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Johnny Aitken became an IMS legend in the 1916 Harvest Auto Racing Classic

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Ed Carpenter Racing’s Rinus Veekay wins the pole for the inaugural IndyCar Harvest Grand Prix.

Indianapolis Star

Johnny Aitken probably would have relished in this weekend at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, with Indy cars to Skip Barber’s lower-level open-wheelers and sportscars galore. A litany of classifications, skills and race distances, with drivers and crews from all over the world, as well as those born just miles from IMS. Several races a day, some drivers racing back-to-back with fewer than 24 hours to rehash plans and recover from the carnage, frustration and elation of the day prior.

Because before IMS became known as the host of the largest single-day sporting event in the world and racing’s most prized trophy, soon after the 2.5-mile oval track’s birth in 1909, it began serving as the backdrop for all-comers race weekends around the calendar two years before Ray Haroun became the first-ever 500 winner.

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Johnny Aitken in National Car 8 grabs an early lead in the 10-Mile Race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway August 19, 1909. (Photo: Indianapolis Star, Photo)

And no one raced IMS better than Aitken, the Indianapolis-native who may forever be able to claim the title as winningest driver in IMS history, with 15 titles to his name. Though some came at distances as short as 10 miles, not four-time 500 winners (A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears and Al Unser), five-time Brickyard 400 champion Jeff Gordon, five-time U.S. Grand Prix victor Michael Schumacher or other four-time IMS winners Will Power and Simon Pagenaud will likely ever come close to Aitken’s illustrious mark.

In total, he ran more than 40 races at IMS, more than Foyt’s 35 500s and one Brickyard start.

Maybe Aitken’s greatest single day on the track came just over 104 years ago in a three-race sweep at IMS at distances of 20, 50 and 100 miles in an event titled the Harvest Auto Racing Classic, the name that set the backdrop for IndyCar’s weekend doubleheader after an initial run-of-the-mill emailed-in idea from track president Doug Boles back in the spring.

“I tell people all the time that it’s our history that makes this place special. What happened here in the last 111 years makes it special, and when you start digging into the really cool stories, it’s just such a robust brand,” Boles told IndyStar this week. “And what’s even cooler, neither generation knew this event was going to happen til much, much later in the year.”

In 1916, the track’s original visionaries, Carl Fisher, Arthur Newby, James Allison and Frank Wheeler, decided to cut back the 500’s race distance to just 300 miles. “Not solely because they thought the U.S. might enter the War, but Fisher actually thought, maybe, that 500 miles was too long, believe it or not,” said longtime IMS historian Donald Davidson.

That year, the Indy 500 was the center of the first-ever American Automobile Association (AAA) series championship that would be made up of more than a dozen races and start at Sheepshead Bay Speedway in Brooklyn and end in Ascot Park in Los Angeles. Along with the 500, the ownership group decided to chip in another race to help support the cause, though, like this year’s last-minute addition of the IndyCar doubleheader, the plan was formulated a bit last-minute.

Both race events, for separate reasons – this year’s pandemic and the close proximity to the 1916 state fair – managed only to host around 10,000 fans.

“It’s kinda cool that we entered 2020 just like Carl Fisher entered ’16 having no idea they’d run an IndyCar race there in the fall,” Boles said, “I was looking back through the minute meeting notes from June of that year, and on June 17th, they read, ‘Allison moved that a race meet should be held Sept. 9 in a program to consist of three races – 20, 50 and 100 miles – with a total prize money of $12,000.

“It’s funny. We added it just like they added it.”

Before the first 500 in 1911, IMS held a number of race events, to mixed results. Its inaugural three-day festival in August 1909, safety officials put an early end to the first day of racing after multiple scares that included a fatal crash. The third day saw one driver smash into five fence posts, toppling bleachers and causing several injuries and four more deaths. The 300-mile finale was called off, and AAA boycotted any future IMS races until safety concerns could be addressed. In 1910, race fans flocked to the speedway for a three-day Memorial Day weekend extravaganza, but the similar multi-day racing festivals around the Fourth of July and Labor Day fell flat, in terms of attendance.

And so for the next five years (1911-15), the 500-Mile International Sweepstakes was the only race at IMS.

There too, Aitken cemented his name in the record books, leading the first four laps of the 500 after starting on the front row on May 30, 1911. In the early years of the 500, several car companies ran the premier auto-racing event in the country primarily to help bolster their passenger car sales and used everyday employees, like Aitken, and engineer for National. Due to the timing of his team’s entry, Aitken was given the honor of starting on the outside of the front row and got a good jump on the final pace lap to swing down the track and clear of pole-sitter Lewis Strang to lead the first four laps. He would only finish 125 laps, though, taking 27th with a mechanical failure.

Later that year, his 500 driving days were put in jeopardy with an edict coming from Newby, who owned National. One of the team’s drivers, a married man, died in an on-track incident, and from there the team prohibited such men from racing to avoid the destruction of another family.

Instead, Aitken slid over to become the pit manager for Joe Dawson, the 1912 winner, and a year later, Newby suggested his metropolitan racing junkie with an affinity for the French assist the Peugeot team of Jules Goux that would go on to win by more than 13 minutes – still a 500 record.

“He was that day’s ‘Tim Cindric’ or ‘Mike Hull’,” Davidson said. “Working for National and Newby, any time those owners would have dinner and say, ‘Hey, we ought to do this or that, they’d almost immediately say, ‘Well, then let’s go get Aitken.’”

According to Davidson, the do-it-all racing expert was leaned on by Fisher and Co. to do anything from serve on the pursuit team while Fisher flew hot-air balloons to helping test brick-durability during the  IMS’s first evolution as a brick track in the fall of 1909.

“They did an experiment that year where they laid them down along the front straight,” Davidson said. “He did both short and fast and long runs and even staked the car in place to see how they held up just spinning the wheels.”

So it should be no surprise that, with the announcement of the AAA championship in 1916, Aitken was heavily involved. He became the first pole-sitter on merit in the Indy 500 that year, topping 96 mph in qualifying, though he would only finish 69 of the 120 laps to finish 15th of the 21 entries. Elsewhere in the nationwide championship, Aitken flourished, winning two fall races in Brookyln, a road race in Santa Monica and the 300-mile International Sweepstakes at Cincinnati Motor Speedway just days before the Harvest Auto Racing Classic.

Mechanical attrition from the major Ohio race five days earlier dwindled the original 20-car field for the day’s finale down to just 14, along with 10 in the 20-miler and nine in the 50. In the first, Aitken controlled the pace early and held off the future 500 winner Howdy Wilcox by just 0.33 seconds by the end of the fourth lap, and Aitken’s win later that day over Hughie Hughes, who led as late as Lap 15, was even closer (0.28 seconds).

In different ways, Aitken would have to earn the clinch of his day-long sweep. The field consisted of eventual two-time 500 winner Tommy Milton as well as 1915 winner Ralph DePalma, but his fiercest battle came against future track owner Eddie Rickenbacker, who took over the lead from the day’s dominant driver on Lap 24. They’d trade the lead three times over the next 10 laps, but with only four to go, one of Aitken’s right wheels snapped, and he slowed to give Rickenbacker a sizable lead.

But the new leader slammed into the Turn 4 wall with two laps to go after his own right rear fell apart, allowing Aitken to hobble to the finish line, still 19 seconds clear of Hughes. The sweep earned him $4,600, on top of his $12,000 from Cincinnati to create quite the windfall of a week in racing at the time.

He would finish runner-up to 1916 500 winner Dario Resta in the championship, but those racing triumphs would be his last, succumbing to the influenza pandemic in 1918 at just 33 years old. Still, in memory only, Aitken entered this weekend as likely the oldest defending champion of sorts of a revived IndyCar tradition. He would go on to be the last non-500 race-winner at IMS until fellow Indiana-native Gordon’s Brickyard 400 title in 1994.

“If you dig into it, his name pops up quite a lot,” Davidson said. “It’s not out there for you to see, but if you go digging and get on your hands and knees, God, Aitken’s everywhere.”

Email IndyStar motor sports reporter Nathan Brown at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter: @By_NathanBrown.

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