Frank Lockhart’s star blazed ever so briefly at the highest echelon of American auto racing, yet it burned with such white-hot intensity that his legacy remains etched in the sport’s history.
Lockhart was an enigma. He was high strung, racked with nervous energy and prone to panic attacks. Yet, when the green flag waved, he confidently took charge and won — often in dominant fashion.
It was this eerie talent, displayed for the first time while wheeling his homebuilt Model T racer on the southern California outlaw dirt tracks, which attracted the attention of America’s most influential race car builder, Harry Miller.
Miller, enigmatic in his own right, took the 21-year-old under his wing and hired him to drive his house car and work in his shop.
There Lockhart revealed an engineering brilliance as substantial as his prowess behind the wheel of a race car. He possessed little formal education. Still, working often in secrecy at night, he engineered improvements to Miller’s cars and their jewel-like 122- and 91-cubic-inch engines, which dramatically increased their performance.
Lockhart’s most significant engineering achievement was the intercooler for supercharged engines.
The intercooler proved so effective that in 1927 Lockhart qualified at nearly 150 mph on Atlantic City’s high-banked, board track. It would be another 33 years before such speeds were achieved at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Scarcely known outside his assaults on the California dirt tracks — and without a ride — Lockhart tagged along with the Miller crew to Indianapolis in 1926. The journey changed his life and propelled him to unprecedented heights of stardom.
At Indy, he caught up with California acquaintance Ernie Olsen, who was overseeing the preparation of Bennett Hill’s Miller. When Olsen offered him a test hop in the car, Lockhart confounded observers by lapping quicker than Hill after only a few circuits. Olsen promptly offered him the role of Hill’s relief driver in the upcoming 500.
Fate intervened, however, and Lockhart got his own ride. Driver Pete Kreis fell ill with a case of the flu so severe that he was hospitalized. Miller, Kreis’ car owner, was well aware of Lockhart’s ability and wisely put him in the car.
Lockhart didn’t disappoint with speed but qualifying was a challenge. His first qualifying lap was in excess of 115 mph, a track record. But a right-rear tire blew on the second lap. The engine failed on his second run. Then, with only one attempt remaining, he cautiously qualified in 20th position.
After completing a couple of laps to acclimate himself with race conditions, Lockhart passed 14 cars on the fifth lap and by lap 60 he was in the lead.
Rain threatened all morning and on lap 72 a shower rolled in that stopped the race for an hour. After the delay, the race evolved into a battle between Lockhart and Harry Hartz. But at the 400-mile mark, he’d pulled a two-lap lead on Hartz. Then the rain came again, and the race was called.
Proving that his unexpected 500 win wasn’t a fluke, Lockhart won seven more AAA races that year, primarily on the giant, high-speed board tracks.
The media proclaimed him the “King of The Boards,” but it was Indianapolis that made Frank Lockhart. He returned in 1927 to attempt to win consecutive 500s.
Qualifying was much smoother than in 1926. He grabbed the pole with a track record on the final lap of his four-lap run. He shot into the lead at the start and dominated the race before falling out with a broken rod after 120 laps. It was his last 500.
In only two Indianapolis starts, Lockhart had taken the pole, set track records and led nearly 75 percent of the laps he ran. No doubt even greater accomplishments lay in Frank Lockhart’s future.
But he became enamored with capturing the world speed record. And on April 25, 1928, he perished on Daytona Beach when the Stutz Blackhawk streamliner of his own design disintegrated at 220 mph.