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Rickenbacker: Building Cars and Making Auto Racing History

Updated on February 12, 2014
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Karen gets fascinating WWI and WWII aviation stories from the Vintage Aero Flying Museum as writer for the Great War Stories Gift Shop.

An auto racing success

 Eddie Rickenbacker in his Maxwell on the Avenue of Palms, during either the 1915 American Grand Prize and Vanderbilt Cup in San Francisco.
Eddie Rickenbacker in his Maxwell on the Avenue of Palms, during either the 1915 American Grand Prize and Vanderbilt Cup in San Francisco. | Source

Rickenbacker and auto racing

This article covers Eddie Rickenbacker's auto racing years. It is the follow-on to an article introducing Eddie Rickenbacker, best known for being the top American ace pilot in World War 1, but also a success in several other fields.

Rickenbacker as car salesman

How do you get to be a top race car driver? Eddie Rickenbacker started as a riding mechanic, and took full advantage of opportunities that came his way. His knowledge of cars and engines impressed the owner of the company when he was still 17. The owner later gave him a bigger opportunity to succeed or fail by sending him to Dallas to find out why three new cars broke down after delivery to a customer.

What Rickenbacker found was a Dallas summer is harder on an engine than a Detroit summer. He poured cold water on the pistons, shrinking them microscopically and permanently. It looked like an impressive display of knowledge, and it was based on his general knowledge of heat, cold, and engines. Actually, it was something that just happened to work, and for a moment he even thought he’d cracked the engine. He did have a guess at why it worked, and later found someone to prove it, but meanwhile he kept the customer happy and under the impression Rickenbacker knew what he was doing. In another case, having the same attitude made him three sales when he fixed a bent axle by blacksmithing it over a bonfire.

It was a useful attitude for a salesman. Not dishonest, but neither was it forthright. The same attitude would be useful in racing and in fighting Germany’s Flying Circus. In a way, you are selling something in a fight: the idea that, whatever it looks like, you are winning.

Rickenbacker as race car driver

By 1910, Rickenbacker was 19 and making $150 a month (about a five-fold salary increase in five years, but then it’s normal for a 19-year-old to be more useful than a 14-year-old). He was selling cars, but also teaching some of the dealers how to better service cars and earn customers’ trust. This sales job led him, like many car salesmen at that time, into racing. Prize money was nice, but the races also called attention to the car’s performance, increasing sales.

Though Rickenbacker put more time than most into preparing the car and practicing driving the curves of each track, he learned some things the hard way, such as that ruts and ridges change the track quickly over the course of a race. Some tracks were worse than others, and some he considered suicidal. One track went across a dam. When a competitor’s tire blew out, Rickenbacker ended up sliding down the face of the dam, and his competitor ended up in the lake.

Tires in those days did not last long, and changing a tire took longer, so tires were a big factor in races. Light tires meant better speed driving, but heavy tires meant not having to stop for tire changes so often. The driver had to make quick decisions well: how long would a worn tire last, how much did that depend on the state of the ruts in the curves, how does the time to change compare with the chance of the tire blowing out? Would a blowout mean loss of life, loss or car, or loss of race?

Auto racing - a good living if you survive

Auto racing was a good preparation in many ways for being a fighter pilot. Rickenbacker learned how important it was to anticipate; it didn’t matter where the car was right now, as much as where it would be in five seconds.

Racing was also a deadly job. At a race in Sioux City, conditions were so bad the press was saying the race would be won by whoever survived it. Two men did die in the race, and Rickenbacker’s riding mechanic lost consciousness from being hit in the head by a piece of the track. But the team won $12,500.

After watching one of Rickenbacker’s accidents where his mechanic came within a few inches of being cut in two, his mother left for home without even waiting for Eddie.

The man with the right skills and the right car could get a lot of money fast from auto racing, but he was regularly risking his life to do it. Rickenbacker’s stories of racing are filled with descriptions of “X flew out of the car and was killed, Y and his mechanic were crushed as the car rolled over.” And yet he called it fun and a good period of his life. He liked and respected the other drivers; it seems they faced death and helped each other in the face of it much as the first pilots did, and yet were intensely competitive with each other at other times.

Rickenbacker also learned to keep going regardless of his emotions; the race goes on even when you've just seen your closest friend get killed.

The Indy 500 in 1912

Joe Dawson winning the 1912 Indianapolis 500 race
Joe Dawson winning the 1912 Indianapolis 500 race | Source

Losing the Indy 500

Rickenbacker was still making the most of opportunities, legitimate and not.

In one race, he won because he had a split-second view of an accident as it happened. When he came around again and thick smoke was over the whole area, he knew where the people and pieces were and knew he was safe in going full speed ahead through the smoke. As he put it, that one glimpse was worth $25,000 to his team.

He didn’t always win, though. He never won the Indianapolis 500, but once he crossed the finish line driving on his brake drums, after one broken spoke led to more. (If he had known the car behind him was also broken, he could have gone slowly enough to save his wheel and still win the race.)

Another time he would probably have won if his engine hadn’t stopped, so his car got inspected and officials discovered the illegal tire oiling system that kept the track from tearing up his treads.

One could wonder whether his other wins were also due to cheating, but his war record shows he really had great abilities. “All’s fair in love and war”; there is no such thing as cheating when it is not a game, when you are both trying to kill each other.

1912 French Grand Prix

Georges Boillot winning the 1912 French Grand Prix in Dieppe, France
Georges Boillot winning the 1912 French Grand Prix in Dieppe, France | Source

Not the Red Baron, that other baron

Rickenbacker was becoming famous, and wondered whether he should hire a press agent. A friend advised him not to bother, saying that winning races was all he had to do to get his name in print.

His name did get in print, for good and bad. Newsmen like to sell stories, and picked up on his Germanic background to compare him with a German who was winning the Grand Prix in France at the time. They referred to Rickenbacker as Teutonic, a Swiss, and a Deutscher. Then one reporter made up a story about him being a Prussian nobleman, Baron Edward von Rickenbacher, which was just funny at the time, but led to trouble during WW1 when he was trying to fight for the Allies.

(It would have made an even better news story to write about Baron Edward von Rickenbacker fighting Baron Manfred von Richthofen. But it would be a waste of creativity. Rickenbacker’s life included enough true stories to keep any newsman’s papers sold.)

14 brushes with death

During his racing years, Rickenbacker had what might or might not be described as a “conversion”; he noticed he had had fourteen close brushes with death – so far – and decided it was a good time to start being on good terms with God and praying every night.

How to succeed, the Rickenbacker way

At the time he was in charge of teams rebuilding race cars, Rickenbacker developed a booklet of advice for the men on the team. Half a century later, after becoming America’s top ace of WW1, living through the Great Depression, and running a major airline, he still considered it good advice, enough to repeat part of it in his autobiography. It deserves repeating here, in a time of bad economy and high unemployment:

If you don’t like the way we do business, if you don’t like your teammates, don’t grouse and don’t go around with a long face. Quit this job and get another one somewhere else. The trouble with a lot of people is that they are not willing to begin anywhere in order to get at a fighting chance. My advice is: Throw away that false pride. No honest work is beneath you. Jump in and demonstrate your superiority. Once you get on the pay roll, make up your mind to master everything about your own job, and get ready for the job at the top. Your particular task is merely one end of a trail that leads to the driver’s seat. That is my philosophy of success. It works, I have tried it and proved it.

--Edward Vernon Rickenbacker, Rickenbacker (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1967), 85

The advice is not particularly original, but the last sentence says it all – Eddie Rickenbacker just might know something about how to succeed.

Making decisions, the Rickenbacker way

Another idea Rickenbacker developed around this time was that no important decision should be made before noon. This is because blood flows well to the brain when one is horizontal at night, but the thinking from that time can be wild and needs to be evaluated in full daylight. Think it sounds crazy? Are you a better decision-maker than Eddie Rickenbacker?

A Curtiss JN-3 from about the time of Rickenbacker's first airplane ride

Curtiss JN-3 of the U.S. Army Signal Corps during the Pancho Villa puntive expedition (1915) - note red star insignia
Curtiss JN-3 of the U.S. Army Signal Corps during the Pancho Villa puntive expedition (1915) - note red star insignia | Source

Rickenbacker's first airplane ride

War had been going on in Europe for a couple of years when Rickenbacker got invited to work for a car company in England. Shortly before leaving, he experienced in California his first airplane ride, from one of the Wright brothers’ early students. He was interested to find his acrophobia wasn’t a problem in a plane.

He went on to win what he did not know would be his last auto race. Then he left for England, where he would be accused as a German spy.

Get Rickenbacker's autobiography


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    • aethelthryth profile image

      aethelthryth 3 years ago from American Southwest

      Thank you, GetitScene. Learning about WWI aviation has got us busy organizing commemorative events about WWI for homeschoolers (with the idea that if we start talking in 2014 about what happened 100 years ago now, eventually in 2016 or so we'll get to do a lot of talking about airplanes 100 years ago.) But it's kept me too busy to be writing more articles for now, though I should at least post a thing I wrote summarizing the top names to know in WWI aviation.

    • GetitScene profile image

      Dale Anderson 3 years ago from The High Seas

      I love your series on WWI Aces, a topic of interest for me since I was about 12 (earlier if you count my obsession with Snoopy fighting the Red Baron). I bet the planes Eddie flew seemed to go painfully slow compared to the car races he was in.