Pete Kreis was from Knoxville Tennessee and had a hard-luck racing career from about age 15, when Pete’s dad bought him a car to race on the dirt tracks at county fairs.
In May of 1925, Pete brought a Duesenberg to Indy and finished 8th in his first Indy 500! Spurred on by this success, he returned the following year with a new Miler Special. However Kreis was stricken with pneumonia and could not drive. Frank Lockhart replaced him, set a one-lap track record of 115.448 mph on an incomplete qualification run and went on to win the rain-shortened race (400 miles) by two full laps.
Pete Kreis’s racing luck improved at the Monza course in Italy, but he continued to have his ups-and-downs at Indy. In 1931 he qualified a car, withdrew it, and drove relief for Ralph Hepburn, who finished 3rd. In ’32 Pete drove a Studebaker in the 500 and finished 15th. Henry Ford complimented his driving in the race when he barely avoided a tire that flew off Luther Johnson’s car. After the race, Pete was injured in tire tests when he hit the north wall and broke his ribs.
Kreis’s family owned a construction business specializing in railroads and levees. Pete was trained to work in this business and he raced for thrills, not money. After he became an airplane pilot, he promised his family to give up all racing except at Indy.
Seth Klein, a starter of the 1934 race said, “He was one of the most popular men at the track – always the gentleman. He had had a lot of hard luck, because he would rather break a car in fast company than lag behind.”.
In 1934 safety and fuel economy were big concerns as the Speedway tried to reduce fatalities and injuries. The starting field was reduced back to 33 cars. And, to reduce speeds, fuel was limited to 45 gallons for the race – this meant that the winner had average at least 11 mpg. The fastest qualifying speed was 119.329 mph. So even with fuel restrictions, speeds were still increasing.
Kreis was partial to front wheel drive cars. He usually drove his own cars, but Fred Frame had asked him to drive the car in which Frame had won the 1932 race.
Bob Hahn showed up at Indy with Harry Hartz. He had raced at Ascot on the West Coast and on Eastern dirt tracks. He was looking around Indy for a possible drive in a few years. Somehow he ended up as Kries' mechanic, a fateful decision.
On their way to the Speedway for practice, Kreis and Cliff Bergere had to stop at Michigan Street and White River Boulevard because of a serious accident in which one person was killed. Exactly an hour later, Kreis would be dead too.
In what has been described as the most unusual accident in the history of the speedway, Kreis and Hahn jumped the wall on the south end at 90 mph. A patrolman saw the car riding the top of the wall, straddling it, before finally plunging off into a tree and being torn right in half. The halves fell 25 feet from each other. The tree was the same one that Benny Benefield hit in ’32, killing his mechanic, Harry Cox.
Thrown clear of the car, Pete Kreis was killed instantly, his skull fractured and his chest crushed. Mechanic Bob Hahn was pinned in the wreckage of the rear of the car and lived only a few minutes.
Pete Kreis was unmarried.