—the precision required and the commitment and the mental capacity to be the absolute best you have ever been in your life in that moment, because there are no chances to make mistakes. When you take that focus that has been built from drifting, and the car control and the feeling of the vehicle, it really translates to just about every other single motorsport or anything you could ever do that involves managing the vehicle, managing weight, and pushing yourself outside perceived limits.

Aerial shot of gray race car with text and logos turning on racetrack and trailing smoke
Drifter Vaughn Gittin, Jr., demonstrates skill and showmanship in his No. 25 Mustang during the 2019 Formula Drift championship series. / Photo by Larry Chen

5) What’s harder, being behind the wheel or in front of the camera?

Vaughn Gittin, Jr.: I’ve always been in front of the camera. My mom used to have a camera on us all the time, and I was always a little ham with it. I was never shy of the camera and love being in the car. I would say both are equally as easy!

6) What led to your love of and loyalty to Ford?

Vaughn Gittin, Jr.: Growing up, I wouldn’t have considered myself a Ford guy; I was an import guy. But when Ford came out with that ’05 Mustang, I just fell in love with the look. I thought: “Man, I’d love to bring some American muscle into this import-dominated sport.” I’ve been working with Ford since 2007, and I beat the door down for a couple of years before I got an answer. Since then, I’ve met some really great people that speak my language and love the things that I do.

Gray and white race car turns on racetrack and trails smoke
Vaughn Gittin, Jr.’s Mustang RTR race car. / Photo by Larry Chen

7) How did you come to launch your own brand of customized Mustang?

Vaughn Gittin, Jr.: When I first got into Mustangs in 2005, I was looking for a way to customize it and personalize it, but there was nothing that spoke to me. It inspired me to launch a new generation of Mustang. Ford was doing a phenomenal job building cars for everybody, and I wanted to build something that was for me. That’s when I conceptualized the idea of RTR. I wanted to have a Mustang that was Ready to Rock—it was representative of me from the exterior, and the performance was ready for anything I might want to do.

 

Mustang Matchup

Take a side-by-side look at what more than 50 years of evolution and a passion for high performance can bring to an iconic vehicle brand. We’re comparing, spec for spec, the 1965 Ford Mustang Convertible Serial Number One, which is part of The Henry Ford’s collections, against Vaughn Gittin, Jr.’s 2019 Mustang RTR Spec 3.

 

1965 Ford Mustang Convertible, Serial Number One

Vaughn Gittin Jr.’s 2019 Mustang RTR Spec 3

Looks

White convertible car
 
THF90619

Side view of sleek white car parked on road in front of desert and mountains

Photo by Larry Chen

Engine

V-8, overhead valves, 260 cubic inches

V-8, Supercharged 5.0L

Horsepower

164 at 4,400 rpm

700 and 610 lb-ft of torque at 12psi with 91-octane fuel

Transmission

3-speed automatic

6-speed manual

Front Suspension

Independent coil springs

RTR tactical performance adjustable front struts with RTR tactical performance lowering springs

Rear Suspension

Semi-elliptic leaf springs

 

RTR tactical performance adjustable rear shocks

Tires

6.50” x 13” four-ply rayon

RTR 20” Tech 7 wheels with Nitto NT555 G2 ultra-high-performance tires (275/35R20)

Weight

2,740 lbs.

3,532-3,825 lbs.

Top Speed

110 mph (estimate)

165 mph (estimate)

Price

$3,334

$47,395 (starting)

 

8) Do you have any advice for those who would like to follow your path?

Vaughn Gittin, Jr.: I think it’s very important to keep your reality and passion in check. These things that we’re passionate about can very easily suck us in and make us forget reality. I maxed out credit cards that took me years to pay off. I think it’s important to pay attention and enjoy your passion, but always keep your reality one foot forward so you don’t get yourself in trouble. Most importantly, have fun!


Richard S. James is a Southern California–based writer, photographer, and content producer. This post was adapted from an article first published in the January–May 2020 issue of The Henry Ford Magazine.

Ford Motor Company, by Richard S. James, The Henry Ford Magazine, race car drivers, race cars, cars, racing, Mustangs

Woman sits with legs out door of small, open race car among other cars and people
Denise McCluggage at the wheel of her Osca S187 at Bahamas Speed Weeks, 1959. /
1959NassauSpeedWeek_080

It’s one thing to cover auto racing for a living. It’s quite another to live the racing you cover. Journalist and race driver Denise McCluggage earned a unique place in racing history not only for her reporting on a golden era of motorsport, but for her participation in it too.

McCluggage was born in Eldorado, Kansas, in 1927. She traced her love of cars to a moment when, at six years old, she saw a Baby Austin parked on the street and decided she had to have one. Alas, even a letter to Santa Claus didn’t make that dream come true. But McCluggage realized another childhood dream—a career in journalism—that was ignited when she published her own neighborhood newspaper at age 12.

After high school, McCluggage studied at Mills College in Oakland, California, where she earned degrees in economics, philosophy, and politics. She began her journalism career at the nearby San Francisco Chronicle. McCluggage moved to the other side of the country in 1954 and went to work for the New York Herald Tribune. She joined the paper’s sports department, where her assignments included reports on auto racing.

Group of people stand and talk under a pier or bridge surrounded by cars
McCluggage developed a lasting friendship with fellow driver Sir Stirling Moss. The two are pictured here at Bahamas Speed Weeks in 1959. / THF134439

As she covered the sport, McCluggage began to take a deeper interest in racing. She bought a British MG TC and began running in small sports car club events. McCluggage didn’t have any formal lessons, but she proved a natural on the track. Her experiences in competition brought unusual insight to her reporting and—at a time when women weren’t welcomed in pits or garages—gave her better access to the male drivers she covered. McCluggage’s efforts on the track gained her greater respect in the macho world of 1950s and 1960s motor racing, and she earned a reputation as someone who did what she wrote about. (When she wasn’t writing or racing, McCluggage was often on the slopes where she became an accomplished skier—another sport she frequently covered.)

With her trademark polka dot helmet, McCluggage earned an impressive list of victories and became one of the top female racing drivers of her time. She won Nassau Ladies Races in 1956 and 1957, and she took the checkered flag at the Watkins Glen Grand Prix Ladies Race in 1957. McCluggage placed first in the GT category at the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1961, and she finished first in her class at the 1964 Monte Carlo Rally.

Many race cars drive on a track
McCluggage won the GT class at the 1961 Sebring 12-Hour Race. Her #12 Ferrari 250 is at center right. / THF246594

McCluggage’s journalism career flourished as well. In 1958 she collaborated in the founding of Competition Press. The racing magazine eventually broadened its focus to general car culture and changed its name to Autoweek, but it remains active today as a digital publication. McCluggage contributed columns to Autoweek for the rest of her life. She also wrote several books, including The Bahamas Speed Weeks, The Centered Skier, American Racing: Road Racing in the ’50s and ’60s, and By Brooks Too Broad for Leaping—a collection of some of her pieces for Autoweek.

In later years, McCluggage seemed to split her time between giving awards—she was an honorary judge at the prestigious Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance—and receiving them. She was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2001, and into the Sports Car Club of America Hall of Fame in 2006.

Denise McCluggage passed away in 2015. At the time of her death, she was remembered as much for her achievements behind the wheel as for her accomplishments behind the typewriter, and she was recognized as one of the trailblazing women in racing. Time has not diminished her triumphs; McCluggage was posthumously inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 2022.

Mark Twain said “write what you know.” Denise McCluggage struck a similar chord in a quote published in Sports Illustrated in 2018: “Racing was something I wanted to do, so it was something I wanted to cover.” The automotive world is richer because she did both.


Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.

sports, cars, by Matt Anderson, race car drivers, racing, women's history

Screen Shot 2021-11-30 at 11.39.00 AM
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).

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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.

Page with text and image of car
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.

Man in jumpsuit leans against trunk of racecar, with other people and cars in the background
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.

Illustration of man in blue jumpsuit wearing American flag face mask with hand over heart, above illustration of black race car; also contains text
Current racers like Bubba Wallace continue Leonard Miller’s work to diversify the sport. / THF146999

Leonard W. Miller himself ultimately rebounded. He formed Miller Racing Group with his son, Leonard T. Miller, in 1994. The new team competed in NASCAR events through 2006. The elder Miller slowed down just long enough to recount his incredible journey in his autobiography, Silent Thunder: Breaking Through Cultural, Racial, and Class Barriers in Motor Sports, published in 2004. Miller received additional recognition for his work when the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History acquired much of his Black American Racers memorabilia in 2016.

Leonard Miller represents the best in American auto racing. He wasn’t just driven to win; he was determined to build a better and more inclusive sport.


Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.

entrepreneurship, cars, race car drivers, Driven to Win, racing, by Matt Anderson, African American history

Black-and-white portrait of man with sideburns wearing jacket or jumpsuit with text and logos

Al Unser, Sr., in 1971. / THF224820

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.

Black-and-white photo of man standing in front of racecar, with four younger men kneeling in front of him
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.

Black-and-white photo of three men in matching sweatshirts joining hands in front of a car and banner
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.

People push racecars through a gap between concrete grandstands filled with people as many watch
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.

Man in jumpsuit with wreath around neck stands in a race car waving to the camera with a crowd of people looking on
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!

Page with text and photo of three standing men, one with foot up on a folding chair
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.

Man in red shirt with text and checkered flag logo smiles at camera; out-of-focus race car in background
Al Unser, Sr., in 2009 (photo by Michelle Andonian). / THF62695


Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.

Henry Ford Museum, Driven to Win, racing, race car drivers, in memoriam, cars, by Matt Anderson

Museum display with open car with mannequin behind wheel; other displays visible nearby
The original “Sweepstakes,” on exhibit in Driven to Win: Racing in America in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.


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.

Side view of very basic open automobile
1901 Ford "Sweepstakes" Race Car. / THF90168

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.

Early open automobile on street with one man behind wheel and another crouching on running board
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.

Man sits in boxy open early car on racetrack; a woman stands nearby being filmed by a cameraman
The “Sweepstakes” replica caught the attention of Speed Sport TV pit reporter Hannah Lopa at the 2021 American Speed Festival. / Photo courtesy Matt Anderson

The original car, one of the world’s oldest surviving race cars, is proudly on display at the entrance to our exhibit Driven to Win: Racing in America presented by General Motors. You can read more about how we developed that display in this blog post.

Specifications

Frame: Ash wood, reinforced with steel plates

Wheelbase: 96 inches
Weight: 2,200 pounds
Engine: 2-cylinder, horizontally opposed, water cooled
Bore: 7 inches; Stroke: 7 inches; Displacement: 538 cubic inches (8.8 liters)
Horsepower: 26 @ 900 rpm (estimated)
Drivetrain: 2-speed planetary transmission, with reverse; chain drive to rear axle

 


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.

#Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford, Michigan, making, design, Henry Ford, race car drivers, Henry Ford Museum, Driven to Win, racing, race cars, car shows, cars, by Matt Anderson, by Bob Casey

Red car with text on sides, hood, and trunk is surrounded by several people, a couple working on the car
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.

2011 Ford Fusion, driven by Trevor Bayne

(On loan from the Wood Brothers Racing)

Red car with white sides with text and logos on all surfaces, covered in confetti
THF137316

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.

Additional Artifacts


Yellow cereal box with images of a race car, bowl of cereal and milk, and a standing man; also contains text
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Beyond the 2011 Ford Fusion, you can see these artifacts related to stock car racing in Driven to Win.

 

 

Dig Deeper


Man in helmet sits in white car with number "21" and logos on side at the side of a racetrack while several people work on the car
Cale Yarborough Seated in Ford Motor Company's Special Edition Mercury Cyclone Spoiler II, during the Daytona 500 Race, Florida, February 25, 1968 / THF81653

Learn more about stock car racing and racers with these additional resources from The Henry Ford.

  • Take a quick look at the career of stock car racer Vicki Wood.
  • Revisit the excitement of the original unveiling of Trevor Bayne’s Ford Fusion in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.
  • Watch NASCAR legends, from Trevor Bayne to Richard Petty, visit Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.
  • Discover the story of Wendell Scott, the first Black driver to win a NASCAR Cup Series event.
  • Visit the NASCAR Hall of Fame with The Henry Ford’s curator of transportation, Matt Anderson.
  • Check out Driven to Win with up-and-coming NASCAR driver Armani Williams.
  • Learn more about Armani Williams’s racing career so far and his work for autism awareness.
  • See NASCAR's Stewart-Haas Racing team visit Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.
  • Hear racing legend Mario Andretti describe his win at the 1967 Daytona 500.

cars, Henry Ford Museum, Driven to Win, race cars, race car drivers, racing