DAD didn’t like football, couldn’t bear to watch cricket and spent most of his weekends fixing cars. As I grew up we bonded over broken bits of engines and car races televised by the channel that couldn’t afford real sports.
Our Sunday afternoons were filled with car races broadcast live from exotic places such as Sandown, Calder and, once a year, Bathurst. Bathurst was like Christmas in October. Dad loved his Holdens but a bespectacled Canadian with a red Mustang lured me to the blue oval. His name was Allan Moffatt and he also raced Falcons.
My youthful hunger for automobile related knowledge caused me to spend my meagre pocket money on Wheels and Modern Motor magazines. I borrowed every library book about cars that I could find. Back then the Grand Prix was something you could only read about and Indianapolis was almost a myth.
Once I had a job I was able to make the occasional Bathurst pilgrimage, to sacrifice alcohol at The Mountain, as my mind became an archive of racers, races and racing cars. I researched backwards from Moff and Brockie through Brabham et al back to the dawn of motor racing. I couldn’t get enough of it.
Though my senses were enthralled by the sound and fury of our local tin-tops, the technical development of Grand Prix and Indy Cars held a particular fascination. One day, while reading a detailed history of the early Indy 500s, I tripped over a reference to an Australian who had raced in Europe and America before World War One. His name was Rupert Jeffkins.
Last weekend footage of Wil Power winning the Indianapolis 500 flashed around the world. As an Aussie finally won the world’s most famous car race my thoughts were once again drawn to that enigmatic Australian who had achieved world-wide acclaim at the same track over a hundred years earlier.
Born in Maitland in 1881, Rupert Jeffkins moved to France when he was twenty and filled with a determination to find fame and glory in the embryonic motor car industry. Work with Serpolet in France lead to work in England with F H Royce (before C S Rolls joined the sales team).
Ambition, ability and a wordy talent for self-promotion eventually took him to America which already had a professional motor racing industry. Articles of the time describe him as a ‘long term auto racing promoter’. Jeffkins was billed as a daredevil who exhibited cleverness and daring. He achieved good results on the tracks and was particularly adept at inter-city dashes that were used to promote cars as an alternative to steam trains.
The first Indianapolis 500 was run in May 1911. Attracted by a prize fund of more than $25,000, entries had been arriving for months. Rupert Jeffkins’ Velie was never a contender but finished in a creditable 17th place.
Prize money doubled for 1912 and new rules mandated both a driver and a riding mechanic for each car. While the drivers wrestled the giant cars around the squared oval the ‘mechanicians’ tended the voracious needs of the cars and acted as a spotter/tactician. After years of weekend racing and weekday car servicing Jeffkins signed on as riding mechanic for Ralph De Palma, an Italian-American racing car driver with a factory Mercedes.
Precisely at 10 am on Thursday May 30th, the field moved off on a formation lap behind the Stutz pace car. As they approached the start line, the Stutz pulled to the inside, the starter’s gun fired and the 500 mile race was underway.
DePalma and Jeffkins took the lead on the third lap and started pulling away from the rest of the field. By the 300 mile mark the grey Mercedes was three laps clear of second place. With 50 miles to go, their advantage was five full laps of the two and a half mile track.
De Palma and Jeffkins made five uneventful stops for tyres and fluid replenishment without losing the lead. Their victory was so inevitable that some spectators started to leave, some of the teams put in relief drivers and one driver even stopped to have a roast chicken lunch before resuming.
With three laps to go Jeffkins tapped De Palma on the shoulder. Wisps of smoke had started to trail from their exhaust. De Palma backed off the throttle. As the smoke increased other drivers sensed that the Mercedes could be bested after all. They sped up to a frantic pace as the crowd rose to its feet.
The Mercedes slowed. Smoke billowed, the engine misfired and when the oil ran out the bronze bearings melted. A steel conrod broke and smashed a hole through its cast iron cylinder. The car kept lunging forward, gasping like a great beast of the jungle with a bullet through its heart. Finally the crankshaft seized.
A lap and a half short of the finish the car died. De Palma and Jeffkins jumped down from the stricken Mercedes. De Palma sighed. “It looks like we’ll have to walk from here. We might as well bring the car with us.”
Already exhausted from six hours of racing, they began to push the heavy car around the banked turn, inching toward the finish line as the second and third placed cars furiously ticked off the laps toward victory. Joe Dawson, who had been running in second place for most of the day, flashed past the crippled Mercedes again and again. Eighty thousand spectators were on the edge of hysteria.
Jeffkins and De Palma pushed the car over the finish line and collapsed. They were still one lap short but it didn’t matter. The rules stated that the car needed to complete the race under its own power so their effort had been for nought. From the sidelines they watched as Dawson completed his 200th lap to take the checkered flag and more than $20,000 in prize money.
During the victory celebrations Dawson quietly slipped away and headed home to have dinner with his mother.
The next day photographs of De Palma and Jeffkins pushing the stricken Mercedes were on the front pages of newspapers across the world.
Capitalising on his fame, he toured the States with films of the 1911 and 1912 races which he narrated under the banner of The Toll of The Speedway. He returned to Australia and continued to tour and promote the film as he made a deal with Collingwood entrepreneur John Wren to start a speedway in Richmond.
During the 1920s Rupert became a regular on the Tivoli circuit, narrating the aging Toll of The Speedway and engaging in tyre changing competitions before talkies rendered his show obsolete. He briefly dusted off the old films in the 1940s and toured American military bases in NSW and Queensland, claiming to have befriended McArthur during a sojourn in the Philippines.
Rupert was living in a destitute men’s hostel in Liverpool, NSW when he quietly died in 1954. At some point a couple of American racing car enthusiasts paid for the modest plaque that marks his resting place. I wonder if he heard the crowd go wild again last weekend.