George D. MacKenzie
1906 (Jul 16) – 1936 (Aug 23)
AAA Big Cars 1930 – 1936
Doc MacKenzie was often (and accurately!) described as “colourful” in a time before the invention of modern colour photography! As a medical student, he toured Asia before he was even twenty, went to Canada to participate in a “gold rush” there, and financed his racing by working as a stuntman in the off-season, or as construction worker on the Empire State Building and the Golden Gate Bridge! In many ways, MacKenzie was the Jeff Gordon of his time: successful, handsome, eloquent, married to a model – and a flashy dresser! He was also constantly in the news, often quoted as the “fatalist racing driver” – he said openly that he expected to die at the wheel of a racing car, which certainly served to make him a plausible interviewee at the time!
He also had a reputation for being reckless on the track, although that is probably an embellishment post mortem, based on the two accidents in his last three races, for apart from that, he didn’t crash too often – unlike Johnny Hannon, for example, who not only crashed in three of his last four races, but was generally quite “crash-happy”! Nevertheless, the Doc’s first venture into the national headlines came about because of an accident, in an Indy Car two-seater on a dirt track, which killed his riding mechanic Bill Berry, and put MacKenzie out of racing for almost a year.
After that (1930), he did take quite a few years to make it to the top, hampered as usual by less-than-perfect equipment, but by 1934 he was beginning to win regularly. His big breakthrough came about far from home, on the other side of the continent, and at a rather unusual event: a road race in California! True enough, it was a rather Americanized version of a road course, not that different from an oval, but in any event, the enthusiasts from the West Coast, long since secure in the knowledge that “their own” drivers and cars were the bee’s knees, looked on in astonishment when the Doc, starting from pole position by the luck of the draw, commenced to run away from the field and hide! Only bad luck in the form of a badly executed pit stop strategy (nothing’s new) forced him back into 4th finishing position, but he was now clearly “hot property”!
Back on the East Coast, he was quickly snapped up by car owner John Bagley from Nebraska, and together they went on a rampage without parallel. Almost twenty AAA feature wins, including 50-milers at Langhorne and Milwaukee, and the Eastern Circuit as well as the Hankinson Championships to boot. Not until Ted Horn in the forties would there be another dominant force as that on the halfmiles in the country! He was all set to repeat in 1936, and possibly even add the Midwestern Championship to his collection, when that accident in Reading intervened. Ever the showman, MacKenzie didn’t waste his “sheet time”, and continued to be the news item he always was: the shaving of his famous goatee beard, the impromptu marriage in the hospital, with fellow racing driver Floyd Roberts as best man (simply because he was injured the same day as the Doc, and thus available!), everything he did was the perfect fodder for the media – and the papers loved every minute of it! If there had been TV at the time, he’d have had his own show, no doubt!
But racing is a dangerous business, especially in the thirties, and even the mightiest can fall deep – a moment of inattention, not even of his own, during the scrap for the lead after the start of a 25-miler, and it was all over. When he died later that evening, a light was switched off – it would be ages before another driver of his type would emerge. Or, has there ever?
© Michael Ferner