Harlan Fengler

Harlan Fengler

1/3/1903 - 1/4/1981

Harlan Fengler was an American racing driver. He built quite a reputation on the board tracks in the 20's. From 1923 thru 1927 Harlan raced 18 times, winning twice and finishing in the top five seven times. Fengler acted as Chief Steward of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway from 1958 until 1974.

The sun has set back of the grandstands along the mainstraight, dusk is quietly falling over the deserted Speedway, it's time for the Ghost of races past to emerge from the garages for the evening's revelry. There is a new member of the ghostly group tonight, probably leftover from his visit for May's festivities.

Harlan Fengler is not famous for his driving exploits on the bricks of the Speedway, although he did have quite a reputation as the "boy wonder" of the board tracks, in the 20's. From 1923 thru 1927 Harlan raced 18 times on the boards, winning twice and finishing in the top five seven times. His first board track win was on the 35 degree banks of the 1.25 Kansas City, Mo. track. Oct. 23, 1923. His second win came Feb. 24, 1924 in the last race held on the boards of the 1.25 mile track in Beverly Hills, Cal.

This was also where he earned the title "Boy Wonder" by lapping the field made up of the likes of Harry Hartz, Tommy Milton, Jimmy Murphy, Ralph Hepburn and 12 other outstanding drivers before the 75th lap.

Harlan's only "racing" experience at the Speedway came in 1923 driving one of eight Durants entered, he completed 69 laps and finished 16th. His name is not found in the Speedway history books again until 1958 when, of all things, he was named Chief Steward of the Indianapolis 500, a post he held until 1974.

As Chief Steward, Harlan ruled all on track activities at the Speedway with an iron hand. Foyt, Ward, Bettenhausen (Tony, Gary & Merle) Parnelli, Bryan, to every driver and owner from '58 to '74 Harlan's words, orders and edicts were law. He was loved and hated, praised and cussed all in the same day, and usually by the same people, sometimes the same hour, everyday during the month of May.

Harlan was the guy that decided there should be a speed limit on the first few days of practice after the Speedway opened on May 1st. It didn't matter to him that maybe one of the tire companies had just finished testing, on the 30th of April, at speeds just as fast as the cars could run. When the Speedway opened Harlan said there is a speed limit of 130, or 140, or 150, or whatever speed was about 30 mph slower than the cars were capable of running. And woe be unto the driver who exceeded Harlan's limit.

Usually there was not much activity for the first couple of days, after the opening ceremonies, until Harlan's limit was lifted. But it was in 1963 that our Chief Ghost became most famous, during one of the most exciting, and controversial, races of all time. The excitement began when Hurtubise won his $5.00 bet from Parnelli by beating the Jones boy across the line at the end of the first lap. Made even more exciting when Jimmy Clark led the race for 28 laps in the funny looking Lotus-Ford with the engine in the wrong end of the car, behind the driver of all things. And controversy, who can forget Parnelli's "split" oil tank on Old Calhoun. With 90 miles to go Clark was running second behind Parnelli and decided the time had come to charge for the lead. But as he closed on Jones he noticed smoke coming from Parnelli's car and what appeared to be an oil smear on the left side. Jimmy decided to wait a few laps and see what happened.

The smoke and oil smear had not gone unnoticed by the Chief Steward and Harlan was ready to order the black flag for Parnelli. Enter Parnelli's car owner, one J.C. Agajanian, on the scene and the argument began. Aggie swearing there was no oil leak and Fengler reaching for a pair of binoculars. Enter Jimmy Clark's car owner, one Colin Chapman, on the scene asking why the black flag wasn't flying for Parnelli to pit. In the meantime poor Jimmy kept waiting for Parnelli's engine to blow up but instead Parnelli maintained his 150 mph pace with no problem. And the argument raged on at the starting line with starter Pat Vidan holding the furled black flag waiting for orders. By the time Aggie and Colin had finished shouting and Harlan had a chance to use his binoculars, the oil in Parnelli's tank had leaked below the crack in the oil tank and, presto, there was no more oil leak, there was no black flag.

Parnelli won his only Indianapolis 500 and rookie Jimmy Clark finished second in the funny looking car with the engine in back of the driver. Jimmy Clark would endear himself to race fans the World over when he said he wouldn't want to win any race because a competitor had been black flagged. Fengler survived as Chief Steward until 1974 when, almost by mutual agreement, Tom Binford took the reins and Harlan disappeared into the pages of Speedway history with the respect of everyone.........almost.

Dick Ralstin

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