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Racing Icon’s Awards Sold

Don Johnson | May 24th, 2013


First presented at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1909, two years before the debut of the Indianapolis 500, the Prest-O-Lite trophy was eventually incorporated as an award for the Indy 500. Nine engraved silvered plaques commemorate winners and various driving accomplishments, such as lap leaders, from 1910 through 1940. The last plaque reads, “Presented to Wilbur Shaw Permanently for Winning Two Consecutive 500 Mile Races 1939-1940.” Shaw previously earned the award in 1932 and 1937. The sponsor, the Prest-O-Lite Company, made automotive lighting systems. Measuring 20" x 13½", the award sold for $33,600.


In 1935 the Champion Spark Plug Company began awarding leather bomber-style jackets to Indianapolis 500 drivers who, without assistance from a relief driver, finished the 500-mile race in an average speed of 100 miles per hour or faster. Decorated with an embroidered patch and having his name stitched on the inside, Wilbur Shaw’s jacket sold for $18,000. The drivers who won the jackets were said to constitute the most exclusive club in the world at that time.


For Wilbur Shaw’s induction into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America on June 12, 1991, his family received this “Horsepower” trophy, which was cast iron on a wooden base. It sold for $3960.


Worn by Wilbur Shaw in the 1930’s or 1940’s, this racing helmet had leather earflaps and came with a pair of goggles. The visor was broken off. The lot sold for $4800. Wilbur Shaw was an early advocate of driving helmets.


The 1937 Borg-Warner trophy (shown left) awarded to Wilbur Shaw sold for $60,000. The 1939 trophy (shown middle) made $66,000, and the 1940 trophy (shown right) realized $96,000. They went to the same buyer.


Wilbur Shaw won a handful of medals from the American Automobile Association as part of the AAA’s American car racing national championship. For being the 1939 champion, Shaw received this medal in 14k yellow and white gold with diamonds, mounted on a red, white, and blue ribbon. The back of the medal is engraved “1939 First Prize Awarded to Wilbur Shaw by the Contest Board.” It sold for $2400.


For the family, the biggest disappointment of the day had to be the no-sale of Wilbur Shaw’s gold and diamond ring, which was bought in at $75,000. A gift from his wife at Christmas 1945, the ring commemorated Shaw’s three wins in the Indy 500. It became the model for the ring now presented to winners of the race.

Ripley Auctions, Indianapolis, Indiana

Photos courtesy Ripley Auctions

Wilbur Shaw is an icon in motor racing. He won the Indianapolis 500 in 1937, 1939, and 1940, becoming the race’s second three-time winner and the first driver to accomplish back-to-back victories.

He was also instrumental in saving the Indianapolis Motor Speedway following World War II, after the track had been padlocked for four years. From 1942 through 1945, there was no “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” at the Speedway. The minds and hearts of Americans were in Africa, Europe, and the Pacific theater. Following the war, the world’s greatest racecourse faced demolition. Eddie Rickenbacker, the World War I flying ace, owned the track at the time and planned to use the land for a subdivision. Shaw intervened, convincing Tony Hulman to buy the property for $750,000 in November 1945. Hulman then hired Shaw as president of the Speedway, which was brought back to its glory days.

When Shaw was killed in a plane crash in 1954, he left behind not only a legacy but also a collection of hardware that told the story of his career in auto racing. Those items went to his son, Wilbur Shaw Jr., better known as Bill.

On May 24, the Friday before this year’s Indianapolis 500, Bill sold the vast majority of his father’s racing awards, professional citations, and a mix of personal items. He did so reluctantly. “If you asked me ten years ago if I’d ever let go of any of this, I’d have said no,” he stated in a soft voice just before the items were liquidated.

The material was offered in a small sale that consisted of 55 cataloged lots handled by Ripley Auctions of Indianapolis. Although bidding was available on line through Artfact, seating at the event was limited. Potential buyers paid $50 apiece to be on the floor. That upfront money was applied to the 20% buyer’s premium on successful bids. Approximately 60 people attended the sale, held at the Indiana Landmarks Center in Indianapolis.

Bill Shaw was there, for the longest time camped out by a coffee bar, shaking hands and talking to friends. It seemed nearly everyone in the room knew him personally. Without a doubt, it was an emotional day for the 67-year-old. “It’s having its moments,” Bill said of the experience.

He didn’t want to do this, sell the relics that represented some of the greatest moments of his father’s life. The trophies and badges and other items epitomized who Wilbur Shaw was, the Hoosier who went on to win auto racing’s biggest event three times. But it had to be done, he said. In 2005 Bill had a heart attack and a stroke on successive days. Bypass surgery saved his life, but he was forever changed. “It took a long time to come back from,” he said.

The hospital bills were debilitating in their own right. “I was between insurance coverage and fell right to the bottom. It came to the point where we really had no option.” His father’s awards would be sold.

Little was spared, but one thing was never considered for auction—two scrapbooks his mother put together during Wilbur’s racing career and in the years that followed. “Mom made those. They were a pride and joy of hers,” Bill recalled.

The scrapbooks were placed on view at the auction, where attendees were welcome to flip through the pages. “A gathering of keenly interested people may never get to see them again,” Bill noted. The material drew steady interest throughout the afternoon.

One item originally on the auction list was pulled shortly before the sale. The L. Strauss & Company trophy, awarded to Wilbur as the winner of the 1937 Indy 500, stayed in the family. Estimated at $2000/4000, the sculptural piece was designed by Irene Rochard (French, 1906-1984). It depicted three metal herons (or cranes) flying above a marble base mounted with a clock. “It’s in the catalog, but when it came down to it this evening, I decided I’ve got to keep this,” Bill said.

The sale was held in the right place, Indianapolis, at the right time, two days before the Indy 500. Because it was Memorial Day weekend, Sue Wickliff, a former auction company owner who now runs a consulting business, started the afternoon with an a cappella rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It wasn’t the typical kickoff to an auction, but it fit.

Bidding on the top racing awards was spirited. Lesser items, such as certificates of appreciation, brought marginal interest. Non-racing material owned by Wilbur, from a fishing creel to dueling pistols to Victorian furniture, had mixed results. No one was there to buy an Eastlake side table. They came for the racing memorabilia.

The top lot was expected to be the gold and diamond ring that Wilbur’s wife had commissioned as a Christmas gift in 1945. In 10k yellow gold, the ring has five brilliant-cut diamonds mounted next to an enameled checkered flag, with “500” on both sides. It commemorated Wilbur’s three Indy 500 wins and was the model used for the ring now given to the winning driver of the Indy 500. Estimated at $150,000/200,000, the ring was bought in at $75,000.

Even though it was touted as the prototype to today’s Indy 500 winner’s ring, the piece fell short because it was really a family keepsake. For actual hardware of a historic nature, buyers looked first and foremost to three Borg-Warner trophies that marked Wilbur’s trio of first-place finishes at the Indianapolis 500. Estimated at $30,000/50,000 apiece, the three wooden plaques were mounted with sterling silver replicas of the 110-pound Borg-Warner Trophy—the Stanley Cup of auto racing.

Competition for the Borg-Warners narrowed to two floor bidders with one buyer taking all three—the 1937 trophy for $60,000 (includes buyer’s premium), the 1939 trophy for $66,000, and the 1940 trophy for $96,000. The total bill for the set was $222,000.

Another prize bringing strong bidding was the Prest-O-Lite trophy, a wooden plaque with cast silver mountings that included an early race car, the winged tire logo of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and a set of nine engraved panels commemorating winners of the award, the last of which was Wilbur for his back-to-back victories in the Indy 500. The trophy was then retired. Estimated at $10,000/20,000, the piece sold for $33,600.

A sterling silver cup, lettered “Water from Wilbur” and having double handles, sold for $9000 against an estimate of $5000/7000. Measuring
7 5/8" high, the cup was presented by Wilbur to the winning driver of the Indianapolis 500 from 1945 to 1954, when Shaw was president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The cup was last awarded by Bill Shaw, then still a boy, to Pat Flaherty in 1956.

Two lots represented Wilbur’s membership in the 100 Mile an Hour Club, which was created by Champion Spark Plug Company in 1935. The club honored Indy 500 drivers who completed the race with an average speed of more than 100 mph, doing so without a relief driver—a considerable feat at the time. A bomber-style leather jacket, awarded in 1951, having Wilbur’s name stitched on the inside, brought $18,000, while a stopwatch from 1953, with his name on the face, realized $2760.

Also in the sale were medals presented by the American Automobile Association for the top-three finishes in the American car racing national championship, the forerunner of today’s IndyCar series. Wilbur won five of the gold and diamond medals. A third prize for 1935 was bid to $2100 by Bill’s wife but is listed among the results as a no-sale; a first prize for 1938 was bought in at $2300, while a second prize for another category in 1938 made $2040; a first prize in 1939 brought $2400; and a second prize for 1940 realized $2280.

During the sale, Dan Ripley, owner of the auction company, described the event as “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” That’s become a trite saying, largely because it’s overused and sometimes untrue, but not this time around. The historic nature of the racing relics made them one-of-a-kind items that may not return to the market anytime soon.

If there was any consolation for Bill in letting go of the awards and accolades won by his father, it’s that he knew those items were recognized as something special by the new owners.

For more information, phone Ripley Auctions at (317) 251-5635 or visit (www.ripleyauctions.com).


Originally published in the September 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest

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