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He Built a Career at Indy : Louie Meyer, 88, Won Three 500s After Starting as Mechanic

August 13, 1992|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SEARCHLIGHT, Nev. — Racing's first three-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 lives here, just to the side of a county road winding toward Cottonwood Cove, down past the town cemetery to the softball field, where the sign reads: "Cross at your own risk."

Cross the sandy wash, and more than likely you will find Louie Meyer--winner of the 1928, 1933 and 1936 Indy 500s--sitting on his porch, soaking up the dry warmth of a 100-plus-degree desert day.

Meyer, who turned 88 on July 21, is the only living winner of a pre-World War II Indy 500. The day after his birthday, he was inducted into the International Motor Sports Hall of Fame in Birmingham, Ala.

Although he has been retired for nearly 15 years, Meyer maintains an active interest in auto racing through his son, Louis (Sonny) Meyer Jr., a racing engine builder, and his son-in-law, George Bignotti, one of racing's master mechanics who has been crew chief on a record 85 Indy car race winners. Ten were Indianapolis 500s.

The senior Meyer has missed only one Indianapolis race since going there first as a mechanic in 1926, giving him an unusual perspective on the direction automobile racing has taken in the last six decades. Some of his views:

--On today's drivers: "They have to be so much better than us old-timers because they drive so many more miles. In my day, if we ran 1,500 miles in a year--including the Indy 500--we were driving a lot. Today, the top drivers do that many in a week testing. They're in the car all the time, testing or racing, and most of them started racing before they could barely walk. By the time they get to Indianapolis for the first time, they've probably driven between 10,000 and 20,000 miles in race cars--karts, midgets, sprint cars, stock cars, all kinds of equipment."

Meyer never drove in a race of any kind until he was 21. In 1933, the year he won his first AAA driving championship, there were only three races on the schedule--Indianapolis and 100-milers at Detroit and Syracuse. This year, there are 16.

--On racing speeds of more than 230 m.p.h.: "I think they have to slow the cars down--at least on the big tracks like Indy and Michigan--for the spectators' sake as well as the drivers'. At Indy, if they hadn't had that little race at the end with Little Al (Unser Jr.) and (Scott) Goodyear, it would have been called a terrible race. How many cars finished, about 10? (12, to be exact, but only seven within two laps of the winner). And Michigan was worse. (Only nine finished)."

When Meyer qualified for the 1939 Indy race--his last--he set a four-lap record of 130.067 m.p.h. Last May, Roberto Guerrero raised the record to 232.482.

--On safety improvements: "The changes in safety may be the most significant of all. When I drove, I wore light duck pants, a T-shirt and a black sweater, and a white cloth helmet that my wife sewed for me. Peter DePaolo used to say that we wore white headgear so that when we got hit, the crews would know because the helmet would start turning red. And we didn't have any rollbars on the cars, either. Today, drivers get their feet banged up. In my day, they got killed."

Meyer drove 13 years at Indianapolis, from 1927 to '39. During that period, five drivers were killed in the race, seven others during practice. Eight riding mechanics were also killed. An Associated Press report of the 1929 race said: "Experts consider it miraculous that only one driver was killed."

In the past 13 years, none have been killed during the race; two lost their life in practice--Gordon Smiley in 1982 and Jovy Marcelo this year.

--On money: "I was born 50 years too soon. For what I got for winning three races, it doesn't compare with what a guy gets today just to make the field--even if he doesn't take the green flag. When I was racing, you had to start the race to get a check. Not anymore."

Meyer earned $77,550 for his three victories--$28,250 in 1928, $18,000 in 1933 and $31,300 in 1936. Pole-sitter Guerrero collected $286,378 this year although an accident on the parade lap prevented him from starting the race. The smallest amount any of the starters received was $136,003, by Gordon Johncock, who dropped out after 60 laps.

--On today's engine war between Ford and Chevrolet: "I don't know if it's good or not. I'm afraid they've about eliminated the mechanic at the race track. A team can't put a wrench on the engine, all the work's done at the factory. Teams don't buy engines, they lease them, and they have to send them back. They can't make any changes on their own. When something goes wrong, they just change them. I think that's entirely wrong. It takes something out of the sport, I'm afraid."

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