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Blood and Smoke: A True Tale of Mystery, Mayhem and the Birth of the Indy 500 Hardcover – Bargain Price, May 3, 2011
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—Bob Kravitz, The Indianapolis Star
On the centennial of the Indy 500, controversy still reigns over who won the inaugural race, as this lively account of a tumultuous event makes plain.
History comes alive through the research and prose of Leerhsen (Crazy Good: The Story of Dan Patch, the Most Famous Horse in America, 2008), formerly the executive editor of Sports Illustrated. The early days of auto racing ignited plenty of controversy—whether it was even a sport, whether it should be allowed (it seemed far more dangerous than bullfighting, outlawed in the States) and whether, as the New York Times wrote in an editorial headlined “Slaughter as a Spectacle,” the races “bring out the very worst of human nature by providing a most barbarous form of excitement…They are an amusement congenial only to savages and should be stopped.” If such controversy didn’t already give this book enough of a charge, the characters do, led by the entrepreneurial racetrack co-founder “Crazy” Carl Fisher, whose own wife characterized her impulsive, adulterous, reckless spouse as a “lusty and incomprehensible personality.” Then there are drivers such as Barney Oldfield, “the Daredevil Dean of the Roaring Road” who “didn’t have an altruistic bone in his body, but he had a very low threshold of boredom, and plain-vanilla racing excited him as much as it did the average citizen.” For years, plain vanilla appeared to be the only alternative to banishment, as the fledgling sport succumbed to offering a series of short races, much like horse racing, rather than the longer ones that would be more likely to push drivers to destruction and even death. “Which was, of course, why a lot of people came to the auto races,” writes Leerhsen. “Not to see death, exactly, in most cases—but to spend some time luxuriating in its titillating possibility.” And a surprising number of those most titillated were women, as the macho sport proved quite the chick magnet, and anything that suggested strategy was dismissed as “weakness, even femininity.”
By the time the big race rolls around, Leerhsen has already spun a fascinating tale.
"With alternating tales of horrifying crashes and the schemes of Carl Fisher, who promoted the Indianapolis Speedway as a venue for airplane races, this is a ripping good yarn of America in the early 20th century. Leerhsen, a witty storyteller, draws from contemporary articles, histories, and interviews to pull readers into a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the building of the Speedway and the first race.... this book has broad appeal, with laugh-out-loud stories and characters who would be unbelievable if they turned up in fiction. Highly recommended."
—Library Journal, starred review
"Leerhsen provides an entertaining history of the automobile’s growth in the early twentieth century. . . . Along the way, readers are treated to sharply humorous social commentary bolstered by fascinating details of Indianapolis life and industry."
"When you read this gripping account of the first Indy 500 run May 30, 1911, you'll wonder why they ever had a second."
—Doug Clark, Greensboro News-Record (NC)
"Entertaining . . . and snarkily humorous."
—Rusty Blackwell, Automobile
About the Author
More About the Author
Leerhsen has three daughters: Erica, an actor; Deborah, a banker; and Nora, a high school teacher in Chicago. He and his wife, the writer Sarah Saffian (www.saffian.com), live in Brooklyn.
See more about the author and his books at http://charlesleerhsen.com
Top Customer Reviews
Blood and Smoke: A True Tale of Mystery, Mayhem and the Birth of the Indy 500 is the story of events leading up to and the running of the Indianapolis 500 on May 30, 1911. All of this takes place at the coming-of-age of automobile racing in the American entertainment industry. This account includes many personalities and other entities at the cutting edge of an event now known as "Greatest Spectacle in Racing."
The history starts in winter of 1908 when Carl G. Fisher, James A. Allison, Arthur C. Newby and Frank H. Wheeler pooled $250,000 to improve a 320 acre parcel northwest of Indianapolis, thus launching the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Construction of the macadam track began in mid-March with the first auto races scheduled for a three-day meet beginning August 19, 1909. The track's attendance was over 75,000 for the three days and numerous records were set. But tragedy quickly ended Fisher's elation. By the time the three days of racing were over, seven people were dead. He knew something had to be done about the hazardous racing surface. The crushed stone track proved to be unsuitable for racing. Within a few weeks, the owners decided to repave the track with 3,200,000 ten-pound paving bricks, thus "The Brickyard" was born.
The year 1910 saw a number of events at the end of May, July 4th and Labor Day weekend, but attendance numbers declined at each event.Read more ›
The author spends the vast majority of the book with an apparent vendetta against speedway founder Carl Fisher. While all the previous biographies of Fisher that I have read are written by relatives and thusly very sympathetic, he was probably not the brilliant saint as he was portrayed. That being said, the constant denigration of Fisher in this book gets a little tiresome by the end, and it appeared to be just piling on after a point.
I did enjoy the stories about various drivers, officials and other participants, as the author was able to delve into their mannerisms, proclivities, and personalities. While the books flows very well and is written in an entertaining manner, the author's use of hyperbole is often overdone. Just one example is when Ray Harroun's methodical plan of racing is described as comparable to the "gradual accumulation of mutual funds through payroll deduction"
Anyway, don't get me wrong, the author did do quite of bit of reasearch and I did enjoy reading the book, but certain parts of it left me feeling somewhat annoyed.
"Blood and Smoke" can now stand as a definitive work on quite a few aspects of the racing game's early history ... and, at the same time, it is one of the few sports books for which there exists an actual REASON for writing. That Ralph Mulford was discounted as the actual winner of the first Indianapolis 500 -- this book arrives on the event's centennial -- has long been a subject for debate.
Leerhsen does a masterful job of building the case, brick by brick, as it were, for Mulford -- and against Ray Harroun, the acknowledged winner, and "Crazy Carl" Fisher, the man who engineered not only the speedway itself but the final result of the inaugural 500. By the denouement, the reader is perfectly understanding of Mulford's "gentlemanly" acceptance of the verdict. Particularly poignant is Leerhsen's delightful telling of Mulford's sassy and lackadaisical "fried chicken and ice cream finish" to the 1912 race.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian par excellence Donald Davidson has long been in the vanguard of those staunchly defending the official "result" favoring Harroun. But Davidson had only a feeble comeback when Leerhsen discussed Fisher's destruction of all the timing and scoring sheets during a two-day, post-race "investigation" of the final results.
It is, admitted Davidson, "the thing that's hardest to reconcile.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
A super book which I really enjoyed. I particularly enjoyed Charles Leerhsens writing style which incorporates an interesting degree of gallows humour. Read morePublished 3 months ago by Alan. J. Reynolds
Great book for Indy buffs. Really points out the early struggles of the track and some of the aspects of modern racing that we take for granted. Read morePublished 7 months ago by ken higgins
Great view of the history of Indy and the birth of automobiles and racing in this country.The men were visionaries,daredevils,and a little P.T. Read morePublished 8 months ago by William Mackey
The book arrived in terrible condition- It was a gift and I was very disappointed, as I purchased it at new cost.Published 11 months ago by Madison Marshall
A truly great read on the 1911 Indy 500. I am a fan of the 500 and was amazed at what truly went on. Think you know who won, as I did, then enjoy this fact filled book. Read morePublished 12 months ago by C. Rogers
Great read, very good history of the race, Indianapolis, and the automotive industry at the time. Also provides a good look into what was going on at the time.Published 12 months ago by jkitchen