Riding mechanic

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1922 Indianapolis 500 winner Jimmy Murphy is shown here with his riding 'mechanician' Eddie Olson, posing next to their Duesenberg at Tacoma Speedway.

A riding mechanic was a mechanic that rode along with a race car during races, and who was tasked with maintaining, monitoring, and repairing the car during the race. They also communicated with the pits and spotted from inside the car.[1]

Riding mechanics were also referred to by the term mechanician. The position is largely associated with the early years of Championship car racing and the Indianapolis 500, however, they were also utilized in grand prix racing for a period of time.

History[edit]

Indianapolis 500[edit]

Joe Dawson (left) and riding mechanic Harry Martin (visible on the right of the cockpit) winning the 1912 Indianapolis 500.

Riding mechanics were used by most cars in the Indianapolis 500 from 1911 to 1922, and again from 1930 to 1937. In the first 500, driver Ray Harroun notably drove solo, the only car in the field without a riding mechanic. He famously affixed a rear-view mirror to the car, in order to see cars behind him (a task normally accomplished by the mechanic). Harroun is famously regarded as the first driver to utilize a rear view mirror, however, he said he got the idea from seeing a mirror used for the same purpose on a horse-drawn vehicle in 1904.[2]

Starting in 1912, riding mechanics were made mandatory for all races of 100 miles or longer (which included Indianapolis).[3] In 1923 riding mechanics were made optional, and only one team utilized them.[3] They were brought back from 1930 to 1937 and made mandatory once again. From 1938 on, they were again deemed optional, but no teams in the starting field used one ever again. In the years immediately following WWII, nearly all two-man cars had been parked, or converted to single-seaters. Eventually, in 1964, riding mechanics were formally abandoned.[3]

The mechanics sat in a passenger seat, typically to the outside of the driver, a precarious position close to the retaining wall.[4] Some cars, however, did have the positions reversed, with the riding mechanic on the inside. Due to the close quarters, many were of short stature and small build.

Some notable riding mechanics are Harry Holcomb, Robert Bandini, and Monk Jordan. The last living Indy 500 riding mechanic Joseph F. Kennelly died in September 2011.[1] A small handful of riding mechanics were also drivers of their own right. Two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Jimmy Murphy started his racing career as a riding mechanic. While accurate records are incomplete and spotty overall, the identification of riding mechanics from the history of the Indianapolis 500 is mostly complete and fairly reliable.

Grand Prix[edit]

Riding mechanics were also required in the classic era of grand prix. Riding mechanics were banned in Europe after the death of Tom Barrett in 1924.

Indianapolis 500 Winning Riding Mechanics[edit]

Driver Ralph DePalma and riding mechanic Rupert Jeffkins, pushing the Mercedes down the main straightaway at the conclusion of the 1912 500-Mile Race.
Year Winning
Driver
Winning
Riding Mechanic
1911 Riding mechanic not utilized
1912 Joe Dawson Harry Martin
1913 Jules Goux Emil Begin
1914 René Thomas Robert Laly
1915 Ralph DePalma Louis Fontaine
1916 Dario Resta Bob Dahnke
1917 No race held due to World War I
1918
1919 Howdy Wilcox Leo Banks
1920 Gaston Chevrolet John Bresnahan
1921 Tommy Milton Harry Franck
1922 Jimmy Murphy Ernie Olson
1923 Riding mechanic not utilized
1924 Riding mechanic not utilized
1925 Riding mechanic not utilized
1926 Riding mechanic not utilized
1927 Riding mechanic not utilized
1928 Riding mechanic not utilized
1929 Riding mechanic not utilized
1930 Billy Arnold Spider Matlock
1931 Louis Schneider Jigger Johnson
1932 Fred Frame Jerry Houck
1933 Louis Meyer Lawson Harris
1934 Bill Cummings Earl Unversaw
1935 Kelly Petillo Jimmy Dunham
1936 Louis Meyer Lawson Harris
1937 Wilbur Shaw Jigger Johnson
1938 Riding mechanic not utilized

Notes[edit]

  • In 1911, riding mechanics were optional, and the race-winning entry (Ray Harroun) did not utilize one.
  • In 1919 Leo Banks replaced the originally listed Maurice Becker, because Becker had fallen ill on race day.
  • From 1923 to 1929, riding mechanics were optional, and in each of those years, the winning entry did not utilize one.
  • Starting in 1938, riding mechanics were once again optional, and were not utilized by any of the competitors.

Fatalities[edit]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Higgins, Will. "Riding mechanic takes his place in 500 history". Indianapolis Star. Retrieved 24 October 2011. 
  2. ^ Davidson, Donald The Talk of Gasoline Alley (radio program). Accessed via WIBC (FM), 28 May 2006
  3. ^ a b c "The Talk of Gasoline Alley," WIBC, May 3, 2002
  4. ^ Bryan, Pack. Indy 500 Mechanics - The men behind the machines, Popular Mechanics, May 1979, Pg 121-122, Retrieved 2010-09-19

Further reading[edit]

  • Forgotten Heroes of the Speedways: The Riding Mechanics, by John E. Blazier and Tom Rollings, 1994.