Indy time machine: 70 mph in a 1916 race car

1916 Sturtevant-Auburn Romano Special in the paddock

“Death, which is usually imagined as being a specter hovering over the track waiting to swoop down and place its fatal finger on a pilot, took its first and only toll after the race had been going thirty minutes.”

Chills. To know a nation’s history is to read its newspapers. Correspondent Paul P. Willis filed the words above under the headline “Queen of Tragedy Hovers over Race” for the Wednesday, May 31, 1911, edition of the Indianapolis Star—cover price of two cents—available for home perusal at Newspapers.com. For those who don’t recall their history, that was the day after the first Indy 500, when the Star’s headline blared, “Smoking Monsters Thrill from Start.”

1916 Sturtevant-Auburn Romano Special in the Indy pits
Aaron Robinson

For a couple of weeks, I was back in 1911–12, reading its newspapers. It’s a period of history that until recently held no interest, but Brian Blain of the Blain Motorsports Foundation has a highly infectious disease. Blain owns and operates a stable of pre-World War I race cars that he puts in front of the public whenever he can, such as at the SVRA Brickyard Vintage Racing Invitational this past June. With the offer of a mechanician’s seat in a 106-year-old car as it circled a 109-year-old speedway, I went.

Indy is exceedingly proud of its longevity. Go into almost any establishment near the speedway and you’re as likely to see pictures of Ray Harroun’s 1911 Marmon Wasp as A.J. Foyt’s Coyote or 2018 winner Will Power’s Dallara. Although the SVRA entry list was a “what’s what” of 1960s and ’70s racers, all eyes turned when Blain’s ragtime speedsters rolled onto the track. Because the class was technically a demonstration, not a race, the crews were allowed to wear period dress, meaning oil-stained coveralls and leather helmets or pageboy caps. You haven’t really experienced 70 mph until you’ve clocked it sitting in a button-tufted leather chair about five feet in the air, with nothing around you except the thick Indiana summer.

The modern classes laid down a gummy skim of race rubber, and Blain’s old-timers pulled it up like so many Victorian lint rollers, eventually shedding the tarry globs as high-speed projectiles, sometimes right into your face. At Indy, history hits you hard enough to leave a mark.

1916 Sturtevant-Auburn Romano Special driving
Aaron Robinson

Unaware that video devices in every pocket would someday render vivid news copy obsolete, the Star’s Willis, in the few short hours before deadline, went to town on the inaugural Indy 500: “The white Lozier monster lurched with a drunken stagger toward the fence, along which the wild-eyed spectators drank in the red wine of excitement.” And, “he was lying half-conscious on the oil-smeared paved course when Harry Knight in a Westcott bore down on him at seventy-five miles an hour. Knight later said he grew suddenly sick when the smoke cleared enough to show him the form of an unknown rival stretched in his path. Humanity’s better self was quicker than reason and more compelling than greed for gain, and Knight, without a fraction of a second’s time to measure his course, turned suddenly to the side and missed the mechanician.”

Fortunately, Blain has no interest in reenacting history down to its last detail, although I couldn’t help thinking about the danger as the group’s fastest car roared past. The maroon 1916 Sturtevant-Auburn Romano Special runs a 555-cubic-inch overhead-valve Sturtevant V-8 aircraft engine sporting an energetic chorus line of exposed rocker arms and sprung valve stems that make a furious tap-tapping at speed. How the rockers get lubricated in the wind, especially at the car’s max velocity of 100 mph, I have no idea. But when it was my turn to ride, the Sturtevant rolled to a halt just out of the pits after a startling bang! The leather cone clutch, one of the many problematic designs dogging early race cars, might have been the culprit. Back in the day, cars broke constantly, and the first Indy 500 was nearly stopped midway by crashes involving busted steering gear and thrown tires. As Willis wrote in the Star in 1911, “a book giving details of all the interesting incidents of the six hours’ speed battle would have covers wide apart.”

1916 Sturtevant-Auburn Romano Special racing
Aaron Robinson