Blood and Smoke, A True Tale of Mystery, Mayhem and Indy 500

May 3, 2011 6:00 AM

While others are busy handicapping this week’s imponderable Kentucky Derby, I’ll pick a sure winner, in another field.

It’s a book, being released this week by the major New York publishing house of Simon & Schuster.

The title is Blood and Smoke, A True Tale of Mystery, Mayhem and the Birth of the Indy 500. What makes it a winner is the author, Charles Leerhsen, one of the most skilled wordsmiths in the business today, and the way he weaves this immaculately researched story.

Those who follow auto racing will treasure this work, and those who don’t still will find it fascinating, because it is the story of the American automobile in its earliest successes.

But it goes far beyond that.

This happens to be the 100th anniversary of the race at "The Brickyard" in Indianapolis, which was a dust-covered, potholed dirt oval in its earliest incarnation, and a killer.

How it came to be the race it is, an event that drew as many as 400,000 not too many years ago, could be a dry history in the hands of someone less skillful than Leerhsen, which means just about any of the biographers of today.

He has written books about the early horse racing hero Dan Patch, about Donald Trump (I prefer Dan Patch, who kept his mouth shut while performing), about test pilot Chuck Yeager, and broadcaster Brandon Tartikoff, and they all glide, delights to read.

This one, like the others, is a smooth sail. You not only will enjoy the story of early car racing and the almost mythical figures who participated in it, but a narrative of the men (some shady, some unbelievable) that persevered and made it into a national sport.

My favorite is a character named Ernest A. Moross, who was the first publicist for the Indy 500. He may have been the all-time master of hype, a man who Leerhsen wrote "would roll a sheet of paper into his typewriter, light a cigarette, then allow himself to be transported to the land of purple prose."

Moross wrote about "cars representing almost every country in the world, which will whirl by piloted by demons of speed and unrest." You’ve got to love a guy who would write that stuff.

The book’s principal subject, besides the race history and the brave men who drove and died in it, was a charming rogue – the best kind – named Carl Fisher. He planned, schemed and promoted. Earlier in his career, Fisher bought a boxcar full of bicycles, 350 of them, on consignment and sold them in a month.

In 1898 Fisher bought his first automobile, from France, and was on his way. He ultimately became a millionaire, or at least lived and acted like one. His story, woven like silk thread by Leerhsen, is the web in which the book unfolds.

The cars in those days were dangerous experiments, cumbersome machines with no windshields, seat belts, roll bars or safety devices, and mostly two-seaters with a "riding mechanic" who checked the oil and tires and looked for competition coming on in the dust.

Glenn Etheridge, the riding mechanic for driver George Roberston, wrote, "Going around curves can be especially bad. In some cases a driver can keep the mechanic from flying away by holding him with one hand, but not always."

Charlie Leerhsen will hold your hand while you make this trip with him through those tortuous early days when the racing car became the forerunner of the thousands that followed, and the millions that took over the roads of America.

You will enjoy the trip.

As for the Kentucky Derby, and the welter of unknown and still unproved horses racing in it this Saturday, I’ll still go with Nick Zito. I’m no more certain than any of the other guessers in this game that DIALED IN can win, but Zito is a winner as a human being.

That’s good enough when future odds-on headliners still loom as longshots going into this one.