Excelsior Theses Series: Frank Lockhart and the Land Speed Record

Frank Lockhart. Credit: Racemaker Press.
Frank Lockhart. Credit: Racemaker Press.
Frank Lockhart was a 1920s American automobile racing legend.  Credit: Racemaker Press.

The Latin translation of Excelsior is “higher” or “ever upward.”  John Bayer of Virginia Beach is in many ways, an embodiment of the expression, a self-described lifelong learner who has earned three degrees from Excelsior College, most recently a Master of Arts in Liberal Arts.

Bayer retired from the military in 2015, after 37 years of uniformed service – 19 years in the U.S. Navy Reserves and 18 years of Navy active duty.  For the past two years he has served as a Navy civilian analyst. A voracious reader with a love for history, civics, writing, and geography, Bayer is planning to use his degree to teach part-time, either online or in-person.

As part of his graduate program at Excelsior, Bayer completed a “Creative Thesis” on Frank Lockhart, a 1920s American automobile racing driver whose legendary career was cut short by his tragic death while attempting a land speed record.

Bayer’s creative thesis included extensive research into the myth-making behind Frank Lockhart’s short-life and a 110-page screenplay. To read the screenplay, you can contact Bayer by emailing the Excelsior College Communications Office at PR (at) Excelsior.edu.

Excelsior Life: Your thesis explores “Frank Lockhart and the Land Speed Record.” What inspired you to pull back the curtain and research the truth in his legend?

Bayer: I had been researching Lockhart on and off for over 20 years, which began as research for an art project based on his land speed record car, due to its “Buck Rogers”, very futuristic appearance. I was also familiar with many oft-repeated statements about his life and career that had the flavor of myth.

Serendipitously, Racemaker Press, a small auto history publisher, released their book, Frank Lockhart:

American Speed King, by Sarah Morgan-Wu and James O’Keefe, which had 25 pages of text to accompany many never-before seen photos; in that 25 pages were the fruits of their research dispelling several myths on Lockhart that had been almost endlessly repeated in the nearly 90 years since his death.

The timing of the book also couldn’t have been better for my Creative Thesis in the end, as the new book pushed me towards a screenplay versus a traditional biography.

Excelsior Life: What was it about Lockhart and the time period that engendered so much myth-making?

Bayer: The 1920s were a time of big dreams and even bigger characters. It was a new era of media-created personality, and Frank’s seeming to come out of nowhere to national prominence in less than a year with his 1926 rookie win at the Indy 500 lined right up with that sort of media attention.

But Frank’s personality drew that sort of attention because he was different than the average driver; not a boozer, womanizer, nor free user of expletives, he fit the Charles Lindbergh mold a year before Lindbergh hit it big with his solo, non-stop Transatlantic flight. Lockhart was the clean-cut All-American, and that was what the public was looking for in the wake of the awful destruction of WWI – he fit the image of the idealized American hero.

Excelsior Life: The “creative” part of your thesis is a biographical motion picture script of Lockhart’s life story. How did your research add authentic and context to your tale?

Bayer: The key points clarified by Racemaker Press made the Lockhart career/life more truthful.  The reading and research I’ve done for more than 40 years on American racing in general, and in Lockhart specifically these last 20+ years, gave me the technical accuracy I needed to portray the world of 1910s-1920s auto racing.

That, combined with the larger context of the 20th Century’s American history as a broader interest of mine for even longer than that, gave me the cultural knowledge I needed to portray the broader era accurately as well.

John Bayer served in uniform in the U.S. Navy for 37 years.
John Bayer served in uniform in the U.S. Navy for 37 years.

Excelsior Life: Have you ever written a screenplay prior to this? What challenges did you encounter along the way?

Bayer: This is my first screenplay.  Tightening up the script to flow smoothly, and to keep to the key scenes that only advance the script have been the larger challenges.  Character development was probably the next hardest challenge – how to portray them with depth, but without too much description.

I am also entering screenplay competitions and since graduating have considerably tightened up the script based on the feedback from those competitions, which has been invaluable.

Excelsior Life: What did you learn from the experience?

Bayer: That I really enjoy the screenwriting process; the outlines, the visualization, the plot development, and the actual formatting of the script components – the whole thing is much more creative than I first imagined!

Excelsior Life: Any plans to try to get it adapted?

Bayer: Upon successfully winning in a screenplay contest, the prize typically includes entre to agents and production officials who are the next key contacts in potentially getting it made.

I am also working on re-writing it for the stage (maybe as a musical?) and as a TV miniseries, to increase the footprint of the story and the possibility of “getting it made” in some fashion.

The software I use has templates for all of those, which has eased the creation of such variations, by showing the differences in formatting, allowing me to re-purpose content.

Read John Bayer’s Final Thesis Abstract here.

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