Bottom Tier Superhero
Mechanical Wonder From an Age Gone By
By JOHN HANC
Published: October 13, 2011
LONG, strong and dangerous, like a gun barrel mounted on spoke wheels, the coal-black 1909 Alco-6 Racer gleams in the late summer sunlight.
Nicknamed “the Black Beast,” this was one of the most famous race cars of its era. A two-time winner of the Vanderbilt Cup, a major event in the early years of American motorsport, the car was the favorite to win the first Indianapolis 500-mile race in 1911. (It blew a rod, however, and finished 33rd in a field of 40.)
A century later, the 3,306-pound Black Beast still exhibits its own form of animal magnetism. Sitting outside its garage in the quaint Long Island town of Roslyn, the restored car draws stares, smiles, oohs and aahs from passers-by. Especially when its owner, Howard Kroplick, natty in early 20th-century racing garb, starts the Beast’s six-cylinder, 680.8-cubic-inch engine — an Industrial Age wonder of cast iron, brass and copper wiring.
Smoke spurting from the three exhaust pipes on the side, the 11-foot chassis pulsating with power, the Black Beast is ready to take a spin.
“Now that’s a big-boy toy,” says a father to his wide-eyed young son as they watch.
Mr. Kroplick turns to a passenger, sitting in the adjacent seat that was once assigned to a “mechanician”— a technician who worked a hand pump to maintain fuel pressure and helped to navigate.
“Ready?” he asks.
The Black Beast is, in some ways, like the Maltese Falcon; an icon that vanished from sight after its original driver, Harry Grant — who was given title to the car by the manufacturer as a reward for his cup victories — died after a fiery crash in another car in 1915.
For much of the next century, the Black Beast (no one knows who gave it the name, or who misspelled it in French — Bęte Noir — on the side of engine) changed hands frequently, going from barns and garages to museums and showrooms. Mr. Kroplick, a 62-year-old former public relations executive, tracked it down to a luxury car dealership in Brussels, where it was on display. The Alco was an expensive $6,000 in 1909. He will not reveal what he paid for it in 2008, except to say that to him, “It’s priceless.”
Mr. Kroplick restored the car as close to 1909 racing form as possible. He also pieced together the provenance of the vehicle. It fascinated him ever since he started studying the history of the Vanderbilt Cup, organized by the railroad tycoon and auto enthusiast William K. Vanderbilt Jr. and first run on the roads of Long Island, then rural, from 1904 to 1910.
“I had heard these races were held near where I live,” said Mr. Kroplick, a resident of East Hills on Long Island. “I found it inconceivable that Glen Cove Road was once a racecourse.”
His investigations led him deeper into the romantic — and often lethal — world of early auto racing. (A cartoon in The New York World after the 1910 race showed the Grim Reaper presenting the Vanderbilt Cup to the Black Beast — morbid commentary on the fact that three people were killed in the event).
He has also written two photographic histories on the cup and the Long Island Motor Parkway, the 48-mile road constructed by Vanderbilt.
Mr. Kroplick has traced the provenance of the surviving 12 Alcos believed to have been built by the manufacturer in Providence, R.I. “I’ve tracked down 11, including the Black Beast,” he said. “I’m starting to wonder if the 12th is a myth.”
Driving in the Beast is an exhilarating, bordering on terrifying, experience, even at the 30-mile-per-hour speed Mr. Kroplick maintains on a quiet side road near the garage. With no windshield or seat belt, one can only imagine what it must have been like at 100 m.p.h. — the speed Grant achieved when he drove the Black Beast to a victory in the 1910 Vanderbilt Cup race, covering the 265-mile course in 4 hours, 15 minutes and 58 seconds.
Tom Grant, a descendant of Harry (his grandfather was the driver’s brother), says he has learned much about his great-uncle through Mr. Kroplick’s research.
“Howard has a place of honor in our family,” said Mr. Grant, 54, who lives in East Greenbush, N.Y. “He’s helped bring Harry and the Black Beast back into the forefront.”
What might be called the Revenge of Harry Grant and La Bęte Noire came at this year’s Indianapolis 500. To commemorate the race’s 100th anniversary, four of the surviving cars from the 1911 race, including the Alco-6 Racer and the car that finished first, the Marmon Wasp, were invited to take a ceremonial lap before the main event.
Modern Indy stars were enlisted to drive the vintage automobiles around the Speedway’s 2.5 mile track. The two-time winner Emerson Fittipaldi drove the Black Beast, with Mr. Kroplick sitting next to him.
“The idea was to have the Wasp lead the lap, since it was the winner in 2011,” explained Mark Dill, a vice president for Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “But it had a tough time getting started. So in the interest of time, officials on the track waved Howard and Emerson by. They finished the lap first, and Howard’s smile was so wide I thought his head was going to burst. He was saying, ‘We won! We won!’ ”
Mr. Kroplick concedes he got a bit carried away by the Black Beast rumbling into first place past the stalled Wasp. “When we passed the Marmon, I said to Emerson, ‘We’ve been waiting a hundred years to do that.’ ”
03-29-2012 05:17 PM