Ted Horn – One of Indy’s greatest unlucky heroes

On the eve of Memorial Day Weekend, when we would traditionally be watching the biggest race in the world, David Malsher-Lopez pays tribute to Ted Horn, one of racing’s true greats who was consistently robbed by fate at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Ted Horn – One of Indy’s greatest unlucky heroes

Michael Andretti is often highlighted as the unluckiest racer at Indianapolis Motor Speedway over the last 50 years, famously leading more laps there than four-time winner Rick Mears, yet never visiting Victory Lane (as a driver).

Michael’s equivalent in the first 50 years of the Speedway, was surely Rex Mays, who took four Indy pole positions, led 266 laps in his 12 IMS ventures, but was never in front past the halfway stage of the race, largely due to car maladies. While Andretti lost six opportunities of 500 glory by being on the Champ Car side of Indy car racing’s open-wheel split (and another by being in Formula 1 in 1993, when his former and future team Newman/Haas had a potential winner), so Mays missed out on four years of potential IMS glory due to the Brickyard’s shutdown during America’s involvement in World War II.

But Mays had a contemporary who, although he led far fewer Indy laps, won three AAA championships (roughly equivalent to the NTT IndyCar Series title today) compared with Mays’ two and has a mind-boggling run of results at the Brickyard. That man is Ted Horn, who won the 1946, ’47 and ’48 AAA titles, while at the Indy 500, between 1936 and ’48 (obviously the War cost him the same four chances that it had Mays), scored nine straight finishes of fourth or better – a record that remains unbroken to this day. At a time when racecars were far less reliable than now, and the track was far more of a car-punisher than it is these days, Horn’s record is extraordinary.

The Miller-Ford V8 was a nice looking car, but its mechanical layout would be its downfall.

The Miller-Ford V8 was a nice looking car, but its mechanical layout would be its downfall.

Photo by: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Eylard Theodore von Horn was born on Feb. 27, 1910 in Cincinnati, OH to Armandus and Mary. His parents soon dropped the ‘Von’ – it wasn’t advisable to reveal German roots during World War I – and the family moved to Pittsburgh, PA when Armandus got a job as representative of a Cincinnati paper house. He was paid well enough that little Theodore – Ted – could be sent to a private school in Greensburg. But Armandus’ health took a dive and so, in 1920, the family moved to San Mateo, California, and four years later headed to San Francisco.

The following summer, a peach-picking expedition earned 15-year-old Ted enough money to buy himself a jalopy, and while his parents disapproved they nonetheless agreed to drive it south to yet another new home, this time near Los Angeles. Within weeks, however, Ted had wrecked the wreck against a telegraph pole.

One day, as he drove to work at the LA Times, a job his father had secured for him, Ted was stopped for speeding, and the cop recommended he saved his efforts for a race track. He confiscated the car and sent the teenager to a raceway in San Jose, but there the car Horn should have gotten to drive had its engine seize in practice, so he was unable to start. He would suffer a similar experience the following week at Colton, but already he was intrigued by the sport.

However, Horn’s initial attempts at racing were those of a driver whose bravery and enthusiasm far outstripped his skills. At Banning in Riverside County, Horn tangled with rival and ended up crashing through a fence. Two years later at Legion Ascot Speedway, outside LA, his very first lap of the day at racing speed saw him crash at the end of the back straight. In March 1931, he crashed into a tree, rolled his car, crushed his foot and burned his back. On his comeback, at Oakland in October, he was more temperate… and slow.

Lord knows where an individual finds the motivation to continue when he or she is seeing no upside and the perils of the sport are all too apparent even for those who are good at it. Too many of racing’s aces paid the ultimate price for relatively minuscule mistakes in this era. The most prestigious racetrack of all, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, took its toll, given that it consisted of bricks and patchwork asphalt surrounded by unyielding concrete walls, and the cars were heavy shuddering chassis with crumply bodywork and they ran bias-ply tires on quivering wire wheels.

But damn, the dirt ovals that comprised the AAA championships were something else again, with track conditions changing every lap. If the narrow wheels of the era caught ruts at the wrong angle at the wrong speed, they could grip, tip and flip a car out of control, hurling its driver into the lap of the gods.

And yet Horn apparently was not discouraged by his fraught early experiences, and the turning point came on a return to Ascot, when he received driving tips from Chet Gardner, a sprint car ace who would eventually be killed in 1938 at Flemington, NJ, after swerving to avoid a kid running onto the track. After avidly taking on board Gardner’s advice regarding braking, turn-in points and carrying momentum, Horn was able to cut his lap times on a mile-long track by a full three seconds! Suddenly he was outpacing future Indy 500 winner Floyd Roberts and future Indy 500 co-winner Floyd Davis. That weekend Horn finished fifth in his heat, and although he was then last in the 10-lap prelim to the 100-lap feature, he headed home satisfied that his racecar was still in one piece and his competitiveness had taken an almighty leap forward.

And continued to improve. In May 1932, admittedly facing a thinner field due to the stars of the day heading to Indy, Horn took a couple of third places in his heat races, and that attracted the attention of car owner Bill Rasor. In August at Ascot, Horn tipped his car, fell out and felt his machine roll over him although he somehow remained uninjured. But in September he returned and won the B heat, then the B final and repeated the is performance in October at San Jose. Aged 22, Horn was finally seeing real progress and real results.

The following May, again with most prominent drivers at Indy, Horn was thrust into prominence at San Diego and there he beat George Connor in the Helmet Dash, won the first heat and then won the feature to notch up the first clean sweep of his career. At Ascot in June, he finished second to series veteran Carl Ryder, and it was around this time that Ted elected to make racing his career for now. He had witnessed death, destruction and injury and yet he wasn’t to be diverted. Ascot would claim the lives of six racers in 1933, and Horn himself would have another barrel-rolling crash that resulted in broken ribs, but by year’s end he was second in the Class B points standings behind Swede Smith. In Class A, Al Gordon and Rex Mays had emerged as kingpins, particularly after a big accident for the great two-time and reigning champion Ernie Triplett.

In 1934, the AAA championship brought in new rules to help ‘equalize’ the cars (you thought that was a new thing?) and bring them closer to stock. Horn earned his road racing chops driving for Ford on the two-mile Gilmore Mines Field track, and as the 125-lap race went on, he grew evermore adept at the rough and dusty course, surrounded by 60,000 spectators. Although starting only 18th, he finished sixth and another hurdle had been overcome, although the race had cost the life of driver Kenny Willens.

Horn's Harry Hartz-run Wetteroth-Miller finished second in 1936, and led 16 laps.

Horn's Harry Hartz-run Wetteroth-Miller finished second in 1936, and led 16 laps.

Photo by: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

At this time, racing as a whole was increasingly coming under the spotlight for its safety – or lack thereof – and the media had a field day following a particularly traumatic race at El Centro, in Imperial County. In horrendously dusty conditions, Horn’s rival from the year before, Swede Smith, struck a stalled car in the middle of the track and tipped into a barrel roll. A pitcrew member rushed to the driver’s aid, but poor Triplett, unsighted through the dust until the last split second, suddenly spied the brave pedestrian, swerved in vain to try and avoid him, then also hit the fence and bounced back into Al Gordon’s car. This nightmarish scenario cost the lives of the crew member, Smith and Triplett.

At Ernie’s funeral, someone spotted a writer and photographer from The Examiner, which had sprayed its pages with lurid photos and sensationalist prose following the incident, and Horn was apparently among a small group of drivers who pounced on these anti-racing journalists and ‘kidnapped’ them! The penman and snapper insisted they had been roughed up, the racers pointed out that the so-called kidnapping had only resulted in the pair being driven back to the head office of The Examiner, and no formal charges were ever brought.

Another road race, this time at Ascot and named the Targa Florio (!), showed how quickly Horn was able to adapt now that he had the foundations of a skillset on which to draw. Starting from third, he shot straight into the lead of the 100-lap race around the 1.5-mile course. On Lap 18 he had to concede his lead to Mel Kenealy but the pair then remained locked together, warding off Mays and others. Kenealy broke a spindle on Lap 65 allowing Horn back in front but he was now being pursued by the already legendary Louis Meyer, up from 18th on the grid. Meyer snuck ahead with less than 10 laps to go, Horn retook the lead the following lap but with a loosening brake rod, he had to concede the lead once more with two laps to go. Still, Meyer crossed the finish line only 250 yards ahead, and was full of praise for his new rival.

Horn’s now obvious and increasing potential had caught the attention of motorsport followers across the nation, and east coast promoter Ralph “Pappy” Hankinson came out to California to offer Horn a contract – where he found he was pushing at an open door. Horn, now getting frustrated that he was still unable to land a truly good ride in the A class of the Pacific South West division, willingly agreed to spend the race season out east. Arrangements were made whereby he would operate out of Paterson, NJ, occasionally campaigning the car of rival and friend Babe Stapp, but would then revert to Bill Rasor’s McDowell machine. 

You can almost 'see' the noise in this great pic taken on the pace lap in 1937. Horn's supercharged Miller (car #3 in the middle of the last row) had been unreliable in practice, and so he took it easy in qualifying, but come the race, he finished third. Note the double wall, and the outer rim of the track now at the same angle as the main surface.

You can almost 'see' the noise in this great pic taken on the pace lap in 1937. Horn's supercharged Miller (car #3 in the middle of the last row) had been unreliable in practice, and so he took it easy in qualifying, but come the race, he finished third. Note the double wall, and the outer rim of the track now at the same angle as the main surface.

Photo by: IMS Photos

In his initial foray east in 1934, Horn visited the Indianapolis 500, but felt that neither the Duesenberg-based special he was offered, nor he as a driver were quite ready for the 500. Instead he sat it out and observed – then, along with Mays, he headed up to Winchester, 90 miles away. Driving Stapp’s car, Horn made it into the feature, but was struck on his linen-helmeted head by a rock, obliging him to pit and receive stitches.

After mechanical DNFs at Dayton and Langhorne, Horn dominated in Hohokus, NJ, and produced a repeat performance at Woodbridge, won a match race against local star Walt Brown at Hohokus and then won the feature race there.

Further strong finishes, more wins at Hohokus, and then it was time for Horn to head home to Cali. On his way, he elected to take part in a race in Chicago but while running a comfortable third, he suddenly pulled in, saying only that he had a feeling he should do so. He and a bewildered pitcrew member were loading the McDowell back onto a trailer when one of the front wheels collapsed, its spokes having worked loose. Had that happened at racing speed…

Some put Horn’s apparent premonition down to him being mechanically sympathetic, but for Horn himself it heightened his own superstitions, which in later years would spread to other areas of his race weekends. This charming and mild-mannered man, well known for his approachability and affability, would not allow fans to pose with him before a race, nor sit in the cockpit of his racecars, having seen drivers do this and then suffer fatal accidents. Instead he would urge them to come visit him in the pits post-race, once he was ‘in the clear’.

Arriving home in SoCal in the fall of ’34, Horn discovered he had been invited by the legendary racecar builder Harry Miller for a chat. Not long into the meeting, he heard the grand plan: Miller would be building 10 front-wheel-drive cars for Indy in 1935, powered by Ford V8 engines, with 1925 Indy winner Pete de Paolo leading the team, and the project being funded by nationwide Ford dealers corralled by Preston Tucker. It seemed a dream come true and Horn signed up immediately.

De Paolo’s doubts started as soon as he saw the design, which had the steering box located next to the engine block, and his misgivings proved well founded. Come race day, as the engines got hotter, the steering wheels became near-impossible to turn and one by one the Miller drivers retired with driver fatigue. Horn, who had qualified 26th, was the last to quit, only giving up the struggle at three-quarter distance when he felt it was too dangerous to continue.

His brave endeavor was worth it. An impressed Harry Hartz – the AAA National champ from 1926, who as team owner had put Billy Arnold and Fred Frame into IMS Victory Lane – approached the exhausted Horn in pitlane and offered him an Indy ride for 1936. They shook on it on the spot.

Horn produced an unusually subdued performance in Chicago early next month and soon after learned that his father Armandus had died, but after returning east following the funeral, Horn’s speed was unabated, even if the car he was now piloting – Paul Fromm’s Lion Head Winfield Rocker Arm Special (racecars had wonderful names in those days) was not quite on the pace. After borrowing a different machine, Horn seemed on the verge of winning in Lewistown, PA, when a fast and young rival slid into him and their resultant crash sent them through the fence, Horn being speared by a railing that tore his right shoulder muscle and broke both his shoulder and collarbone.

While Ted lay in hospital, he was visited by Hankinson who offered to advance him money to build his own car, on condition that the investment was repaid from prize money at the next Indy 500. Ted agreed, and despite discovering his right arm and shoulder were now somewhat restricted in movement and lacking in strength, once he left hospital he headed back west to customize a Miller into his new racecar, Baby.

Their debut together came at El Centro the following March, and Horn ran third in the Feature when he spied his engine was overheating. He pitted and parked, eager not to blow his budget on an expensive engine rebuild.

Horn found the Hartz-Miller sluggish when its newly enlarged fuel tank was full to the brim. A precautionary stop to check all was well would ruin his chances in 1938.

Horn found the Hartz-Miller sluggish when its newly enlarged fuel tank was full to the brim. A precautionary stop to check all was well would ruin his chances in 1938.

Photo by: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Arriving at Indy for his second 500, now in the quite different Harry Hartz-run Miller, he and all the drivers had a ‘new’ track to learn. The track’s 10ft-wide and steeper outer lip had been removed, and new walls had been installed at 90-degrees to the track surface rather than to the vertical. However, they were now even more unyielding, for the original walls had been retained and the wedge-shaped gap between old and new wall had been filled with concrete! Meanwhile, on the inside of the course, the wall and earth banks had been removed, leaving room for an ‘apron’, and parts of the track surface had been altered too, asphalt patches now covering some of the worst gouged brick areas in the turns.

Hartz, who as a driver at Indy had scored three second places and two fourths, took Horn around the course giving him tips on how to get the most from a front-drive car. However, the team owner was also eager that Horn didn’t give away the strength of his car during practice, so urged him to take it easy down the front straight until race day. Ted, by no means an egotist, always soaked up advice from those he respected and did as bidden. He would qualify 11th, then on Memorial Day let his competitive instincts kick in and rose through the pack to lead Laps 131-146. In response to new tough fuel regulations – only 37.5 gallons permitted for the 500 miles – he showed great maturity by easing off in the closing stages (seven cars rolled to a fuel-less halt) and he came home second to old rival Meyer who drank the milk – first time for an Indy winner – and got his face on the awe-inspiring and newly created Borg-Warner Trophy.

On reflection, Horn could be satisfied: OK, he’d finished over two minutes behind the leader, but Meyer had already won the race before, and Horn had beaten all the other more experienced and proven aces. Further gratification came when he received his runner-up prize of $15,000 – with which he swiftly settled his deal with Pappy – and earned a couple of sponsorship endorsements too. Most reassuring of all was that Hartz had been so impressed that he agreed, on a handshake again, to run Ted at Indy for at least two more years.

Through the remainder of ’36, meanwhile, Horn campaigned the four National Championship races but he was cautious – perhaps overly so – of his ‘Baby’. In sprint cars, by contrast, he was always in the hunt, always a real force to be reckoned with.

Over the winter of 1936/37, the workaholic Hartz – a fascinating subject in his own right – worked hard on his Millers. The farcical situation in the closing laps of the previous 500, with cars running out of gas right, left and center, caused the fuel capacity restriction to be lifted, rule-makers instead insisting on pump gasoline. So not only did Hartz stretch the wheelbase of his car from 101 to 104 inches to settle the handling around IMS’s long fast turns, he also added a supercharger.

Faster the car undoubtedly was, but by May ’37 it was not yet proven reliable, and throughout practice Horn was plagued by mechanical issues. Still, come qualifying (10 laps in those days, rather than four), he was brave enough not to show the car’s full potential and he narrowly squeaked onto the back row in 32nd. Pacing himself well in 92degF heat on raceday, Horn had nonetheless carved his way through to third place before half-distance but, in an unusual miscue, Hartz was too late in giving the ‘Go’ signal to urge Horn to unleash the car’s full capability. He probably could have chased down eventual winner Wilbur Shaw whose car was wilting, and the exhausted Ralph Hepburn who had Bob Swanson drive more than quarter of the race for him. The lead duo finished just 2.16sec apart – the closest Indy finish until Gordon Johncock beat Rick Mears by 0.16sec, 45 years later – with Horn just a further 11sec in arrears. A crestfallen Hartz was left kicking himself, but Horn provided a wholly different perspective that cheered his boss: after the car’s strife in practice, third place was a huge achievement.

A move to Cotton Henning's team in 1939 to drive the Boyle Special promised much and Horn qualified fourth but luck continued to elude him on race days.

A move to Cotton Henning's team in 1939 to drive the Boyle Special promised much and Horn qualified fourth but luck continued to elude him on race days.

Photo by: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Ted and Baby hit the Hankinson circuit hard through the rest of the season, but Ted found his homebuilt car wasn’t quite the pacesetter he’d hoped, and he was ceding wins to the best of his rivals – Mays, Bob Sall, Billy Winn, Mauri Rose and Frank Wearne. Worse was to come: in Nashville, TN, a multi-car pile-up that seriously injured Duke Nalon also left Horn knocked out and in critical condition and Baby as a wreck.

The car’s shortcomings had been apparent – it couldn’t compete for even the top five on anything outside the county fair and half-mile tracks – but Horn simply didn’t have the money to do anything but rebuild it for 1938. He did so and apparently did it well. Horn and Baby made their rebirth run at El Centro, setting a new American record for a one-mile track in 38.14sec to grab pole at 94.39mph and went on to win. A week later, they finished second to Mays at Phoenix, went up to Reading and conquered the first of the Pankinson-run trail, and then finished second to Sall at Hohokus.

Back to Indy for May, and again a chance for Horn to succeed was squandered – inadvertently by the man himself. With fuel unrestricted again, Hartz figured that adding a larger fuel tank would be the answer so that, theoretically, Ted would have to stop only once. Lining up sixth, he pitted early as a precautionary reaction to the car’s unbelievably sluggish handling. Was something wrong? Reassured by Hartz that he had nothing to worry about and it was merely the first time he’d run on the full and now exceedingly large fuel tank, Horn hit the track once more. Sure enough, the car’s agility improved as the fuel level came down, and Horn pitted mid-distance for his second stop. Now he was comfortable with the car’s vastly varying handling from full- to empty-tank, Horn pushed all the way to the checkers, finishing fourth.

At the victory banquet the following night, he got talking to another team owner, Cotton Henning, who needed a front-wheel-drive ace to run his Miller in the following year’s 500. Hartz, who was now losing interest, gave the deal and Ted his blessing for a move.

It was as if the mere offer reinvigorated Horn and his belief in himself: he ran in the top five seemingly everywhere for the remainder of the season, although one of his best tracks, Hohokus, was closed forever when a car plowed into a group of spectators, killing one. Finally in Milwaukee, Horn clinched his first victory of the summer, and in Richmond he set a new half-mile record at 70.59mph.

Poor Ted is apparently destined to finish behind someone yet again… Here he shares a tandem with the great Wilbur Shaw, three-time Indy 500 winner and the man who helped revive the Speedway after WWII.

Poor Ted is apparently destined to finish behind someone yet again… Here he shares a tandem with the great Wilbur Shaw, three-time Indy 500 winner and the man who helped revive the Speedway after WWII.

Photo by: IMS Photos

At season’s end, Baby was left dismantled in New Jersey, and Ted headed back to Cali determined to find or build a ‘proper’ AAA championship-quality car, now that his superbly consistent run of results had produced enough prize money to get him what he needed. The Haskell-Miller – a 1932 car which had been progressively modified over the years – was his choice and he took it to the McDowell shops where buddy Harry Lewis would build the body, while Ted and McDowell would sort the mechanicals.

At Indy in ’39, Henning’s Miller, backed by Chicago businessman Mike Boyle, seemed to have the pace necessary for Horn’s strongest shot yet at 500 glory, and he lined up fourth, in this first year of qualifying runs being cut to just four laps. But in a traumatic race that saw the previous year’s winner perish in an accident, and Meyer take a hard enough hit to end his career, Ted found his swift machine was suffering overheating at high speed, necessitating four pitstops to replenish the radiator. He would come home fourth.

Horn remained one of the sprint car kings, racking up multiple wins at Milwaukee Mile, Richmond and Danbury, but post-season he consulted with a surgeon in Florida who advised him to improve his fitness and increase the mobility and strength of his right arm. Taking heed of this advice, Horn became passionate about rowing in particular, and maintaining his physique. With an eye to the future, that winter he also bought Lewis’ garage, forming Ted Horn Engineering and Ted Horn Enterprises, and equipping the shop with all the tools necessary to prepare two cars.

The following year Horn would suffer mechanical issues at Reading but triumphed at Langhorne before reuniting with Henning at Indy. Again he was fast, again he qualified fourth, even if he was outgunned by teammate Wilbur Shaw’s beautiful Maserati. Shaw actually lapped Horn on raceday, but it’s difficult to know if Ted could have at least delivered Cotton Henning a 1-2 finish, since the last third of the race was run under caution due to heavy rain.

That frustration apart, Horn had a fine summer, scoring wins and top-threes until eventually clinching Hankinson’s championship title. His eponymous team had also performed well, with Sall, Joie Chitwood and Tony Willman all finding success in Ted Horn Enterprises-prepped machinery.

One of the few times Horn felt intimidated was trying to manhandle the powerful but difficult Joel Thorne-owned Adam/Sparks beast in practice and qualifying in 1941. Of course he adapted, and on race day climbed from 28th on the grid to finish third.

One of the few times Horn felt intimidated was trying to manhandle the powerful but difficult Joel Thorne-owned Adam/Sparks beast in practice and qualifying in 1941. Of course he adapted, and on race day climbed from 28th on the grid to finish third.

Photo by: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

That winter, Horn approached Henning to ask permission to drive Joel Thorne’s Adams/Sparks machine in the following year’s Indy 500. This machine had set a devastatingly quick pole time in 1939 in Jimmy Snyder’s hands, but when Snyder was killed in a midget race, the car had lain dormant in 1940, Thorne himself driving the sister car to fourth at Indy. Horn believed it was still going to be a potential race winner in ’41 and on receiving Henning’s consent, he discovered his prognostication was right… but as Mays had discovered in ’39, it was awfully uncomfortable to manhandle around the Speedway. Horn was a tentative 30th fastest in qualifying.

Despite his modest and unassuming nature, though, Ted still had a core of self-belief – this is a man who had started his season with a couple of sprint car wins at the daunting Langhorne – and his confidence grew throughout the course of the 500, even if he found controlling the car with his still weakened right arm somewhat of a trial. When he passed the checkered flag, he was an exhausted third.

With Hankinson having withdrawn from the AAA, instead joining the International Motor Contest Association/Central States Racing Association, Ted Horn Engineering had followed suit, and 10 feature wins saw Ted ending the season with the CSRA national championship. Thirty-one years old and now with a top title in his pocket, Horn’s momentum was building and Indy 500 glory seemed, if not inevitable, at least an increasing possibility. He was a top talent as a driver, yes, but also mechanically savvy, always a bonus in a 500-mile race.

Getting his hands on the aging but beautiful and still swift Maserati 8CTF in 1946, Horn was able to claim third once more.

Getting his hands on the aging but beautiful and still swift Maserati 8CTF in 1946, Horn was able to claim third once more.

Photo by: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Then, of course, all momentum dribbled to a halt: America was dragged into World War II by the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and the Speedway closed. Horn volunteered to serve in WWII but inevitably his injuries and their consequences meant he was rejected by Army, Navy, Marines and Air Corps. There were some races on the CSRA trail in the first half of 1942, and Horn won twice at Williams Grove and finished top four elsewhere, but soon the government banned the sport altogether. Hankinson died soon after that decision, while a saddened Horn shored up his team during racing lockdown by entering a partnership with businessman Milt Marion.

He and the team hit the ground running when racing resumed in 1945. Horn won the first major auto race after VJ Day, winning at Essex Junction, VT, then Hughesville, Kutztown and Williams Grove. With teammate Tommy Hinnershitz in tow, T.H.E. scored clean sweeps in seven straight races. As if those results weren’t elixir enough, Ted learned that three-time Indy winner Shaw had bought Indianapolis Motor Speedway from Eddie Rickenbacker and in October persuaded Hulman & Co. chairman Anton “Tony” Hulman to buy it from him. With the venue refurbished, and with Shaw to become general manager, IMS was about to enter a new era.

More directly relevant to Horn was that with Shaw having ended his driving career with an injurious shunt in 1941, Cotton Henning’s Boyle-backed Maserati 8CTF was available to Horn for 1946. The inevitable conclusion – that 1946 would see Horn’s long-awaited victory at IMS – was not borne out. Early magneto trouble would force him to make a seven-minute stop not long into the race, and although back up to 10th by Lap 90, he had reached only third place by the checkered flag.

In fact, on the six-race National Championship trail, Horn backed up that third at Indy with third at Langhorne, sixth in Atlanta, fourth at the Indiana State Fair despite a pitstop to repair a puncture, second at Milwaukee and second at Goshen. Despite no wins, that consistency was enough to earn Horn the National title. Meanwhile, across the AAA’s 77-race season Horn had nailed 19 sprint car triumphs, more than any other driver – Bill Holland racked up 17 – and few could begrudge him his glory.

Determined in the off-season to reduce his racing activities and instead plan for life after racing as a product promoter, Horn would soon find in 1947 that the urge to race was still too strong. In April he won at Williams Grove and Richmond, then won at the Grove again in May, while later that month, he scored pole for the Indy 500, although Holland and Duke Nalon would beat his speed on other days. Yet almost from the drop of the green flag on raceday, Horn was in trouble: the oil reserve tank kept blowing the black stuff in his face, obliging him to make two lengthy stops in the first 20 laps, costing him seven laps. He gave the Maserati all he had and scorched his way through the field to reach sixth by the halfway mark.

The final stages were all about the controversy between rookie Holland and Rose, teammates who ran in that order, until the Lou Moore's Blue Crown Spark Plug team signaled them to ease their pace. Holland obliged, believing he was a lap ahead of Rose, and allowed his teammate to unlap himself. However, according to the lap scorers, Rose was actually making the pass for the lead…

Pole for Horn (right) in 1947. Although Ted appears to be eyeing Cliff Bergere's Kurtis-Novi enviously, it's Mauri Rose (left) who will win the race in controversial circumstances.

Pole for Horn (right) in 1947. Although Ted appears to be eyeing Cliff Bergere's Kurtis-Novi enviously, it's Mauri Rose (left) who will win the race in controversial circumstances.

Photo by: IMS Photos

All this was irrelevant to third-placed Horn who had seen another 500 chance disappear through no fault of his own, despite lapping some 5mph faster than the two men who defeated him. Tommy Milton, Indy’s first two-time winner, undercut the Blue Crown boys’ rivalry at the victory banquet the following day by his commiseration and congratulation of Horn. “Everyone of you here knows who drove the greatest race yesterday”…

Horn modestly accepted the praise but was still reflecting on a superstition that had apparently been confirmed – posing for photos with well-wishers before a race would lead to misfortune. Pre-500 he had for once put aside his misgivings and allowed himself to be photographed with new celebrity friend Clark Gable.

His bad luck would continue a few days later when he realized his car wasn’t ready for the next Champ Car round at Milwaukee, which was won by Holland, who then repeated at Langhorne, while Horn was only fifth. In Atlanta, things got little better – Holland was second, Horn fourth – but at Bainbridge, OH, Horn was on form. Even a mid-race stop for a new front tire couldn’t hinder him and he was back into the lead when rain halted the event slightly early. Bad luck struck back at Milwaukee, where Horn was leading the field by two laps with only four laps to go when his car puked its last and he was demoted to sixth. Fortunately for him on this occasion Holland’s car had capitulated at the start.

The same would happen again for Holland at the next Champ Car round, at Goshen, on a day when Horn climbed from a middling qualifying spot to place second behind Tony Bettenhausen. Now he was making inroads into his points deficit to Holland, and in ferocious heat on a third trip to Milwaukee, he was unstoppable. He let Emil Andres lead for a while, but as soon as he received the ‘Go’ signal from the pits, he rocketed through to retake the lead and the win, while Holland was a desultory eighth. The pair were now even at the top of the points table with just three races to go – or rather, two, given that most circuit aces traditionally skipped Pikes Peak.

Appropriately in the sprint car races, too, the momentum swung back and forth between Horn and Holland before the next Champ Car round at Illinois State Fairgrounds. There, Bettenhausen held off a rapidly tiring Horn who in any case was reasonably content with second place on a day when Holland had again dropped out. He was back in the points lead with one round to go.

Having amassed plenty of injuries that had taken their toll on him, Horn was ready for a few weeks’ rest before the November championship finale at Arlington Downs Raceway in Texas, but he just couldn’t stay out of a racecar cockpit for a month, and instead headed to Dayton, OH, where he set a record lap in Baby and dominated the feature race. Then he conquered Williams Grove, two races in Charlotte, and then finally headed west to Texas. When Holland’s car cried enough before time trials, and Nalon’s car died at quarter distance in the race, Horn had no one left to fight. Lapping second-placed finisher Paul Russo three times, Horn drove home to the win that sealed his second National Championship.

Extraordinarily for a man who turned 38 in February, Horn’s 1948 season would prove to be his greatest. He started the year with five straight triumphs, the last of these being the AAA National Championship season-opener, again at Arlington, again winning by three laps. He then headed to Indy to serve as instructor for rookies – advising them, leading them, following and observing them, then further advising them – before dashing off to win the sprint races at Reading and Trenton.

Despite deliberately feather-footing the Maserati so as not to harm it in Indy qualifying, Horn claimed fifth on the grid on Pole Day. Then he headed to Salem, Richmond and Williams Grove and won the lot. Returning to the Speedway for the 500, Horn was informed by Henning that the black Maser’s engine had been torn down and rebuilt after they found foreign matter in the oil.

The car initially seemed healthy, and Horn was on his finest form, leading from Laps 18-72, pulling out a half-minute advantage over Mays and even lapping Nalon. Although he dropped to fourth after his first pitstop, as his rivals stopped Horn moved back to the front and led from Laps 124 to 142. But then he felt compelled to ease his pace as he heard odd noises emanating from the engine bay – sand in the rod bearings, as it transpired – and gradually Ted’s dream of Indy victory floated away yet again. He finally drove home fourth, his ninth straight top-four finish at IMS, his umpteenth what-might-have-been tale at the Brickyard.

Horn's beautiful Maserati would lead for 74 of the 200 laps in 1948, but he'd have to slacken his hold on the race when sand messed with the rod bearings.

Horn's beautiful Maserati would lead for 74 of the 200 laps in 1948, but he'd have to slacken his hold on the race when sand messed with the rod bearings.

Photo by: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

At Milwaukee, the next Championship round, Horn had a sphincter-tightening near miss, swerving between Duke Dinsmore, lying on the track unconscious after a nasty flip, and Rex Mays who had crashed trying to avoid the prone figure. Horn finished third there, while at Langhorne he was set for victory until a broken throttle cable relegated him to ninth.

A third place at Milwaukee put Horn back in front of the standings ahead of shooting star Myron Fohr, and then at Illinois State Fair at Springfield, Ted won, defeating impressive rookie Johnnie Parsons and Fohr. These two would beat him at the next round, Milwaukee’s 200-mile race, while both Horn and Fohr had to cede best to Lee Wallard in the following race at DuQuoin. However, Horn had done enough to clinch his third straight championship with three rounds left to go.

Any dispute that he was the AAA master of the day would have been quashed by the tirade of blows he inflicted on his rivals in sprint cars that year. Between Baby and Beauty, Horn scored 24 wins that season, interrupted only by Hinnershitz – driving a Ted Horn car – winning at Williams Grove.

With the pressure off, the title sewn up, Horn headed to the Champ car finale at DuQuoin on Oct. 10 with apparently nothing to lose, and earned himself a spot on the second row. But then, at the start of the second lap, a broken wheel spindle sent Beauty hard into Johnny Mantz’s car and into the air. Mantz would be relatively uninjured, but Horn, who had survived so many crashes in those early run-before-he-could-walk years, and skirted round several more hideous accidents since, had no chance on this occasion. One hard impact, probably the car landing nose-first, saw him thrown against the steering wheel, inflicting fearful chest injuries before he was then ejected from the cockpit. Ted landed on his back, one arm outstretched, one leg doubled back behind him, and unconscious. He was rushed to hospital but declared dead 20 minutes later.

His brilliant rival Rex Mays, 1940 and ’41 AAA champ, paid sorrowful tribute. “Ted Horn won the first race I ever drove in at Riverside, California, Labor Day 1931,” he said. “Since that time we have raced against each other many times, both winning our share of races. From Ted’s record for the past three seasons, I consider him the best of all the National Champions, at least since I started racing. He was a real Champion, and above all, a regular fellow.”

Just 13 months later, Rex too was gone, swerving to avoid a crashed car during a race at Del Mar in his native California.

Wilbur Shaw, who would live just five more years before dying in a plane crash, tried to convey how much Horn had meant both within and outside of the sport.

“In addition to Ted Horn being the undisputed champion automobile driver of this era, he was unquestionably the most loved and respected driver of his time,” he said. “These characteristics qualified him as the sport’s outstanding goodwill ambassador. His passing was an irreparable loss to automobile racing.”

Louis Meyer, who happily lived to the grand old age of 91, said that Ted’s “unquestionable character, true sportsmanship and love for competition has caused him to remain in the heart of the racing world.” He was a little overoptimistic there, however, because like most who fall short of winning the Indianapolis 500, Horn is often forgotten among the list of what we’d now classify as Indy car racing greats.  

Horn was a man who nurtured fan interaction – even if superstition precluded him from signing autographs or making photographs with them until after a race! He was also, by all accounts that this writer has read, a sensitive soul, a modest man and a scrupulously fair one too. He meticulously paid back anyone who had helped him out when his finances were at rock bottom, when he would literally go hungry in order to subsidize his racing, and he never forgot his extremely humble beginnings.

Horn supported struggling track owners and race promoters as well, because he was altruistic enough to believe that racing participants had responsibilities to the sport, and shouldn’t just be in it to plunder the prize money. It was for that reason, too, that he so freely gave his time and thoughts to young drivers on the nursery slopes of their racing careers.

But as well as being a fine man, the 85th anniversary of Horn’s first Indy 500 start should be a time to remember him as a brilliant talent. From some frankly unpromising beginnings, he so assiduously applied his heart and mind to racing that he made himself into one of the all-time greats. The fact that fate didn’t allow him to gain the ultimate recognition of glory at Indianapolis Motor Speedway should not diminish Ted Horn’s status one iota.

• The author is indebted to the 1949 book The Life of Ted Horn – American Racing Champion" by Russ Catlin, the Donald Davidson/Rick Shaffer-penned essential tome Official History of the Indianapolis 500, and to Borg-Warner's Steve Shunck for sourcing some of the magnificent Indianapolis Motor Speedway images. 

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