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by Tony Sakkis

Americans love heroes - especially war heroes. One of Bob Dole's most positive presidential attributes is the fact that he was a hero during World War II and it's been said that Colin Powell would be a shoe-in were the election held today. Most people don't know where he stands on the issues, but they do know that he's a war hero.

It occurred to me that one particular war hero from the past could have changed a few things for the better. Mostly, he could have made auto racing the national pastime rather than baseball.

Eddie Rickenbacker (he officially changed his name from Edward in 1915) was the Norman Schwartzkopff of the 1920s and the good-citizen Ross Perot of WW II. He was charming, talented and larger-than-life. He captured the imagination of the America public and cast a warm glow on auto racing in general and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in particular.

Rickenbacker's first exposure to racing was during the Vanderbilt Cup race at the turn of the century. The company for which he worked, Frayer, had built four cars to compete in the 1906 running of the event, which was a sort of an American wake-up call that paid $10,000 to win. Frayer picked Rickenbacker to be his riding mechanic. Dirt track racing had been proliferating around the countryside, and for Rickenbacker and the company, the racing was justified by the sales potential.

Rickenbacker, eventually becoming the driver, raced all over Iowa and Nebraska and was selling cars at every stop. In 1911, Rickenbacker made his first appearance at the Brickyard, finishing 11th. By 1913, he won his first championship race and enough local races to keep the team afloat, enhancing his reputation as a good driver and a great mechanic. He won five races with his own Maxwell team and won a very special race at Indianapolis on Labor Day, a 100-mile event. The last race he ever drove was at Ascot, which he won. He never regretted moving out of racing, but he always regretted not having won the Indy 500.

When World War I started in 1917, Rickenbacker was 27. As he had first lied about his age by adding years to get jobs, he now had to subtract years in order to be accepted into flight training. A doctor friend wrote on the physical sheet that he was 25, and Rickenbacker was off to the Army's pilot school. After his training period, he was sent to France where he was first assigned as a driver for a high ranking officer (due, no doubt, to his reputation as a race driver) but immediately applied for fighter pilot duty.

Rickenbacker proved to be a daring and talented combat flyer and his prowess in the sky was legendary. When he had been given the title "Ace of Aces" by the American government, he only had seven confirmed kills to his credit. There was nobody who had ever downed eight enemy planes. In fact the record of seven was shared with three other men -- all of whom had been killed after their achievements. Rickenbacker finished the war with 26 victories and 134 air battles.

He returned home a national hero. He could virtually write his own ticket. What he wanted to do still, he decided again, was to build cars. Rickenbacker cars, with the Rickenbacker name on them. Although the road to manufacturing success was somewhat more rocky than he thought, he still made his mark on the automotive scene by buying the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on November 1st, 1927.

During World War II, the Speedway was used a testing grounds for war machinery and tires, and a storage facility. Shortly after the end of hostilities, Rickenbacker sold the place to the Hulman family who still owns the track.

Rickenbacker was popular, he was a hero, and had he run for the office of president, he could have won. Just think, a car guy in the White House.