One hundred years after competing in the inaugural version of the automobile race now known as the Indianapolis 500, the Black Beast is back.
Sunday marks the centennial of the first Indy 500 -- then called the International 500-Mile Sweepstakes -- and a 1909 Alco-6 racer now owned by a Long Island man has returned to the Brickyard for one more lap.
Organizers have brought together five cars from the original race to be driven around the track in a pre-race ceremony by past Indy winners. Emerson Fittipaldi (1989 and 1993) will drive the Black Beast.
Eighty thousand people attended that first race.
"It's very exciting that we're going to be able to run the car in front of 300,000 people," said Howard Kroplick, 62, of East Hills, the Black Beast's current owner.
"I think we'll finish a little better than the car did in 1911," when the Alco came in 33rd out of 40.
The car raced 13 times from 1909 to 1911 and won six times, including the 1909 and 1910 Vanderbilt Cup Races on Long Island. The Vanderbilt Cup was the first international auto race held in the United States, according to Stephanie Gress, a spokeswoman for the Suffolk County Vanderbilt museum.
"Most people had never seen a car before, so thousands of people came to Long Island to watch the races," Kroplick said. "There was tremendous anticipation for these races."
The six-cylinder, 100-horsepower Alco was built in 1909 by the American Locomotive Co. in Providence, R.I., at a cost of $6,000. It ran at a maximum speed of 121 mph and weighed 3,306 pounds. Today's Indy four-cylinder racers are rated at 650 horsepower and top out at 229 mph, according to Indy spokesman Mark Dill.
"The initial designs of American Locomotive were French-based," Kroplick said. "That's where the nickname came from. The car had the words Bête Noire [Black Beast] stenciled on it. For most of its races, the car was painted black."
The Alco racer was favored to win at Indy in 1911, but a connecting rod broke on the 52nd lap. The car was retired in 1911 and presented as a gift to its only driver, Harry Grant.
The vehicle changed hands several times before winding up in a barn in Ohio from 1946 to 1968. After that, it was displayed in showrooms in Nevada, Hertfordshire, England; and Brussels. Kroplick purchased it in 2008 but won't say what he paid.
Kroplick said the Black Beast still has its 1911 engine and chassis. "The reason the engine has lasted so long is that the people who have owned the car have driven it," he said. "So to drive it, you are constantly maintaining it."
Maintenance can be a problem. "We replaced the water pump to make it run more efficiently," Kroplick said. "The dealership for this car closed in 1913, so you can't replace things. My mechanic says, 'If you break it, you have to make it.' So anything that breaks we remake and you try to do it under the standards of what the car was like."
Kroplick, retired chairman of the Impact Group, a Manhattan-based medical communications company, runs the Vanderbiltcupraces.com website and is president of the Long Island Motor Parkway Preservation Society.
He shows the car at many vintage car shows and at Long Island conventions and fairs. He'll often give people a ride, and the perpetual use of it helps keep the car going.
"What happens with most vintage cars is they go to museums and that's where they die," Kroplick said. "It's like anything else; you need to run it to make sure everything is going well."