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Preservation group looks to redeem Boyle Racing Team garage

Published in blog.hemmings.com

At this point, nothing but four walls and a concrete floor remains of the Boyle Racing Team’s headquarters in a run-down neighborhood just northwest of downtown Indianapolis. Yet a group of preservationists intent on reviving what they consider “one of the most significant race shops in history” have big plans for the single-story brick garage that they intend to reopen as soon as this fall.

“This was a Penske-type shop before there was a Penske,” John Pappas, one of the founders of the Boyle Racing Headquarters Foundation said. Indeed, at a time when racing efforts aimed toward Indianapolis operated out of automakers’ factories all over the upper Midwest and relied on ad hoc means of transport for their race machines, the Boyle Racing Team ran a dedicated race shop and lugged its cars to the speedway in a purpose-built transporter. Perhaps more significantly, the team’s roster included one of the most important people in Indianapolis 500 history, racer and speedway president Wilbur Shaw.

While an accomplished racer (more on that in a moment), Shaw is perhaps best known as the man who, shortly after World War II, convinced Eddie Rickenbacker to hold off on subdividing the dilapidated speedway and convincing Tony Hulman to buy the grounds and continue the Indianapolis 500.

Shaw embarked on that effort to save the track because of his history with it. He began racing at Indianapolis in 1927, just a year after Mike “Umbrella Mike” Boyle began to field his Boyle Race Team there. As pointed out on the foundation’s website, Boyle wasn’t like other race team owners, largely in that he was less interested in promoting a business by racing at Indianapolis than he was in promoting his union, the Chicago chapter of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

Boyle, who also founded Boyle Valve Products to make valves for auto engines, set about building a juggernaut of a team. He hired some of the best drivers and some of the best mechanics in Indy racing. Among the former were Pete DePaolo and among the latter was DePaolo’s chief mechanic, Harry “Cotton” Henning.

Both Boyle and Shaw won Indy independently — in 1934 and 1937, respectively — but it wasn’t until 1939 that Boyle convinced Shaw to race for him, driving a Maserati 8CTF that Henning was able to rework into winning form. Shaw responded by becoming the first man to win the Indianapolis 500 twice in a row, in 1939 and 1940.

By then, Boyle had established the team in what Pappas described as “a pretty standard industrial building of its time,” built in 1936 not far from the railroad tracks on Gent Avenue. Pappas said Boyle likely picked the location because it was roughly halfway between the speedway and downtown, where the speedway then kept its offices. For a couple years, Boyle even shared part of the space with Thorne Engineering and Lee Oldfield, who set about building a rear-engine Indy car powered by a Marmon V-16.

Boyle continued to run the shop until 1946 or 1947, when he decided to get out of racing and turn over the operations to the Bennett brothers. Shaw had by then taken on the operations of the speedway for Hulman and let Henning have use of the gasoline alley shops. Another major team member, body man Herman Ringling, departed for Chicago to hammer out the Tin Goose prototype for Preston Tucker. The shop’s equipment and cars later ended up in the hands of Indianapolis Racecars and then, after Henning’s death, DePaolo. The hauler, a 1934 Diamond T 211 FF bodied by Indianapolis’s Gueldhoeffer Wagon Works, went with Shaw to the speedway and then, shortly before his death, disappeared.

The building itself found a number of light industrial uses afterward. Rex Metalcraft operated out of it until the Eighties when, according to Pappas, it “became an industrial flop and rotted to the ground.”

A couple decades later, Pappas and Geoffrey Congdon, both commercial real estate developers in Indianapolis, founded Indiana Automotive, a group dedicated to preserving the heritage and the buildings associated with the auto industry in Indiana. Not long after, Indiana Automotive became a part of Landmarks Indiana, through which Pappas and Congdon became aware of the Boyle Race Team headquarters.

“We saw a pile, a big mess,” Pappas said. The roof had collapsed, the windows were busted out, and the city had an emergency demolition order on the building. At the same time, though, Pappas and Congdon “were enthusiastic about the history of it and how much it meant to the city and the speedway.”

Indiana Landmarks didn’t want to pursue the building’s restoration — “It was too great a liability for them,” Pappas said — so Pappas and Congdon decided to take it on themselves. They convinced the city to transfer the property to them in March 2015 and began to stabilize and salvage what they could of the building, including the Kalamazoo block that appears in photos of the building when the Boyle Racing Team occupied it. In the process, they had to remove the roof completely, remediate environmental contamination on the site, install a new parking lot across the street, and run all-new utilities to the 15,000-square-foot building.

They also had to secure the building’s financial stability, as Pappas put it. While they envision a sort of shrine dedicated to the history of the Boyle Race Team, they also intend for the building to house a brewery, taproom, and events center and have since helped a local brewery refine its business model.

Meanwhile, acting on a tip from Wilbur Shaw Jr., Pappas began a search for the Diamond T hauler. After much legwork, aided by a local body shop, he tracked it down to a farm near Parkersburg, Indiana, where a farmer, interested only in the truck’s wheels and tires, pushed the rest of the truck down a ravine in 1954. Despite its sorry shape after 60-plus years, Pappas hauled it out of the ravine and had it fully restored, relying in part on the talents of the body shop owner who helped him find the truck. The 60-day restoration wrapped up in early 2016, just in time for the 100th running of the Indy 500, and has since toted the Boyle Race Team’s Maserati, which still exists as part of the Indianapolis Speedway Museum’s collection and even has a spot on the Historic Vehicle Association’s National Historic Vehicle Register.

Pappas said he and Congdon have funded much of the work on the Boyle Race Team headquarters themselves so far and are looking for “all the support we can get” at the foundation’s inaugural fundraiser, dubbed “A Step Back in Time.” The fundraiser, part of the foundation’s stated goal to raise $750,000, will feature guest speaker Joe Freeman and will include appearances by the aforementioned Maserati and a number of other vehicles connected to the Boyle Race Team.

A Step Back in Time is scheduled for March 2 at the Dallara IndyCar Factory in Speedway, Indiana. For more information, visit the event’s Eventbrite page or BoyleRaceTeam.org.