Although Canadian drivers such as Scott Goodyear, Jacques Villeneuve, Paul Tracy, and Alex Tagliani have all left their mark upon the Indianapolis 500, the first Canadian driver didn’t debut in the Indianapolis 500 until fully five years after the start of the annual event. His name? Pete Henderson.
Pete Henderson was born in Arran, Ontario in 1895, but it didn’t take long for him to search out racing opportunities south of the border. He began his AAA racing career in 1915 at Des Moines Speedway, driving and as a mechanic for the Duesenberg team. He later teamed with the famous Eddie Rickenbacker while driving a Maxwell. Henderson was his best on the board tracks, winning on one at Maywood Speedway in Chicago (widely believed to be the first Canadian to win a AAA race in America), and picking up 8 other Top 5s on the dangerous, steeply banked wooden raceways in only 18 races.
|Henderson in his 1915 debut|
(Courtesy Rickenbacker Collection)
Having switched to Maxwell (In the shortened 1916 Indianapolis race (only 300 miles due to World War I), Henderson was back in a Maxwell as Rickenbacker’s teammate on what was known as “Team Prest-O-Lite”. Henderson never led in the race, but did finish all 120 laps with a credible P6, netting the entry $1,400 dollars. (His teammate Rickenbacker would lead early, only to retire after 9 laps with steering issues).
Henderson raced quite a bit through that year and the next, but is conspiculously absent from the AAA record books in 1918, likely because he was an early supporter of a short-lived rival to AAA known somewhat majestically as the National Grand Circuit of American Speedways. The organization soon faltered, but it was enough that you won’t find Henderson on the official AAA rolls for any race that year.
Henderson resurfaces in 1919, where he was back with the Duesenbergs for Indy. Despite being listed as a relief driver, he would not get into the race. 1920 would be kinder; that May, in the Revere-sponsored Dusenberg, he would finish P10 in his last outing at the Speedway. Curiously enough, 10th place that year rewarded $1,400, exactly the amount he had won four years earlier.
After his second Indy 500, Henderson retired from active racing. Details on his later years are somewhat scarce, but he lived in Los Angeles, working as an aircraft inspector until his death in 1940. Inducted into the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame in 2005, He remains an interesting entry in the history of early automobile racing and the Indianapolis 500. Next May, if you see James Hinchcliffe, Paul Tracy, or Alex Tagliani at the track, remind them about Pete Henderson, their forerunner at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as the first Canadian driver.