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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

4.2 out of 5 stars 30 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


"Should be required reading for anybody with so much as a vague interest in the birth of the Speedway and the 500."

—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.

Kirkus Reviews

"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

Charles Leerhsen was formerly an executive editor at Sports Illustrated. He has written about sports and culture for Newsweek, Rolling Stone, Esquire, The New York Times, and People, as well as SI. A native of the Bronx, he now lives in Brooklyn with his wife, the writer Sarah Saffian.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; 1 edition (May 3, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1439149046
  • ASIN: B005HKKZK8
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.2 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (30 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #183,134 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Charles Leerhsen, the author of Blood and Smoke: A True Tale of Mystery, Mayhem and the Birth of the Indy 500, has written articles for Sports Illustrated, Esquire, Rolling Stone, The New York Times Magazine, Money, People, TV Guide and Seventeen. He has been an editor at SI, People and Us Weekly, and spent 11 years at Newsweek, where as a senior writer he covered sports (including several Olympic Games), entertainment, family stories and breaking news. At Newsweek he won the National Mental Health Association award for a cover story on alcohol and the family. He has also co-written three best-selling biographies: Trump: Surviving at the Top, with Donald Trump; Press On! Adventures in the Good Life, with pioneer aviator Chuck Yeager; and The Last Great Ride, with entertainment mogul Brandon Tartikoff. Leerhsen's previous book was the highly-acclaimed Crazy Good: The True Story of Dan Patch, the Most Famous Horse in America. He is currently working on a biography of Ty Cobb, his third book for Simon & Schuster.

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

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Since I try to be transparent and in the interest of full disclosure, I admit that Charles used me as a resource in his research and he mentioned our interviews twice in his book. My intent in reviewing Blood and Smoke is to present my observations about his treatment about the first Indianapolis 500.

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.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I was really looking forward to this book, and I thought it started off good and flowed very well. By the time I finished it however I was a little weary. The vast majority of the book sets up the background story,and only the last couple chapters discuss the first 500.

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.
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Format: Hardcover
Charles Leerhsen has done a swell job of describing the emergence of auto racing in America ... there isn't a word which seems out of place, not a wrong note sounded anywhere. His perspicacity in constructing a memorable tome about one of the truly remarkable events in American sports history is to be applauded. This is a thoughtfully and diligently researched book -- and a damned good read.

"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.
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While the subjects of early racing, the Indy 500, and Carl Fisher are very interesting the author's overdone use of analogies and hyperboles were tiresome. It seemed as if the author was not only telling a story but also trying to impress us with how cute and creative he could be. Just give us the story and the history.
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