Risky Businesses

On track to take off

Charles Leerhsen was a writer at Newsweek and an editor at Sports Illustrated, People and Us Weekly before he started writing books about what he calls “the little offshoots and back alleys of history.” His first, Crazy Good, was about the once hugely famous—now almost forgotten—harness horse Dan Patch. His second, Blood and Smoke, from which he adapted “500 Miles of Mayhem,” is about the first Indianapolis 500 race, in 1911, a race so chaotic that, to this day, no one knows for sure who actually won. “They didn’t have the technology to keep track of the running order of the race,” Leerhsen explains, “and within about ten minutes, cars started blowing tires and, for other reasons, making pit stops. Cars would go into the pits, stay there for a while, and then come back out on the track, and no one quite knew what lap they were in.” At first Leerhsen despaired. “I said, ‘Oh my God, how can I write about this?’ Then I came to see that it was one of those crazy, ironic things that this great event, which 100 years later would be the biggest one-day sporting event in the world (about 300,000 people in attendance), began in utter chaos.”

Richard Conniff, who has written for Smithsonian since 1982, is the author of nine books, most recently The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth, about pioneering 18th- and 19th-century naturalists. But his first love was airplanes. “When I was a kid,” he says, “I was fanatically interested in aviation. My bedroom ceiling was hung with P-38 Lightnings, Black Widows, Mustangs, Stukas—all of these World War II airplanes. When I grew up, I got interested in natural history, but this fascination was still there.” So his story about civilian applications of drones, or unmanned aircraft (“Ready for Takeoff”), had built-in appeal to him. It, too, evoked an earlier time. “The informality of the business, the spontaneity and daring of it, the inventiveness of it, the riskiness of it and characters straight out of a novel—all the things that made aviation so exciting in the early years—are present in this fledgling industry. That’s what got me interested and that’s what I really liked best about the story.”

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