When Anderson, Ind., is mentioned in casual conversation among open-wheel racing fans, the Little 500 is almost always a topic. The Little 500 has evolved into the oldest sprint car race in the nation and is one of the most popular of the entire racing season.
Fans from as far away as Germany, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Canada make the annual trek to Anderson for the event each May. The race, itself, has given the city of Anderson an identity within the open-wheel community.
Former Anderson sprint car owners Phil Poor, Jeff Stoops and Larry Contos have provided rides for drivers Steve Butler and Brian Tyler, accounting for five United States Auto Club sprint car championships and a USAC Silver Crown title.
However, Anderson’s involvement in the sport of auto racing actually dates to nearly 30 years before the construction of Anderson Speedway or the inaugural Little 500 in 1949.
The late Bob Carey introduced the city to auto racing when he won the 1932 AAA National championship, a season that also included a spectacular drive in the Indianapolis 500.
Carey quickly earned fame and was one of the early favorites to win the 1933 Indianapolis 500. He soon became Anderson’s “favorite son” and introduced a new generation to auto racing.
Sadly, Carey’s death in a racing accident on Easter Sunday of 1933 cut his life and racing career short at the age of 29.
Robert Elwood “Bob” Carey was born on Sept. 24, 1904 in Anderson, Ind., to parents Clifford and Nannie (Busch) Carey. He was one of four siblings.
Carey went to work for his father at the family-owned bicycle repair and gunsmith shop at the age of 16. Fascinated with automobiles, he quickly became bored working for his father.
He and his older brother, Fred, would regularly hang out at the Robert Roof-owned Laurel Motor Company, which was close to where the Carey family lived on the west side of Anderson. Although Carey had never witnessed an auto race in person, he was fascinated with the sport.
Roof built 16-valve racing heads and accessories for the Ford Model T, as well as several different products for various forms of racing machines. Those engines were highly popular with local racing teams when they debuted in 1917.
The engine dominated the local central Indiana dirt tracks, claiming most of the bigger races that season.
Roof was an engineer who was way ahead of his time in engine development and advancements. He also owned a two-car racing team that was of great interest to the Carey boys. Roof, himself, made an unsuccessful attempt to qualify for the 1924 Indianapolis 500.
After seeing Carey hanging around the shop on a regular basis, Roof handed Carey a broom and put him to work. While working for Roof, Carey constantly hounded his new boss about letting him drive one of his sprint cars (or ‘big cars’ as they were then known).
Each time, Roof would shoot down any hope Carey had of competing as a driver.
Bob and brother Fred made their way to the Weaver half-mile dirt track in Converse, Ind., to watch the 1922 season opener. Upon arrival, the Carey boys were amazed and excited as they took in the sights of their first-ever auto race.
When they approached Roof, he appeared visibly angered due to the fact that his regular driver had not yet showed up. Roof indicated that he was in the process of loading up and heading back to Anderson.
Young Bob pleaded with Roof, even more passionately than he had so many times before, to let him drive or at least warm the machine up.
After some thought, Roof ultimately decided to give Carey a chance due to the fact he had installed a new engine and at least wanted to break it in.
Carey borrowed a pair of goggles and a helmet and eagerly climbed into the car. He took to the track for his first few laps and was a bit out of control, to say the least, struggling to keep the car from hitting the fences.
Roof began to get nervous and was having second thoughts about putting the 17-year-old rookie in his car. In addition, Carey’s parents had no idea he was even at the track that day.
However, once Carey figured out the throttle control, he began to string together consecutively consistent laps and wound up winning his heat race in his first attempt. He won two other preliminary events that day and ran second in the feature to “Cowboy” Hardy.
Upon returning home, Bob informed his parents what he had done. Although they were upset, they overlooked the risky nature of the day since Carey had made a decent amount of money for his efforts and appeared unharmed.
But the Carey parents forbid brother Fred from also racing, since they felt one Carey racing cars was enough, given the dangerous nature of the sport.
It was no surprise to many that Bob excelled as a race driver right from the start. He had earned the reputation as a daredevil of sorts for always performing daring stunts. He had learned to ride a unicycle at a young age and entertained his neighbors performing on his street regularly.
Over the next several years, the Roof two-car team of Carey and Louis Byrkett won a fair share of races, with Carey taking most of the checkered flags. Carey and Roof were enjoying tremendous success together and bringing national attention to Roof’s engines, cars, and other racing products he manufactured.
But Bob was beginning to catch the attention of other car owners.
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