INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — Long before NASCAR became the most popular form of auto racing in the United States, a driver who records show was born in Northumberland County was competing in some of the biggest races contested in the early 1900s.
Donald Davidson, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian, said records show Willie Haupt was born in East Cameron (Township), Northumberland County.
Steve Bubb, an auto racing historian, provided a statistic sheet which lists Haupt as being born July 19, 1885, in East Cameron (Township). He died April 16, 1966, in Elkins Park, Montgomery County.
Haupt competed in the Indianapolis 500 four times, finishing ninth in 1913, 12th in 1914, 11th in 1915 and 16th in 1920.
“He was a bit of a mystery character,” Davidson said of Haupt. “He aligned himself with the Berdgoll brothers, who were very controversial.”
Erwin and Grover Berdgoll, who were from the Philadelphia area, owned cars which competed in the Indy 500 in the early 1900s.
“They kept very much to themselves,” Davidson said of the Bergdolls. “One of them was labeled a draft dodger, which would be World War I.”
According to phillyhistory.org, Grover was nabbed by bounty hunters in 1920 for being a draft dodger. He escaped the bounty hunters and traveled to Germany.
In order to avoid being drafted into the Nazi army, the website said Grover turned himself in to the U.S. government, and was jailed until 1946.
After driving a Duesenberg at Indianapolis in 1913 and 1914, Davidson said Haupt attempted to qualify a car owned by the Berdgoll brothers for the 1915 edition of the race.
However, the speed Haupt recorded was too slow to make the race.
“You had to do one lap at 80 mph,” Davidson recounted. “He did 75 (mph).”
That same year, Davidson said the Donaldson brothers, of Milford, “raised some eyebrows” when they entered a car called the Emden Special in the 500.
According to Davidson, the Emden Special was named after a German cruiser.
“The Doanldsons took some flack for naming their car after a German cruiser,” Davidson said.
Harry Donaldson had qualified the car, but was ruled ineligible to compete in the Indy 500 due to lack of experience, Davidson said.
“Willie Haupt started the car last, and finished 11th,” Davidson said.
While the Indy 500 now traditionally has 33 cars start the race, Davidson said in 1915 only 24 cars competed.
“The field was open to 33,” he noted. “But you still had to meet a minimum qualifying speed to be included in the field.”
Most of the reports from 1915 don’t even show Haupt as making a qualifying attempt, Davidson noted.
“He must have (attempted to qualify) late the day before the race,” Davidson said. “Sometimes they would qualify the night before the race, even the morning of the race.”
According to information provided by Paul Weisel Jr., of the Eastern Auto Racing Historical Society, Grant and Lou Donaldson took turns riding in Haupt’s car during the 1915 Indy 500, with both serving as riding mechanics.
Later that summer, Weisel Jr. said Rube Donaldson and his riding mechanic, C.C. Wilcox, were killed while competing in an Emden Special in a dirt-track race in Spirit Lake, Pa.
While the Bergdolls and the Donaldsons were believed to be sympathetic to the Germans, Davidson said it’s not known if Haupt was a German sympathizer.
He also noted that because the events unfolded over 100 years ago, he can’t verify the accuracy of the stories.
“This is what was written (in newspapers) at the time,” Davidson said. “There were three Indianapolis papers. The information was phenomenal in quantity and depth… You had three newspapers that were competing with each other to be the best.”
According to the information provided by Weisel Jr., Haupt drove a Duesenberg each time he started the Indy 500, aside from 1915.
The 1920 race was the only one Haupt started, but did not complete all 500 miles. A spring on his car broke on lap 126.
A Haupt biographical sheet provided by Bubb describes the driver as being “flaxen haired.”
“With true teutonic bravery animating every fiber of his being, he is prepared to give battle to man or beast,” the sheet read. “He thus excels in that most difficult of all sports, the hill climb.”
The sheet said Haupt competed in multiple Hill Climb events. He is listed as driving a Chadwick Big Six to victory in the 1908 Giants Despair Hill Climb near Wilkes-Barre.
The website vanderbiltcupraces.com describes the Chadwick Big Six as being the first supercharged racing car. In addition to driving the car in the hill climb, Haupt also competed in the 1908 Vanderbilt Cup Race in Long Island, N.Y., and the American Grand Prize race in Savannah, Ga.
The 1908 Vanderbilt Cup Race is described as taking place on a 30.24-mile course consisting of winding dirt roads. The race in Savannah was contested over 40.434 miles of public roads.
An article published Oct. 29, 1908, in the New York Times said Haupt’s car was to be entered in the Thanksgiving Day race in Savannah after it had “such a good showing” in the Vanderbilt race. The article noted that the car would be overhauled in Pottstown before being sent to Savannah.
“The class of the Grand Prize race is higher than in the Vanderbilt,” the article said. “The cars sent over from (Europe) are all 1908 products built to the limit of the international rule.”
Vanderbiltcupraces.com also describes Haupt as being a “works driver” for both Benz and Duesenberg.
According to the website firstsuperspeedway.com, Haupt was leading the 1910 American Grand Prize race in a Benz when he crashed on lap 13 of 24.
In addition to his career behind the wheel, Haupt also apparently worked in the automobile industry.
Barry Rauhauser, executive director of the Historical Society of Montgomery County, said 1910 U.S. Census records indicate Haupt worked in an auto factory.
On a 1918 World War I draft card, Rauhauser said Haupt was listed as living in Philadelphia and working as an auto engineer for Haupt and Schaffer Co.
A 1942 World War II draft card indicated Haupt worked in the Philadelphia Naval Yard.
According to Rauhauser, records indicate Haupt was the son of German immigrants Herman Haupt and Emma Lauscke.
A son, Spencer William Haupt, is listed as being born in 1916, and passing away from pneumonia in 1923.
Haupt’s wife, Mary E. Jones, is also listed as passing away in 1923.