Many auto racing stars from the pre-World War II era often don’t get the recognition they deserve, and Billy Arnold is a classic example. Arnold was the undisputed man to beat at Indianapolis from 1930-32 and once can only speculate what he would have achieved had he not retired from driving after the 1932 season, prior to his 27th birthday.
Arnold made only five Indianapolis starts from 1928-32, but his victory from pole position in the 1930 race when he was just 24 years old was the most dominant in this history of the race. Arnold took the lead on the third lap and never relinquished it, winning by a margin of more than seven minutes. His 198 laps led in 1930 still remains the race record. Despite his short career as an Indy car racer, Arnold led three of his five Indy starts for a total of 410 laps, putting him 12th on the all-time list.
Arnold made his first Indy start in 1928, finishing seventh, and he drove to eighth place the following year. His break came in 1930 when he replaced Harry Hartz in the Summer-Miller entry. Hartz had won the 1926 AAA national championship and finished second at Indianapolis three times, but he suffered serious leg injuries in an accident at the Salem, New Hampshire board track in 1927 and was attempting a comeback.
Hartz ran some practice laps and proved the car was fast, but he didn’t believe he could withstand the rigors of 500 miles of racing. He handed the car to Arnold, who qualified it on pole position. After losing the lead at the start to Louis Meyer, Arnold took the lead on the third lap and was never again headed, winning by 7 minutes and 17 seconds.
Arnold was among the quickest again in 1931 but he started 18th as a second day qualifier. It took him only seven laps to reach the front and he had a five-lap lead when he crashed out on the 163rd lap. His final Indianapolis start was much the same: Took the lead on the second lap, but another crash, this time in avoidance of another car.
In that series of three ‘500’s from 1930-32, he led 97.4 per cent of the 421 laps he completed. After his Indy 500 triumph in 1930, Arnold starred as himself alongside James Cagney in the motion picture “The Crowd Roars.” But at the urging of his wife, he retired after the 1932 Indianapolis 500.
Arnold went on to compile a distinguished military career and he generally turned his back on racing. His last known appearance at Indianapolis Motor Speedway came in 1955, 21 years prior to his death.
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