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One hundred years ago, 40cars lined up for the firstIndianapolis 500. We are still waiting to find out who won. The Indy 500 was created to showcase the controversial new sport of automobile racing, which was sweeping the country. Daring young men were driving automobiles at the astonishing speed of 75 miles per hour, testing themselves and their vehicles. It was indeed a young man's game: with no seat belts, hard helmets or roll bars, the dangers were enormous. When the Indianapolis Motor Speedway opened in 1909, seven people were killed, some of them spectators. Oil-slicked surfaces, clouds of smoke, exploding tires, and flying grit all made driving extremely hazardous, especially with the open-cockpit, windshield-less vehicles. Most drivers rode with a mechanic, who pumped oil manually while watching for cars attempting to pass. Drivers sometimes threw wrenches or bolts at each other during the race in order to gain an advantage. The night before an event, the racers would take up a collection for the next day's new widows. Bookmakers offered bets not only on who might win but who might survive. Not all the participants in that first Indy 500 lived to see the checkered flag. Although the 1911 Indy 500 judges declared Ray Harroun, driving a Marmon Wasp, the official winner, there is reason to doubt that result. The timekeeping equipment failed, and the judges had to run for their lives when a driver lost control and his car spun wildly toward their stand. It took officials two days to determine the results, and Speedway authorities ordered the records to be destroyed. But Blood and Smoke is about more than a race, even a race as fabled as the Indianapolis 500. It is the story of America at the dawn of the automobile age, 29.99 a country in love with speed, danger, and spectacle. It is a story, too, about the young men who would risk their lives for money and glory, the sportsmen whose antics would thrill and outrage Americans in those long-ago days when the automobile was still brand new.
A hundred years ago, the most famous athlete in America was a horse. But Dan Patch was more than a sports star; he was a cultural icon in the days before the automobile. Born crippled and unable to stand, he was nearly euthanized. For a while, he pulled the grocer's wagon in his hometown of Oxford, Indiana. But when he was entered in a race at the county fair, he won -- and he kept on winning. Harness racing was the top sport in America at the time, and Dan, a pacer, set the world record for the mile. He eventually lowered the mark by four seconds, an unheard-of achievement that would not be surpassed for decades. America loved Dan Patch, who, though kind and gentle, seemed to understand that he was a superstar: he acknowledged applause from the grandstands with a nod or two of his majestic head and stopped as if to pose when he saw a camera. He became the first celebrity sports endorser; his name appeared on breakfast cereals, washing machines, cigars, razors, and sleds. At a time when the highest-paid baseball player, Ty Cobb, was making $12,000 a year, Dan Patch was earning over a million dollars. But even then horse racing attracted hustlers, cheats, and touts. Drivers and owners bet heavily on races, which were often fixed; horses were drugged with whiskey or cocaine, or switched off with "ringers. " Although Dan never lost a race, some of his races were rigged so that large sums of money could change hands. Dan's original owner was intimidated into selling him, and America's favorite horse spent the second half of his career touring the country in a plush private railroad car and putting on speed shows for crowds that sometimes exceeded 100,000 people. But the automobile cooled America's romance with the horse, and by the time he died in 1916, Dan was all but forgotten. His last owner, a Minnesota entrepreneur gone bankrupt, buried him in an unmarked grave. His achievements have faded, but throughout the years, a faithful few kept alive the legend of Dan Patch, and inCrazy Good, Charles Leerhsen travels through their world to bring back to life this fascinating story of triumph and treachery in small-town America and big-city racetracks.
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