THE LAST LAP – One of the stranger accidents ever at the Indy 500

I love motorsports history, especially that of the Indy 500, Formula 1, and the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

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Since the first Indianapolis 500, held in 1911, won by Ray Harroun in a Marmon, 73 people have died at The Speedway in connection to the 500.  This includes drivers, mechanics, spectators — anyone that was at the race at the track, that somehow lost their life.  Among the more unexplainable passings over these now 112 ensuing years is that of young driver Albert J. “Pete” Kreis.  Kreis was a tall strapping young man, and one with considerable driving talent — and his primary goal among any other events he contested was to win the Indy 500.

He took his shot at the Greatest Spectacle in Racing ten times (from 1925-1934), and never got to drink the milk.  In few cases his car was to blame; a few others he had some relatively modest rides, some years he was aboard factory mounts, such as Duesenberg, Miller and Cooper.  He raced all over the United States, in fact globally, running a mixed Indy/Grand Prix event in Italy at Monza 1927.  In all of his many races over that near decade, never won a race outright, finishing first.  Although over time he enjoyed a 2nd (1926), and 3rd (also 1926) overall, plus a fourth and a pair of fifths.  The rest of his career was sprinkled with a variety of mid-pack finishes, and a seemingly unequal helping of DNFs.  No matter, he was always fast.

Unfortunately, it all came to an end at Indy in 1934; he was aboard a front-wheel drive Miller-Hartz racer, when, during practice his car inexplicably jumped the Turn 1 retaining wall (such as it was, a concrete or brick retaining “pony wall” not more than three feet high).  The car flew through the air and crashed hard into a tree.  Kreis and his riding mechanic were killed nearly instantly.    He was the only car negotiating Turn 1 at speed when it happened, and no other car came in contact or was in any way involved. This incident was investigated in great detail to virtually no meaningful or certain conclusion.

Recently, a new book has been published that tells Kries and his family’s history, and a clear picture of young Pete, his brothers, and his overbearing father.  Plus a near race by race accounting of his entire life and career.  Author William Walker spent much of his professional life in search of answers to this Indy mystery but suffice it to say that Mr. Walker does a properly journalistic job of telling this engaging story.  He interviewed the people who should know and came up with a bevy of worthwhile period photos.  The story is so tightly wound that in some passages, reads like a novel, and really needs to be written into a screenplay (Hello, Patrick Dempsey — you listening?).  With an MSRP of a bit less than $30, this book and this story is a bargain at that.

One of the Kreis family businesses was marble quarries, and this 8000-pound block of white marble was hand carved into Young Pete’s rather significant headstone. The oval that encircles the lettering represents the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and if you look to the lower right of this photo, you’ll see a representation of Kreis’s car just about to climb the Turn 1 wall to his death.

What really happened to Kreis’ front-drive Miller that afternoon in May, 1934?  We don’t know, for sure for sure.  Yet author Walker presents a compelling case, and I very much agree with his conclusions — sorry, you’ll have to read it for yourself.

See you at Indy, this May.