Ernest Leo Triplett
1906 (Sep 25) – 1934 (Mar 5)
AAA Big Cars 1928 – 1934
Ernie Triplett was the leading American racing driver of the early thirties, yet today he is almost completely forgotten, mostly because his luck didn’t run to a good finish at the annual showpiece of US racing, the Indy 500, or a win at a National Championship contest, of which there were very few in Triplett’s time. He started at Indianapolis in five consecutive years, but finished only once (7th in 1931), in addition to which he drove 140 miles in relief for third-place finisher Jimmy Gleason in 1929, his first year at the Speedway. An indication of his capabilities may be gleaned from the fact that he qualified amongst the ten fastest starters in every year he competed, and generally ran in the top five or ten positions in the race, including a short spell in the lead, but his luck would always run out, even if only in the form of a five-and-a-half minute pit stop which cost him third place in the only year he got through the 500 miles. Apart from Indianapolis, Triplett also competed in six other National Championship races at Board and Dirt Tracks like Altoona and Oakland Speedways, or the Michigan State Fair Grounds, finishing second once, third once and fourth twice, while also setting fastest time in qualifying and leading many race laps, but a win remained elusive. Not that he could have cared that much since he did plenty of winning elsewhere!
For Ernie Triplett was the super star of the heyday of Ascot Speedway, when that little oversize half-mile in Greater Los Angeles was the hub of the racing world, and California the true “cradle of speed”. Triplett reigned supreme when the nation’s best racing drivers from the East and the Midwest congregated to drive the latest, technically most advanced and most expensive racing cars in the US, perhaps the world, and Ernie beat them all: Indy winners and National Champions, past and future, everyone got his drubbing at the hands of the “Blond Terror”, as Triplett was often called in the colourful language of the time, or the “Belvedere Bad Boy” after the part of Los Angeles where Ernie lived. “Beat Triplett!” was the battle cry on the lips of Ralph de Palma, Louie Meyer, Billy Arnold, Lou Schneider, Fred Frame, Bob Carey, Bill Cummings, Kelly Petillo, Mauri Rose, Wilbur Shaw, Floyd Roberts, Rex Mays, Ted Hornet al, in addition to every Short Track Champion of the era who made the journey to Southern California, like Bryan Saulpaugh, Chet Gardner, Bob Sall, Al Theisen, Babe Stapp and Doc MacKenzie, as well as “outlaw kings” like Gus Schrader or Red Campbell, they all wanted nothing more than to finish one position ahead of Ernie, for that usually meant victory, but very few did on more than a few occasions, and those wins were cherished as special achievements, and remembered for a long time. If you could beat Ernie Triplett, you knew you could beat anyone!
Born in the small town of Barry, fifty miles west of the Illinois State Capital of Springfield, and not far from the Mississippi, the Missouri State Line and Hannibal, the hometown of Mark Twain and Tom Sawyer, Ernie Triplett didn’t get much of a chance to explore the big river and the local Becky Thatchers when his parents moved the family to Fresno in California while Ernie was still a toddler. By the time he reached adulthood, the family had moved to Los Angeles via Oakland, thus neatly spanning three of his favourite hunting grounds in later life, but his first professional endeavour came as a lumberjack, and true to his roots he always remained an avid lover of the great outdoors. He subsequently apprenticed as an electrician at the Union Pacific Railway, and then fell in with a man named L. D. “Dink” Sullivan, who was a roofer by trade, and a racing enthusiast by vocation. Sullivan ran a little homemade racing car at local tracks in Southern California, like Banning in Riverside County, and used to offer his “shoes” a “daytime job” as a roofer in his company, a route that helped Ernie (and later the likes of Stubby Stubblefield and Arvol Brunmier) straight “to the top”! That was in 1927, and within a year Triplett had attracted the attention of car owners like Harry Schmidt with his potent Frontenac special, racing at the famed Ascot Speedway where the career of Frank Lockhart had started just a few years earlier, and look what that boy was doing now!
By the time Lockhart’s dream and career came to an end on the beach of Florida, Triplett had found a new backer in the form of Texas oil man Allen Guiberson, and his rotund chief mechanic Harvey Ward. Together, they campaigned a nice DO Gallivan special, in California and on an extended tour of the Midwest, and in only his second year of racing, Ernie became a winner and a household name throughout the country – then fate intervened, and with the American Legion taking over Ascot Speedway and securing AAA sanctions for their events, a wholesale switchover of independent racers in California was on the cards, and the real possibility of racing at Indianapolis on Memorial Day, instead of Cedar Rapids like the year before! Triplett wasted no time in preparing his own version of a recommendation by winning a AAA feature event on the very first day as a sanctioned driver, and taking an early lead in the newly created AAA Pacific Southwest Championship to cement his claim. Sure enough, come May and he was offered a ride in a private Duesenberg which he proceeded to qualify seventh fastest, and after retiring early on the big day he was then recruited by Augie Duesenberg himself to drive a relief stint in one of the works cars, and doing a brilliant job in helping to secure third place – he had firmly arrived in the big time!
A fortnight later at Altoona in Pennsylvania, in the tragic race which claimed the life of Ray Keech and ended the career of Cliff Woodbury, Ernie competed for the first time on a Board Track, and although involved in the wreck he escaped injury and was credited with fourth place, and a helping of 50 points in the National Championship, which proved to be good enough for 15th place in the final reckoning even though he subsequently returned to the Coast to defend his points lead there. Unfortunately, though, even a switch to the potent Frontenac special of Barney Kleopfer couldn’t prevent him from slipping to second, far behind Mel Kenealy in Russ Garnant’s Frontenac special, who had piled up an enviable number of wins during Ascot’s Night Racing season in the summer. But, in the meantime, Guiberson and Ward had purchased a Miller Marine engine and commenced building a handsome two-man racing car for the new Indianapolis formula, and with that, his first “Miller ride”, Triplett qualified solidly for a second-row start on Memorial Day, but the engine let him down when running in fourth position around the two-thirds mark. The rest of the season was marred by reliabilty problems, his first major accident and subsequent split with Guiberson and Ward, and a couple of months of switching rides before he found another winning combination in Billy Arnold’s Miller special, so he ended the year in the somewhat disappointing twenty-second and sixth positions in the National and Pacific Coast Championships, respectively, but that was as bad as it would ever get – the turning point had well and truly arrived!
During 1931, Legion Ascot Speedway saw new cars and star drivers almost every other week, and the lap record tumbled an incredible two seconds (i.e. more than seven percent) in only ten months, yet through all this commotion and amongst all the changing variables, one constant remained: Triplett was the most consistent winner. And his winning wasn’t confined to Ascot, either, as he won on six of the seven tracks the Pacific Coast circuit visited that year, his only miss coming at the Arizona State Fairgrounds, quite ironically since he had been unbeaten at that particular venue for three years before finishing “only” third in 1931. By the end of the year, he had won a record seventeen main events, and won the Pacific Coast title with a new points record and by a huge margin. He had also changed teams once more, for the final time in his career, and was now driving for Hollywood car owner Bill White, the winning car owner of the 1927 Indy 500, with the very capable hands of Eddie Offutt and Dale Drake turning the wrenches.
Ernie started the year 1932 with a string of victories, and despite unusually tough opposition by the “Hoosier triumvirate” of Bob Carey, Wilbur Shaw and Bill Cummings, that saw Triplett slip momentarily to fourth position in the standings, he had fought back into the points lead by the time the stars left California for Indianapolis in early May. Unable to qualify until three days before the race, he had to start back in the eleventh row, despite recording the third fastest time, but on race day he wasted little time in charging towards the front of the field, running 6th by lap 20, 5th on lap 40 and 3rd at 60 laps. The race was run at a terrific pace, breaking all records for the intermediate distances, and in the process several cars and drivers, too! By lap 95, shortly before half-distance, Triplett was in the lead, and looking good – until the scheduled pit stop on lap 108: on rejoining the race, the clutch began slipping, losing Ernie several minutes and eventually the race, when it finally packed up for good on lap 126 – another disappointment!
After another retirement at Detroit a week later, it was back to the Coast together with Shaw, while Carey and Cummings stayed in the East to chase the national title, which was already a lost cause for Ernie since he couldn’t overcome the points deficit even by winning all of the remaining races on the schedule! But in California, he was still in the van despite the strides made by several drivers who had been coming on strongly during the time of his enforced absence from competition, namely Les Spangler and Chet Gardner. And, of course, there was Wilbur Shaw, who beat Triplett at the prestigious Gold Cup meeting at Ascot in a controversial finish on August 10, with the results overthrown the next day after four hours of “heated discussions”, and then protested by Shaw – the matter finally being resolved in Triplett’s favour on February 25!!! By that time, Ernie had long since bagged his second consecutive championship regardless, and appeared already headed for a third!
Those early months of 1933 probably showed the best Ernie Triplett had to offer, and the reason why he was almost universally regarded as the #1 driver in the USofA: during the preceding years, Ernie had shown a clean pair of heels to every other driver of note in the States, with one possible exception: Bob Carey! The young Hoosier, although almost exactly two years older than Triplett, had been a late “convert” to AAA racing after spending several years on the tough independent tracks of the Midwest, but had shown tremendous promise on his first visit to California during the winter of 1931/2, winning four races and setting several track records. He had also been a close second to Triplett in the standings before going to Indianapolis, and subsequently forfeiting his chances for the Pacific Coast title by running a successful campaign for National honours in lieu. Now he was back, armed and dangerous, with a brand new car fitted with Harry Miller’s latest powerhouse, the 255 cubic inches engine!
Spotting his rival almost 600 cc in engine capacity, and likely some 30 to 40 horsepower, Triplett was forced to fight a rearguard action, and did so in a most remarkable manner. First blood went to Ernie, when the new National Champion disabled his new mount in a pre-season crash, and had to miss an Ascot sprint programme on New Years Day, but Carey opened his account in spectacular fashion by lowering the lap record for the one-mile Oakland Speedway by more than a full second, and going on to lead every lap of the main event and becoming the first man in history to cover 100 miles on a dirt track in less than one hour – the racing world was agog about this orgy of speed, and the press ran out of superlatives, but a few of the “race-wise” had noticed that Triplett had been hampered by tyre trouble throughout the race, and had in fact lapped the circuit even faster than Carey in unofficial practice. Back at Ascot, Carey shaved one hundredth of a second off the “daytime” lap record, only to find Ernie going faster still, and then defeat him twice by coming from behind, first in the trophy dash and then in the 100-lap main event.
At the next meeting, Triplett even broke the all-time lap record that was usually only set during the cool of the night racing season, but such was the competition that both champions went to utter extremes in trying to beat each other – even Shaw, Cummings, Babe Stapp and all the other stars on the circuit were left standing in awe, and somewhat open-mouthed at the frenetic pitch of this rivalry. This time, however, Carey turned the tables by winning both the dash and the main, breaking another couple of track records in the process and taking a slight lead in the championship. Now the gloves were really off, and Triplett showed his true colours: fast time, and flag-to-flag win on the one-mile track at El Centro; then another fast time, the dash and a 150-lap main at Ascot in record time; and finally almost a clean sweep in a special “triple-feature” at Ascot with a pair of 25-lappers and a 40-lap main, but Carey was anyway already close to flying the white flag after crashing at El Centro, and destroying the transmission of his shiny new car at the precise moment that Ernie had swept past Cummings to take the lead in the long Ascot main event, while Bob was beaten into third by Stapp in the short one. The “Bad Boy” was now so far in the points lead that Carey couldn’t overtake him before the Indy “break”, and his next move was a particularly cruel psychological blow: he left early for Indianapolis, presenting the next race on a plate for Carey to catch up! How’s that for gamemanship?
Sadly, though, it all turned pear-shaped when Bob Carey crashed fatally during the time trials. The official reason given was a sticking throttle, but one has to wonder about how much his cage had been rattled by Triplett during the preceding weeks. Ernie’s mood can’t have been helped by another Indy disappointment, after showing great speed in practice, and to make matters worse he was quite seriously injured shortly after returning to coast competition in July. There were even rumours about him quitting racing for good, especially when he went on a hunting trip in late summer, instead of defending his points lead at Ascot! The true motive was probably mental exhaustion, for Ernie had been on the “speed path” four and a half years without interruption, often racing four of five times a month, and travelling many miles on the highways to and from the races – there simply was no off-season on the Pacific Coast circuit! When he returned to action in the fall, his points lead had vanished, with a rookie and a veteran driver having closed the gap, mostly due to them having run in twice as many races as Triplett, who now of all things experienced an extended streak of bad luck in the form of six retirements in eight races. Suddenly, his supremacy was in real danger of getting upset!
As it turned out, he was beaten rather rather convincingly into third, behind the new Champion Al Gordon, and a very young prodigy named Rex Mays. Triplett immediately announced his retirement from the weekly Ascot competition, no doubt with a view of recharging his batteries for an onslaught on the National Championship. He had won everything on the Coast, and as 1933 had shown, he could only lose even when giving his best. Now was the time for a new target, for new shores to be conquered: Indianapolis, and the dirt miles of the East! Presumably to prepare himself for the latter, he entered the races at the Imperial County Fairgrounds in El Centro on March 4, 1934 – it would be the last day he would see the sun rise. In typical fashion, he battled Gordon hard for the pole position, then took the lead at the start of the main event. Before half distance, the new Champion had passed him, but they were still locked in combat when they both tripped over a stranded car out on the circuit, veiled by the typical dust of dirt track competition in those days. Gordon was lucky, Triplett was not. It was the end for an exceptional career, unfulfilled in so many ways. And almost completely forgotten in these days.
© Michael Ferner