Friday, October 30, 2009

Frank Lockhart, the Greatest Automobile Race Driver of them all

Malcolm Campbell, Frank Lockhart, and Ray Keech

Frank Lockhart. Hi folks -- I don't know why, but I am getting very interested in the life and accomplishments of this man.

He was known “the King of the Dirt Tracks,” and as much of a household name as Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey during the 1920s. After his successes on the track he decided to become the fastest man on earth and to accomplish this he built the Stutz Black Hawk, which experts of the day called “the most mechanically perfect automobile ever built in the world.” Eclipsing the then standing record of 206.95 m.p.h. with a speed of 225, a blown tire caused his car to roll down the beach. Lockhart, body broken, died in the arms of his wife at age 25.
In achieving fame Lockhart defied all the odds. He was poor, relatively uneducated, and obscure. Appearing rather frail, he was five foot eight and 135 pounds. But he had a will that was unstoppable. Born in Dayton Ohio in 1903, it was said that he lived next door to the father of the Wright Brothers,. Frank’s father, Casper Lockhart, was a theology student from Indiana. When his father died at age six his mother, Carrie, moved to California. While growing up, Frank was different from the other children. He read material on mechanics voraciously, and enjoyed playing with numbers rather than words. At age eight he built a Soapbox Derby type of vehicle, and won the neighborhood races. But at school he did poorly, only interested in automobiles and drawing cars with envelope profiles. His mother recalled to Griffith Borgeson that “His teachers were always calling me to school and confronting me with drawings of streamlined cars. They would say, ‘this is the way your son is spending his time, drawing these ridiculous things.” I would protest that those were automobiles. They would say, “What! Those things? Nobody will ever ride in things like that they’re impossible. They don’t even have running boards. The child is crazy. Punish him!”[1] Somehow, Frank managed to graduate from high school, but only with great difficulty.
At age 16 Frank owned his first car, a rusted Model T, and he immediately sought to improve it by scrounging parts, including those from Ray McDowell’s Hollywood speed shop. It was from Ray he got a Model T engine, and he rebuilt it on the floor of his mother’s home in Inglewood. Attending a technical school at night, driving at Ascot and other West Coast tracks, he drove his racer with courage and skill. It was recounted that “No one ever sat in a race car like Frank. One a mile dirt track he seemed to begin his slide in the middle of the straightaway. Nobody ever imitated him. His skill and daring were tremendous. He wasn’t exactly cool. He always got real bad butterflies before a race. He’d even vomit. In the car he’d say, “pat me on the shoulder.” You’d do that and it seemed to fix he butterflies. But once the flag feel he was in command of everything. I once asked him what he thought about when he was racing. ‘All I think of from one second to the next,’ he said, is how to drive to win.”
[1] Griffith Borgeson, The Golden Age of the American Racing Car (New York: Bonanza Books, 1966), p.241.

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