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Friday, June 7, 2013

Umbrella Mike: The True Story of the Chicago Gangster Behind the Indy 500 by Brock Yates

Incorrectly Named and a Rather Disjointed Effort

Published by Thunder's Mouth Press in 2006

Full disclosure: I am a huge fan of the Indy 500. I have been to every 500 since 1986 and I live within earshot of the track. I have whiled away many a day at the track watching qualifications, practice or just going through the gift shop during the winter when the track is silent.

I was dimly aware that a Chicago gangster had fielded an entry in the Indy 500 in the 1930's so I hoped that this book would tell that story. And it does, but the title of the book makes it sound like Umbrella Mike (Mike Boyle, the crooked boss of Chicago's International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) somehow saved the race or even financed the construction of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

He did not.

Wilbur Shaw in 1939 in one of the Boyle Maseratis.
He won the 1939 Indy 500 in this car.
Photo courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society
What he did was use his race teams to launder some of his illegally obtained cash and financed several race teams at the Indy 500, eventually winning it three times, including the back-to-back wins in 1939 and 1940 by racing legend Wilbur Shaw.

The title also gives the impression that the book is primarily about Umbrella Mike while I would argue that the book is really about the Indy 500 and auto racing in general in the 1930's, especially the late 1930's. That was fine with me, I mostly enjoyed the digressions away from Umbrella Mike. I especially was amazed with the story of the American-born woman living in France who so desperately wanted to field an Indy 500 team that she smuggled a Maserati race car out of Fascist Italy, across embattled France and into Fascist Spain to be smuggled out to America. Then, she got a driver released from his duties in the French Army and got him out to America as well.

Mostly, though, this book was a chore to read because of its herky-jerky nature such as switched topics with no segues, super-clumsy attempts to tie in what was happening in World War II and American politics.

Even worse, was Yates' insistence on repeating himself. Often he would say something and than say it again. He would write about it and then write about it again . Then, he would write about it again. At times, he would mention something and then at other times he would mention it all over again like it was the first time.

If the preceding paragraph was annoying, imagine a whole book full of it and you can see why I am rating this book 3 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon here: 
Umbrella Mike: The True Story of the Chicago Gangster Behind the Indy 500
Reviewed on June 7, 2013

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