After learning his trade as the protégé of pioneering automobile constructor and racing driver Lee Frayer, at the start of 1912, the 21-year-old Eddie Rickenbacher elected to become a professional racer.
Throughout 1912 and 1913 his bread and butter was earned on dirt tracks and board ovals at county fairs and anywhere else that paid a buck for driving fast. Or, for that matter, driving slowly – a particular favourite of the crowds being a contest to see who could go slowest and finish last without stalling the car.
When they weren’t racing, Eddie and his fellow drivers worked as handimen, mechanics and salesmen. Anything they could do to bring in the money they needed to get to the next racetrack and go at it – a travelling troupe of gladiators.
It was a risky business for competitors and fans alike and disaster was never far away. In mid-1913 an incident at an event in Mason City, Iowa, saw Reichenbacher’s car hit spectators at an unlicenced motor race. As a result his licence was revoked until the start of 1914.
After cooling his heels for several months, Eddie reappeared in California during February 1914 amid the most bizarre circumstances.
Mack Sennett, movie star and proprietor of the Keystone movie studios, was an enthusiastic patron of American motor sport. He owned and ran a Fiat grand prix car that he had entered in the 1914 Vanderbilt Cup Qualification Race in Santa Monica.
During practice tragedy struck Sennett’s team when the big Fiat, driven by Dave Lewis, went out of control and ended up in the crowd. Six spectators were injured, among whom was the 69-year-old Civil War veteran, Louis G. Smith.
Mr. Smith succumbed to his injuries and the Fiat was deemed too badly damaged to start the race – but Sennett was determined to win the greatest road race in America, so he invested in a year-old Mason racing car, which was entered for a new and apparently rather colourful replacement driver.
According to Sennett’s inventive press information, the man at the wheel was called ‘Baron Reichenbacher’. He was described as: ‘A young Prussian nobleman who had fallen victim to the deadly Bacillus Motorus. Crazed by a lust for speed, he had absconded from the Vienna Military Institute in a stolen Mercedes. Expelled from the institute and disinherited by his father, he went to America to enter the AAA tour…’
It was, of course, hokum worthy of one of Sennett’s two-reel slapstick adventures. The ‘Baron’ was none other than Eddie, but his starring role was not to last: unexpectedly heavy rainfall caused the race to be delayed for several days, in which time both Dave Lewis and the big Fiat were returned to active duty.
Not only that, but Sennett convinced the race organisers to allow him to film the race for a new comedy feature – Mabel at the Wheel.
Nevertheless, Eddie was back racing once again – this time for the princely sum of $3 per week plus his share of any spoils – for a team run by two German-born brothers from Iowa who had been instrumental in designing Mason racing cars and were busy setting up their own team. They were August and Frederick Duesenberg.
The Duesenberg brothers made Eddie their racing team manager as well as their leading driver. Their next race would be the 1914 Indianapolis 500 in which Eddie finished tenth, collecting a purse of $1,400.
Five weeks later, in Sioux City, Eddie Rickenbacher won his first race, collecting $10,000 for his trouble and becoming one of the stars of American motor sport. Star status appealed to the young racer, who began to cultivate his celebrity. Stories were told that he had set speed records in the mighty Blitzen Benz during 1912 – fabrications that Eddie never troubled to deny.
He also gave himself a new name, entering first as E.V. Rickenbacher (not having been given a middle name by his parents, Eddie chose the letter ‘V’ for its impact and, later, settled on ‘Vernon’ as his chosen name). In mid-1915 he completed the transformation by changing his surname to Rickenbacker.
By this time, Eddie had parted company with the Duesenbergs, whose racing successes, while, impressive, did nothing for their finances. Instead he chose to drive for the current giants of European motor racing: Peugeot. Having won Italy’s Targa Florio and the Grand Prix in France, the rakish blue cars were now aiming for American glory – and Rickenbacker wanted to be the man to give it to them.
Part of Eddie’s decision was influenced by the fact that the Peugeot team favoured racing on the open road. ‘I always preferred the challenge and variety of road racing to going around and around like a ball on a string,’ he later said.
The roads were dusty and unpaved while the cars were faster, more powerful and noisier than anything Eddie had previously encountered. He was in love with the thrill of racing but also wary of its inherent danger, and so in order to stay in touch with his riding mechanic, Eddie fashioned facemasks which featured a rudimentary intercom.
‘You didn’t win races because you had more guts,’ he said later. ‘You won because you knew how to take the turns and baby your engine. It wasn’t all just shut your eyes and grit your teeth.’
The facemasks worked but were not a spectacular success. Neither was Eddie’s time with Peugeot spectacularly successful – or long lived. The cars were beautiful and technically brilliant, but needed fine tuning and patience that, perhaps, their American keepers lacked.
Furthermore, it was clear to Rickenbacker the star that American race fans wanted to see American drivers racing to victory in American machines. The final nail in Peugeot’s coffin for Rickenbacker was that Europe had become embroiled in war, and there was no guarantee that cars or parts would be readily available.
Once again he jumped ship – this time joining the home-grown Prest-O-Lite team alongside Barney Oldfield and Bill Carlson, racing Maxwell cars. The irony was that Eddie’s seat at Peugeot was filled by the Italian-British driver Dario Resta, who proceeded to win virtually every major race in America – much to Eddie’s chagrin.
Nevertheless, the Maxwell years brought Eddie Reichenbacker his greatest successes and unprecedented wealth – earning $80,000 in 1916, when he was ranked fourth overall by the American Automobile Association.
He also effectively ran the team – including the discipline of its staff and a series of secret signals to be carried on boards held up from the pit lane. The team triumphed in local and regional events, but at Indianapolis and the other major events its cars were outclassed.
It was clear that to fulfil his ambitions, he needed the sophisticated engineering of a European car. Although near the peak of his profession in American racing, Rickenbacker needed a major title to cement his reputation and earning power – and, while American fans might prefer to see him win in American machinery, he would have to be pragmatic about it.
Thus, in the winter of 1916, Rickenbacker opened dialogue with Louis Coatalen, the French design genius who had turned the British marque, Sunbeam, into a major sporting force before the outbreak of war. Coatalen had developed a 5-litre six-cylinder racing engine that was ideal for Indianapolis but currently gathering dust – opening an extraordinary chapter in the life of ‘Fast Eddie’.