Aside from being a three-time Indianapolis 500 winner (1937, ’39 and ’40), Wilbur Shaw is one of the most important figures in the history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Born in Shelbyville, Indiana in 1902, Shaw made his first Indianapolis 500 start in 1927, finishing fourth with co-driving assistance from Louis Meyer; Meyer would win Indianapolis the following year and predate Shaw as the first three-time winner of the classic race.
Shaw failed to finish his next three Indianapolis starts, but a second place finish in 1933 kicked off one of the most spectacular runs of success in the 100-year history of IMS. From 1935 to 1940, Shaw collected three Indianapolis 500 victories, a pair of second places and seventh place in 1936.
Shaw’s 2.16-second margin of victory in the 1937 race was the closest to date in the 500, and it stood as the record for an incredible 45 years. With 20 laps to go, Shaw had a comfortable two-minute lead over Ralph Hepburn. However, he noticed that the oil pressure in his Offenhauser engine was dropping, so he backed off to preserve his equipment. Shaw timed it to perfection, leading into the final lap by 14 seconds before barely edging Hepburn across the line. Making the victory even sweeter, Shaw helped design and build his Shaw-Gilmore Special, making him one of only a handful of drivers to win the Indianapolis 500 as an owner/driver.
Following a second place finish in 1938, Shaw returned to Indianapolis in 1939 in a supercharged Maserati Grand Prix car. Seeking his fourth Indy win, Meyer led a race-high 79 laps, but his car blew a tire on the 182nd lap, allowing Shaw to cruise home to win by 1 minute, 48 seconds in what was the first Indianapolis victory for a foreign car since 1919.
Shaw repeated his 1939 win in more dominant fashion a year later, leading 136 laps to become the first driver to win the Indianapolis 500 in successive years. From 1936-39, Shaw racked up three wins and a second place finish at Indy, and he appeared on his way to a record-setting fourth (and third consecutive) victory in 1941. But after leading 107 consecutive laps, a wire wheel failed on the Maserati, pitching the car into a tail-first accident in Turn 1 in which Shaw suffered significant back injuries.
The 1941 race was Shaw’s final ‘500’ as a driver; he ranks fifth all-time in laps led (508), he led the most laps three times and finished seventh or better in eight of his thirteen starts between 1927 and ‘41.
Racing activity at Indianapolis ceased following the 1941 race due to World War II, and Shaw took a job with the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company. Shaw was enlisted to help develop a synthetic rubber tire the company had under development, but when they went to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in November, 1944 to test the new product, they found the old track in a state of terrible disarray after being essentially abandoned for nearly four years.
Following the Firestone test, IMS owner Eddie Rickenbacker informed Shaw that he intended to develop the Speedway grounds into a housing subdivision. Shaw reacted quickly, commencing what has been described as a one-man crusade to save his beloved track.
Shaw’s search for a savior eventually led him to Terre Haute, Indiana, where he was introduced to Anton ‘Tony’ Hulman, whose family business Hulman & Company achieved great success with Clabber Girl baking products. Hulman completed the purchase of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for a reported $750,000 in November, 1945.
When Hulman chose to take a behind-the-scenes role in the management of IMS, he named Shaw President and General Manager of the track. Over the next ten years, Shaw remained in that capacity, helping Hulman grow and promote the Indianapolis 500 into “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” until he was tragically killed in a plane crash near Decatur, Indiana on October 30, 1954. He remains the last native Hoosier to win the Indianapolis 500.
Shaw retired from driving during World War II but facilitated the sale of the Speedway to Tony Hulman in 1945. Shaw served as president of IMS until his 1954 death in a plane crash.