The Lost Championship of 1905
There has long been confusion over exactly when the first sanctioning body-endorsed point system for an American auto racing championship was established. In early days, circa 1909, trade publications announced their pick — not unlike the old AP polls in college football or the Time Magazine “person of the year” choice that still exists today.
Complicating things further, American Automobile Association (AAA) officials in the 1920’s and again in the 1950’s introduced revisionist history by re-calculating points for both championships that never occurred, such as 1909 through 1915, and championships that did take place, beginning with 1916 but going on an occasional hiatus largely due to the World Wars. After their manipulation, they announced new champions years, even decades, later.
Tremendous arguments within the tiny bubble of those who pay attention to such matters have boiled for decades — sometimes more fervently such as during the height of the CART-IRL struggle where the date of the first “Indy car” champion seemed important to some who wanted to suggest that it was previous to the first Indianapolis 500. Some of the best-informed historians reference the points championship of 1916 as the first championship, especially for the drivers, teams, and cars that competed in Indianapolis 500 — which was a scheduled 300-mile race that year.
Few people know that the first season-long points championship was announced and awarded by the AAA in 1905. Yeah, that’s right, 1905. It largely went over like a lead balloon and was probably designed to reign in outlaw barnstormers like Barney Oldfield. Interestingly, it was Oldfield who ended up the winner although it could be argued he backed into the distinction.
Two of Oldfield’s toughest competitors in more powerful cars, Louis Chevrolet (Fiat) and Webb Jay (White Steamer), did not finish the season. Chevrolet’s car owner, the mercurial Major Charles Miller, disappeared after making the dubious decision to abscond with boxing champion Bob Fitzsimmons’ wife, and Jay was critically injured when his “Whistling Billy” car busted through the railing and landed in a runoff pond just outside one of the Kenilworth horse track’s turns.
The reality is that the 1905 championship is probably more of a precursor to sprint car championships because it was a “track racing” championship. That was in reference to contests occurring on dirt horse tracks and deliberately did not include road racing competitions such as the Vanderbilt Cup or the beach time trials outside Daytona on Ormond Beach.
In some ways, the 1905 AAA track racing points championship can find an analogy to the Neanderthal on the human evolutionary ladder. It was a dead end but some of its DNA almost certainly survived. The 1905 championship had to inform decisions made 11 years later when the prototype of the Indy car (or Champ Car, Big Car, etc.) championship finally emerged. The 1916 championship boiled down to a one-on-one battle between eventual winner Dario Resta and Johnny Aitken. It included the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, board track speedways and great road races such as the Vanderbilt Cup and the American Grand Prize.
There was a sharply defined cultural schism between the powers of the AAA, influenced heavily by the elite motorists of the northeastern United States, whose spiritual leader was William K. Vanderbilt, Jr., and the western horse track promoters fueled by barnstormers like Oldfield. The 1905 championship was an attempt by the AAA leaders to bring westerners into the fold.
Circumstances, however, threw a wrench into the works. Track racing struggled with safety issues as thin rails designed to guide horses offered no effective barrier for out-of-control 2,000-pound cars touching 100 mph. Two high-profile accidents, the previously mentioned Kenilworth incident and another with driving star Earl Kiser at Glennville, Ohio, ended the careers of both drivers.
This inflamed latent outrage over previous, even more severe, incidents involving spectator deaths — two of those involving Oldfield in 1903 and 1904. Hardline forces of the northeast who already had no patience for the antics of hardscrabble westerners demanded an end to track racing. Even the most tolerant of AAA officials undoubtedly felt politically at risk to continue to fuel the prominence of such contests. Nonetheless, they continued to sanction them for fear of losing control of the overall sport.
It was a clumsy balance — and largely lost to historical understanding. That’s what we are trying to do at First Super Speedway — preserve the history of the foundational beginnings of the sport we cherish.
The image here is of good, old, Barney in the Peerless Green Dragon he drove…to the 1905 AAA points championship!