When Louie Meyer died Saturday night at 91 in a Las Vegas hospital, it marked the end of a glorious era of American motor racing pioneers.
Meyer, the Indianapolis 500's first three-time winner, was the last living winner of a pre-World War II Indy 500. He was also the last living builder of the famed Offenhauser engine that dominated open-wheel racing from 1947 into the mid-1970s. An Offy-powered car won every 500 from 1947 to 1964. Almost all were built in the Meyer-Drake garage in South-Central Los Angeles.
Meyer was consumed with the sport. He worked on cars from the time he dropped out of school in Redlands in the eighth grade during a flu epidemic.
"I went to work for my brother Eddie--he was 11 years older--as a mechanic in his garage during the epidemic and I never went back to school," Meyer said in a 1992 interview at his home in Searchlight, Nev.
Louie got his first chance to race at 21. If brother Eddie had his way, it would have been his last.
"It was an Australian pursuit race, where the slow cars start in front and drop out when they are passed," Meyer said.
"When I spun out trying to stay ahead, Eddie ran up and told me, 'You'll never make a race driver. Get out.' "
He went to Indianapolis in 1927 as a mechanic on Wilbur Shaw's Jynx Special. When Shaw pulled into the pits and said he was too sick to continue, Meyer grabbed Shaw's helmet and told owner Frank Elliott he would take over.
"I drove 41 laps and passed a couple of guys, and, when I came in for gas, Wilbur said he felt like going back," Meyer said. "So I got out. We finished fourth, so I felt pretty good."
The next year, he believed he was set to drive for Augie Duesenberg. A couple of days before the race, Duesenberg sold the car.
"I was sitting on the pit wall, wondering what to do next, when Alden Sampson II, an old friend of mine, said he'd buy a car if I'd drive it," Meyer said. "It's funny how things work out. It was a car Wilbur Shaw was going to drive."
Meyer drove conservatively, laying off the pace until the 400-mile mark when he and another L.A. driver, Lou Moore, started moving up. When race leader Jimmy Gleason had magneto problems with five laps remaining, Meyer took over and held off Moore.
"Nothing that ever happened to me after that matched winning my first 500," Meyer said.
He also won at Indy in 1933 and 1936. After his 1933 victory, he went to his garage and grabbed a bottle of milk to quench his thirst. A photographer caught the moment, an Indianapolis paper published the picture the next day and the Indiana dairy industry made drinking milk in Victory Lane a tradition that remains.
He retired after the 1939 race, having driven 5,249 miles in competition at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 13 races.
Services will be held Friday at 2 p.m. at the Palm Mortuary in Henderson, Nev., with burial at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Inglewood Cemetery.
Motor Racing Notes
STOCK CARS--Southern California's biggest week of stock car racing starts tonight at Mesa Marin Raceway in Bakersfield. Late model stocks of the Winston Racing Series will open the four-day speed festival with the Fastrip 100. Friday night will feature the NASCAR Southwest Tour cars with Lance Hooper of Palmdale looking for his sixth victory and the season championship. Saturday night the Winston West series takes over with the Spears Manufacturing 300, featuring Winston Cup veteran Ken Schrader challenging former series champions Bill Sedgwick and Rick Carelli. The grand finale on Sunday afternoon will be NASCAR's SuperTruck series, with Ernie Irvan taking the second step in his rehabilitation campaign in driving with an eye patch. Irvan was sidelined 13 months before coming back two weeks ago at North Wilkesboro, N.C.
MOTORCYCLES--The American Motorcyclist Assn.'s Grand National dirt track season will close Sunday with the Del Mar Mile on the Del Mar Fairgrounds track. Scott Parker has clinched his sixth championship, but other positions are at stake in the 25-mile race. On Saturday night, a speedway motorcycle program, featuring Bobby Schwartz, Brad Oxley and Gary Hicks, will be held in the Fairgrounds horse arena.
JET BOATS--The 14th Skat-Trak World Finals, running this week at Lake Havasu City, Ariz., will conclude Sunday with the pro finals in closed course, slalom and freestyle. Among the favorites are Victor Sheldon of Vista, Kawasaki's newly crowned national champion in the pro runabout 785 class; Tera Laho-Crismon of Lake Havasu City, defending women's pro ski champion; and Bill Pointer of Laguna Niguel, winner on a Sea-Doo of the Budweiser Jet Sports Tour's final event in pro runabout.
SPRINT CARS--Cory Kruseman, 24, of Ventura, a six-time Sprint Car Racing Assn. winner this season, underwent seven hours of surgery last Saturday night after flipping end-over-end 15 times during a U.S. Auto Club midget race Saturday night in Sacramento. Kruseman suffered a concussion, broken arm and hand and eyes that were swollen shut, but doctors said he probably will be released today. . . . The Western World championships are Friday and Saturday nights at Manzanita Speedway in Phoenix.
MIDGETS--Billy Boat, winner of 11 consecutive USAC western regional races earlier in the year, will headline Saturday night's USAC feature at Ventura Raceway. Also on the program will be three-quarter midgets and Legend cars.