Cobe Trophy Coverage

The much anticipated Cobe Trophy was months in the making and the Indianapolis newspapers reflected the enthusiasm of the age for all things automobile oriented. The Cobe Trophy and its support race, the Indiana Trophy, were held on a public roads circuit through and around the Indiana cities of Crown Point and Lowell as well as a lot of countryside in the northwest corner of the state near Chicago. These were the first major races held in the mid-western United States and for more background on their significance the steps taken to make them a reality see extensive coverage elsewhere on First Super Speedway. For the world's largest collection of Cobe Trophy primary research and analysis check out this First Super Speedway library.
In the end it was the indomitable Louis Chevrolet and his crippled Buick that prevailed, stumbling over the finish line with only three of four cylinders still blasting their power to the wheels. Second was Knox driver William "Billy" Bourque who would almost exactly two months later earn the unfortunate distinction of becoming the first driver ever to lose his life at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. George Robertson, champion of the 1908 Vanderbilt Cup, and his Locomobile had pounced on Chevrolet's mechancial misfortunate and took the lead but a faulty magneto on lap 13 thwarted his effort to add this award to his growing list of trophies. After repairs he soldiered on to a third-place finish. His teammate Jim Florida was at the opposite end of a short 12-car field, failing to complete the first lap.
The Indianapolis News, an evening paper, published an article (attachment Cobe1News061909) covering the first 12 laps of the race while the contest was still underway. At that point George Robertson was leading in his Locomobile and the paper projected him a likely winner. Unfortunately for Robertson their prediction was hasty as on the very next lap he encountered magneto trouble which introduced a lengthy delay - plenty long enough for Chevrolet to again take command. The race had been both competitive and taxing. Chevrolet's Buick teammate Bob Burman had led the first two laps. The Knox cars of Al Denison and Billy Bourque were also quite fast and Denison pushed into the lead on lap three.
The article provides excellent lap summaries punctuated by tables that show driver, make of car and elapsed time. This is very easy to read and helps anyone quickly sort through the progress of the race. Denison and Chevrolet, separated by seconds in an era where a margin of minutes was regarded as close, were locked in an intensely competitive battle. Burman was in the mix too until lap six when his gas tank reportedly caught fire. Trailing Denison, Chevrolet reportedly gained an edge on lap six through ultra-fast pit service when both he and his Knox rival stopped for service.
In a report that differs from the description of the rival Star newspaper the Buick team used a giant funnel to turn oil cans upside down and drop them into the device for the most efficient flow into the car's tank. It may have been the funnel and not a big can (as described in the Star) that Chevrolet tossed aside upon leaving the pits. The impact of all of this drama was mitigated just minutes later when Denison's Knox threw a connecting rod on lap seven and was forced out of the race.
Chevrolet, reportedly down to three cylinders, fell back on lap 10 allowing Robertson to take first place. This the man the papers described as "the big blonde easterner" held until his mechanical woes on lap 13. As an aside this article reports that shortly before the 8 AM start of the race Joe Matson was presented with a big sterling silver Indiana Trophy for his victory the previous day.
Car-by-car the June 20, 1909 Indianapolis Star article (attachment ChevyCobe062009) provides wonderful color with a description of the start of the race which had American Automobile Association (AAA) officiating legend Fred Wagner signal each of the racers to start individually in one minute intervals. Ahead of them lay a savage course of craggy, rutted terrain worse for the wear from the previous day's Indiana Trophy. It took its toll on the machines as it consumed half the field by mid-way.
Buick driver Lewis Strang pitted at the end of the first of seventeen 23.6-mile laps and changed a pinion gear. Frustrated with the lost time he stormed out of his repair pit with his riding mechanic still prostrate over the car's hood fastening the cowling's leather straps. Later in the race Buick teammate Chevrolet replenished his oil tank with the a five gallon can. Turning it upside down he fired up his car and departed as the contents still flowed from the nozzle into the car's tank. The oil can empty, he tossed it trackside a few hundred feet down the road.
Chevrolet's teammates Bob Burman and Lewis Strang were both fast but plagued with mechanical problems. Burman was among the leaders until his gas tank reportedly exploded but he apparently escaped injury. In the end despite the attrition the man who started the race with the fastest car, Louis Chevrolet, ended the race in first place. As an aside the article notes that the 10,000 seat grandstand was two thirds empty. Pre-race predictions - or wishful thinking - anticipated a crowd of some 300,000 in attendance. The race apparently fell far short of attracting that number of spectators. How many people camped around the public roads course for free is hard to know.
Attachment CobeResults062009 contains an article from the June 20, 1909 Indianapolis Star that presents a factual summary of the race. The order in which cars crossed the line is provided with drivers names and car numbers. Due to the single car, one minute interval starts the order of the cars on the track did not necessarily reflect the actual order of the race. Also provided is a complete listing of the pit stops taken by each car and the reason a stop was necessitated.
The disappointing attendance at the Cobe Trophy and Indiana Trophy races immediately had its organizers from the Chicago Automobile Club thinking about an alternative venue for their event. An article published in the June 27 Indianapolis Star (attachment CobeAtIMS062709) demonstrates their intentions. The high cost of conditioning the almost impossible terrain and the weak grandstand sales made the event a financial loss. There had been much publicity about the construction of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and what a world class facility it would be that the Chicago leadership reached out to Speedway officials to discuss running the 1910 Cobe Trophy at the permanent facility. This would come to fruition.
Post race reflection produced some interesting articles. The Indianapolis News ran an article on June 21, 1909 (attachment Cobe2News062109) declaring Chevrolet "the ideal auto race driver." Chevrolet's steely determination of soldiering on despite his Buick losing the performance of one of its four cylinders captured the attention of experienced members of the racing community. His feat is amazing by today's standards when you consider the wooden-wheeled, high center of gravity, oil leaking beast of a car he was driving for eight hours, one minute and 39 seconds over the thrashing, pounding  course more analogous to the Baja 500 than anything we are accustomed to today as a road course. This is a brief but useful reference article with two tables of data. One shows the elapsed time and laps completed of each Cobe Trophy competitor and the other shows Chevrolet's elapsed time for each lap of the race as well as his position at that point.
Attachment Cobe1News062109 is a fascinating report on the financial performance of the race weekend as a business offering. Bottom line, it was a failure with a loss - according to the headline - of some $25,000 or about $230,000 in 2010. The organizers were left guessing as to the reasons but the event simply did not draw enough interest. They estimated that some 200,000 people attended the events over the weekend with a reported 75,000 present on Friday and another 125,000 joining them on Saturday.
The grandstand seating was supposed to be the real money maker for the organizers but it barely reached half capacity for the main event with 4,000 seats filled on Friday for the Indiana Trophy and only 5,000 in place on Saturday at the Cobe Cup. Some guessed the stock cars were not powerful or exotic enough to capture the public's imagination but regardless they had bet on pulling more from the huge population center of Chicago - and that did not happen.
The Chicago-based railroads reported that they brought 20,000 passengers to the area on Friday and 35,000 on Saturday - primarially to the northern areas of the course in Crown Point and Cedar Lake. The article does not report on the Indiana-based rail service that focused on the southern region in Lowell. These were the trains the Indianapolis delegations used.
The article indicates that former Chicago Auto Club President John Farson (whose home in Chicago is a tourist attraction and has been associated with the "Steampunk" culture genre) and Ira Cobe would make up the difference. The real problem was not a lack of interest - as the attendance figures demonstrate - but a lack of demand for grandstand seating. Race attendees could too easily camp at the side of public roads and enjoy the show. The business model of staging auto races on public roads was flawed on many levels. The first auto race meet at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that was conducted just two months later was the dawn of a new era.
A barely related but interesting article was published in the June 21, 1909 Indianapolis News (attachment DeathNews062109) reporting on a trolley car accident packed with passengers. At the time of publication the report was that 11 people had been killed and another 40 injured. The headline, "Death in Wake of Auto Races," linked the accident to the auto races. This was because many of the passengers were people that were headed home after witnessing the event. Indeed, the fact that the car was packed to capacity probably had a lot to do with large attendance along the course. Other than that the report has little to do with the races but I include it for context. Another cost that moved the breakeven point further away was drivers were paid $1,000 to compete in the event, according to the article.
Attachment CobeNews062309 contains another follow-up article that is actually a digest of racing news but the lede is an item about a monetary bonus the Buick company paid out to its three drivers - Chevrolet, Burman and Strang after the team's Cobe Trophy win. They divided the money evenly across the three men.
In other news more hope was offered in Savannah that the American Grand Prize would be staged there for a second time in the autumn of 1909. In the end, though, they would not return until 1910. Finally the article offers an update on organizing the 1909 Glidden Cup.

ChevyCobe062009.pdf3.13 MB
CobeResult062009.pdf856.5 KB
Cobe1News061909.pdf3.61 MB
Cobe2News062109.pdf537.97 KB
Cobe1News062109.pdf1.31 MB
DeathNews062109.pdf2.54 MB
CobeNews062309.pdf841.74 KB