Tracking a big base legend
Some motorcycles ooze and dribble lubricant. Some ooze charm, charisma and history. This "Big Base" 1939 Indian Scout racer defines the latter. Built for no other reason than to go like stink on a dirt track, it has one of five special sand cast Indian race engines and was campaigned by no less than "Iron Man" Ed Kretz.
And the fact that this machine is connected to several important figures in the world of motorcycles including Ed Kretz, Shell Thuet and Kenny Howard — aka Von Dutch — just adds to the entire package.
Gary Landeen first saw this Indian Scout racer in 1997, when it was in a roped off area of the Performance Car Museum in his hometown of Sioux Falls, S.D. He couldn’t get close to the machine, but he didn’t forget about it. A year later, Gary was at the Celebrity Hotel and Casino in Deadwood, S.D., which has a small museum (Nelson’s Garage) filled with cars and motorcycles. In the collection sat a “Herbie” Volkswagen Beetle used in The Love Bug, a James Bond Aston Martin, an Evel Knievel jump bike and several more machines including — you guessed it — the Indian Gary couldn’t forget.
The Indian was displayed with a placard that offered very little information, apart from describing the motorcycle as a Big Base Scout similar to one famed Indian rider Ed “Iron Man” Kretz had raced. He asked the casino owners — brothers who also ran the Performance Car Museum — if they’d consider selling the Indian, and they agreed to part with it.
“I knew nothing about the bike, except that it looked like a neat little Indian racer,” Gary recalls. He brought the motorcycle home and got it running, sneaking it around the neighborhood a few times until he took it to the 1999 Antique Motorcycle Club of America (AMCA) swap meet and races in Davenport, Iowa.
“While there, I thought it would be fun to do a couple of parade laps on the race track,” Gary says. “The organizers said I would have to pay the same fee as the racers, so I decided to race it instead.” Gary qualified in the heat race to enter the finals. On the starting line in the final, with a dozen or so other engines revving, Gary couldn’t hear that his Indian was firing on just one cylinder. When the starter’s flag dropped everybody was off — except Gary. He rolled to the infield, where he discovered the Indian had blown a head gasket.
Although he didn’t get to race, taking the Indian to Davenport had a couple of unanticipated results. First, it jarred some memories. People started talking to Gary about the Indian and gave him some leads on tracking down its history. And second, after he got back home, Gary took the engine apart and had a real good look at the internals.
Once he got inside the engine, Gary knew immediately that somebody important had once owned and raced this Indian. “The rods were drilled, lightened and polished to a mirror finish,” Gary says. “The rods were from a KR Harley, and not Indian. The engine cases were modified to run ball bearings on the pinion and drive sides. The Schunk cams were square. The carburetor was a Linkert M3 ‘Bomb Sight’ model used on Harley racers. The pistons had all the meat hogged out of the insides. The intake ports were larger than on a 74-inch Chief. My thought was, ‘Who did this?’”
In 1939, the racing department at the Indian factory in Springfield, Mass., produced five sand cast “Big Base” Scout engines. These early prewar engines are not to be confused with the 1948 Big Base Scouts (also known as 648 Big Base race engines). Gary says there were two batches of Big Base engines; the initial five in 1939, and then several of the 648 Big Bases in 1948. It’s easy to tell the prewar Big Base engines from the later 648s, as the 1939 engines are the only ones that were sand cast.
In appearance, Big Base engines were similar to standard Sport Scout units, with one difference; there is a small triangular wedge near the lower rear portion of the crankcase. Designed by Indian factory engineer Allen Carter, this wedge created a pocket to catch oil from a built-in scraper that diverted oil away from the flywheels. Left to accumulate on the rotating flywheels, oil would slow the engine down, keeping it from running as fast as it might. The wedge isn’t readily visible with the engine in the bike, as the primary case blocks it from the left, and the exhaust pipes, footpegs and engine mounting plate block it from the right. As to the engine’s moniker, Gary doesn’t have any answers. “I don’t really know why they’re called Big Base cases, because the cases aren’t any bigger than those in a standard Sport Scout,” Gary says.
With help from interested enthusiasts who shared their memories and some old race programs, Gary traced the history of his machine backward, starting with Denny Kannenberg, a racer who had sold the bike to the Performance Car Museum. Kannenberg last raced the Indian, which bears serial number FDB 381, at Sturgis in 1988 and Davenport in 1990.
Using old race programs, Gary learned the names of riders who might have competed against his Indian. Working from there, he made a few calls, eventually connecting with famous West Coast tuner Shell Thuet. Thuet tuned Indian race bikes for the likes of Jimmy Kelly, Ted Evans and Don Hawley, and he co-owned FDB 381 in the 1950s. Thuet later worked his magic on the Yamaha XS650 flat track machines raced by Kenny Roberts.
Gary talked to Thuet about the bike, and also learned from racer Ted Evans that the five 1939 Big Base engines were sent to various handpicked riders to compete in Class C racing. Class C was meant to be for the average rider and didn’t allow factory sponsorship of racers or machines. “AMA rules of the time required that 25 bikes be built and offered for sale to the public to meet homologation rules for Class C racing,” Gary says. “This means no ‘specials’ or ‘one offs,’ and motorcycles that were available to anyone.
“The truth is, both Harley and Indian cheated. [Having] their brand in the win column sold bikes. Neither could complain because they were both guilty,” Gary says. In 1941, Indian sent three of the five Big Base engines to the West Coast, where they were placed with Ed Kretz, Jimmy Kelly and Ted Evans. In the hands of such expert racers, the engines proved very competitive.
However, Evans blew his engine in its second race at Southern Ascot in Gardena, Calif., and Indian brought the two remaining engines back to the factory at the end of 1941. In 1942 Kretz received two of the prewar engines, FCI 173 and FDB 381. The first engine, FCI 173, is currently in Kretz’s famous blue and white race bike, while FDB 381 is in Gary’s.
The serial number is significant: “F stands for Scout, D stands for 4, and B stands for 2 [as the motorcycle was given to Kretz in 1942]. The 38 was Kretz’s racing number, and the 1 filled out the three digit number that all Indians have. In short, Scout 1942, Kretz’s racing number 38 and a 1 to make it a legitimate Indian serial number. Remember, these five engines were not legal, and to number them sequentially would be a dead giveaway,” Gary says.
Racing was suspended in 1942, but when the tracks opened again in 1946 Kretz still had the prewar Big Base engines. From his dealership in Los Angeles, Kretz had many top name riders race FDB 381, including Floyd Emde, Jack Horn, Bob Holt and Bobbie Turner. In fact, Horn won the 1947 Daytona 100-mile race, while Holt took third in 1948 and fourth in 1949 with FDB 381. From the archival photos Gary collected, it is evident that FDB 381 has had at least three Indian Scout frames, both early and late style.
The late 1940s and most of the 1950s is when FDB 381 was most competitive, but Kretz sold the bike in 1952 because he had become a Triumph dealer and needed to race the brand he sold.
Shell Thuet told Gary to call racer Bob Nichols about FDB 381, and when Gary talked to Nichols it was suggested he contact Galen Brookins. When Gary spoke to Brookins, Brookins said he had bought FDB 381 from Kretz in 1952. “Jackpot,” says Gary. “This was the first time I knew FDB 381 had a Kretz connection. Galen said he still had the title with Kretz’s name on it. He said he would give it to me when he came across it. I have made a couple of trips out to Galen’s home, but we still haven’t found it.”
So, FDB 381 went from Kretz to Brookins to Thuet. At the end of 1957 Thuet sold the racer to Pate Killian. Killian knew Von Dutch and had him paint the tanks three different times — the last Von Dutch paint job is still on the Indian racer. Gary says the paint is starting to crack, but he hasn’t touched it, nor will he, given the values currently associated with anything touched by a Von Dutch brush.
In 1961 FDB 381 went to Bob Fleckenstein, an Edelbrock engineer, who kept the Indian competitive through 1967 with riders like Doug Hardt. Unable to find riders who could race an antiquated, hand-shift motorcycle — even though the machine could still keep up with newer Triumph, BSA and Harley-Davidson racers — he eventually sold FDB 381.
Late in 1967, the Indian passed to race-fan friends of Kretz who remembered seeing him race the machine in the early 1940s at Carrell Speedway and Southern Ascot, both in Gardena, Calif. They kept the bike for 20 years until 1988, when it was sold in an estate dispersal before landing in the hands of Denny Kannenberg, who we’ve already met.
Ed Kretz’s son, Ed Jr. or Eddie, was reunited with FDB 381 in 2009. Eddie’s first race in 1948, when he was 16 years old, was aboard this very motorcycle. Gary took the Indian racer to Eddie’s home where he rode the bike for the first time since the early 1960s. “The incredible thing about FDB 381 is that it competed on a national level from 1942 through 1967, a span of 25 years,” Gary says. Incredible, indeed. MC