Shaw's Blend Of Skill, Charisma Looms Large In Speedway History

Friday, October 29, 2004

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Editor's Note: This story, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the death of three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Wilbur Shaw in a plane crash Oct. 30, 1954, was reported and written before the tragic Hendrick Motorsports plane crash Oct. 24. Shaw's contributions to the Speedway as a driver and track president were monumental, and this story was done to honor his memory. In that spirit, the entire staff of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway offers its thoughts and sincerest sympathies to the Shaw and Hendrick Motorsports families during this time of remembrance. ***

Bill Shaw's voice crackled with emotion as he searched back into his mind for lightly buried memories of that fateful day of Oct. 30, 1954.

Bill Shaw's full name is Warren Wilbur Shaw Jr. His father, Warren Wilbur Shaw Sr., won the Indianapolis 500-Mile Race three times, convinced Tony Hulman to purchase the Indianapolis Motor Speedway after World War II and then served as the track's president during its post-war resurrection.

Fifty years ago, one day before his 52nd birthday of Oct. 31, the senior Shaw was flying back from Detroit on a Saturday afternoon with pilot Ray Grimes and artist Ernest R. Roose, who painted portraits of Indianapolis 500 winners. The plane was caught in a sudden snowstorm and plunged into a cornfield near Decatur, Ind., a farm town about 95 miles northeast of Indianapolis. There were no survivors.

Bill Shaw was 9 and in the third grade.

"I remember the phone ringing and them saying dad had been hurt," he said, his words coming haltingly. "I answered it. I got Mom (Cathleen "Boots" Shaw). I remember her saying, 'Is he alive?' It seemed to me very soon neighbors and friends began to arrive.

"I remember time after time how close to the surface this has been. Yeah, it was devastating. It was like we had the rug pulled out from under us.

"I remember going to school and putting on a positive front. I don't think Mom ever recovered her stride. She tried bravely. He was everything to her."

Shaw, who lives in Indianapolis, was sharing his memories via cell phone from Brown County in southern Indiana. The next day, Oct. 24, was a one of joy for him and his wife, Linda, as his son Peter, 24, and Rachelle Woods of Bloomington were married. Peter Shaw will enter the officer's program of the U.S. Navy.

But the sadness of that day a half-century ago always will be there.

The family lived on 11 acres on the city's far north side. Bill Shaw said all of his heroes, the race drivers, cowboy movie stars Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy, and others would come to visit. His dad and flying ace Roscoe Turner were "tight pals," Shaw said.

"The clearest memory I have of Dad was on the mower in shorts and sandals," Shaw said. "On weekends, friends from the Speedway came out to help clear away brush and then eat. It was huge fun. They were a great gang."

Shaw said his father was an outstanding mechanic who taught him well about using tools. As he's gotten older, Bill Shaw remembers his father each time he picks up a tool to do a task.

"His feeling was that the best way to teach was to show," he said.

"I had a lot of respect for him. The love was unconditional. We always were doing something in the shop. He didn't read for fun. He was self-educated, and the books we have in storage make quite a library.

"I heard Dale Earnhardt Jr. say the other day he liked to be in the room with his dad but stayed on the other side. I understood that. He (Shaw's father) was great fun. He had a temper. He was just large (in presence)."

Later, in his Indianapolis home, Shaw pulled out three voluminous scrapbooks his mother had kept. Filled with photographs and clippings from newspapers and magazines, they are an incredible history of auto racing from the 1920s up until the mid-1950s.

For example, there are little-seen photos of 1926 Indianapolis 500 champion Frank Lockhart's fatal accident on the hard-packed sand along Ormond Beach, Fla., in 1928. Shaw was there seeking his own speed records. There are hundreds of others, many of happier racing days.

"When he was in Florida with Lockhart, he wrote his first love letter to Mom," Bill Shaw said.

Then Bill Shaw revealed it wasn't until Shaw earned his first Indianapolis 500 victory in 1937, after Wilbur and Boots were married, that Wilbur had enough money to buy her a wedding ring.

Wilbur Shaw was born Oct. 31, 1902, in Shelbyville, Ind., but his mother moved to Indianapolis following a divorce. He left school at an early age and soon was hanging around the Speedway doing mechanical chores. He built his first race car, and it was ordered off the track as being unsafe, but then the official who made the ruling helped him build another better one over the winter. A career was launched.

He drove the Jynx Spl. to fourth in his first Indianapolis 500 start in 1927. He won for the first time in 1937 in the Shaw-Gilmore, placed second in 1938 and followed with victories in 1939 and 1940 in the Boyle Maserati. He was leading in 1941 on Lap 151 when a wheel collapsed and he crashed into the Turn 1 wall, suffering a broken vertebra.

Shaw came close to winning five in a row. His total winnings of $91,300 were a record for any driver up to that time.

During World War II, Shaw was sales manager for the aircraft division of Firestone Tire and Rubber Co. and the company's liaison with the Army Air Force. He came to the Speedway in 1944 to do a test run and learned from owner Eddie Rickenbacker that a realtor had offered to purchase the track and turn it into housing subdivision.

Shaw reportedly "blew up" at such a thought. He began searching for investors who would buy the track and retain the race he so cherished. This eventually led him to Anton "Tony" Hulman Jr. of Terre Haute, Ind. On Nov. 14, 1945, Hulman, with Shaw also being an investor, purchased the track and made him president.

Shaw defied death a number of times in a race car and in 1951 survived a near fatal heart attack at the Soap Box Derby in Akron, Ohio, after running up the hill.

The fateful day of Oct. 30, 1954, began when Shaw and his two companions flew out of Sky Harbor Airport in northeastern Indianapolis to Ann Arbor, Mich., to do a test drive of the Chrysler Imperial on the 4.7-mile Chrysler Proving Ground track. After turning some high-speed runs before lunch, the trio listened to Indiana University's football upset victory over Michigan before boarding the plane for the return flight.

The weather reports were favorable, but instead they ran into a snow squall south of Fort Wayne. The plane went into a dive and disintegrated as it approached the ground.

"It's funny how you remember where you were when you heard something like that," said Mari Hulman George, chairman of the board of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. "I came out of the Circle Theater (on Indianapolis' Monument Circle), a movie. I heard it. I was shocked. I knew the artist. We still have one of his paintings."

George also fondly remembers occasions when Shaw and Boots would come to the Hulman farm in Terre Haute, swim and visit with all of their friends from the Speedway.

"He taught me how to drive a Jeep, all about shifting," she said. "I started racing after high school (in 1953, as a car owner). He was helpful in meeting people. He was very dapper and charming and a great personality."

Jack Martin, executive secretary of the Indianapolis 500 Oldtimers Club, is another who has treasured memories of Shaw.

"The thing I remember about Wilbur at the Speedway was that he was everywhere," said Martin, who worked for Firestone Racing at that time. "You'd find him in the garages, everywhere.

"It was not unusual to have him come to Firestone and just talk. He was very friendly with racing people. He loo