Supercharger Assembly Drawing of Offenhauser Engine by Leo Goossen, April 21, 1934 / THF175170
Leo Goossen was an automotive draftsman, engineer, and one of the most influential engine designers in American auto racing. In a presentation from our monthly History Outside the Box series on Instagram earlier this year, Processing Archivist Janice Unger recognized Goossen’s 130th birthday with a quick biography and look at some of Goossen’s work from our collections. If you missed it on Insta, you can watch below.
In the 1930s and 1940s, race fans who didn’t have the budget or the bravery for full-size auto racing could find big thrills in small scale through the world of tether cars. These gas-powered model cars were raced by adults in organized competition. The models either raced against the clock, running in circles while tethered to a pole, or they raced against each other on a scaled-down board track fitted with guide rails.
The fastest tether cars topped 100 miles per hour—real miles, not scale miles—which explains another name given to them: spindizzies. (Imagine watching a little car zooming around a pole and the name makes perfect sense.) Though they look like toys, these models could be expensive. By the time you bought the car, the engine, the tools, and the accessories, you could be looking at more than $100—at a time when you could by a Ford DeLuxe Convertible for well under $1,000. At the hobby’s peak, some 25 major manufacturers and hundreds of individual builders produced tether cars. But few makers matched the skill and craftsmanship of Barney Korn.
Barney Korn’s skill was apparent from his high school days, as when he built this working engine in shop class. / THF160779
Bernard Barney Korn was born in Los Angles on April 24, 1903. He showed his modeling talents at an early age, building an elaborate water-cooled model engine as a project for his high school shop class. After high school, Korn honed his skills in part by working as a machinist for aviation innovator Howard Hughes, whom he joined in 1924.
One of Barney Korn’s “Indianapolis” models, with the hood removed to expose the single-cylinder gas engine. / THF157084
As tether cars became more popular, Barney Korn joined the booming business and formed B.B. Korn Specialty Manufacturing Company in 1939. His first production model, the “Meteor,” was also his rarest. Only 18 examples are known to have been made. The following year, Korn began production of his best-known and, many would say, best-looking model: the “Indianapolis.” Based on real Indianapolis 500 race cars of the time, Korn’s “Indianapolis” was handsome and well proportioned. It was a big model, with an overall length over 20 inches. Many were also exceptionally detailed. The “Liberty Special” car even had a working compass in its dashboard! But the “Indianapolis” was rare too. It’s believed that Korn produced fewer than 70 examples in total. Most featured rear-wheel drive trains and aluminum bodies, though a few had lightweight magnesium bodies. When materials were restricted during World War II, Korn mixed and matched aluminum and magnesium components as needed.
Korn’s working dynamometer measured engine performance in his model cars. / THF159749
Barney Korn used precision tools, molds, and patterns to build his model cars. In a particularly impressive feat, Korn even built a working dynamometer to test his cars’ performance. Like full-size dynamometers, Korn’s version was basically a treadmill for engines. It allowed a model car’s drive wheels to spin while the car itself remained stationary. Korn’s dyno measured the power and torque of the .60-cubic inch engine as it delivered power to the wheels. The little dynamometer was even adjustable to accommodate both front and rear-wheel drive models.
This unfinished Korn “Indianapolis 29” kit would have appealed to the budget-conscious tether car buyer. / THF162913
The B.B. Korn Manufacturing Company provided a few options for budget-conscious buyers. Instead of a standard “Indianapolis” model, they could purchase one of Korn’s “Indianapolis 29” cars. Everything about the “29” series was smaller—from the .29-cubic inch engines (source of the name), to the dimensions, to the all-important price tags. Those wanting to save even more could opt for an unassembled “Indianapolis 29” kit rather than a fully assembled car. With the kit, it was up to the buyer to finish rough edges on the balsa wood body, and to source an engine separately.
Barney Korn’s tether cars were beautifully made and carefully detailed, but that quality came at a price—in dollars and in performance. Korn’s models were too expensive for amateur hobbyists and too slow for serious racers. Poor sales made the B.B. Korn Manufacturing Company unsustainable, and it closed just a few years after it opened.
Barney Korn went on to a career in modelmaking for special effects work in films. His detailed miniatures can be seen in movies like To Please a Lady, a 1950 racing melodrama staring Clark Gable and Barbara Stanwyck, and Moby Dick, the 1956 adaptation of Herman Melville’s novel directed by John Huston. In the early 1980s, Korn even built a few improved versions of his original tether car designs.
Barney Korn died in Los Angeles on October 23, 1996, but his craftsmanship survives. Replicas of Korn’s models are readily available today, and originals are highly prized by collectors. It’s a proud legacy for a talented artist who some regard as the Leonardo da Vinci of the tether car hobby.
America’s car culture is a subject for music, movies, and postcards—and for serious study and preservation. / THF104062
There’s an exciting new changing exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. In partnership with our friends at the Hagerty Drivers Foundation, we’re spotlighting some of the nation’s most significant automobiles and trucks. Some of these vehicles introduced new ideas in engineering or design, others found glory on the race track, and a few lit up the silver screen. In all cases, these vehicles left a mark on American history important enough to earn them a place on the National Historic Vehicle Register.
We inaugurate this collaborative display with a car from the world of popular culture. For those of us who were teens in the 1980s, the movies of writer-director John Hughes were inescapable. Films like Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, and Pretty in Pink captured the Reagan-era teenage zeitgeist—and timeless teenage angst—to a T. But for self-styled Gen-X slackers, one film in the Hughes catalog stands above the rest: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
There’s probably no need to summarize the well-known plot (see here if you disagree). Suffice it to say, high school senior Ferris (Matthew Broderick) convinces best friend Cameron (Alan Ruck) and girlfriend Sloane (Mia Sara) to join him on his own personal skip day through Chicago. The plot really gets rolling, so to speak, when Ferris convinces Cameron to let them take his father’s 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California on their adventures. It doesn’t end well. The Ferrari becomes the target of Cameron’s longstanding anger with his father, and its accidental destruction forces some serious interpersonal growth.
This (genuine) 1958 Ferrari 250 GT California was part of Henry Ford Museum’s 1965 Sports Cars in Review exhibit. / THF139028
We’re delighted to be able to exhibit that Ferrari. Well, not that Ferrari… the one that got destroyed. For that matter, what we’re showing isn’t even a Ferrari. It’s a 1985 Modena Spyder California—an authentic-looking replica built by Modena Design & Development in El Cajon, California. It’s one of three Modena replicas used in shooting the movie. (Even in the mid-1980s, a genuine Ferrari 250 GT was too valuable to risk in film work.) This beloved pop-culture car is a playful way to kick off our celebration of a serious project: the National Historic Vehicle Register.
The National Historic Vehicle Register has its roots in the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER). Established jointly in 1969 by the National Park Service, the American Society of Civil Engineers, and the Library of Congress, HAER documents significant sites and structures associated with America’s engineering and industrial history. According to established HAER guidelines, nominated structures are documented with written reports, photographs, and technical drawings. These materials are then deposited in the Library of Congress. Generally, a listing in the HAER does not, in itself, protect a structure from possible demolition. It does, however, “preserve” that structure for the future via HAER’s extensive documentary materials.
HAER has documented buildings, bridges, and even airplanes, but it’s never documented cars. Recognizing the need for some similar mechanism to record significant automobiles and trucks, the Historic Vehicle Association (HVA) was formed in 2009. Modeling itself on HAER, the HVA had four founding principles:
To document and recognize significant vehicles in a national register
To establish and share best practices for the care and preservation of significant vehicles
To promote the historical and cultural importance of motor vehicles
To protect automotive history through affiliations with museums and academic institutions, through educational programs, and through support of relevant legislation
The Historic Vehicle Association, in collaboration with the U.S. Department of the Interior, established the National Historic Vehicle Register (NHVR) in 2013 and, in January 2014, it added the first car to its list. HVA selected a 1964 Shelby Cobra Daytona Coupe, one of six built by Carroll Shelby and his Shelby American team to compete in sports car races. Apart from Mr. Shelby himself, the Cobra Daytona Coupe was also developed with legendary racing figures like Pete Brock, Ken Miles, and Phil Remington.
CSX2287, the first Shelby Cobra Daytona Coupe, won the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1964. Fifty years later, it became the first entry on the National Historic Vehicle Register. / THF130368
We should pause to note that, of necessity, the National Historic Vehicle Register contains individual cars. The register does not list the Cobra Daytona Coupe as a model. Rather, it specifically includes chassis number CSX2287—the first of the six built, and the only one built completely at Shelby American’s Venice, California, shop. CSX2287 won the GT class at the 1964 Sebring 12-Hour race, competing as number 10, with drivers Dave MacDonald and Bob Holbert. The car later set 27 national and international land speed records at the Bonneville Salt Flats, with Craig Breedlove at the wheel. CSX2287 is now in the collections of the Simeone Foundation Automotive Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Following its selection, the Cobra Daytona Coupe—like all subsequent vehicles on the register—was thoroughly documented for the NHRV. Specialists researched the car through written documents and spoken interviews, they photographed it from multiple angles, and they measured the car using sophisticated laser scanners. (You can learn more about the scanning process in this clip from The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation.) The resulting materials were then sent to the Library of Congress for long-term preservation.
The Historic Vehicle Association was founded with philanthropic support from Hagerty, the world’s largest specialist insurance provider for historic vehicles. In more recent years, the work of the HVA has been folded into the Hagerty Drivers Foundation, which manages the National Historic Vehicle Register with the U.S. Department of the Interior.
The Marmon Wasp driven by Ray Harroun, winner of the 1911 Indianapolis 500. / THF229391
The 15 Millionth Ford Model T traveled from Greenfield Village to the National Mall in April 2018, after it was added to the NHVR. / Photo courtesy Hagerty Drivers Foundation
Some of you may be wondering if anything from The Henry Ford’s collections is listed on the National Historic Vehicle Register. I’m happy to report that, yes, we are represented by (what else) a Ford Model T added to the list in 2018. It’s not just any T, of course, but the 15 Millionth Ford Model T, which was the ceremonial “last” Model T built before Ford ended production in favor of the 1928–1931 Model A. Like most of the vehicles added to the register, our 15 Millionth Model T traveled to Washington, D.C., where it was displayed on the National Mall—to honor the car, but also to draw attention to the NHVR and the importance of preserving America’s automotive heritage. The NHVR research team also produced a 23-minute documentary on the Ford Model T and its enormous influence.
The register continues to grow. Likewise, The Henry Ford will continue to display a rotating selection of register cars in the years ahead. It’s a fun way to celebrate America’s car culture, but it’s also an opportunity to recognize the important and ongoing work of the National Historic Vehicle Register.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!