Conshohocken’s Indianapolis 500 Hopeful
It Happened 85 Years Ago
By Jack Coll
“The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” may, or may-not happen again on Memorial Day Weekend, the Indianapolis 500 Car Race. The race has been run for the past 104 years and this past year’s champion Simon Pagenaud edged out the second place opponent Alexander Rossi by seconds for the victory.
Eighty Five years ago in 1935 Johnny Hannon carried the torch for Conshohocken all the way to Indianapolis. Johnny Hannon was born Johnny Hranke, on November 9, 1908 in Clifton Heights, Delaware County. He was the son of German immigrants. Hannon’s Hall of Fame racing career began in 1930 and quickly rose up the ranks becoming a champion at all the major tracks along the Eastern Seaboard. Johnny married the former Mary Snow, a Conshohocken girl who lived in Swedesburg for a short time. The couple had two daughters Constance and Marlene.
Hannon and his mechanic Gus Strupp, a New Jersey native performed most of the work on his Red Miller race car at Galie’s Garage once located in Connaughtown before moving to Norristown. Hannon also worked for a while in Conshohocken.
Hannon was an outstanding race car driver but was also a musician, a furniture store worker, a radiator manufacturer for cars and planes, he was a truck driver for a short time and a professional boxer winning 13 out of 14 bouts. He started racing on dirt tracks at the age of 21 but of course worked a lot of odd jobs in between races.
According to all accounts Hannon was one of the best “Dirt Track Racers” in the country. “Dirt Track Racer” is the key term here, Hannon never completed even one single lap at speed on a board or brick track. Early in his career in 1930 Hannon entered the race at the half-mile Woodbridge board track and crashed before circling the track on the first lap. On October 12, 1930 Hannon entered one of the weekly AAA races at the New Jersey Speedway and crashed spectacularly on a qualifying round, damaging the track so severely that the race had to be postponed. When the track was rebuilt from the damage done Hannon was banned from the race. Hannon and his Red-Miller race car never could compete on the board or brick speedways.
But throughout the early 1930’s Hannon ruled the independent dirt tracks throughout Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Maryland at tracks like Milford Speedway in Maryland and New Market Speedway in New Jersey. 1932 was a banner year for Hannon as he enjoyed a lot of success winning all the main events and establishing track records. A lot of Hannon’s success was credited to his mechanic who was Gus Strupp, who owned a garage in Pluckemin, New Jersey. In 1933 Strupp purchased a new Miller marine engine with the extra-large Brisko block, displacing 220.5 cubic inches, the first of its kind to run in the east.
With the new engine under his hood, Hannon and Strupp traveled to the Langhorne Speedway, to gage the new engine’s performance where no-one expected them to do well.
There was tough competition at Langhorne up against two of the best drivers in the nation Bill Cummings and Mauri. The two finished the race First and Second, having lapped all 16 racers twice, except for Hannon who finished just nearly only one lap back. The next six races at Langhorne Hannon won four, crashed out of one due to a tire puncture while leading the race and lost another due to engine failure.
In 1933 Hannon won his first AAA main event, nearly two years later in the early spring of 1935 he had won his twentieth. Many of these races featured Indianapolis 500 racing veterans. He was continuously the fastest qualifier and won the “fastest heat” in most of his races. Incomplete records show that Hannon was the fastest qualifier more than two dozen times and ran the fastest heat in nearly 30 races in a grand total of roughly 80 AAA races.
It has been noted that while Hannon didn’t lack for speed but he did lack for common sense having crashed in a dozen races, a number of the crashes were extremely violent.
In the spring of 1935 he went undefeated on the circuit and was basically unchallenged. In early May of 1935 Hannon won the featured race, 50 mile, at Langhorne in front of an extremely large crowd. Hannon drew sell-out crowds where-ever he raced. Along with his “Big Red Miller Special” Hannon wasn’t even challenged from a field of nationally-known racers successfully retaining his championship title from 1934, by this time Hannon was known as the “King of Kings” among auto racers.
A week later on May 13, 1935 Hannon arrived in Indianapolis, it was rare that Eastern dirt track champions made it to Indianapolis as most of the 500 racers who qualify came from the Midwestern and West coast. A couple of former racers took an interest in young Hannon at Indianapolis, Leon Duray and Tony Gulotta and took turns tutoring the Indy rookie. There had been many dirt track champions who had failed at Indy due to the brick racing surface but on a couple of practice runs Hannon had successfully reached speeds of nearly 120 miles per hour.
On May 21, 1935, qualifying day, while Hannon was working on his speed on the track a yellow flag flashed, a fellow named Insinger had crashed his Duesenberg/Miller against the inside wall in turn 3, with no injuries to the driver and little damage to the car. Finally it was Johnny’s turn to qualify, he climbed into his Duray/Miller accompanied by Oscar “Shorty” Reeves, a local riding mechanic, back then the race cars had two seats, so mechanic’s could ride along for practice and qualifying runs.
Hannon’s car went out of control entering turn 3, spun around and hit the outside wall, opposite where Insinger had hit the inside wall only minutes earlier. The force of the impact tore a hole into the concrete wall, and Hannon was catapulted fifty feet through the air, dying within minutes of the accident. His mechanic was seriously injured. Hannon had escaped death twice within three months in 1935 at Langhorne and at Milwaukee Wis. before his fatal accident at Indy.
Hannon was 26 years old when he was killed. Records show he was survived by his wife, the former Mary Snow of Swedesburg Pa., and two children, Constance and Marlene. His funeral was the largest ever seen in this area at that time. Over 2,000 people passed his bier at the home of his father-in-law, Frank Snow of Church St. Swedesburg.
Racing champions from all over the United States came to attend his funeral Mass at Sacred Heart Church, Swedesburg. Thousands lined the streets to pay final respects to Johnny Hranke, as was his German name. Leading the funeral cortege was a full size racing car made up of live flowers, sent over by the Indianapolis Speedway. Hannon’s body rest at St. Augustine Cemetery, in Upper Merion Township.
I don’t know anything about Hannon’s two daughters but perhaps his grandchildren were present when Johnny was inducted into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame at the Seventeenth Annual Ceremonies in Knoxville Iowa back in 2006.
In 1935, Kelly Petillo was crowned winner with an average speed of 106 MPH.
Three race car drivers were killed at Indy in 1935, besides Hannon was Clay Weatherly out of Cincinnati and Stubby Stubblefield from Los Angeles.
Forty-one drivers have been killed at Indy over the years, some during the race and others trying to qualify. William Bourque was the first driver to die back in 1909 and Tony Renna was the last to die in 2003. Twenty three others have died at the track over the years including Mechanics, spectators and track-workers.
Johnny Hannon was the Eastern United States Dirt Track Champion and had a glorious racing career which was cut short 85 years ago this month. Had Johnny lived, perhaps a Conshohocken Race car driver would have earned the right to:
“Drink the Milk and Kiss the Bricks.”
“To race is to live.
But those who died while racing knew,
perhaps, how to live more than all others.”
I’d like to thank and dedicate this column to an old friend of mine Ed Dybicz. Ed was one of the greatest men I ever met, you couldn’t help but like him. He was an old Swedesburg friend of Johnny Hannon and often wrote about him and talked about him every chance he got. I used some of Eddie’s material in this column, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind. The two of us went back to the Times Herald and Conshohocken Recorder days, when Ed would visit the Recorder office we would sit and talk and laugh, Eddie could make you laugh and I enjoyed laughing with him back then, I miss you old-man.
And hey Eddie, Thanks for the Memories!
*****Photographs include, Johnny Hannon in 1935 with his racing goggles on his helmet.
*****A cartoon caricature of Johnny Hannon taken from the Conshohocken Recorder from
April 26, 1935, less than a month before his death.
*****A picture taken on May 21, 1935 of Johnny Hannon’s car #45 shortly after he died at the
Indianapolis Race Track.
*****A picture of the tow truck hooking up Johnny’s car following the deadly crash.