In researching a story on famous Maserati race cars*, I came across a treasure trove of information about the most famous Maserati of them all, the 1938 Maserati 8CTF, which twice won the Indianapolis 500. It is now the crown jewel of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway‘s museum. Here is how its fame came to be:
The 1937 Vanderbilt Cup, America’s premier road race, drew a glamorous crowd to Roosevelt Raceway on Long Island. The drivers lineup included Tazio Nuvolari, Rudolf Caracciola, Richard Seaman and Bernd Rosemeyer from Europe’s Grand Prix circuit; Rex Mays, Mauri Rose, Bill Cummings and Wilbur Shaw from America. The crowd attending was like the guest list at a Jay Gatsby party.
Among the qualifiers for the race was a handsome Italian boxer and aspiring actor, Enzo Fiermonte (screen name: William Bird), who had charmed a wealthy widow, Madeleine Force Astor, into a) marrying him despite a great age difference (he was 25, she was 40 for their 1933 wedding), and then b) bankrolling him in various ventures, including the purchase of a Maserati sports car he intended to race. Fiermonte proved to have more bravery than talent; he had qualified dead last. (His wife must have been unimpressed; she divorced him soon afterward.)
Mrs. Astor had been the rather notorious teenaged bride of John Jacob Astor IV, who drowned in the Titanic disaster in 1912 at age 47. Mrs. Astor, who survived the shipwreck, inherited a considerable fortune, which helped fuel her generosity.
Anyway, when Wilbur Shaw’s entry broke in practice, the race’s organizers sought to find him an alternative ride; he was, after all, as the reigning Indianapolis 500 champion, and a considerable draw. The organizers found a solution by deeming Fiermonte too inexperienced to race, disqualifying him, and replacing him in the Maserati with Shaw.
Shaw put on a dazzling driving display in the event, and passed 30 other entrants to finish ninth (Rosemeyer won). After the event, Shaw effusively told Indy car owner “Umbrella Mike” Boyle, “If I had a car like that, I’d win the next 500 in it.”
Boyle obliged and bought him one (two, actually, as the first model sent to him by the Maserati brothers was the wrong car) for $15,000; Shaw made good on his boast and won the 1939 Indy 500 in it; for good measure he also won the 1940 race in it. Shaw was leading the 1941 race when a defective wheel – accidentally put on the car during a late pit stop – failed and caused him to crash. He suffered a broken back that effectively ended his racing career.
But the car did return; it was repaired – and successfully campaigned for another decade. It won races and accolades unequaled by another car in Indianapolis Motor Speedway history. The Ernesto Maserati-designed 8CTF, a 1938 model with the chassis number 3032, was subsequently designated by the National Historic Vehicle Register as one of America’s most historically significant vehicles.
It was such a storied race car, it had a lot to do with the speedway’s management (which then included Shaw) deciding to open a museum on the grounds. And in 1956, when the Indianapolis Motor Speedway museum finally opened, it was the crown jewel in the rather modest collection of just six cars. The Maserati remains a cornerstone among the museum’s displays to this day, even though the speedway’s collection now has grown to more than 400 vehicles.
“It was, without a doubt, the most successful race car in the history of the track; it finished first twice, it broke while leading another two times, finished third in 1946 and 1947, and fourth in 1948,” said Donald Davidson, the speedway’s historian. “Bill Vukovich passed his rookie test in it, in 1950. It was still being raced competitively as late as 1953 – when it was 15 years old.”
Davidson added, “Someone once remarked to me – and isn’t this a remarkable way of looking at it? – that this incredible success story would never have been possible without the sinking of the Titanic.”
September 18, 2016
* For more interesting facts about the 1938 Maserati 8CTF itself, check out my next post.