By: Spencer Neff
May 10, 2018 | 9:00 AM
Each May, nearly 300,000 spectators descend upon the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to watch the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing”, the Indianapolis 500. Since 1911, this has been the tradition and over the 101 runnings of the race, traditions have been built up and legends made.
One of the earliest examples of a crossing between racing legend and Indianapolis 500 tradition is the story of Tommy Milton. Milton would not only become one of the early superstars of the Indianapolis 500, but also initiated a long-standing tradition of the race.
Milton’s story begins in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he was born on November 14, 1893. Despite not having vision in his right eye and impaired vision in his left, the son of a dairy owner used his competitive spirit to excel in athletics from an early age.
That determination led Milton to auto racing. In 1913 he began a two-year journey as part of a traveling circus. After being fired, the young standout would begin his driving career on the dirt tracks in the midwest.
After joining the team of Fred and Augie Duesenberg, Milton slowly worked his way up to stardom in racing. In 1917, he earned his first career victory at a 100-mile event in Providence, Rhode Island.
Milton’s success with the Dusenburgs continued as he stayed with them during World War I, as he was unable to serve in the military because of his vision issues.
By 1919, thanks in part to the new straight-eight engine, he became a dominant force in motorsport. Milton won five races and set several closed-course speed records.
That year, Milton debuted at the Indianapolis 500. After starting 31st, he dropped out after 50 laps and finished 25th due to a connecting rod issue. Despite the disappointing results, things began to take an upturn at the start of the next decade.
Milton would work over the winter to develop a twin-engine car. On April 20, 1920, Milton set out for Daytona Beach, Florida. There he would eclipse the land speed record set by 1915 Indianapolis 500 winner Ralph DePalma, with a mark of 156.046 MPH.
A month later, he again embarked upon the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. After qualifying 11th, Milton made his way to the front, completing all 200 laps and finishing third behind Gaston Chevrolet and 1914 winner René Thomas.
After a dispute between he and the Duesenbergs, Milton left the team and attempted to field his own car for 1921. The attempt proved unsuccessful, and Milton accepted a ride in a Frontenac. After working his way to the lead, Milton led 90 laps en route to his first 500 win, besting Roscoe Sarles, who took over Milton’s ride with the Dusenburgs, by nearly four minutes.
A partnership with the Durant family would prove to be a very fruitful endeavor for Milton during the remainder of the 1921 season. In 1922, a dispute with AAA (sanctioning body) led to the prohibition of the “Durant Special”.
That year, Milton would achieve his previous goal of running his own chassis at Indianapolis, this time with a Miller engine. Starting 24th, his dreams of becoming the first repeat and two-time winner of the 500 dashed early in the race, when fuel tank issues forced him out after 44 laps.
In 1923, Milton returned to the speedway with his Miller chassis. After starting on pole, the entry dominated. 1919 winner Howdy Wilcox would serve as a relief driver for Milton from Lap 103 to 151.
During this break, the 1921 winner would have his hands bandaged due to blisters and shoes replaced due to crimping. After taking over the ride for the final 49 laps, he pulled away to a 195-second lead. Milton became the first driver to win a second Indianapolis 500.
Milton finished 21st and fifth in the following two Indianapolis 500s before announcing his retirement in February 1926. In 1927, Milton and Cornelius van Ranst entered the race in Cliff Durant’s Detroit Special.
After van Ranst became ill, Milton took over driving for the car. After starting 25th, the two-time champion charged through the field, completing all 200 laps and finishing eighth before retiring for good.
Upon his retirement, Milton became heavily involved with Packard. It was there where his next role in Indianapolis 500 lore would take place.
In 1936, Packard asked Milton to drive the Packard 120 that would be used as the pace car for the event. Milton agreed, under the condition that the winner would be given the pace car. Louis Meyer won that race, breaking a tie between he and Milton at two 500 wins apiece.
From then on, the winner of the Indianapolis 500 has received a replica of or the actual pace car from the race.
In 1949, Milton was again asked to take on a new role at the race. This time he was appointed chief steward and occupy the role until 1957, when health problems forced him to step away.
After battling illness, Milton passed away from a self-inflicted gunshot wound on July 10, 1962 in Mount Clements, Michigan.
Although several decades have passed since Milton etched his name into the history books, his influence on the Indianapolis 500 can not be overlooked, especially with his legacy going beyond the track.
Header image courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway.