Indy’s Greatest Ride Buyer

Posted by Iannucci | 5/19/2009 | 2 comments »
Bookmark and Share

(The following is a guest post from beloved Commentator Emeritus, "mmack".)

The recent machinations at Conquest Racing with Alex Tagliani and Bruno Junquiera have spurred much commentary on driver substitution and ride buying. Many posters and bloggers have pondered the ethics of the switch, while IRL detractors have pointed to both practices as “proof” of the shallowness of the series’ talent pool. IRL apologists have responded by pointing out that the practice started in the CART era and is nothing new. Many “old hands” lament an era when drivers “made the show” on their talent and not on the size of their bank account, or complain about sponsors calling the shots for race teams.

Readers, meet Joel W. Thorne, Indy’s greatest ride buyer. Who, you may ask, is he?

Joel Wolfe Thorne Jr. was the scion of New York’s Thorne family. When his father, Joel Sr., died in 1924, 10 year old Joel Jr. became heir to his father’s considerable ($38 million in 1924) Chase Manhattan and Pullman Railroad derived fortune. Even though the money was placed in a trust, Joel worked hard at spending every penny he got from it. He was a playboy, when the word meant a rakish young man living the life of the idle rich by lavish partying and chasing socialites, and not a magazine with great articles and some pictures of naked women.

In an earlier era Joel might have owned race horses and wiled away hours at the track winning and losing a fortune through betting. But this was the 20th Century, and the internal combustion engine had proved more than a passing fad. So Thorne bought motorcycles, speedboats, airplanes, and cars. But he didn’t just buy street automobiles. Joel fancied himself a racer, and began buying and racing cars in the mid 1930’s. By 1937 he brought six cars to Indianapolis for the 500, including one for himself. When qualifying ended, three Thorne Racing cars were in the field, but Joel’s was not. His car was second alternate, 35th fastest.

When owner Phil Shafer withdrew the first alternate car driven by Emil Andres, Joel hatched his plan. He overheard owner George Lyon saying his car that Cliff Bergere qualified wasn’t capable of finishing better than fifth. Thorne either offered Lyon fifth place money to withdraw his car, or offered to buy the car outright so the car would be withdrawn and his car would be in the race.

Back then, the AAA (Yes, the same AAA that hands out highway maps and tells you how much gasoline will cost this Memorial Day weekend) sanctioned the Indianapolis 500. Various AAA officials heard that Thorne was planning to buy Lyon’s car to withdraw it. They pulled Thorne into a meeting and informed him that under no circumstances would an alternate be allowed to start the race. He could serve as a relief driver for any of the three cars he had in the field, but he could not start the race.

That didn’t sit well with Joel Thorne. In a flash of youthful impetuousness (he was only 22 years old) he announced that if he couldn’t buy one car and withdraw it, he’d buy the entire field and withdraw every car. He then stormed out of the office and strode towards Gasoline Alley.

The AAA officials did what every board and committee since the beginning of time has done: they held a meeting. During the meeting they considered that Thorne was rich enough to buy every car in the field. It was the Depression, and solid money from a multi-millionaire could sway some owners.

The officials walked over to the garage area to warn the owners and found out that not only was Joel Thorne very rich, he was very quick on his feet. He’d already visited many of them and made offers. Some owners had even accepted. The AAA officials then summoned Joel for a second meeting. During this meeting they reminded him they could revoke his competition license forever, and that he’d better forget buying up the field and concentrate on the three cars he had in the race. Joel got the point, and focused on his three remaining entries.

Joel Thorne would qualify for four straight Indianapolis 500 races from 1938 through 1941, without needing to buy his way in for any of them. Perhaps his greatest legacy is founding Thorne Engineering, and hiring talented Art Sparks to build cars for him. The 1946 Indianapolis 500 winner, car number 16, was one of the cars Sparks built for Thorne. If you stop by the Hall of Fame Museum, take a look at it and ponder the owner’s legacy as Indy’s Greatest Ride Buyer.


  1. Dale Nixon // May 20, 2009 5:16 AM  

    No mention of great-great grandson Marty? ;)

  2. blue velvet blonde // February 07, 2010 11:23 PM  

    I've heard many variations on this story over the years about my grandfather. Would love to find out more information from the author of this piece.

    Missy Thorne Pendleton