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Stories of the 500: 1941, Wilbur Shaw

24 May 1997

On Memorial day 1941, Wilbur Shaw was on his way to becoming the first 4-time winner of the Indianapolis classic, but on lap 152 something happened, something bizarre and ironic.

Wilbur Shaw had won the 500 in 1937, 1939 and 1940. He was a special kind of guy, a good showman, a businessman, a loyal friend, and a fierce competitor on the track. He was a charger who was not afraid to get his hands dirty in the pits. He won his first 500 in a Gilmore special, which he had designed and built himself.

Now it was 1941, destined to be the last Indy 500 for five years, and Wilbur had a one lap lead with but 50 to go. He was racing such greats as Rex Mays, and three-time winner Mauri Rose. Unknown to Shaw, the other drivers, and fans, however, the outcome of the race had been decided hours before the start when the first spark of a flash fire set off an early morning blaze at trackside.

In making the mechanical preparations for the race, Shaw discovered he had one wheel/tire combination that wouldn't stay in balance although it seemed quite sound to the naked eye. For some odd reason Shaw had it marked for use only as a spare rather than discarding it. He set it aside with some other tires. In that ironic fire the markings were washed off by the streams of water from the fire hoses and forgotten in the excitement.

As Wilbur thundered down the front straightaway and entered the first corner to start lap 152 he suddenly lost control of his race car. His rear end came around and he went spinning into the concrete wall. The fuel tank split, a brace from the the tank smashed into his back and he was drenched with 50 gallons of racing gas.

Mauri Rose was running a short distance behind Shaw at the time of the crash and was alarmed to notice that the driver, who could go up in flames at any moment, was making no attempt to exit the race car.

At that time there was no way that Rose could have known Shaw's reason for remaining in the car: the blow to Shaw's back had momentarily paralyzed him from the waist down. Even in this terrifying circumstance, Shaw's coolness would prevail. He forbade anyone to move him, fearing additional damage to his back. An ambulance was quickly at the scene and Wilbur was swiftly moved and taken to a hospital. If a single spark had appeared and set off the fuel he would have died instantly. A cruel and ironic fate had deprived Shaw of a history-making victory. A bad wheel had gone on his car during a pit stop.

Bill Maloney -- The Auto Channel