Another Russ Catlin Conundrum
In the program for the 1952 edition of the annual Memorial Day 500 mile race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Russ Catlin introduced a listing of American Automobile Association (AAA) national champions that began with the year 1902, the year that the AAA was formed in Chicago. The formation of the AAA also resulted in the formation of the organization’s Racing Committee, the outcome of one of the tenets of the program establishing the AAA. In the article, Catlin creates several “unofficial” national champions of the AAA, beginning in 1902 with Harry Harkness as the first such champion driver.
According to Catlin, there were the records of four race meets during the 1902 season that could be found in the archives of the Racing Committee: Cleveland, Providence, Grosse Pointe (Detroit), and Toledo. According to Catlin, Harry Harkness, using a Mercedes, edged out Charles Shanks, who drove a Winton, for the “unofficial AAA National Championship title.” Thus, Harry Harkness was crowned as the first AAA champion driver, fifty years after the fact.
However, in a worksheet that Catlin apparently used to calculate the 1902 championship standings, one can actually see Catlin’s work. This worksheet, part of the Russ Catlin/Bob Russo collection of the Racemaker Archives in Boston, tells a slightly different story. Here are the points standings for 1902 as found on the worksheet:
- Charles Shanks, 36 points
- Alex Winton, 32 points
- Harry Harkness, 26 points
- L.P. Mooers, 24 points
- Barney Oldfield, 20 points
- Percy Owen, 16 points
- W. Hawkins, 10 points
- Tom Cooper, 8 points
- H.F. Brown, 6 points
- Buckman, 6 points
- Carl Fisher, 6 points
Although I was quite tempted to attempt to see if I could replicate the scoring that Catlin came up with for his points for 1902, I thought it was simply a waste of time and effort, there really not being any rational basis for doing so. Not that it matters, of course, given that this is simply one of a number of champion drivers that created from whole cloth from his imagination, but whether Catlin’s math was highly suspect or simply that he wanted Harkness to be the champion driver regardless of the math, either way, there remains the fact that the AAA Racing Committee did not – nor anyone else for that matter – name a champion driver in 1902.
Catlin states that thanks to his success in match races, Barney Oldfield was recognized as the unofficial AAA national champion in 1903. With the exception of one year, however, the winner of the Vanderbilt Cup was also the winner of the AAA national championship, unofficially, of course.
Here is the listing of the Russ Catlin “Unofficial” champion drivers of the AAA from 1902 to 1908:
1902 – Harry Harkness
1903 – Barney Oldfield
1904 – George Heath
1905 – Victor Hemery
1906 – Joe Tracy
1907 – Eddie Bald
1908 – Louis Strang
It should be noted that Russ Catlin did not merely select a champion driver for each season, but did so on a points system. Really. For the 1903 through 1908 seasons, Catlin, with one exception, of course, does provide points for each season’s national championship.
Catlin does not provide any information regarding the events that may have been included in his imaginary AAA national championship.
- Barney Oldfield, 276 points
- Henri Page, 128 points
- Harry Cunningham, 59 points
- Tom Cooper, 52 points
- Peter Schmidt*, 48 points
- Joe Tracy, 42 points
- Grosso, 42 points
- Earl Kiser, 38 points
- William Graham, 32 points
- LaRoche, 32 points
* It is actually Charles Schmidt, not Peter Schmidt, an error Catlin also repeats in 1904.
Apparently, Catlin made some sort of adjustment in his calculations for the points for the Vanderbilt Cup, along with what might be considered as something of a presentist adjustment to the results, given that recognition was only given by those to those finishing the full distance of an event. But, then again, such trifles did not seem to ever bother Catlin and his oft-overworked imagination.
- George Heath, 768 points
- Albert Clement, 614.4 (612.8) points
- Herbert Lytle, 597.6 (588.2) points
- Peter Schmidt, 460.8 (467.6) points
- A.L. Campbell, 385 points
- Barney Oldfield, 308.6 (246.6) points
- Henri Tarte, 307.2 (306.4) points
- William Luttgen, 230.4 (229.8) points
- P. Satori, 200 points
- H.L. Bowden, 197.6 points
- Fernand Gabriel, 192 (191.5) points
It is unclear as whether the results of the Vanderbilt Cup itself or that its supposed large number of points tipped that balance, not that it really matters, it is simply make-believe. At any rate, the results of the Vanderbilt Cup and the final rankings by Catlin do raise an eyebrow.
- Victory Hemery, 566 points
- George Heath, 452.8 points
- Joe Tracy, 396.2 points
- Vincenzo Lancia, 339.6 points
- Paul Satori, 311.4 points
- Ferenc Szisz, 283 points
- Barney Oldfield, 244.6 points
- Felix Nazzaro, 226.4 points
- Walter Christie, 222.2 points
- Fletcher, 200 points
- Joe Tracy, 683. 1 points
- Herbert Le Blon, 623.7 points
- Vincenzo Lancia, 605.2 points
- Louis Wagner, 594 points
- Harding, 415.8 points
- Antoinne Duray*, 415.8 points
- Walter Christie, 414.4 points
- Albert Clement, 356.4 points
- Frank Lawwell, 297 points
- Camille Jenatzy, 297 points
Although Wagner won the Vanderbilt Cup, it was Joe Tracy that Catlin managed the points to become the AAA national champion for the season.
* This is actually Arthur Duray.
- Eddie Bald, 1,003 points
That is it for 1907, Eddie Bald.
- Louis Strang, 2,386.6 points
- Herbert Lytle, 1,716 points
- George Robertson, 1,215 points
- Emanuel Cedrino, 1,184 points
- Harry Michiner*, 887. 4 points
- Al Poole, 867 points
- Louis Wagner, 806 points
- Harry Bourque, 804 points
- Louis Bergdoll, 742.4 points
- Bob Burman, 738 points
Given that the Briarcliff event in April and the Savannah events in November were events sanctioned by the Automobile Club of America, whose split from the AAA was anything but pleasant that year, one could raise questions regarding the points supposedly earned by Strang and Wagner towards the AAA national championship. Naturally, it is doubtful that Catlin let such trivial matters intrude upon his fantasies. This would also appear to be another occasion for which the winner of the Vanderbilt Cup did not emerge as the unofficial AAA champion driver.
* This was actually Harry Michener.
This would all be little more than a chuckle and simply another example of more make-believe at work in the development of yet more American champion drivers who never were had it not been for someone along taking this fantasy of Catlin’s seriously. Despite comments to the contrary, I have been unable to discover any evidence that the Contest Board accepted these 1902 to 1908 champion drivers that Catlin created as being official. While Russ Catlin might have convinced the Contest Board to drop Bert Dingley and replace him with George Robertson as the 1909 champion driver, while once again stripping Gaston Chevrolet of his rightfully-earned 1920 championship, replacing him once again with Tommy Milton, it seems that it never placed these supposed champion drivers among its other false champion drivers.
Unfortunately, for reasons that simply defy any modicum of logic or sense of history, the United States Auto Club (USAC) incorporated these Catlin creations into their listing of the other champion drivers, real and imagined, of the American Automobile Association. As late as its 1982 yearbook, USAC began its listing of national champions with Harry Harkness. This is an excellent example as to why there might be good reason to approach much of the written history of American champion drivers with great caution.