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Champion's Champions at 100 Miles an Hour
Photographs courtesy of Dick Wallen and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Peter DePaolo was the first to do it when he won the Indianapolis 500 in 1925 at an average speed of 101.127 miles per hour, the first time the century mark had ever been broken for the 500 miles but alas, Peter never became a member of the "Club"

It was not until 1930 when Billy Arnold broke the 100 mph mark in winning Eddie Rickenbacker's 500 mile chase with an average of 100.448 mph, he eventually became the first member of the "Club".

The "Club" was the brainchild of a Champion Spark Plug Company advertising manager, M.C. deWitt after a 1934 conversation with veteran driver Dave Evans. Evans told deWitt that his, Evans', sixth place finish in the 1933 Indianapolis 500, at an average speed of 100.425 mph, made him one of only 12 drivers who, in Speedway history, had ever finished the 500 mile distance, without a relief driver, averaging more than 100 miles an hour

History does not record whether deWitt saw lights flashing or heard bells ringing, but in his fertile brain the Champion Spark Plug 100 Mile An Hour Club was born.

Gaining admission to the new club would be the simplest thing in the World, all a guy would have to do was drive a race car 500 miles with an average speed of more than 100 miles per hour, with no help from a relief driver, in the Indianapolis 500. Of course the Indianapolis 500 is run only once a year and normally only 33 drivers can even earn the chance to drive in the race. Sort of limits the possibilities to about 99.9 percent of humanity even getting a shot at membership.

Champion proudly announced that on May 25, 1935 a banquet would be held in Indianapolis to honor the first 12 members of the Champion Spark Plug 100 Mile An Club. Those to be honored were; Billy Arnold, Fred Frame, Howdy Wilcox, Cliff Bergere, Bob Carey, Russ Snowberger, Louie Meyer, Chet Gardner, Wilbur Shaw, Lou Moore, Stubby Stubblefield, and Dave Evans.

Bill Cummings and Mauri Rose had also joined the select list for their first and second place 100 mph + finishes in the 1934 Indianapolis 500.

Bob Carey had been killed in an accident at Ascot Speedway in 1933, Stubby Stublefield was killed May 21, 1935 while trying qualify for the Indianapolis 500 and Billy Arnold, who did not race at the Speedway after 1932 were the only honorees not present at the first banquet

Thus was born one of the most prestigious "Clubs" in the history of all motor sports. The leather jacket awarded to each Club member by Champion become one of the most sought after prizes in racing. There were members of the Club who requested to be buried wearing their "Champion Jacket" when the time came.

There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of stories told and retold about earning a place in the "Club" and an equal number about those who came close but missed the much desired honor.

In 1946 Dick McGeorge joined Champion Spark Plug Company as its racing public relations representative and became the benefactor and guiding light for the rest of the Club's 35 year history. McGeorge was extremely proud of the 100 Mile An Hour Club, but in 1957 Sam Hanks sorely tested Dick's love for his pride and joy.

Sam had earned his membership in the Club twice, the first time in 1952 for a third place finish at 125.580 and in 1956 for second place finish at 128.303 mph. In the 1957 chase Sam was driving the beautiful, George Salih, "lay down" Belond Exhaust Special with a four cylinder Offenhauser tilted at a steep angle to one side.

Dick had convinced 32 of the 33 drivers to use Champion Plugs during the race, there was only one hold out --- Sam Hanks,

Hanks approached Dick a few days before the race and said for a few dollars he would switch and run Champions, McGeorge made the mistake of a lifetime, he told Sam Champion had 32 out of 33 and if he, Hanks, wanted to run Champion plugs he, McGeorge, would be glad to sell him four. Sam declined Dick's very generous offer.

As McGeorge would later tell the story, while half laughing and half crying, in the 1957 Indianapolis 500 Champion Spark Plugs finished second, third, fourth, fifth and all the way back to 33rd, but Sam Hanks won the race using Lodge Spark Plugs.

But when the Champion banquet time rolled around in 1958, there set Sam at the honorees table for the third time. He was smiling from ear to ear when poor old Dick McGeorge congratulated him for his win in 1957.

In his 10 tries at the Speedway Ted Horn owns the most amazing record in not only Speedway history, but the Champion 100 Mile An Hour Club as well. Ted finished fourth, or better, in nine of his 10 tries for the pot of gold and qualified for membership in the Club eight times by finishing the full 200 laps. He would have made it nine times in a row to the head table but he was RED FLAGGED in the 1940 race after running 199 laps, he still finished the race in fourth place.

Only three other drivers have ever been able to equal Horns mark of completing the full 500 miles eight times. Louie Meyer did it but it took him 12 tries, Wilbur Shaw had to try 13 times and Foyt did it in his 22 race and then tried 13 more times but couldn't beat Horn's, Meyer's and Shaw's mark of eight complete Indianapolis 500's.

In the earlier days at the Speedway it was necessary for the first 10 drivers to complete the full 500 miles in order to collect any prize money from the Speedway. Well the Speedway finally relented, but the tradition of allowing the first 10 to finish continued until 1964.

In fact 14 drivers earned their way into the club in 1952 and five years later 16 drove their way to the head table at the Champion 100 Mile An Hour Club banquet.

Then in 1964, with the advent of television, time became too valuable for such foolishness as allowing a driver to complete the Indianapolis 500 after the winner had taken the checkered flag. MCA agreed to present the the race "live" on "closed circuit" in theaters around the country, but MCA said the race had to end when the checkered flag waved.

Poor old Dick McGeorge about went into orbit, such a finish would mean their could never be more than one new member a year in the Club, and if there was a repeat winner, there would be no new members. He begged, he pleaded, he argued and finally the powers relented, the race would officially end five minutes after the winner had taken the checkered flag.

Dick had wanted at least 10 minutes and was never happy with the new rule. After 1964 only Johnny White, Gordon Johncock, Graham Hill, Bobby Unser, Mel Kenyon and Denny Hulme managed to gain the honor of setting at the head table at the Annual Club Banquet.

And here comes the story of Al Unser, who is a four time winner of the Indianapolis 500, finished second twice, third four times and, like Peter DePaolo, who would have been the first member if he hadn't had a relief driver, Al would have been a member if the Club hadn't disappeared in 1970.

Al had his invitation into the Club locked up in 1967 when, running in second place on his198 lap, Bobby Grim, Chuck Hulse, Carl Williams, Bud Tinglestad and Larry Dickson crashed in the main straight.

Foyt picked his way through the debris and took win as starter Pat Vidan furiously waved the checkered and RED flags, stopping the race immediately. Al Unser finished second in 1967 but he completed only198 laps of the required 200.

Then in 1970 Al won his first Indianapolis 500 and anxiously awaited the 1971 Champion Spark Plug 100 Mile An Hour Club banquet to receive his hard won leather jacket. The 1971 Banquet never took place, the membership closed and Al Unser was not among the final 116.

Dick McGeorge retired in 1970 and booked a World cruise for he and his wife, he would not be at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1971 and the Champion Spark Plug 100 Mile An Hour Club just faded into the sunset along with Dick McGeorge.

An added note, Dick suffered a fatal heart attack soon after retiring, he and wife never took the World cruise to celebrate his retirement.

I would like to sincerely thank Donald Davidson, the guru of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, for helping me fill many blanks in this story.