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home : columnists : paula dunn August 23, 2017

When Lucky chased the checkered flag

By Paula Dunn
From Time to Thyme

Eighty years ago this month, Hamilton County was buzzing with excitement over the news that the first ever locally-owned car was set to race in the 1937 Indianapolis 500.

If you guessed Lucky Teter had something to do with that, you'd be right.

For the benefit of those new to this area, Earl "Lucky" Teter is something of a legend around here. During the 1930s and early '40's the Noblesville native made a name for himself as a daredevil stunt driver who, as The Ottawa Journal put it, "showed practically everything that could be done with the automobile - but shouldn't be."

With a reputation like that, it may come as a surprise, then, that Teter's participation in the 500 was not as a driver, but as the owner of the "Lucky Teter Special," a bright yellow race car with red wheels and a big red "41" on the side.

Much as Teter would have liked to pilot his own entry in the race, at that time all drivers were required to have at least a year's experience in AAA dirt track racing. He'd been too busy touring the country with his popular Hell Drivers show for that.

Instead, Ken Fowler, a veteran dirt track driver, was hired to do the honors.

Fowler, Ray McDowell, who built the engine, and a couple of assistants worked feverishly night and day for two weeks prior to qualifications to get the car ready.

After a number of adjustments, Fowler managed a ten-lap average of 117.421 mph, which was good enough for a spot on the outside of the 10th row.

Teter stuck around until the car was safely in the field, then left for Milwaukee where his Hell Drivers were preparing for a Sunday show. Immediately after that performance, he and his chief mechanic, J. V. Durham, hit the road, driving all night in order to get back here in time to work in the pits at the Monday race.

The day of the race, the heat was so brutal several contestants were forced to turn to relief drivers along the way.

Fowler and his riding mechanic, Bud Snyder (from 1930 to 1937 all entries were required to have riding mechanics) managed to handle the heat, but they ran into another problem.

Following a pit stop on the 96th lap, Fowler tried to restart the engine and discovered the starter was broken. The Teter pit crew contacted the judges and thought they'd been given permission to push the car out of the pits.

Unfortunately, they'd gotten their wires crossed somehow. Fowler was flagged off the course on lap 115, the car disqualified because it hadn't left the pits under its own power.

Disappointed Hamilton County residents saw the Lucky Teter Special finish in 19th place that day, while Wilbur Shaw edged out Ralph Hepburn to win the race by 2.16 seconds.

A five-month tour of the southern states and Cuba left Teter no time to prepare an entry for the 1938 race, but in 1939 he had a brand new "Lucky Teter Special" built and he fully intended to make another run at the 500.

However, Lucky's luck didn't hold. A couple of weeks before Memorial Day it was clear the car wouldn't be ready in time and he was forced to withdraw it from the competition.

That was the end of Lucky Teter's 500 race aspirations. Three years later he died at the Indiana State Fairgrounds in a stunt gone horribly wrong.

Notable Nineties Update: Frances Haskett has been added to the list by her son, Daniel. Congratulations!

Paula Dunn's From Time to Thyme column appears each Friday in The Times. Contact her at younggardenerfriend@gmail.com

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