Frank Lockhart, American Speed King

Frank Lockhart, American Speed King

by Sara Morgan-Wu and James O’Keefe

Had he lived longer, who knows what heights he might have reached. His racing career lasted only five short years but showed such promise that the authors re-affirm Lockhart as “the greatest racing driver of his day.”

“To this day a mystique surrounds the achievements of American race car driver Frank Stallworth Lockhart. As can happen when a gifted athlete dies before reaching the height of his career, historians, and those left behind can often glorify actual events, create a mythology and possibly even overlook important but not well known achievements.”

He was a bright star at 25—as a mechanic/engineer as much as a driver—when he died in 1928 on the sands of Daytona Beach, flung from a car of his own design (an inter-cooled V-16 engine using four Miller dohc straight-eight blocks and two crankshafts geared together) when a tire burst during a Land Speed Record attempt. If it was hard for his contemporaries to fathom how a nearly illiterate young man could possess such mechanical wizardry and driving talent, it is no easier today when what little can in fact be known has been obscured by decades of uneven reporting focusing on mainly the splashy achievements, such as the LSR attempt or his rookie win of the 1926 Indianapolis 500 as a relief driver in only his third year of organized racing.

Pruning the record, then, is the aim of a new book called Frank Lockhart, American Speed King by Sara Morgan-Wu, James O’Keefe.

The book is part of a new American Racing History Series. Their “mission statement” for this undertaking is worth quoting in full:

“American automobile racing history is a field of scholarship still open to research. In an attempt to take on some of the crucial parts of this field and to fill gaps other earlier major works did not cover in extensive detail, Racemaker Press has initiated a series of scholarly books devoted to specific subject matters within this context: personalities, drivers, tracks, marques and other points of specific scholarship.”

To appreciate this approach, do a quick test: spend a few minutes trawling the Internet for Lockhart info and then read the first page of the book. Lots of differences in the details; not that there is a reason to doubt the quality of the authors’ research (look no further than their credentials, and specifically O’Keefe’s Winners Book, to rest easy on that score) but since the book’s avowed purpose is to “check and verify many questionable stories that have been circulated about Frank Lockhart’s life and career” it may well be thought a shortcoming that they do not disclose where exactly they found their data or cross-reference it to the Bibliography.

Of the book’s 256 pages, a mere 25 contain narrative—solid wall-to-wall text with no visual relief from illustrations or even nuanced typography or use of color. Lockhart’s professional career lasted only five years and is portrayed in sufficient detail here but there is minimal reference to the broader context of the American motorsports scene in the busy 1920s or to other concurrent events of technological import that moved the public (Lindbergh et al) to similar adulation. This does not diminish what is covered but it certainly leaves one layer of the onion unpeeled.

The bulk of the landscape-format book, some 160 pages, is devoted to absolutely splendidly reproduced b/w photographs, mostly one to a page, with brief but specific captions. All are credited but it’ll take some sleuthing to figure out the source abbreviations (there is no legend). They are about 60:40 divided into photos of Lockhart’s racing activities and three specific cars (the LSR car and two Miller 91s) including their post-Lockhart use. There are several still photos of the fatal crash but watching the original British Pathé newsreel is positively chilling.

Tables at the end of the book present Lockhart’s 1923–27 race record and 1926–29 speed records (both are augmented with notes clarifying certain entries), and 1925–27 pole winners. Appended are some 30 pages of reproductions of primary sources such as Lockhart’s intercooler patent, various news clippings and letters from Firestone and Stutz, a discussion of the tires on the LSR car, an inventory of Lockhart’s estate, an obituary, and various family documents (birth, marriage, death certificates).

The National Sprint Car Hall of Fame inducted Lockhart into their first class in 1990; the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America took until 1999 to bestow such recognition. For all its riches in showing us what Lockhart did, the book does not materially advance our understanding of the how and why except for saying, at the end of the Introduction, that it must have been his driving style that elevated his considerable innate skills to a level that made him “perhaps one of the most enduring heroes in American automotive racing.”

Even for the reader who does not have a specific interest in Lockhart per se, the photographic treasures offered here are immensely appealing and it is as important as it is convenient to now have them gathered in one book.

Printed on archival paper and bound in a wear-resistant cover (a ribbon bookmark even) the book is a worthy addition to Racemaker’s line-up—and your bookshelf—and we are eagerly awaiting the authors’ next offering, Peugeot Racing In America (pre-WW II). Racemaker has a full release slate for the immediate future with titles that had been talked about for some time finally going into actual production.

Copyright 2012, Sabu Advani (speedreaders.info)

Frank Lockhart, American Speed King
by Sara Morgan-Wu, James O’Keefe
Racemaker Press, 2012
256 pages, 190 b/w illustrations, hardcover
List Price: $75
ISBN 13: 978 1935240 03 7

A Tragedy of Speed! Graphic pictures of Frank Lockhart's fatal bid for speed record