Throw Back Thursday: Dirt Drivers You Should Know – Tommy Milton

Tommy Milton in 1921. Photo from IMS Museum.

In the earliest days of automotive racing, men with truckloads of courage and a willingness to take on hard work often achieved great success. One such man was Motorsports Hall of Fame Of America racer Tommy Milton.

Milton’s driving prowess was not defined by dirt ovals, board tracks, or oval tracks in general. His successes included numerous land speed records, 50 board track lap and distance records, two victories in the Indy 500 (the first man to accomplish this feat), 15 major victories in races over 100 miles, and the American Drivers’ Championship in 1921.

Disability

What makes these achievements even more spectacular, Milton was able to perform at this level with a handicap that would not allow him to compete in modern events. Milton was totally blind in his right eye and suffered from impaired vision in his left.

Growing up without sight in one eye, Milton evolved into a great competitor and an excellent athlete. Upon getting a glimpse of automobile racing, the young man yearned for the competition for speed. He became a performer in a traveling circus featuring automobiles but was fired after refusing to be scripted as part of the show. He began his driving career in earnest by competing on the dirt tracks in the midwest.

Milton joined the Duesenberg team and worked his way into the top driver role. His first major victory came in the fall of 1917 at Providence, Rhode Island, in a 100-mile event. In short order, Milton became the man to beat when Duesenberg developed their straight-eight racing engine.

Indy Debut

He won twice on the Uniontown board track and at the prestigious Elgin road races in 1919. He also made his debut at the Indianapolis 500 where he started  31st, then dropped out after 50 laps, finishing 25th due to a connecting rod issue.

He was seriously burned at Uniontown later that same year but struggled back after only two months to set numerous world closed-course records at Sheepshead Bay. This shaped his plan to capture the Land Speed Record.

Over the winter, he built a radical twin-engined car, and on April 27, 1920, he broke Ralph DePalma’s old mark with a speed of 156.046 mph at Daytona Beach. But his four-year relationship with Fred and Augie Duesenberg soured in a dispute over teammate Jimmy Murphy’s unofficial runs in the record car.

Tommy Milton in his race car at the Daytona Beach Road Course in 1920. Photo from wikipedia.org.

Leaving Duesenberg

In 1920, after three major board track victories, he placed Third at the Indy 500, then left the Duesenberg team to start his own team. Meanwhile, he took a ride in what was considered a marginally competitive Frontenac in the 1921 Indianapolis 500. Running a strategic race, Milton started in 20th position and raced his way to the lead over the driver that replaced him in the Duesenberg car. Leading 90 laps, he crossed the finish line in First, almost four minutes over Roscoe Sarles in the Duesenberg entry.

Winning several major races in the Durant Special, Milton finished the 1921 season as the 1921 Driver’s Champion. The car was outlawed in 1922 by the AAA sanctioning body.

Milton drove his own car in 1923 and became the first driver to win the Indy 500 twice. He went on to set a dirt track one lap record and a 100-mile distance record at Syracuse, New York, in a totally dominant victory.

Tommy Milton with Barney Oldfield and Louis Chevrolet before the 1921 Indianapolis 500. Photo from wikipedia.org.

Into Retirement

He went on to set world speed records at Muroc Dry Lake in the International classes C and D in 1924. Then formed his own three-car team, winning several more 250 and 300-mile races before retiring from driving.

Milton accepted an executive position at the Packard Motor Company in 1926 but never strayed too far from racing. He found himself behind the wheel at Indy again as a replacement driver in 1927, earning an Eighth place finish, then retiring again after the race.

He worked with Packard on a variety of engineering projects, including the design and development of the only front-wheel-drive car the Packard Company ever made. In 1949, Milton accepted an offer from the AAA to become Chief Steward of the Indianapolis 500, running the event until 1957, when health problems forced him to step away.

After battling a long illness, Milton passed away from a self-inflicted gunshot wound on July 10, 1962, in Mount Clements, Michigan. His legacy of a Champion and influence on the Indianapolis 500 can not be overstated.

Honors:

  • Milton was inducted in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame in 1954.
  • He was inducted in the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 1992.
  • He was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1998.

About the author

Bobby Kimbrough

Bobby grew up in the heart of Illinois, becoming an avid dirt track race fan which has developed into a life long passion. Taking a break from the Midwest dirt tracks to fight evil doers in the world, he completed a full 21 year career in the Marine Corps.
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