Long before Ohio-born Eddie Rickenbacker was America’s Ace of Aces, a Medal of Honor winner and the president of Eastern Airlines, he was a racer.
As a hero of early American auto racing, he helped popularize the sport with his smiling persona and penchant for winning. He competed for the Vanderbilt Cup, ran Indianapolis four times and raced at dozens of other tracks across the nation.
Rickenbacker’s greatest contribution to auto racing, however, was as owner of Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
IMS creator Carl Fisher and his remaining partner, James Allison, had grown weary of running the track. In 1925 Fisher approached two-time Indianapolis winner Tommy Milton, encouraging him to purchase it by, supposedly, offering it to him for $700,000 — $100,000 less than offers he had already received from potential buyers who were only interested in developing the Speedway’s land. Milton was not interested.
Rickenbacker approached Allison about buying his company — Allison Engineering — 18 months later. It wasn’t for sale, but Allison informed Rickenbacker that the Speedway was. Intrigued, Rickenbacker approached Fisher, who made Rickenbacker the same offer he had Milton.
Rickenbacker jumped at the opportunity. After weeks of trying to put a deal together for financing, he finally raised the money through mortgage bonds with a Detroit bank, and in August 1927 became owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
He faced immense challenges. Concerned about the escalating costs of racing and wanting more participation by automobile manufacturers, Rickenbacker made dramatic rule changes following the 1929 race.
Engine displacement was increased, superchargers were banned, and a minimum weight rule was instituted. To attract low-budget racers, the starting field was increased from 33 to 40. Even though purebred racing engines continued to occupy the winner’s circle, the changes had the desired effect. During the lean years following the 1929 Wall Street crash, entries actually increased and stock-block engines abounded.
That era is often derided as the “Junk Era,” but the changes Rickenbacker instituted not only saved the track, but racing as well. His efforts to keep the Speedway solvent provided racers a source of substantial prize money. That enabled them to compete in other AAA Championship races, and racing survived the worst economic depression in this country’s history.
Rickenbacker held onto the Speedway through World War II, and at war’s end ensured that the Speedway remained with those who wanted it to continue as the Mecca of auto racing. Despite the millions he might have made by selling it to land developers, he sold the track to Tony Hulman for only what he had invested in it.
Because of Rickenbacker’s untiring efforts, the Speedway continues today, as it has for more than a century, as the world’s most famous race course.