How The Titanic Led To Maserati’s First Indy 500 Win 81 Years Ago
Tomorrow, 30 May, marks the 81st anniversary of not only the first win for Maserati at the Indianapolis 500 in 1939, but also the first of any Italian carmaker, full-stop, at America’s biggest oval race.
And it might not have happened at all without the sinking of the Titanic.
In 1939, Warren Wilbur Shaw was at the wheel of an 8CTF, the first attempt at the storied American race for Maserati. The car, entered by the Chicago Boyle Racing Headquarters team owned by Mike Boyle, was known as the ‘Boyle Special’; it sported a straight eight-cylinder engine with fixed cylinder heads cast into the block, hence the ‘TF’ designation (‘testa fissa’ in Italian, or ‘fixed head’).
Shaw not only took the chequered flag then, but came back the next year to dominate the 1940 race as well. He may even have won the 1941 event, but a loose wheel caused him to crash, breaking his back and ending his racing career. Still, his place in Indianapolis’ pantheon is firmly planted: Shaw’s 1940 win meant he was the first driver to ever take two wins back-to-back at the 500, an accomplishment that’s only been repeated four times in the event’s 109-year history.
The 8CTF was still being raced competitively 15 years after its introduction, an immense achievement considering its age. The original car that Shaw drove was fully restored and is now a crown jewel at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum.
And that Titanic tie-in? That goes back to 1937, when a young Italian, Enzo Fiermonte, entered the Vanderbilt Cup in the US. He had a brand-new Maserati race car – a V8 RI – but with no experience, he was declared unfit for racing by the organizers. Fiermonte thus had to forfeit his Maserati to Shaw, who’s own racer was damaged in practice. So impressed was Shaw by the V8 RI that he declared to Boyle, who was also at the event, he could win the Indy 500 if he had such a car.
But how did Fiermonte, a boxer and aspiring actor, afford such a Maserati? He was married to Madeleine Force Astor, an American nearly twice his age. She survived the Titanic disaster in 1912, but her then-husband, John Jacob Astor IV, perished in the cold North Atlantic, leaving her a wealthy widow with the means of bankrolling her young playboy’s many adventures.
*Images courtesy to Maserati