LUCKY LOUIE, BUTTERMILK, 1939 CRASH, ALL PART OF MEYER’S INDIANAPOLIS 500 LEGEND

Redlands Connection is a concoction of sports memories emanating from a city that once numbered less than 20,000 people. From the Super Bowl to the World Series, from the World Cup to golf’s U.S. Open, plus NCAA Final Four connections, Tour de France cycling, major tennis, NBA and a little NHL, aquatics and quite a bit more, the sparkling little city that sits around halfway between Los Angeles and Palm Springs on Interstate 10 has its share of sports connections. – Obrey Brown

It was, by any account, an early Redlands Connection — circa 1920.

Eight years before basketball’s “Black” Jack Gardner graduated from Redlands High.

State sprint champion Bob Allen was one of California’s top track stars.

Bill Boone, a lineman once recruited by Notre Dame Knute Rockne, was a schoolboy.

Louis Meyer, it seems, never even went to Redlands High.

I’d searched high and low through all the Makios (Redlands High yearbooks) of that day and age. Nothing showed up. I later found out why. He told me. It was simple.

“I never went to school there.”

He had been a summer visitor. There was a Ford auto shop just off the downtown sector. Just opened. Eddie Meyer, also a racer, was the owner and operator of that repair garage. Louis was his younger brother.

Louis Meyer
“Lucky Louie” Meyer, who won the 1933 Indianapolis 500, asked for a cold drink of buttermilk after the victory. Who knew, at that time, that the practice would develop into one of the sport’s greatest moments (photo by Wikipedia Commons)?

Louis was, said a nephew several decades afterward, the original “Lucky” Louie. The family name is Meyer, and if there wasn’t a wrench, steering wheel or some kind of speed duel going on somewhere, you probably had the wrong family.

It all started in Redlands around that year, 1920.

Louis Meyer, a three-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 (1928, 1933 and 1936) died in Searchlight, Nev. in 1995. He got his start, learning to drive race cars from his brother, Edward T. “Bud” Meyer way back in the 1920s.

“There was a hill in Redlands,” recalls Terry Francis, an El Monte-based nephew of Louis Meyer, “that he learned to race.”

Once he got to Indianapolis, as a relief driver-riding mechanic in 1927, the Meyer family racing odyssey was reality.

“Wilbur Shaw,” says Sonny Meyer, who was in 1998, 69. He was Lou’s son of Crawfordsville, Ind. “got tired. He was looking for someone to get in the car and drive.”

Shaw was one of the pioneer champions at Indy.

It was the story on Louis Meyer’s racing beginnings at Indy. He had never driven a single lap on a speedway, speeds reaching a never-before-recorded 100 mph (these days, racers must be licensed before they’re even given a chance to make a practice run on the Brickyard track).

Louis Meyer, 1928 Indy champion
Louis Meyer, pictured in this 1928 photo, won his first Indianapolis 500 that year (photo provided by Indianapolis Motor Speedway).

One year later, 1928, Meyer won his first Indy 500.

“Dad had that car in second place,” said Sonny, referring to his 1927 race. “Wilbur called him in and wanted to finish the race.”

By 1927, drivers had changed from the leather-helmeted, mustachioed daredevils handling huge, ungainly machines to young jousters in low-slung bombs.

Louis Meyer was a young jouster. He had never won a pole, but lined up in the front row twice.

MEYER STARTED INDY TRADITION

It’s no myth that Meyer was the one who started tradition at Indy. Winning drivers who drink milk in Victory Lane can look back to Meyer for that one: The year was 1933.

“It was,” said Sonny, “actually buttermilk. He had a real palate for buttermilk. He told someone, ‘If I win this thing, I want you to have a cold drink of buttermilk for me after the race.’ ”

Said Francis: “The dairy council saw that and said, ‘We’ve got to jump on that.’ They made it a tradition at Indy.”

Meyer became the first three-time winner in Indianapolis 500 history. In 1928, Meyer led in only 19 of the 200 laps, but they included the all-important final one as he won his first 500.

Sonny recalled that his mom, June, didn’t even know his dad would be racing at Indy.

“She was somewhere back (in Pennsylvania),” he said. “She towed a wrecked car back to the shop. My uncle (Eddie) was racing at a track in Reading. She was there to watch.”

Louis Meyer chuckled over that memory. June, he said, found out he’d won that year’s Indy 500, “when the track announcer asked the crowd to give out a cheer to Eddie Meyer, the brother of the Indianapolis 500 winner.”

In 1933, Meyer recorded a three-lap victory over Shaw.

In 1936, Meyer won from the 28th starting position, tying Ray Marroun’s record for winning from the farthest back on the starting grid.

He crashed in 1939 on the 198th lap, got up and walked away – literally.

Henry Ford made Louis a proposition, one that would bring him back to Southern California in charge of building Ford engines, including the Offenhauser.

He won $114,815, taking 1,916 total laps around the Brickyard track in his 12 starts – finishing in the Top 10 on six occasions and second in 1929.

“He always told me,” said Sonny, “that he knew he wasn’t going to climb back into a race car.”

That, said Francis, “is why they call him Lucky Louie. All those years at Indy, the offer from Henry Ford, the crash, walking away – everything.”

FROM DRIVER TO ENGINE BUILDER

Louis Meyer, said Searchlight, Nev. Museum historian Jane Overy, said, “was the nicest man.” Lou died, she told me, when the city’s museum was getting set to open. He was featured prominently in the small museum. Meyer had beaten the odds just to make it that far.

“There were 11 kids,” recalled Sonny Meyer. “Only three lived.”

Those kids were Eddie, the oldest, then Louis, and then, Harry, the last among the living in Southgate, Calif. “He rode with my dad,” said Sonny, referring to Harry, “as a riding mechanic (in the 1937 Indy 500).”

Meyer’s Indy-racing career concluded with the crash in 1939, which left him 12th.

Until then, the greatest engine ever raced at Indy was the “Miller,” developed by Harry Miller, Fred Offenhauser and Leo Goosen. The rights to its design were purchased by Offenhauser and the engine was renamed after him. Then it was purchased by Meyer and Dale Drake and renamed the Meyer-Drake Offie.

It was a high-powered, specially-designed racing engine that was constantly improved over the years. Until Ford came along with its million-dollar automotive budgets and challenged for supremacy in the 1960s, Meyer had a contract with the up-and-coming Michigan-based company.

“After he crashed (at Indy),” said Sonny, “he said he knew he wasn’t going to climb back into a race car. Henry Ford made him a proposition.”

NO REAL FUTURE IN RACING

There wasn’t much major racing around the U.S. beyond the Indianapolis 500. NASCAR had yet to see its beginnings. Louis Meyer returned to California and took part in “board” racing at places like the Rose Bowl and Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

The “season” started around Trenton, N.J., the only real race before Indy. “We’d go to Ascot,” recalled Sonny. “I remember because we’d have three or four drivers sleeping on our floor when we lived in Huntington Park (a Los Angeles suburb).”

Louis Meyer’s son still remembers being farmed out to neighbors, “while my mom (June) and dad went racing. During the season, they towed the race car with a rope. Mom was in the race car.”

Meanwhile, Ed Meyer still had his Redlands garage.

Sonny Meyer has a way of remembering his family’s Huntington Park address. “Dad won his first Indy 500 in 1928,” he said, “in car No. 14. That was our address: 2814 … Broadway. I still remember our phone number. It was Lafayette 8325.”

The Meyer family is more than just “connected” in racing’s history books.

Retirement was just a short drive away. For years, the Meyers had traveled to Cottonwood Cove – nine miles from a non-descript, desert community of Searchlight, Nev. It’s where Louis and June Meyer settled down for their final years.

Driving through the tiny community, located somewhere between Las Vegas and Laughlin, it became a hideaway for other celebrities, notably Hollywood’s Edith Head, early Academy Award-winning actress Clara Bow, among others.

ONE FINAL CHAT WITH ‘LUCKY LOUIE’

In a very short conversation I had with meyer in 1994, most of his Indy 500 memories had faded. He’d recalled the memory about his wife’s discovery how he’d won the 1928 Indy 500.

Racing, said Louis, nearing age 90, “has been good to me and my family. My only regret is that time goes by so very fast.”

Louis Meyer was born on July 21, 1904, dying October 7, 1995. Born in lower Manhattan, New York the son of French immigrants, Meyer was raised in Los Angeles where he began automobile racing at various California tracks.

There was no track in Redlands, nor even near Redlands. Ed Meyer’s Ford shop was there, though.

Fans these days might not believe there were board tracks in such places as Beverly Hills, which had a 1 ¼-mile oval dubbed Beverly Hills Speedway. Or the Culver City Speedway. There was the Northern California-based Cotati Speedway up in Santa Rosa. The Fresno Speedway (1 mile) and the mile long Los Angeles Speedway in Playa del Rey.

“Yeah, Redlands,” said Francis. “That’s a key spot for the family. You never forget something like that.”

Meyer won the United States National Driving Championship in 1928, 1929 and 1933.

He died in 1995 in Searchlight, Nevada, aged 91, where he had been living since 1972. In 1992, Meyer was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame. He was named to the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 1991. He was inducted in the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1993.

There was a nice little corner in Searchlight’s museum dedicated to the early racing legend.

Said the Hall of Famer: “A lot of people had me confused with the movie guy … Louie B. Mayer (of MGM). I always got a little kick out of that.”

 

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