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Big-Time at Last

Open Wheel Racing Topics:  Indianapolis 500

Big-Time at Last

Hot Rod and Speedway Comics #2
February 1952

From his vantage point in the pit, young Ernie White, the new mechanic, held his breath as the streaking Maserati racing car screamed down the straightaway at 185 miles per hour.

Behind the wheel was his idol, Gary Miller, the greatest racing driver of them all. And today Miller was showing his class to 32 of the world's fastest cars and 200,000 speed-mad fans who had descended on Indianapolis from near and far for the speed classic of the year.

With the 300-mile mark behind him, Miller and his mechanic, Pete Schreiber, were enjoying a one-lap lead over the field.

* * *

Alongside of young White stood Jake Adams, veteran grease monkey, holding a big chalk-inscribed blackboard over his head so that the onrushing driver could see it. The sign had two big letters on it—an "E" and a "Z," which in racing parlance means to take it easy or slow the pace a bit.

"That guy's gonna kill himself if he don't ease up on the throttle," grunted Jake as the blue and white car shot by. "Why can't he drive a normal race like Dutch Herman?"

At the same time he indicated the sister-ship Maserati car in third place which just shot by. Both cars were out of Ernie White's pit—both of them owned by Dudley Davenport, the millionaire patron of the speedway.

"There's only one Gary Miller," said a voice spinning them both around, and Ernie White looked into the admiration-filled eyes of Dudley Davenport.

"Nobody can hold him back once he gets behind that wheel. He's piled up before while running away from the field, but he's dedicated to getting the most out of a car," Davenport concluded.

"Right, Mr. Davenport," agreed Jake, "but not even Gary Miller knows the power under the hood of that Maserati. He hasn't had time to learn every trick of that Italian job."

The millionaire owner laid a friendly hand on Jake's shoulder.

"Let's leave it to Gary," he said quietly. "He'll do all right."

* * *

All of this drama in the pit, punctuated by three-mile-a-minute cars shooting by, served to increase the pulse-beat of young Ernie White. Thirty days ago he had been an eager young hot rod who had sunk a life's savings into putting together a speed car which he hoped would qualify at Indianapolis. All his life he had dreamed of showing his stuff in the big classic. He had made a pretty good record, too, on the dirt tracks of the Middle West.

Then came that crushing blow when he brought his car to the big track and sought a qualifying application. The official took one look at the car and shook his head with a wry smile.

"Better get a good seat in the grandstand, sonny. This car would be lapped before you hit the backstretch."

And watching the ace drivers come close to 200 miles per hour on the straightaways during warmup heats, he knew the official was right. Heartbroken, he started to wander away. Then he felt a friendly hand on his shoulder. He looked up and his heart missed a beat. It was the friendly, smiling face of Gary Miller, the champion, looking down at him.

"Tough luck, kid," he said softly. "I couldn't help but overhear."

"I—I guess I'm just a bush-leaguer, Mr. Miller," he stammered. "And the sooner I get out of here the better."

The champion's eyes grew serious.

"We just had a pit assistant walk out on us," he said. "I've noticed your savvy around the other cars. How about giving us a lift?"

And that was how Ernie White got the thrill of a lifetime, as the kid in the pit of the champion's car....

* * *

The blazing Maserati of Gary Miller's had opened almost a full lap on the field now as it screamed through the turns of the two and one-half mile track with unbelievable speed.

All at once there was a grunt from Jake Adams as he pointed to the Davenport-owned sister-ship Maserati wheeling into the straightaway.

"Dutch Herman's signalling he's coming into the pit. And I've got a good notion it's foot trouble."

A moment later they were looking into the pain-filled face of Dutch Herman behind the wheel.

"My left foot's cooked. I can't take another lap. Get me a doctor."

Everybody in the pit knew Dutch Herman was through. Like a lot of other racing drivers he had suffered a blistered foot once too often from the excessive engine heat. Dutch hadn't healed from his last bad burn. And now he was at the end of his rope as far as the classic was concerned, at least.

Suddenly there was a roar from the crowd that turned all eyes back to the track. The blazing speedster of Gary Miller had begun to weave in the back end. It was on the verge of going out of control.

"There he goes," shouted Jake Adams. "I knew he was too wide open!"

In the next instant the streaking blue and white car sloughed crazily down to the inside rim of the track. As the tires caught hold of the rim, the Italian-made car suddenly went into a spin that carried it clear up to the top restraining wall. There was a gasp from the crowd as it shot through the rail and sailed twenty-eight feet through the air.

Ernie White went pale as he saw the telephone wires beyond the turn go down. And then came the sickening crash.

* * *

It was like somebody coming back from the dead when Gary Miller, battered, bruised and covered in iodine, limped over to the Davenport pit a few minutes later to electrify the crowd. There was still the look of a champion in his eye. Dudley Davenport rushed over to clap an arm around his neck, but the kingpin of them all waved him aside with a smile as his eyes fell on the idle Maserati belonging to Dutch Herman.

His quick eye saw Herman getting the kind of first aid that meant he was out for keeps.

Abruptly he turned on the breathless Ernie White.

"Want to take a ride, kid?" he smiled.

* * *

Before he realized what was happening, the two of them were rolling out of the pits. Ernie White was now side-by-side with Mr. Speed himself.

"We're back to fifth spot in Dutch's car, but we're not staying there," he laughed. "We can't let Mr. Davenport down, can we?"

And then Ernie White began to know the feel of real speed. They screamed into the far turn and then belted down the backstretch. The speedometer rose steadily above the 100 mark. The tires began to whine. The heat of the engine struck him full in the face. But he didn't care. He was riding with the great Gary Miller now.

They caught the fourth place car of Choo-Choo Williams' just past the four hundred mile mark, coming into the home stretch. The kid was conscious of the waving of a hundred thousand hats in the stands as they began to creep up on Jimmy Palermo in third. Turn after turn they matched, almost hub to hub as the tires screamed and the crowd roared.

But Ernie caught the look of victory now on the grim, confident Miller mask behind the wheel. They took over third place half a lap later.

Now it was the red and white car of Carl Cox putting up the challenge. They were charging down the straightaway close to 185 m.p.h. Ernie White's heart stopped beating as he felt the back end start to sway again. Were they going into another spin? How long could Gary Miller cheat death? As they shot into the north turn, he saw the Cox car swing a bit wide. It was then that the kid saw true genius as Gary Miller steadied the car, shot it through a needle-eye opening to capture the rail and second place—less than fifty yards behind the lead car of Dizzy Ballou.

* * *

Five laps to go. The kid hung on until his knuckles went white. They were hitting the turns like something out of a rocket. They were alongside Dizzy Ballou now, with the old master wearing a faint smile as he winked at the kid.

They were beginning to sway again with the airplane speed. But Gary Miller smelled victory now.

With his throttle foot clear to the floor he gave the screaming Maserati the last ounce of power. She careened dangerously wide on the home stretch. Then righting herself, she showed her class. Whining down the home stretch just below 200 miles an hour she overtook the flying Ballou, and went out in front. The last lap was just a formality, but it was ridden to the most earth-shaking ovation ever heard at Indianapolis. They were the champions now.

Before the crowd could get to them in the pits as they were climbing out, Gary Miller said to the kid:

"Come back next year, kid. You're the kind of good luck I want to take for the whole distance."

And then the crowd swept in to take him up on their shoulders.

The End

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