In tribute to the 102nd running of the marvelous May classic, the Indy 500, we look back to the first 500-mile International Sweepstakes race held in 1911. This wonderful image shows the number 46 Benz being trailed by the number 32 Marmon during that competition.
Entered by E.A. “Ernie” Moross and driven by William Peter “Billy” Knipper, the car was one of two Benz’s entered by Moross. Bob Burman, a well-known driver in his day. drove the other car. Regardless, Knipper would finish just ahead of Burman in 18th and 19th places respectively.
The number 32 Marmon “Wasp” was entered by the manufacturer, Nordyke & Marmon Company, and driven to victory by Ray Harroun. The two cars illustrate the key innovations of Marmon and the coming changes in motor racing.
The Marmon is equipped with a rear-view mirror, the first such use in racing history, and dispenses with the riding mechanic. These innovations are attributed to helping the Marmon win the first 500, and both would soon become standard practice.
Billy Knipper started only three 500s at Indy, the last being 1914 where he finished 13th driving a Keeton racer with Wisconsin power. However, he was a well-regarded driver with considerable experience. The earliest mention of him is as a riding mechanic to Herb Lytle for the 1905 Gordon Bennett Trophy race. He is then stated to have won the Dugdale Hill Climb in his hometown of Rochester, New York in October 1906 driving a 60hp Thomas.
Knipper later became a team driver for Chalmers-Detroit and would win the Merrimac Valley Trophy in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1909. That same year, still driving for Chalmers, he also won the 100-mile race at the new Atlanta Speedway.
Ernest A. Moross had a notable career starting out as a bicycle racer with his brother. Soon after, he became a noted motorsports promoter and publicity manager to Barney Oldfield, one of the biggest names in racing at the time. Said to be a wealthy mill owner from the south, Moross is noted for purchasing Oldfield’s three race cars (the Blitzen Benz, the Prince Henry Benz and a Knox) after the AAA suspended Oldfield. It was this action by AAA that prevented Oldfield from racing in the inaugural Indy 500.
Moross would put Bob Burman behind the wheel of the Blitzen Benz, and together they set the land speed record. Of course, Moross also had the talented Burman pilot the Benz for the inaugural Indy 500.
Moross would go on to promote aviation contests and try his hand at politics. As with many others, Moross found himself bankrupt by the stock collapse of 1929. He and his wife moved out west to begin a small prospecting business in search of gold.
Billy Knipper on the other hand, would return to his home town of Rochester and have a long, successful career as an automobile dealer.