Remembering one of the Indianapolis 500's greatest unlucky heroes
On the day we would traditionally be watching one of the biggest races in the world, David Malsher-Lopez pays tribute to Ted Horn, who was consistently robbed by fate at Indianapolis Motor Speedway but holds a record for top-four finishes that has never been matched
Michael Andretti is often cited as the unluckiest racer at Indianapolis Motor Speedway over the past 50 years, famously leading more laps there than four-time winner Rick Mears, yet never visiting Victory Lane as a driver.
But back before Andretti's father Mario even emigrated to the US, there was a driver who won three successive AAA Indycar titles, and between 1936 and 1948 (interrupted by war) scored nine straight finishes of fourth or better - a record that remains unbroken to this day. Yet Ted Horn never won at the Brickyard. At a time when racecars were far less reliable than they are now, Horn's record is extraordinary.
Born Eylard Theodore von Horn in Ohio in 1910, Horn's parents dropped the 'von' during World War 1 as it wasn't advisable to reveal German roots. When Horn was 10, his father Armandus's health took a dive, and the family moved to California. Aged 15, he earned enough money on a peach-picking expedition to buy himself a jalopy, and wrecked it against a telegraph pole.
One day, as he drove to work at the LA Times, a job his father had secured for him, Horn was stopped for speeding, and the cop recommended he saved his efforts for a race track. He confiscated the car and sent the teenager to a raceway in San Jose, where he was soon intrigued by the sport.
Horn's initial attempts at racing were those of a driver whose bravery and enthusiasm far outstripped his skills. He crashed through a fence, he smashed into a tree, rolled his car, crushed his foot and burned his back. Yet Horn apparently was not discouraged by his fraught early experiences.
The turning point came at Legion Ascot Speedway, outside Los Angeles. After avidly taking on board the advice of sprint car ace Chet Gardner (pictured below at the Indy 500 in 1930) regarding braking, turn-in points and carrying momentum, he managed to cut his lap times on a mile-long track by a full three seconds!
In August 1932 at Ascot, Horn tipped his car, fell out and felt his machine roll over him, although he somehow remained uninjured. But in September he returned and won the B final, and repeated the performance in October at San Jose. Aged 22, he was finally seeing real progress and real results.
The following May, with most of the prominent drivers at Indy, Horn was thrust into prominence at San Diego and beat George Connor in the Helmet Dash, won the first heat and then won feature to notch up the first clean sweep of his career. Now was the time when he elected to make racing his career.
Yet it was a career surrounded by death and destruction. At the funeral of Ernie Triplett, one of three people killed in an accident at El Centro in 1934, someone spotted a writer and photographer from The Examiner, which had sprayed its pages with lurid photos and sensationalist prose following the incident, and Horn was apparently among a small group of drivers who pounced on these anti-racing journalists and 'kidnapped' them. The penman and snapper insisted they had been roughed up, the racers pointed out that the so-called kidnapping had only resulted in the pair being driven back to the head office of The Examiner, and no formal charges were ever brought.
Following a narrow defeat by two-time Indy 500 winner Louis Meyer at Ascot, east coast promoter Ralph 'Pappy' Hankinson came out to California to offer Horn a contract, and found he was pushing at an open door. Horn, now getting frustrated that he was still unable to land a truly good ride in the A class of the Pacific South West division, willingly agreed to spend the season out east.
Pacing himself well on raceday, Horn had nonetheless carved his way through to third place before half-distance in 1937, but Hartz was too late in giving the 'Go' signal to urge Horn to unleash the car's full capability
After a few wins, Horn was on his way home to California when he elected to take part in a race in Chicago. While running a comfortable third, he suddenly pulled in, saying only that he had a feeling he should do so. He and a bewildered crew member were loading the McDowell back onto a trailer when one of the front wheels collapsed, its spokes having worked loose. Had that happened at racing speed...
Some put Horn's apparent premonition down to him being mechanically sympathetic, but for Horn himself it heightened his own superstitions, which in later years would spread to other areas of his race weekends. This charming and mild-mannered man, well known for his approachability and affability, would not allow fans to pose with him before a race, nor sit in the cockpit of his racecars, having seen drivers do this and then suffer fatal accidents. Instead he would urge them to come visit him in the pits post-race, once he was 'in the clear'.
Back in California, Horn was invited by legendary racecar builder Harry Miller for a chat. Miller (below, centre with Horn, right) was building 10 front-wheel-drive cars for the 1935 Indy 500, powered by Ford V8 engines, with 1925 victor Pete de Paolo leading the team, and the project funded by nationwide Ford dealers. Horn signed up immediately.
But with the steering box located next to the engine block, as the engines got hotter the steering wheels became near-impossible to turn. One by one the Miller drivers retired with fatigue. Horn, who had qualified 26th, was the last to quit, only giving up the struggle at three-quarter distance when he felt it was too dangerous to continue.
But his brave endeavour was worth it. An impressed Harry Hartz - the AAA National champ from 1926, who as team owner had put Billy Arnold and Fred Frame into Indy Victory Lane - approached the exhausted Horn in pitlane and offered him an Indy ride for 1936. They shook on it on the spot.
Before that, Horn was speared by a railing in a crash at Lewistown, Pennsylvania that tore his right shoulder muscle and broke his shoulder and collarbone. While he lay in hospital, he was visited by Hankinson, who offered to advance him money to build his own car, on condition that the investment was repaid from prize money at the next Indy 500. Horn agreed and, despite restricted movement and strength in his right arm and shoulder, he headed back west to customise a Miller into his new racecar, 'Baby'.
Arriving at Indy for his second 500, now in the quite different Hartz-run Miller, Horn was instructed by the team owner not to give away the strength of his car during practice, so urged him to take it easy down the front straight until race day.
By no means an egotist, he did as asked and qualified 11th, then on raceday let his competitive instincts kick in and rose through the pack to lead laps 131-146. He finished second to Meyer - who marked his third Indy win by starting the now traditional exercise of drinking milk in victory lane - and further gratification came when he received his runner-up prize of $15,000, with which he swiftly settled his deal with Hankinson.
Horn campaigned 'Baby' through 1936, while Hartz worked hard on his Millers, including adding a supercharger. It wasn't reliable by May 1937, and Horn squeaked onto the back row in 32nd. Pacing himself well in 33-degree heat on raceday, Horn had nonetheless carved his way through to third place before half-distance but, in an unusual miscue, Hartz was too late in giving the 'Go' signal to urge Horn to unleash the car's full capability.
He probably could have chased down eventual winner Wilbur Shaw, whose car was wilting, and the exhausted Ralph Hepburn, who had Bob Swanson drive more than a quarter of the race for him. The lead duo finished just 2.16 seconds apart, with Horn just a further 11s in arrears. A crestfallen Hartz was left kicking himself, but Horn provided a wholly different perspective that cheered his boss: after the car's strife in practice, third place was a huge achievement.
Back at Indy in 1938 - following serious injuries sustained in 'Baby' in a pile-up in Tennessee during the 1937 campaign - it was Horn himself who inadvertently squandered a chance to succeed. Hartz added a larger fuel tank so that, theoretically, Horn would have to stop only once.
But Horn pitted early due to the car's sluggish handling, only to be reassured by Hartz that he had nothing to worry about. It was merely the first time he'd run on the full fuel tank. Sure enough, the car's agility improved as the fuel level came down, and Horn pitted mid-distance before pushing on to finish fourth.
At the victory banquet the following night, he got talking to another team owner, Cotton Henning, who needed a front-wheel-drive ace to run his Miller in the following year's 500. Hartz, who was now losing interest, gave the deal and Horn his blessing for a move.
Henning's Miller, backed by Chicago businessman Mike Boyle, seemed to have the pace necessary for Horn's strongest shot yet at 500 glory, and he lined up fourth for the 1939 race. But in a traumatic race that saw 1938 winner Floyd Roberts perish in an accident and Meyer suffer career-ending injuries, Horn needed four pitstops to replenish the radiator due to overheating. He would come home fourth as Shaw took his second victory.
In 1941, he found controlling the Adams/Sparks with his still-weakened right arm something of a trial, and he finished an exhausted third
Following multiple sprint-car wins, Horn consulted a surgeon in Florida who advised him to improve his fitness, as well as increasing the mobility and strength of his damaged right arm. As a result, he became passionate about rowing and maintaining his physique. With an eye to the future, that winter he formed Ted Horn Engineering and Ted Horn Enterprises, equipped with all the tools necessary to prepare two cars.
In 1940, Horn qualified fourth for the Indy 500 in Henning's Miller and finished in the same position after the last third of the race was run under caution due to heavy rain, allowing Shaw (below in victory lane) to win for a third time from Rex Mays.
That frustration apart, Horn had a fine summer, scoring wins and top-threes until eventually clinching Hankinson's championship title. His eponymous team had also performed well, with Bob Sall, Joie Chitwood and Tony Willman all finding success in Ted Horn Enterprises-prepped machinery.
That winter, Horn approached Henning to ask permission to drive Joel Thorne's Adams/Sparks in the 1941 Indy 500. This machine had set a devastatingly quick pole time in 1939 in Jimmy Snyder's hands, but when Snyder was killed in a midget race it had lain dormant in 1940. Henning consented, but the car was awfully uncomfortable to manhandle around the Speedway, and Horn was a tentative 30th fastest in qualifying.
But despite his modest and unassuming nature, he still had a core of self-belief. His confidence grew throughout the course of the 500, even if he found controlling the car with his still-weakened right arm something of a trial, and he finished an exhausted third. Floyd Davis and Mauri Rose shared the winning Lou Moore-entered Wetteroth and were recognised as co-winners, with Mays again finishing second.
With Hankinson having withdrawn from the AAA, instead joining the International Motor Contest Association/Central States Racing Association, Ted Horn Engineering followed suit, and 10 feature wins saw Horn ending the season with the CSRA national championship. Now 31 and with a top title in his pocket, Horn's momentum was building, but his hopes of Indy 500 glory were put on hold when the US was dragged into World War 2.
Hankinson died during the war, while a saddened Horn - who was rejected by the army, navy, marines and Air Corps - shored up his team during racing lockdown by entering a partnership with businessman Milt Marion. He and the team hit the ground running when racing resumed in 1945, and Horn won the first major auto race after VJ Day, at Essex Junction, Vermont.
With Shaw having ended his driving career with injury in 1941 - and now installed as general manager at IMS under new owner Tony Hulman - Henning's Maserati in which Shaw had won the 1941 500 was available to Horn for 1946. He was hot favourite for a long-awaited victory at IMS, but early magneto trouble forced a seven-minute stop before he recovered to third.
On the six-race National Championship trail, he backed up that result with two seconds, another third, a fourth and a sixth so that, despite no wins, he earned the National title. Furthermore, he nailed 19 sprint-car triumphs over the year, more than any other driver.
Back in the Maserati at Indy in 1947, Horn scored pole for the 500, but almost from the drop of the green flag (pictured below in second), he was in trouble: the oil reserve tank kept blowing the black stuff in his face, obliging him to make two lengthy stops in the first 20 laps, costing him seven laps.
He gave the Maserati all he had and scorched his way through the field to finish third, Rose this time winning solo. Horn was left reflecting on a superstition that had apparently been confirmed - posing for photos with well-wishers before a race would lead to misfortune. Pre-500 he had for once put aside his misgivings and allowed himself to be photographed with new celebrity friend, 'King of Hollywood' Clark Gable.
The National Championship season boiled down to a title fight between Horn and Bill Holland going into the final round at Arlington Downs Raceway in Texas. When Holland's car cried enough before time trials, it was all over. Horn lapped second-place finisher Paul Russo three times as he drove home to the win that sealed his second National Championship.
Extraordinarily for a man who turned 38 in February, Horn's 1948 season would prove to be his greatest. He started the year with five straight triumphs, the last of these being the AAA National Championship season opener, again at Arlington. He then headed to Indy to serve as instructor for rookies - advising them, leading them, following and observing them, then further advising them - before dashing off to win the sprint races at Reading and Trenton.
Despite deliberately feather-footing the Maserati so as not to harm it in Indy qualifying, Horn claimed fifth on the grid on Pole Day. Then he headed to Salem, Richmond and Williams Grove and won the lot. Returning to the Speedway for the 500, Horn was informed by Henning that the black Maser's engine had been torn down and rebuilt after they found foreign matter in the oil.
The car initially seemed healthy, and Horn was on his finest form, pulling out a half-minute advantage over Mays and even lapping Duke Nalon. But then he felt compelled to ease his pace as he heard odd noises emanating from the engine bay - sand in the rod bearings, as it transpired - and gradually his dream of Indy victory floated away yet again. He finally drove home fourth, his ninth straight top-four finish at IMS and umpteenth what-might-have-been tale at the Brickyard as Rose (below) won for a third time.
"From Ted's record for the past three seasons, I consider him the best of all the National champions. He was a real champion, and above all, a regular fellow" Rex Mays
Still, Horn did enough through 1948 to clinch his third straight championship with three rounds left to go. And any dispute that he was the AAA master of the day was quashed by his 24 wins in sprint cars.
With the pressure off, the title sewn up, Horn headed to the Champ Car finale at DuQuoin, Illinois on 10 October with apparently nothing to lose, and earned himself a spot on the second row. But then, at the start of the second lap, a broken wheel spindle sent Horn hard into Johnny Mantz's car and into the air.
Mantz would be relatively uninjured, but Horn, who had survived so many crashes in those early run-before-he-could-walk years, and skirted round several more hideous accidents since, had no chance on this occasion.
One hard impact, probably the car landing nose-first, saw him thrown against the steering wheel, inflicting fearful chest injuries before he was then ejected from the cockpit. Horn landed on his back, one arm outstretched, one leg doubled back behind him, and unconscious. He was rushed to hospital but declared dead 20 minutes later.
His brilliant rival Mays paid sorrowful tribute.
"Ted Horn won the first race I ever drove in at Riverside, California, Labor Day 1931," he said. "Since that time we have raced against each other many times, both winning our share of races. From Ted's record for the past three seasons, I consider him the best of all the National champions. He was a real champion, and above all, a regular fellow."
Just 13 months later, Mays too was gone, killed at Del Mar in November 1949.
Shaw, who would live just five more years before dying in a plane crash, said: "In addition to Ted Horn being the undisputed champion automobile driver of this era, he was unquestionably the most loved and respected driver of his time. These characteristics qualified him as the sport's outstanding goodwill ambassador."
Meyer, who happily lived to the grand old age of 91, said that Horn's "unquestionable character, true sportsmanship and love for competition has caused him to remain in the heart of the racing world."
Horn was, by all accounts, a sensitive soul, a modest man and a scrupulously fair one. He meticulously paid back anyone who had helped him out when his finances were at rock bottom, when he would go hungry in order to subsidise his racing, and he never forgot his extremely humble beginnings.
Horn supported struggling track owners and race promoters too, and freely gave his time and thoughts to young drivers on the nursery slopes of their racing careers. But as well as being a fine man, the 85th anniversary of Horn's first Indy 500 start should be a time to remember him as a brilliant talent. He was an all-time great.
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