Monday, April 4, 2011

History of the 500: Billy Carlson

We're continuing our History of the 500 series with a look at another early American racer. Billy Carlson was a San Diego native who was 26 years of age when he made his debut at the 1914 Indy 500. Starting 5th, Carlson finished 9th that year, a place in front of Eddie Rickenbacker. He would start 25th the following year, but managed to again complete all 200 laps in a 9th-place finish. His first 500 took just over 7 hours to complete, whereas his second endeavor clocked in at a "blistering" 6 hours 19 minutes!

Carlson's background was as interesting as his on-track results. His father was a Swedish immigrant and the youngest man ever elected mayor of San Diego. Coming from moderate affluence, Carlson was a popular road racer on the Pacific coast.

Carlson drove several cars over the years, but was perhaps best known for driving the kerosene-powered, Ray Harroun-designed Maxwell, which netted him his aforementioned finishes at Indy and the nickname "Coal Oil Billy". However, he never won a race in the factory-backed car, with his sole victory being in a Benz in his hometown in 1913. He did pick up three 2nd-place finishes in the Maxwell at San Diego, Tuscon, and Venice, however.

The Maxwell team switched from kerosene to gas-powered engines in 1915, and his famous teammate Barney Oldfield immediately reaped the benefits of the change, winning two races almost immediately. On the other hand, Carlson ran a string of very competitive races, but did not find his way into victory lane.

Sadly, as has been a recurring theme in this series, Carlson lost his life in an on-track incident at Tacoma Speedway. Both he and his riding mechanic were killed when his car blew a tire on a steep curve (NY Times Obituary). It would be the last race for the Maxwell factory team. Ironically, just a few months before, Carlson had been referenced as "Sure Finish" Carlson in the newspapers, due to his streak of finishing long road races.

Billy Carlson will forever hold one unbreakable record at Indianapolis: in 1914, he ran the entire 500-mile race on only 30 gallons of kerosene fuel. Given the cost of 6 cents per gallon of kerosene, his total fuel cost of a mere $1.80 for the entire race remains the cheapest in Indy 500 history.

Carlson (25) in his Maxwell at Tacoma Speedway in 1914.

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