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.”

 

DARNOLD, DE ROO AND DAMON JUST PART OF “CONNECTIONS”

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

Mike Darnold was the latest “connection.”

Throw in football’s Jim Weatherwax and Brian DeRoo.

Villanova basketball coach Jay Wright showed up here, with his team, one Saturday morning in 2003.

“Black” Jack Gardner left here in 1928.

Jerry Tarkanian lifted off from here in 1961.

How many Redlands Connections can there be?

It’s the basis for the Blog site, www.redlandsconnection.com. Dedicated to the idea that there’s a connection from Redlands to almost every major sporting event.

The afore-mentioned have already been featured. There have been others. Plenty of others.

Golf. Track & field. Tennis. Baseball and basketball. Softball and soccer. The Olympic Games and the Kentucky Derby. The World Series and the Super Bowl. You name it.

For a city this size, the connections to all of those are remarkable.

Softball’s Savannah Jaquish left Redlands East Valley for Louisiana State.

Bob Karstens was just shooting a few baskets when I saw him at Redlands High. Turned out he was one of three white men ever to play for the usually all-black Harlem Globetrotters.

Brian Billick coached a Hall of Famer. Together, they won a Super Bowl.

09_Billick_PreviewPreseason_news
Brian Billick, a key Redlands Connection.

Speaking of Super Bowls, not only was a former Redlands High player involved in the first two NFL championship games, there was a head referee who stood behind QBs Bart Starr and Lenny Dawson.

That referee got his start in Redlands.

One of racing’s fastest Top Fuel dragsters is a Redlands gal, Leah Pritchett.

LEAH PRITCHETT (leahpritchett.com)
Leah Pritchett has punched her Top Fuel dragster over 330 mph many times.

Greg Horton forcefully blocked some of football’s greatest legends for a near-Super Bowl team.

At a high school playoff game at Redlands High in 1996, Alta Loma High showed up to play a quarterfinals match. It was Landon Donovan of Redlands taking on Carlos Bocanegra.

The two eventually played on the same Team USA in the World Cup and the Olympics.

Karol Damon’s high-jumping Olympic dreams weren’t even known to her mother. She wound up in Sydney. 2000.

In the coming days, weeks and months, there will be more connections.

  • A surfing legend.
  • Besides Landon Donovan, there’s another soccer dynamo.
  • When this year’s Indianapolis 500 rolls around, we’ll tell you about a guy named “Lucky Louie.”
  • Fifteen years before he won his first Masters, Tiger Woods played a 9-hole exhibition match at Redlands Country Club.
  • University of Arizona softball, one of the nation’s greatest programs, was home to a speedy outfielder.
  • As for DeRoo, he was present for one of the pro football’s darkest moments on the field.
  • In 1921, an Olympic gold medalist showed up and set five world records in Redlands.
  • The Redlands Bicycle Classic might have carved out of that sport’s most glorious locations – set in motion by a 1986 superstar squad.
  • Distance-running sensation Mary Decker was taken down by a onetime University of Redlands miler.
  • Collegiate volleyball probably never had a greater athlete from this area.

As for Darnold, consider that the one-time University of Redlands blocker is the father of Sam Darnold, the USC quarterback who might be this year’s No. 1 draft selection in pro football’s draft.

Jaquish became the first-ever 4-time All-American at talent-rich LSU.

Jacob Nottingham, drafted a few years ago by the Houston Astros, probably never knew he’d be part of two Moneyball deals.

Gardner, who coached against Bill Russell in the collegiate ranks, tried to recruit Wilt Chamberlain at Kansas State.

Wright, whose team went into the March 31-April 2 weekend hoping to win the NCAA championship for the third time, brought his team to play the Bulldogs as sort of a warm-up test for Hawaii.

Tarkanian? Few might’ve known that the legendary Tark the Shark started chewing on those towels while he was coaching at Redlands High.

Norm Schachter was head referee in three Super Bowls, including Green Bay’s inaugural championship win over the Kansas City Chiefs.

Norm Schachter with Hank Stram
Norm Schacter, wearing No. 60 (not his normal official number), synchronizes with Kansas City Chiefs’ Hall of Fame coach Hank Stram during halftime of the inaugural Super Bowl in 1967.

Speaking of Tarkanian, Weatherwax played hoops for him at Redlands. Eight years later, Weatherwax wore jersey No. 73 for the Green Bay Packers. It makes him the only man to ever play for Tarkanian and Vince Lombardi.

There will be more Redlands connections.

 

PART 1: “BLACK” JACK GARDNER, 1928 TERRIER GRAD: HUGE CONNECTION TO HOOPS WORLD

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

If you want to talk basketball, maybe “Black” Jack Gardner – a 1928 Redlands High alum – could be good for a story, or two. Or three, or more. Also known as “The Fox,” Gardner’s departure from Redlands led him on an odyssey in which he would eventually wind up in 10 different Halls of Fame.

Jack Gardner (Photo by Commons)
“Black” Jack Gardner, a Redlands High product of 1928, may have set a Terrier record by being part of 10 different Halls of Fame. (Photo by Commons)

He’d coached against the likes of Bill Russell and Adolph Rupp, against his former college, USC, logging one of the most impressive basketball-coaching careers in the annals of the college game. In 1998, Gardner spoke by telephone with me from Salt Lake City.

Revelations from that conversation, plus another couple of contacts, were eye-opening.

Credited with the discovery of another Hall of Famer, John Stockton, Gardner watched plenty of hoops, even in retirement. In fact, he showed up at every Final Four between 1939 and 1997.

The man has quite a resume. Even today, after the remarkable successes of John Wooden, Bobby Knight, Dean Smith, Mike Kryzewksi, Larry Brown, Jim Boeheim, Roy Williams, Rick Pitino, Adolph Rupp and Jerry Tarkanian, Gardner qualifies among the elite of collegiate basketball coaches.

To date, he remains one of three coaches – Pitino and Williams are the others – to lead two different programs to the Final Four on two occasions. Though he was born in New Mexico in 1910, the path began in Redlands, where he was a four-sport athlete.

Long before Kansas became a major force in collegiate basketball, especially under legendary coach Forrest “Phog” Allen, Gardner’s K-State Wildcats regularly outplayed the Jayhawks.

“Yes,” said Gardner in a telephone interview with me in the late 1990s. “Coach Allen didn’t recruit much in those years. I think I got better players because I recruited. When he got going, boy, things got better for them.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Statue of Forrest “Phog” Allen, a legendary Kansas basketball coach, went up against Redlands product Jack Gardner, who coached Kansas State to some prominent times in the 1940s and 50s. (Photo by Wikipedia Commons).

One word: Chamberlain! More on Wilt later. As for Gardner, off he went to USC after his Redlands days, the 5-foot-11, 160-pounder becoming an All-American during his 1928-1932 stint as a Trojan – long before basketball became an iconic sport.

He was All-Coast, USC’s high scorer for two seasons, Trojans’ team captain and MVP during a successful collegiate playing career. His hoops future wasn’t in a uniform.

Coaching career begins

After coaching at Alhambra High School (29-11 over two seasons) to a 1934 Southern Section runner-up spot (losing to Santa Barbara, 19-14, at Whittier College) and Modesto Junior College (three state titles over four years), Kansas State hired Gardner as coach in 1939.

Gardner, who is enshrined in the Naismith Hall of Fame, coached the K-State Wildcats in two stints – first from 1939-42, again from 1946-53.  After posting just 20 wins in his first three seasons, Gardner returned to Manhattan, Kansas in 1947 and led the team to its first winning season in 16 years with a 14-10 mark.

One season later, the Wildcats made the most of their first NCAA Tournament appearance, advancing all the way to the 1948 Final Four, where they lost to eventual national runner-up Baylor, 60-52, in the Western Regional Finals.

That squad became the first in school history to win 20 games en route to capturing the Big Seven crown. K-State tied for the Big Seven title in 1950-51, finishing 25-4. Gardner guided the ’Cats to arguably their greatest season.

With first team All-American Ernie Barrett leading the way, Gardner’s Wildcats rattled off a 25-4 record en route to capturing the Big Seven crown for the third time in four seasons.

Entering the NCAA Tournament ranked fourth in the nation, K-State survived a scare from No. 12 Arizona, winning 61-59, in the first round before beating No. 11 Brigham Young University, then No. 2 Oklahoma State to reach the 1951 finals against Rupp’s No. 1-ranked Kentucky.

What a spot for a guy that had graduated from Redlands some 23 years earlier. All those days playing in that old Terrier Gymnasium couldn’t have predicted something like this.

It was a battle of Wildcats in the finals – No. 1-ranked Kentucky taking on Gardner’s K-State Wildcats. K-State had the halftime lead, 29-27.

Barrett was injured during the game, though, and K-State got overwhelmed in the second half, losing 68-58. What a story that would turn out to be. Point shaving. Kentucky players were branded. Arrested. Jailed. Barred for life.

In looking ahead to Gardner’s career, consider that he coached against the likes of Smith and Wooden, Rupp and Allen, plus both McGuires – Frank and Al.

Gardner’s Utah team went up against Bill Russell, then played the foil of Kentucky in Glory Road movie fame, scouted Stockton for the Jazz and had the edge in a pair of Utah-based rivalries against Utah State and Brigham Young University.

Part 2 next week.

 

TARK TOWELS SAW ITS BEGINNINGS AT REDLANDS HIGH SCHOOL

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

There is no evidence that A Redlands Connection came up with a meeting of Jerry Tarkanian-coached teams at Long Beach State/Nevada-Las Vegas and the University of Utah, which was where “Black” Jack Gardner reigned as coach for so many seasons.

Tark and Black Jack never came across the other in NCAA play. Gardner’s career was winding down when Tark’s career was heating up.

It would have made a great game – the Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV against the Runnin’ Utes of Utah – coached by two guys with A Redlands Connection.

Tarkanian distinguishes Redlands for another reason. In his book, “Runnin’ Rebel,” Tark The Shark wrote about his reasons for showing up at the Inland Empire.

“I was in Redlands for two seasons, and two important things happened. The first was that I decided to get a Master’s degree. I figured it would help if I ever wanted to coach at the college level. And if not, you got a jump in pay as a high school teacher if you have a Master’s. With our second daughter, Jodie, on the way, I needed the money.”

The second “big thing” that Tarkanian connected was at Redlands High … playing in the 1960 league championship game against Ramona High School over in Riverside.

JERRY TARKANIAN UNLV

Jerry Tarkanian, shown here in a familiar pose, chomping on a towel. The practice began, he says, back in the days when he coached Redlands High School. It was simple: He got tired of walking back and forth to the water fountain at Riverside Ramona High School. (Photo by Tim Defrisco/ALLSPORT

Wrote Tark: “It was really hot in the gym, and my mouth kept getting dry. I could hardly yell to my team. I kept going to get drinks from the water fountain. Back and forth, back and forth. Finally, I got tired of doing that, so I took a towel, soaked it under the water fountain, and carried it back to the bench. Then when I got thirsty, I sucked on the towel.

“We won the game and the league championship. Because I was a superstitious person, I kept sucking on towels the rest of my career. It became my trademark, me sucking on a white towel during the most stressful times of a game.

“Everywhere I go, people ask me about the towel. People used to mail me them. Fans brought towels to the game and sucked on them, too. It was the big thing. Eventually when I was at UNLV, we got smart and started selling souvenir “Tark the Shark” towels. We sold more than 100,000 of them. It was incredible.

“And if that high school gym in California had been air-conditioned back in 1960s, I probably never would have started sucking on towels.”

In those days, it could’ve started out as a Tark Terrier Towel.

Rack it up again – A Redlands Connection!

A look ahead — four-part series on “Black Jack” Gardner is set to come soon.