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For decades, author and historian William Walker has believed that there was much more to the death of cousin Pete Kreis and riding mechanic Robert Hahn in a single-car crash during practice for the 1934 Indianapolis 500 than has been reported.
Kreis, who died at the age of 34, was an established international racer with nearly a decade of Grand Prix-style racing experience. He had started six Indianapolis 500s between 1925 and 1933, finishing a career-best eighth in the 1925 race. There was no question Kreis knew his way around the fast track at Indianapolis.
The report from course workers who witnessed the crash said that Kreis simply lost control, and that there was really nothing more to see here.
That conclusion never sit will with Walker.
Walker knows that while the crash ended the lives of two dedicated racers, it was also the start of what many still call one of the greatest mysteries in racing history. Walker's new book, The Last Lap: The Mysterious Demise of Pete Kreis at the Indianapolis 500 published by Octane Press, takes on that mystery and is a fascinating read worthy of bookshelf space for any racing fan or car history buff.
Consider the story's backdrop.
Kreis' No. 14 Miller-Hartz FWD hit the wall almost head-on at perhaps 90 miles per hour that fateful day in 1934. It settled atop the wall, straddling it, and slid along the top of the wall maybe 200 yards before finally going over. The driver and his riding mechanic were found about 25 feet apart at the bottom of a 20-foot embankment.
The car showed no signs of a mechanical failure, and an autopsy on Kreis revealed no pre-existing conditions for which to blame his actions in the car during that fateful final run.
Author Walker is convinced there is a "rest of the story."
Walker's meticulously researched and annotated work, which is filled with incredible racing images of the period, reads as much like a mystery novel as it does a history book. It is truly a heartfelt tribute to family and to the racers and race cars of a fledgling era of speed.
Walker's work—a quest really—has been a life-long obsession.
In 2022, Walker shared with Autoweek a conversation with cousin Hazel Kreis Oliver (1904-1988), that he had in Knoxville in 1987. Hazel knew Walker was researching a book about her brother and was anxious for the story to be told truthfully. That conversation struck a nerve with Walker, and he's questioned the circumstances around the racing death ever since.
“You see, Bill,” she said haltingly, tears already beginning to build, “what I need to tell you is that Pete knew he was going to die that day.”
“How could he have known that?” Walker asked.
“A premonition,” she answered. “He had a premonition.”
“But how do you know that?” Walker asked again.
“Well, you see, Pete had a big diamond ring he had bought someplace,” Oliver said. “It was beautiful and I was always after him to give me that ring. It was a running joke, really, one we repeated every time I saw him. I would ask for it, and he would refuse with a laugh.
“But on the day he died Pete played the last joke on me. Right before he went out on the track, he took off the ring and gave it to the chief of his pit crew. Pete told him, ‘If anything happens to me, please see that my sister gets this ring.’ And then he went out and the accident happened – just as Pete knew it would.”
And, yes, there is a rest of the story...
William Walker is sure of it.