Motor sport

The German Driver Who Unearths America’s Lost Race History

Learning English at school – he now speaks the language fluently – gave him access to British publications. But he couldn’t find much detailed information on American racing until two decades ago, when he discovered statistics compiled by Phil Harms.

A Boeing engineer and motorsport enthusiast, Harms amassed 10,000 photos and compiled a database of racing results dating back to the 1890s. Ferner was fascinated by what he found, but also by what was missing. Harms had focused on major league events. But during the Depression, the National AAA Contest Board Championship, as IndyCar racing was known at the time, was limited to a handful of races. In 1938, for example, there were only two on the schedule – Indy and a 100 mile overland at Syracuse.

“I realized there needed to be more racing and I wanted to know where the rest of the story was at,” Ferner said. “If I had known the depth of this burrow, I might not have dared to start digging. But once I got my nose in, I dug deeper and deeper and – wow! There are probably ten times more races in America than in the rest of the world. So there is still a lot of history to discover.

“Ernie Triplett is very underrated. He’s been completely forgotten but he was a superstar in the 30s.”

Ironically, Ferner is not the first European motorsport historian to focus his attention almost exclusively on the United States. Donald Davidson, an English expat, spent 23 years as the official historian of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway before retiring last year. But whereas Davidson was a master of the memorable anecdote, Ferner favors a more analytical approach.

Fortunately, he began his project around the time the awesome power of the Internet as a research tool was becoming apparent. This allowed him to tap into online databases of digitized copies of thousands of American newspapers, large and small, from coast to coast. Although he originally planned to follow only sprint car racing, he eventually expanded his network to include midgets.

By researching drivers, cars and tracks, he was able to identify dozens of races that weren’t in the Harms database. And while Ferner is the first to admit his records are incomplete, they do offer a remarkably broad look at open-wheel racing in the United States.

Ferner’s research has shed new light on underrated names like Ernie Triplett, here in the #1 car alongside Bob Carey in San Leandro, Calif.

Bay Area News Group Archive via Getty Images

Currently, Ferner’s Excel spreadsheets contain entries for 31,348 Indycar and speed car races in the United States and Canada, with 417,652 rows of event data, as well as 9,264 other midget races, mostly American and Australian, with 84,793 lines of data. He also compiled records for 17,964 other car races and 7,881 motorcycle races from around the world.

Of course, statistics alone are just numbers. Ferner’s voluminous records also tell fascinating stories of the breadth of the American racing scene; in some areas, at certain times, there seemed to be a racetrack in every town with more than two red lights. Chassis stories also trace the winding paths the cars took from team to team, then series to series, as they were modified to avoid obsolescence.

Looking at the bigger picture, Ferner was able to shine a light on some personalities that have been unfairly overlooked. “Someone like Ernie Triplett is very underrated,” he says. “People say, ‘He never finished in the top five at Indy. He must not have been very good. So he’s completely forgotten. But he was definitely a superstar in the ’30s.”

Smokey Yunick and Chris Economaki

Mechanic and designer Henry ‘Smokey’ Yunick reads National Speed ​​Sport Newswho covered the American scene from 1934 to 2011

ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images

A setback in Ferner’s efforts to fill in the gaps in his data is his inability to get his hands on National Speed ​​Sport News, which has been the weekly bible of oval track racing in the United States for nearly three quarters of century. But while he searches for more information, he continues to investigate other forms of racing.