HECKMAN: Why Mike Boyle's story matters today


HECKMAN: Why Mike Boyle's story matters today

Insights & Analysis

HECKMAN: Why Mike Boyle's story matters today


The Indianapolis 500 needs to go back to its roots. We need the manufacturers back. We need the cars to be cool again. We need to make this whole thing a spectacle again. Maybe we should even make movie stars part of the scene. People like Errol Flynn or Roy Rogers.

Yes. Roy Rogers.

Of course, I’m writing about the attitude of racing in the 1930s. What did you think I was writing about?

As much as we think the era of racing that’s fast approaching is unparalleled, it isn’t. In the 120-plus years that motorsport has been around, we’ve seen world wars, multiple economic crises, even a global pandemic. Through it all, the rules might change, the budgets fluctuate, but the characters, as always, stand out.

This is why our latest ‘Dinner with Racers’ Amazon Prime episode, ‘Brickyard Empire’, was important to us. It’s also why I feel confident in writing that this sport, which we all love so much, will be just fine despite everything going on. We just need to embrace the emerging characters that blossom through this.

Brickyard Empire highlights the unique case of Mike Boyle, the, err, ‘businessman’ out of Chicago who rose to power in the early 20th century by means of managing the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). You need a new building made? Well, Mike Boyle was the only player in town who could get the electricity running. If you tried going elsewhere, well, you faced the consequences.

Whatever your opinions on the practices of some of the more, let’s say ‘relentless’ labor unions over the last century, the lifestyle afforded from it enabled ‘Umbrella’ Mike Boyle to take part in his real love – auto racing. That love eventually led to a dynasty at the Indianapolis 500 as a team owner, bringing over one of the coolest cars ever built, and during an economic era when they weren’t even sure if they’d see enough entrants.

That same dynasty created names that helped shape the race we know and love today: names like Bill Cummings, Louis Meyer, and Mauri Rose all had their careers shaped by Mike Boyle in some way.

Shaw soaks up his second Indy 500 win, and his first at the wheel of Boyle’s Maserati 8CTF, in 1939. He drove the same car into Victory Lane again the following year. Image by IMS

Most significantly, however, was the role Mike Boyle played in taking Wilbur Shaw from an Indianapolis 500 winner, to an Indianapolis 500 legend. If you don’t know just how critical Shaw’s role was in maintaining the track’s legacy to what we have today, then I might suggest you watch our show.

If you haven’t heard of Mike Boyle, or Boyle Racing, you wouldn’t be alone. We hadn’t either until a few months ago. Knowing the parallels to modern day, we went looking for a hero from that era, and we came back with, well, something more in-tune with our brand.

Embracing a moniker that falls between feared and notorious, Mike Boyle’s story has been largely forgotten, or buried, courtesy of the erosion of time combined with an arguably nefarious history that some might choose to forget.

However, as our sport continues to see declining value from sponsors, and an ebb in manufacturer interest as the values of racing and consumer car sales continue to diverge, our sport needs to embrace the reality that private money plays a critical role in the future.

The shining light in this is that private money means one thing that few sponsors or manufacturers can match; they answer to no-one. When you answer to no-one, it’s amazing how much easier it is to do as you please, and that creates stories.

Right now, our sport needs stories.

When you think of IMSA in the 1980s, how many of you think of the Whittingtons, Randy Lanier, or John Paul and family?

Would we have had James Hunt if there wasn’t a Lord Hesketh?

Selfishly, my own career wouldn’t have been nearly as fun in IMSA if John Potter and his self-funded Magnus Racing didn’t allow full reign on the antics, and Dinner with Racers definitely benefited from the infamous Level 5 episode detailing the outrageous D Sports racer project funded by the now-imprisoned Scott Tucker.

Sponsors are great, manufacturers are important, but they also come at their own cost. They have a Board of Directors, they have a sea of middle managers, they have contract agencies terrified of losing the account, and this means muting stories. It’s a crowded landscape out there, and it isn’t helped when we put out diluted content with just a hint of middle-management fear.

Private money doesn’t have to worry about this, and rather than looking at our future in terror, the story of Mike Boyle is here to remind us that, nearly 100 years later, there’s a couple of idiots still talking about him.

I hope the equivalent idiots in 2120 talk about whoever emerges from the era we’re headed into.