Ask Donald Davidson: Former U.S. presidents at the “500” and an old Carolina track

Published On April 22, 2015 » 2668 Views» By Donald Davidson » Ask Donald Davidson, Blogs, IMS, IMS History, Indy 500

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Who was the first president to attend the “500”? – @WBDG, via Twitter

No sitting U.S. president has ever attended a “500,” but three former presidents have. The first was Gerald Ford, who was here in 1979, serving the day before as Grand Marshal for the 500 Festival parade. The other two were Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, both of whom were guests in 2003. Mr. Clinton had previously attended quite a number of years earlier during his days as the governor of Arkansas.

President Bill Clinton visited the Indianapolis 500 in 2003, two years after his term ended in the White House.

President Bill Clinton visited the Indianapolis 500 in 2003, two years after his term ended in the White House.

As far as other “future” presidents are concerned, the great historian Charles Lytle suggested many years ago that Harry Truman had been on the grounds for a “500” in the late 1930s as part of a group from Missouri, but that was never confirmed. Whether or not this would have any bearing on anything, Mr. Truman certainly had been longtime friends with the famed Harry “Cotton” Henning, the winning “500” chief mechanic for Peter DePaolo and Bill Cummings and then twice with Wilbur Shaw and the Boyle Maserati. When they were both young men in Independence, Missouri, Cotton had worked in the service department of a car dealership frequented by Mr. Truman and their friendship eventually led to a “private” arrangement whereby Cotton would perform work on the future president’s vehicle at his home “on the side.” Even after Cotton had gone on to enjoy considerable success in the “500” and Mr. Truman was in the White House, they continued to correspond.

I’m an Indy native living in Raleigh. Understand Indy cars used to race here. Wondering if Donald knows anything about that?– @BallStateDeac, via Twitter

Indeed, a 200-mile AAA National Championship race was held at Raleigh on July 4, 1952, when the one-mile paved oval, known at various times as Southland Speedway and Dixie Speedway, was brand-spanking new. It was quite a challenging circuit with longer than usual straights and very tight turns, banked at 16 degrees, so that in some regards it rather resembled the half-mile dirt track at Williams Grove, Pennsylvania, in that the distance between the frontstretch and the backstretch was a great deal shorter than one would normally encounter. The winner at Raleigh was Troy Ruttman, driving the same J.C. Agajanian No. 98 Kuzma dirt car with which he had just won the Indianapolis 500 five weeks earlier. Ruttman led virtually the entire distance, the only other leaders being Mike Nazaruk and front-row qualifier Bill Schindler (neither finishing), and Jack McGrath, who ended up second. Third was Duane Carter in the Pat Clancy car, which had started life in 1948 as the eye-catching six-wheeler and then converted in the summer of 1949 to a “four,” and fourth was Jim Rathmann, driving the No. 99 Belanger with which Lee Wallard had won the “500” in 1951.

1952 Indianapolis 500 winner Troy Ruttman won five weeks later in Raleigh, N.C.

1952 Indianapolis 500 winner Troy Ruttman won five weeks later in Raleigh, N.C.

Most notable among the 24 starters was Bill Vukovich and the Howard Keck Fuel Injection Special Kurtis-Kraft – the very first “roadster” – which had come within nine laps of the winning the 500, but which would come back to win it in 1953 and 1954. Other than for those three Indianapolis races, Raleigh was the only other start this famous car ever had. Vukovich qualified 11th and was the very first one out, the brakes failing after 36 laps. The team then took it to the very next AAA National Championship race, which happened to be the 100-miler on dirt at Springfield, Illinois (yes, really!), but after that noble experiment was less than successful and they “missed the show,” they decided henceforth to run the car only at IMS.

The Raleigh track never hosted the Indianapolis cars again, and in fact the facility only survived for six years, closing in 1958. The promoter for that first event was the very colorful Sam Nunis, who would later enjoy much success at Trenton, New Jersey. There was a real scramble to get the place ready in time, and Chris Economaki of National Speed Sport News, down there to perform the public address duties, joked that fans were coming in the main entrance on race morning and asking Sam for the location of their seat, whereupon Nunis would respond with something along the lines of, “See that fellow over there with lumber and the hammer? Just follow him and he will build it for you.”


About The Author

Donald Davidson

Indianapolis Motor Speedway Historian Donald Davidson, based at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum, developed a passionate interest in the Indianapolis 500 as a teenager in England. Arriving at IMS in 1964, he delighted the racing community with his ability to recite year-by-year accounts of participants’ careers. Returning permanently in 1965, he was invited by Sid Collins to join the worldwide IMS Radio Network and was hired by Henry Banks as USAC statistician, remaining at USAC for almost 32 years. He was named Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian in 1998. Along with numerous television and radio assignments, raconteur Davidson has played host to the popular call-in radio show “The Talk of Gasoline Alley” on 1070 AM in Indianapolis during the month of May continuously since 1971. His writing credits include countless historical articles and columns, a pair of “500” annuals in 1974 and ‘75 and co-authorship with Rick Shaffer of the acclaimed “Autocourse Official History of the Indianapolis 500,” published in 2006.