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Henry Miller was an American racing pioneer

December 26, 2005|by JASON STEIN

Just off Georgetown Road, an innocuous little stretch of pavement that connects the city of Indianapolis to a little town appropriately called Speedway, a large white building sits on a green hill in the center of the most famous race track in the world.

They call it the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame. It could easily be called the Harry Armenius Miller Center. No one would complain.

Look around this place and Miller's fingerprints are here. His cars sit here. His image is here. His influence is everywhere.

In simple terms (and it's a gross understatement to phrase anything Miller did as simple), Miller is the godfather of racing.

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Some call him the greatest creative figure in the history of the American race car. As the automobile industry exploded in the early 1900s, Miller was the one lighting the fuse, dominating open-wheel racing for almost half a century. As one racing writer once said, "to understand American racing, you must know the story of Harry Miller."

The story, however, is a great American tale of success ... and failure.

Miller was born on Dec. 9, 1876 in Menomonie, Wisc., to Jacob and Martha Miller. His father was a German immigrant who was a teacher, a musician and a painter. Much to his parent's dismay, Harry wanted little to do with arts or school.

Miller dropped out at 15 to work in the Knapp, Stout & Co. machine shop. After bouncing around from one job to another, Miller decided to put his aptitude and interest in mechanics to the test. After tinkering around in the garage back behind his parent's house in Menomonie, he built a motorcycle - a bicycle with a one-cylinder engine - that he wanted to use to get to work every day.

Looking back, some consider it the first motorcycle in the United States. The motorcycle was followed by a gasoline outboard boat engine, a four-cylinder powerplant that Miller fastened to a row boat. That was followed by a primitive airplane engine and a crude automobile.

In 1915, just before he turned 40, and after more than a decade assembling his own engines in a California shop, Miller struck gold. After repairing a Peugeot Grand Prix open-wheel race car, Miller and his employee, Fred Offenhauser, designed their own engine and put in their own vehicle. They called it the "Golden Submarine," a streamlined racer that brought Miller a load of attention as a car builder. It had powerful hydraulic front brakes (the first known application on a race car) and dramatic style.

That creation led to other contracts, which eventually led to Jimmy Murphy, a popular racer at the time, who needed an engine for the Indianapolis 500 race. Miller was the answer. In 1922 he built a straight eight-cylinder engine that Murphy drove to the Indy title. The demand for Miller cars and engines went through the roof.

Suddenly, the shy kid from Wisconsin had more business than he could handle. And his technology didn't disappoint. He quickly became the symbol of the "Roaring '20s."

From 1922-'29, Miller cars won 73 of 92 major U.S. races. The 1929 Indy 500 was a Miller-fest, with 27 of the 33 starting positions powered by Miller engines.

If you wanted to win, you had to buy Miller. A factory rear-drive cost $10,000 and a front-drive cost $15,000. It was the price of victory.

Most of the speed records on land and water were set by Miller engines.

But, more than anything, he was the first to see a race car as a thing of beauty. In a biography of Miller written in 1993, Griffith Borgeson wrote: "A whole subculture spread from the Miller nucleus."

He was also one of the first to develop front-wheel-drive vehicles and created four-wheel-drive race cars. He never stopped working.

Short, shy and often reflective, he always seemed to be a step ahead of his time. But time, and circumstances, tracked Miller down just as quickly.

Just weeks before the financial crash of 1929, Miller took an associate's advice and retired from his business. A $60,000 retainer from the Cord company and the sale of his business for $150,000 allowed him a life of luxurious comfort. But, at the age of 54, he was still a vigorous man and in 1930 he set up an engineering business. However, the world had changed. It was the time of The Great Depression and there was little money for racing. In three years he would be bankrupt. His company assets were sold at auction. It was Miller's long-time chief machinist, Offenhauser who picked up the engine design. That design quickly became the invincible "Offy," the most victorious racing engine of all time.

Miller, meanwhile, moved to Indianapolis where he engaged in various aircraft projects. Those ended badly and a year later Miller moved to Detroit. He set up a small business making test fixtures and tools and spent the last two years of his life in near poverty. At age 65, in May of 1943, he died from a heart attack.

It would be appropriate, in a way, that the Miller legacy would end in May, Indy's greatest month of the year, where men would come from all over the world with the best racing equipment in a yearly 500-mile test of skill and stamina.

In the end, Miller, one of the most influential and famous American race-car builders, would be beaten by only one thing . . . life.

More than 50 years later, the white building on the green grassy knoll would remember the engine man.

Jason Stein is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. He can be reached on the Web at: www.wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html.

Copyright 2005, Wheelbase Communications

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