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Shaw Blazed Trail to Indy Glory after Sizzling Duel with Hepburn in 1937

On a blazing hot day, the Indianapolis 500 came down to which of two drivers could carry the most momentum off Turn 4 on Lap 200. With two powerful Indy cars in nearly a dead heat, the hundreds of thousands of people present knew history was being written before their eyes. This is a tale of the 1937 Indy 500, the race that featured the closest finish for 45 years.

So much of the greatness of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” is its history, and that feeling had firmly taken root by 1937 when the Speedway celebrated the 25th running of the Indianapolis 500. On hand were Ray Harroun and Joe Dawson, the first two winners of the classic contest, reunited with their victorious machines. Harroun drove his legendary Marmon “Wasp” and Dawson his dark blue National in pre-race festivities.

“The track is about 10 mph faster than in 1912,” Dawson said. He noted the asphalt paving in the corners that began to conceal the brick surface in 1936 and how smooth it felt under his wheels compared to his jarring ride of 1912.

As if to prove Dawson’s point, Jimmy Snyder, nicknamed the “The Flying Milkman” from his Chicago milk truck driving days, broke the 130-mph barrier in qualifying. The 28-year-old scorched the bricks (and patchy asphalt) for a one-lap track record of 130.492 mph in an aborted qualification attempt. He later returned to complete his 10-lap qualification run, recording an average of 125.287 mph, the fastest in the field. In all, 11 drivers eclipsed Rex Mays’ 1936 pole-winning speed of 119.644 mph.

The speeds dispelled the notion that a change from a special fuel blend to pump gasoline would slow the cars. Since 1934, the racers had used the blend but were limited in quantity. The 1936 limit was 37.5 gallons, forcing some to retire from the race because they ran out. There would be no fuel limitation in 1937.

Time trials produced controversy off the track. Joel Thorne, a young millionaire sportsman, found himself an alternate starter for the race and decided to buy Cliff Bergere’s Midwest Red Lion Special and withdraw it. Speedway officials refused to allow him to do this, and Bergere, a 40-year-old former Hollywood stuntman, went on to finish fifth. Thorne eventually drove in four Indy 500s, including a fifth-place effort in 1940, and he owned the winning car in 1946.

Millionaire Thorne’s attempt to manipulate qualifying results was evidence that the Indy 500 was already more than racing’s biggest payday. Fame, prestige or even a sense of immortality was part of the bargain. Indianapolis was well established as the capital of auto racing, and everyone who followed the sport knew what was at stake when race day dawned May 31, 1937.

With a temperature of 75 degrees at 6 a.m., a record crowd of 170,000 people jammed into the Speedway and braced themselves for a sweltering day. The cloudless sky revealed a blazing sun that pushed thermometers to 92 degrees before the 500 miles were run.

On the parade lap, the sun’s glaring rays bounced off the 33 starters to present a dazzling spectacle. No machines glowed more brilliantly than the silver, cream and copper colors of front row starters “Wild” Bill Cummings, Wilbur Shaw and Herb Ardinger.

Buried deep in the seventh row was track record holder Snyder in his blue and white Sparks-engined machine, one of Thorne’s entries. Snyder, who lost his opportunity to sit on the pole by not qualifying on the first day of time trials, began a relentless surge through the field. At the front, Ardinger grabbed the lead but could only hold on for two laps before Snyder, in a breathtaking display of speed, seized first place.

Snyder’s breakneck pace was more than the transmission of Thorne’s machine could stand. His shooting star lasted a scant 67 miles, a spectacular effort that fell far short of a spot on the Borg-Warner Trophy. Shaw moved into the lead for the first time and held the top spot for the subsequent 125 miles.

Despite the heat, speed records tumbled and, in the end, only one would survive – the 200-mile mark Shaw set in the same car the previous year. The new speed records were impressive given numerous stops for tires and relief drivers.

Snyder returned to the fray at 175 miles, spotting Ardinger. It did not last long. On Lap 105, a broken steering arm sent him spinning in the first turn, grazing the wall. Snyder returned yet again at 300 miles, relieving Tony Gulotta in the Burd Piston Ring entry.

There would be no relief for Shaw, who hung gamely to the lead until his three-minute, nine-second stop for tires and fuel on Lap 74. Ralph Hepburn took the top spot, but Shaw returned to the track and charged back to the front within 10 laps.

By Lap 108 Hepburn pitted for relief, and California rookie Bob Swanson jumped into the seat. Swanson drove like a veteran and assumed the lead when Shaw made his second and final pit stop on Lap 130.

Two laps down, Shaw carved off chunks of Swanson’s lead. Hepburn, who had been taken to the infield hospital, left the building and scaled its wall to find a perch on the roof, allowing him to watch the 24-year-old rookie try to stave off Shaw.

Swanson led for 33 circuits but was forced to pit for fuel and tires on Lap 163. Hepburn was there, ready to take over the wheel. He returned to the race over two minutes in arrears to Shaw, who clearly had the faster car.

Inside Shaw’s cockpit, the drama had begun. He noticed his oil pressure gauge had dropped to zero in the middle of Turn 3. The car had been leaking oil profusely; in fact, his socks were soaked. The oil pressure returned to normal on the stretches, so Shaw realized oil was sloshing away from the oil pump pickup in the turns.

Shaw knew the car well – he designed and helped build it at a cost of $8,400. He nursed his baby through the turns to maintain oil pressure. With Hepburn closing, Shaw did the math to calculate the speed he’d need to hold off the veteran.

The grandstands thundered when Shaw got the white flag, still with a lead of about 200 feet. Relentlessly, Hepburn closed. It all came down to a shootout on the last turn of the last lap, and it became the stuff of legend.

Like a lot of legends, the stories about what happened vary with the person telling it. Did Hepburn pull alongside Shaw or even nose ahead? It’s not entirely clear. Some, such as former Speedway Public Relations Director Al Bloemker, later wrote that Hepburn briefly pulled ahead of Shaw. Newspaper accounts of the day make no mention of the pass.

Years after the race, Shaw recalled the 2,000-foot drag race to immortality when he said, “I could see the front end of his car out of the corner of my left eye … I planted the accelerator as far down as it would go and held my breath.”

One fact is certain: the finish, the closest in the 25-year history of the race, had fans standing on their seats.

To uproarious applause, Shaw, a 34-year-old Indianapolis native, surged ahead and won by 2.16 seconds in what remained the closest finish “500” until 1982, when Gordon Johncock held off Rick Mears by .16 of a second.

The intensity of the crowd soared to a new level when Shaw and Hepburn continued to pass and re-pass one another during the traditional “insurance lap” drivers took to safeguard against scoring errors. But there was no error, and Shaw picked up $36,075 in total prizes at the following night’s victory dinner at the Claypool Hotel.

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