By Daniel T. Weaver
Lewis Putnam Strang, born on August 7, 1884 in Amsterdam, New York, won the first auto race ever held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on August 21, 1909. He also won the G&J Trophy, which was the feature race of that first event. Strang set a new speed record of 64.67 mph, and the Indianapolis News wrote, “The performance of Strang was the most spectacular of the two days of racing.”
Two years later, Strang was the first driver to register for the first Indy 500. He therefore drove Car #1 in the pole position. He drove 109 laps but the Case automobile he was driving developed steering problems and he ended up finishing 27.
“Live fast, die young and leave a beautiful corpse,” epitomizes the short life of “mile a minute” Strang. He was the son of Le Grand S. Strang (1846-1896) who ran a jewelry shop on the corner of Chuctanunda and East Main. Le Grand was a friend of artist Rufus Grider, who painted five pictures of Amsterdam’s Painted Rocks, a native-American pictograph that existed just to the east of Riverlink Park until it disappeared in the 19th century. Writing in 1888, Grider said, “As it is of great importance that the history of our country be preserved, it also became a matter of interest to me to search whether any traces still existed of the Painted Rocks. I found at Amsterdam three living persons who remembered them, and met a fourth who now lives in Wayne County, N.Y. Having interviewed them all and obtained all the evidence obtainable, I had the rocks pointed out to me by my friend LeGrand S. Strang, who was much interested in the matter.”
Strang’s mother was Estella Putnam (1851-1905). She and Lewis were direct descendants of the Revolutionary War general, Israel Putnam, who is often attributed with saying at the Battle of Bunker Hill, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes.”
More important to Strang was his uncle, J. Walter Christie, an early auto inventor and race car enthusiast who was the first American to race in the Grand Prix in 1907. Strang served as his uncle’s mechanic. He began racing himself in 1905. However, he ruined his relationship with his uncle by borrowing one of his cars without permission and damaging it in a race.
Strang went on to become one of the best race car drivers of his day. From 1907-1911, he drove in almost every important race. He drove the Christie Grand Prix car at the dirt track at the Birmingham fairgrounds on October 16, 1907 and set a new track record. On March 19, 1908 he won the Savannah Challenge Trophy, driving a 50 hp Isotta-Fraschini for John Tyson. In April he won the Briarcliffe Trophy in a 240 mile race over a 32 mile course in Westchester County beating famous drivers like Barney Oldfield, Ralph DePalma and George Robertson before a crowd estimated at 100,000 people. After the race Strang stated his theory about racing “…a driver should never hold back, for a race starts right from the word ‘go’…no race has been won from laying back unless the other cars break down, and then it’s only a gamble.”
Strang entered the Grand Prix that year but lost due to superior European vehicles. He then entered the 254.4 mile Congressman Butler Ames Trophy Race in Lowell, Massachusetts. Strang led from start to finish on the black top 10.6 mile course, finishing in 4 hours, 4 minutes and 34 seconds. In an article on the race, the Amsterdam Recorder referred to Strang as a dare-devil driver who drove at break-neck speed. In 1909 Strang won the 100 mile Daytona stock car race, setting a new record. In a 2010 quarter mile dash at Indianapolis, he drove at 119 mph, another record.
In 1908 Strang married a stage actress and Ziegfeld girl from Kentucky, Jeanne Lou Spalding known in the theater as Louise Alexander. Their relationship was troubled from the start, with Spalding initially a no-show at what was to be their wedding ceremony. After they married, she worried about the dangers of his occupation while he was concerned about her career as an actress–her sultry Vampire dance and having to act and travel with other men. After being tabloid fodder for two years, they divorced in January 1911.
In a 1910 Amsterdam Recorder article, Strang was making plans to visit Amsterdam and set up an agency to sell Pierce Racine cars. That same year he took an interest in aviation, began flying and purchased two Bleriot airplanes. Strang never had a chance to do much with his airplanes or his auto agency. On July 20, 1911, Strang was driving a car on a reliability run for the Wisconsin Automobile Association. Near Blue Rivers, WI, he attempted to pass a farm wagon and his car went down an embankment. His passengers jumped free, but Strang did not. He was crushed to death under the overturned vehicle. Ironically, he was driving at less than 10 mph when the accident occurred.
Strang’s body was brought back to Amsterdam, and he was buried in Green Hill Cemetery near his parents. He was inducted posthumously into the Auto Racing Hall of Fame housed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum.
Note: A shorter version of this article first appeared in the Amsterdam Recorder. Taken from my forthcoming book, Between the Cracks: Forgotten Stories of Amsterdam, New York and the Mohawk Valley. If you liked this story, consider supporting this blog by sharing the story, buying the book when it comes out or supporting us financially on our patreon site.
An earlier version of this article appeared in the Recorder when owned by Mcleary Media LLC.