Danger Draws Crowds to IMS

This article, published in the August 21, 1909 Indianapolis Star, comments on the role the danger played in drawing sizable crowds to the first automobile races held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. This danger was best exemplified by the fatal accident that took the lives of driver William Bourque and his riding mechanic Harry Holcomb the first day, August 19.
Since the Star was (and still is) a morning paper this article reports on the events of the previous day. The article estimates that 22,000 people were in attendance which is impressive given that the year and the fact the day, August 20, was a Friday. The estimated crowd for the first day, Thursday, August 19, was 16,000.
The writer of this article offers the opinion that the fatal accidents of the first day increased the excitement of spectators. This supports a view offered by writer George Stout in an article published the previous day. Apparently the author of this article also spent time in the grandstands and reports that anxious spectators frequently shouted false reports of accidents in their excitement. A further observation was that women were in greater evidence on this day compared to the first.
The article notes that fans were appreciating the risk and role of the riding mechanics and this excerpt provides wonderful flavor:
"The people marveled at the gameness of the men. The drivers sat bracing themselves with the aid of the steering gear, but the mechanicians, unbraced and compelled to take risks that might at any time result in their being hurled from the machines, slid about the sputtering, throbbing on-rushing machines with a dexterity common only to experts."
As for the crowds, the article provides some numbers that provide some evidence - in an obtuse way - of the claim to the 22,000 total. The report says that by 2:30 all seats in the grandstand and its associated boxes (according to another article these 20 boxes accommodated 50 persons each) were full. However, in comparing the two articles there is a discrepancy. The other article reports that the main grandstand had a capacity of 7,200 seats and with the boxes this would only total 8,200. I have found that cross referencing articles even in the same publication I encounter contradictions or at least "inexact corroboration."
In addition to the seats there was an area in front of the stands up to the fence lining the course where people were allowed to stand. The Star reports that this was sufficient for 1,000 people. It would prove disastrous the following day when a car flipped into spectator area to kill two men. Private boxes of the automobile companies in the southwest turn held 400 people and bleachers in the vicity accommodated another 4,500.
Additional insight is gained from statistics concerning people arriving by different modes of transportation. There were 2,000 automobiles on the grounds that carried some 3,460 fans. Others arrived by rail. Some 9,000 people traveled to the track on the Big Four railroad line while another 8,000 used the Ben Hur interurban electric line.
Early arrivals were said to be "entertained" by watching workmen distribute oil on the track. This was common practice in those days to tamp down blinding dust on dirt tracks and courses. The workmen used large tanks pulled by four horses each. Also in the early hours track management announced to fans (using barkers with megaphones) that they should pay no more than a nickel for refreshment drinks. Apparently there were some unscrupulous concession stand workers.
At noon the first cars appeared on the track with the drivers gunning their big engines to emit cannon-like blasts. Specifically these were the front wheel drive Christie racer of designer John Walter Christie and Barney Oldfield's Benz. In the grandstand shouts of "Sit down!" were prevalent as frustrated fans urged others blocking their view to give way. Eventually it became apparent such pleas would go unheeded and were abondoned by those shouting. One can imagine the obstacles became more daunting when the Overland Automobile Company distributed free Japanese parasols to help fans in uncovered stands ward off the intense rays of the sun.
The crowd was reportedly well behaved and no arrests provides some evidence of that. The exception was a report from Patrolman A.J. Bruce that he had confronted what the article described as "a negro and a white man," for annoying women in the grandstands. This is a snapshot of the level racism so prevalent in those days.
There was more drama at the pedestrian bridge when hoards of people refused to move wishing to observe the race from the dramatic vista the edifice provided. Two patrolmen, H.E. Gill and T.T. Bledsoe spent much of their time moving people along for fear of the structure collapsing under too much weight.
As for the track hospital it was a quiet day with only sunburns, blisters and cuts to treat. The doctors on staff were H.R. Allen, Fred Mayer, C.R. Strickland, L.H. Maxwell, H.S. Parker and J.M. Smith. Note that Dr. Mayer's name is spelled differently than it was in the report on the first day and his role in treating Bourque's injuries.
One young man, Carl Kopanka of Newcastle, fainted in the heat. He was in the group standing in front of the large grandstand and the heat overwhelmed him. His companions, Taylor Morris, Clarence Jackson and Dick Goodwin carried him into the shada and "applied restoratives." Kopanka recovered but hung out in the sahde the rest of the day.

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