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Lewis Strang in a Thomas at the French Grand Prix, 1908
Many men participated in the dawn of organized motor racing in the US, and many lived hard and died young. Lewis P. Strang stands shoulder to shoulder with Louis Disbrow, Barney Oldham, Ralph De Palma, David Bruce-Brown, Louis Chevrolet and other titans of the era, but his early death, after only four years of competition, has left him largely unmemorialized.
“Whirlwind” Strang is best known for taking the pole at the inaugural Indy 500 in 1911, but that was actually at the very end of his racing career. While he was racing, his name was in the papers, but we know almost nothing about his life before that. He was born in August of 1884, and while he always said he was from Amsterdam, New York, family members said he was in fact from the Atlanta, Georgia, area. He was always known as a New Yorker, though, and some of the confusion may stem from the fact he essentially changed his name after 1907.
I suppose there’s no reason he’d have made the news in his first 23 years of life, but he got a jump into the world of motor racing thanks to his uncle, Walter Christie. He must have been a dab hand with engines, because in July of 1907, he was on Majestic with Uncle Walter, bound for France and the Grand Prix as the Christie mechanician. He almost certainly did some driving, as well.
When he returned, he controversially ended up driving the front-wheel-drive Christie machine in the south, racing variously as Lewis Christie and Christie Strang. Managed by the infamous William Pickens (who also managed Christie and Barney Oldfield), Strang was at first using the car with Christie’s permission, but later on, absconded with it. The odds are that Pickens (who today we’d call a promoter) had made commitments to appear and was the force behind the car’s disappearance, but it was Strang with his name in the headlines. In fact, they were using the Christie car on track at the same time that Walter Christie was selling it to W. Gould Brokaw: “I have been taught a lesson in allowing a man of whom I know little to manage me for a racing circuit,” Christie told the New York Times in November of ‘07.
Mr. Pickens made the proposition to me at the Brighton Beach meet [where he was later sanctioned for certain “irregularities”–ed.]. It was a good offer, and I accepted. In the two track events in which I drove before my Pittsburg accident I made a little money, but at the present time I am very much out. After I had nearly recoevered from my accident, Pickens proposed that I go South, driving if I could, and if not, allowing Strang to take the wheel. I did drive in one meet at Birmingham. I then went to New Orleans to arrange a meet there, but found it could not be secured for five weeks, and, therefore, decided to bring my car with me. It was sent to New Orleans, and I left sufficient money to pay for its shipment to New York, and I came on ahead. For a week I learned nothing. Then I learned form a friend there was no record of the shipment of the car, and it could not be found in any garage.
That was because Strang was racing, and ultimately, wrecking it. Walter Christie put the Pinkertons on the case.
Meanwhile I had heard nothing from either Strang or Pickens. My car is too valuable to lose, and, besides, it not mine now, as it was purchased several weeks ago by W. Gould Brokaw, who allowed me to use it on condition that I keep it in repair. I put the matter at once in the hands of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, and they discovered on the very day of the second Birmingham meet that the car had been shipped right back from New Orleans after I left. This, therefore, explains the second Birmingham meet. When the affair was over, Pickens and Strang evidently heard that detectives were hunting for the car, for they abandoned it, and I don’t know where they are. I did get one telegram from Strang, asking what steps I was going to take.
When he finally recovered the car, it had suffered an undetermined degree of engine damage including a cracked cylinder, although a photo showing Brokaw in the car in 1908 indicates it was salvageable. Before that, Strang claimed a mile record with it, posting a :51:60 at St. Paul on October 16, 1907, coincidentally beating Walter’s own mile record. But grave disagreement about the actual time later emerged, with Walter now among his foremost critics. It scarcely mattered, since he’d soon be vastly faster.
Now apparently thoroughly estranged from his uncle and coming into his own, he dropped the “Christie,” and started going by Lewis Putnam Strang (it’s unclear what his name really was), which probably helped spectators, as he was soon in head-to-head competition with Walter. For 1908, he went back to France, as driver of the #15 Thomas in the XI Grand Prix. He didn’t finish the GP, but won the Great Race that year in an Isotta, at 4:40:47 for 254.4 miles over 24 laps.
Strang in the Thomas at Dieppe, July 7 1908
At the start of the 1908 Vanderbilt
Strang was friendly with Louis Chevrolet, who had famously helped him pour a bearing mid-race in 1907, and Buick soon picked him up as a factory driver by (where he kept company with the Chevrolet brothers and Bob Burman), but in 1909, Strang left for Isotta, having won in one at Savannah, Briarcliff and elsewhere in 1908. Worldwide fame came shortly thereafter, when in the fall he broke numerous American and world speed records in a 175hp Fiat called “Earthquake.” According to The Horseless Age, it started at the Atlanta Speedway in November:
The most spectacular and brilliant individual performance was that of Lewis Strang, in the 175 horse power Brooklands Fiat, formerly driven by Nazzaro, and holder of the world’s record average speed. Strang covered a mile in 37.7 seconds, outstripping Oldfield, Christie and others by a big margin. In fact Oldfield was so chagrined and disappointed at being beaten a couple of times by Strang, that he and Manager Bill Pickens packed up and departed for the cattle country of Texas.
Strang won five events with the big car at Atlanta, sweeping the boards clean for everything from one to ten mile distances.
Strang at wheel of 175hp Fiat Earthquake
Strang breaking the record at Atlanta in 1909
He followed that up in December, when he broke the Oldfield record for the Indianapolis Speedway mile at :40.61, in what appears to be a new 200hp Fiat, the same one later known as the “Cyclone,” when owned by Ralph De Palma, and others.
For all his early shenanigans, Strang was known as one of the smarter guys in the business, with a sense of his own mortality that eluded many of his compatriots. “On the track he was a spectacular but careful driver,” Barney Oldfield wrote in Popular Mechanics in 1911. ” He was one of the few who mixed brains with gasoline…”
Strang was a fatalist. One day I heard him tell “Bill” Pickens…that he was a big league fellow. He did not want to meet his gate while driving a touring car or in a stock chassis race. When it came his turn to bow to the scythe-swinger, Strang wanted to be gripping the wheel of the fastest racing car in the world, with his foot shoving the throttle wide open. He wanted the band to be playing the latest rag, and when the ambulance hauled him to the morgue he wanted the crowd to say as they filed out, “Well, he certainly was going some.”
The Strang hoodoo legend started in 1908, with a string of mechanical failures in major races, including one which knocked him out of an unassailable lead in a Renault, in the 24 hour Brighton Beach races, during hour 18. The Renault failed him again a week later at the 234-mile Motor Parkway race, then he was hoodooed out of the lead at the 1908 Vanderbilt Cup, the first lap of the 1909 Vanderbilt Cup, the Savannah Grand Prix, the 1909 Cobe Cup in a Chevrolet (although he got to share the $10,000 purse that team-mate Louis Chevrolet won), and Brighton Beach again in a Marion. Actually, his very first crash was in 1904, when he hit an elevated road pillar on Third Avenue in New York, wrecking the car (also the pillar).
Strang in Isotta, waving to his sister while negotiating a bad turn at Briarcliff
Some of the hoodoo, at least, has to have been attributable to Strang driving at all times to the limit of his machine’s capacity. He might not have finished often, but he was always a threat to win if he did. At Decatur in June 1908, driving for Buick, he won the fifty-mile Decatur Derby, five mile Free for All and five mile Handicap. In August 1909, he was at Indianapolis Motor Speedway again, where he brought Buick the Prest-O-Lite Trophy and claimed a $10,000 purse for the team. The hoodoo, however, wasn’t confined to the track.
Strang’s Renault being pushed at the start of the 1908 Vanderbilt Cup
In 1908, Strang had married Jennie L. Spalding, who performed as an actress under the name Louise Alexander. They made a high-profile society couple – among other things, the nascent aviator named a hot-air balloon Queen Louise in her honor – but the union was tempestuous from the start. If he should fail to finish first in a race, the beautiful Spalding would reportedly demand to know why Strang didn’t win. She had also promised to give up the stage, this not being an era of two-career couples. But she didn’t, and in ‘09 left him to return to acting, soon appearing in Florenz Ziegfeld’s Follies of 1910.
Mrs Louise Strang
Heartbroken, Strang held hope she would return to him, but those dreams came crashing down around him. “Then Mr. Strang’s hoodoo got to work,” reported The Washington Post. “Miss Alexander was suddenly named by Bessie Clayton, herself a well-known dancer, as correspondent in the suit of divorce begun against her husband, Julian Mitchell, who is Miss Alexander’s partner in a “Vampire” dance.” Strang, two weeks earlier having been ejected from an airplane in an accident while taxiing, said, “Two knockouts together. This is the limit,” and promised to give up marriage, if not racing.
After that, he just wasn’t the same racer for the next 18 months or so. In part, some of his energy must have been going to Case, which in 1910 made him manager of their new racing department, and aeroplane division, as well – in addition to putting together cars for the Case race team, he was also building “Miss Case,” the first of three to support the race team. People did note that in 1910, he was missing from many of the major events he’d dominated in years past.
Strang in Case, 1911
The Case team planned to debut at New Orleans in February of 1911, but never showed and narrowly avoided a one-year suspension. By June, however, they were in winning form and when the new Indy 500 came around, his team was in world-class shape. He put his car on the pole, with teammates “Dutch” Joe Jagersberger and Will Jones in 8th and 9th. He lasted 109 laps, before retiring with a steering problem (only 12 out of 40 entries finished at all).
Lewis Strang at the Brickyard in Case, 1911
His fire had returned. Not only was he now a serious threat and in control of his own race team, but he was in negotiations to buy an astonishing 300hp Fiat, presumably thinking he would be able to reclaim some of his world speed records. Despite his acknowledgment of mortality, Strang also said a race car would never get him, and amazingly, he was right.
Since his divorce and the temporary decline of his racing career, rumors had swirled he was out of control. In August of 1911, word came out of Wisconsin he had been killed on a tour, and the press went wild with stories of drinking and suicide. The truth, however, was much less exciting.
Scouting a tour route in Blue River, Wisconsin, in a Case touring car, he passed a farm wagon while going up a hill. In first gear, at a speed somewhere between four and 10 miles an hour, the wheels of the Case dug into soft ground on the far side of the road, and the car slowly tumbled down a ten foot bank. Three other occupants jumped clear without harm, but Strang was pinned underneath, and crushed.
“Gambling is the greatest sport in the world,” he told The Horseless Age in the winter of 1911.
The sensation of winning and losing and of taking a chance with something is probably the greatest in the world. It is natural to gamble with what you value. Some men obtain sport through gambling with money. I wouldn’t take a minute’s interest in a money stake. It doesn’t appeal to me. I like to gamble for something else, though. The sensation when you come close to a bad accident and yet don’t ‘get it’ can never be described.
Lewis Strang, 1911