First Day of IMS Auto Racing

Two attachments to this entry are virtual duplicates of the same articles that appeared in the August 20, 1909, Indianapolis Star. The articles cover the first day of auto racing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. A third attachment, IMSNews081909, contains an article from the Indianapolis News published on August 19. This newspaper was the evening daily in the city and therefore had a tighter deadline for distributing news that occurred the same day as the publication.
Attachment Indianapolis_Speedway_First_Race_10 is 17 pages I originally captured from microfilm by printing it to paper and then scanning to create a PDF. The other attachment, RaceReport092009, was acquired through a new digital capture system that allowed me to instantly digitize the microfilm record as a PDF. The older document could be useful as I made hand written notes in the margins, so I keep it here.
There are two primary articles in both attachments, as well as several sidebars that expand on specific aspects of the day's event. The first primary article summarized the five races of the day and the other chief article focuses on the specifics of the Speedway's first fatal accident that took the lives of driver William Bourque and riding mechanic Harry Holcomb. This was in the 250-mile Prest-O-Lite Trophy won by Bob Burman. The Prest-O-Lite Trophy was the feature event of the day.
As for the first primary article, it is important to note that while there were five races there was also a mile speed record time trial. Curiously the article mentions very little about the time trial except to say that Barney Oldfield drove a "big Benz" to a record time of 43.1 seconds to eclipse a long-lived record of 48.2 seconds set by Webb Jay in the Whistling Billy steam powered White Motor Company race car back in 1905.
This is called a "track record" in that the speed was attained on a track, not a stretch of beach - the most famous of such venues being Ormond-Daytona. Jay's feat was accomplished on a mile dirt horse track with a turn on either end of relatively short stretches. The "big Benz," by the way, is not to be confused with the Blitzen Benz Oldfield would not acquire for several months later.
The article starts with a helpful chart that lists the five races along with the top three drivers, their car make, time as well as the race distance and classification. Louis Schwitzer and Stoddard-Dayton made history by becoming the first-ever winners of an auto race at the track. This race, like three of the remaining four, was a sprint. It was five miles as was event 3 while events 2 and 4 were 10 miles. The Prest-O-Lite Trophy was the only race of significant distance by today's standards at 250 miles.
Schwiter's win was in a race for small engine cars of 161 to 230 cubic inches. He led both laps. It is interesting to note that only third place finisher and Buick driver George DeWitt carried a riding mechanic in this race. Only five cars took part.
The second race was a 10 miler for 231 to 300 cubic inch cars and was dominated by the Buick "super team" of Louis Chevrolet, Lewis Strang and Bob Burman who finished 1-2-3 in that order. The other big headline of the event was that Chevrolet established a "track racing" record for 10 miles at eight minutes, 56.4 seconds. This bested another age-old record, one by Barney Oldfield in the infamous Green Dragon way back in 1904.
The article reports that the third race, a second five-mile contest, was the most competitive of the day. Knox man William Bourque, the same ill-fated driver whose life would come to a tragic close later in the day, battled mightily with Burman for the win. The race was for 301 to450 cubic inch cars and had nine entries.
The fourth race was "free-for-all" handicap was won by soon-to-be Indianapolis Motor Speedway legend Ray Harroun. "Free-for-all" meant it was open to all comers regardless of engine size. Handicap meant that the officials attempt to create equivalency among the cars by allowing some drivers to have varying head starts. The largest was one minute, 45 seconds for a Jackson, two Marmons and a Marion. The confusing aspect of the explanation provided is that there is no mention of the cars starting from "scratch," or with no head start. I have seen from other sources that six cars were not given a head start and among these were the much-feared Buick team.
The final race - The Prest-O-Lite Trophy, was the tragic affair much overshadowed by the fatal accident. Buick ace Burman ended up the winner with "Jap" Clemens second in the Stoddard-Dayton. Charlie Merz was third for National Motor Vehicle Company. Details on this race in this article are lacking but that may have been an editorial decision as the other substantive article dwelled on the accident and therefore the big race.
The other primary article is historically interesting in a journalistic sense in that this was a time much influenced by the late nineteenth-century yellow journalism era with sensational headlines and gruesome descriptions. This was in abundant evidence here with a bold headline, "Two Men Killed in Crash on Speedway," as well as graphic details of mechanic Holcomb's brains smashed against a fence post.
The accident was on the 58th lap in the vicinity of the pedestrian bridge about 250 yards from the judges' stand on the front stretch. What I can glean from the report is that Bourque got high coming off the fourth turn and lost control after one of his wheels slipped into a rut that had been worn into the track. A detail I picked up on that is pretty amazing is that there was a two-foot deep ditch lining the outside of the track. This matched a similar ditch at the same point on the track but on the inside that was documented in coverage of Jake DeRosier's motorcycle accident the previous Saturday.
Policeman John Weaver was near the scene of the wreck and noted that Bourque looked over his shoulder for an instant and then seemed to turn into the ditch. Commenting later Chevrolet and Burman reported that they had noted the ruts high on the track and chose to steer low to hug the inside. When they had driven high on the corner earlier in the race their cars had skidded.
I enjoy the colorful writing style and learning about the incredible practices of race management at the time. Track workers and doctors cut holes in the wire fence lining the track to squeeze stretchers through and then ran across the track to retrieve the bodies to get them to the infield hospital. The return trip across the track entailed dodging the flying race cars while carrying the stricken men on the stretchers. Sergeant Metcalf of the mounted police and his gray horse led a squad of policemen to keep a crowd of curious fans from crowding onto the track during the race.
Read what I think is brilliant writing:
"A hole was cut in the wire fence big enough to let a stretcher through, and while the track was alive with terrific racing machines the physicians carried the dead and dying across the track, dodging the huge steel creations that whizzed by, enveloping all in a cloud of smoke."
The attending physicians were Drs. L.H. Maxwell, A.F. Weyerbacher and Fred Meyer. The hospital nurses were Mrs. Ola M. Slaughter and Miss J.E. Hunt.
The sidebars in these attachments cover these aspects of the day's events:

  • That evening a banquet was presented for Jap Clemens by Stoddard-Dayton.
  • An eye injury to Johnny Aitken.
  • A fire that erupted in Lewis Strang's car during the 250-mile race.
  • Chevrolet's eye injury.
  • An item about Jackson driver Fred Ellis collapsing during a pit stop in the 250-mile race.
  • Al Denison, Bourque's teammate, was distraught over his death.
  • A small item concerning confusion over timing and scoring when one official shut down the Warner electrical timing device before the 250-mile race was over.
  • A report that asserts the Bourque-Holcomb accident was the first double fatality in auto racing where both driver and riding mechanic was killed.

Attachment IMSNews081909 the Indianapolis News article referenced above. Apparently, this article was composed prior to the finish of the 250-mile Prest-O-Lite because there is no mention made of the finish or the fatal accident to Bourque and Holcomb.
The article opens with high praise for the condition of the track, touting speeds attained and a healthy attendance of 12,000 people. That said, the article acknowledges the track needed improvements to attain its potential. Barney Oldfield is credited with smashing Webb Jay's four-year-old "track" record of 48.2 seconds. Oldfield's time for a mile was 43.2. It is important to note that in these days when journalists and officials mentioned "track" records, they simply meant that someone covered a mile or a kilometer distance on an oval in a specific time. Jay's record took place on a mile horse track, whereas Oldfield only encountered one, broader, more highly banked, and sweeping turn at IMS. It's just the way did things. Oldfield's run took place just before the Prest-O-Lite Trophy contest.
Louis Chevrolet (Buick) is also called out for establishing a new 10-mile, flying start, track record in the second race of the day at 8:56.8. Oldfield was the previous record holder with a 9:12 time. In this context, the article reiterates the position that the Speedway would soon become the fastest track in the world, but improvements were needed. This was presented as a kind of natural maturation process. It is noted that "an army of workmen," had been conditioning the track - probably smashing stones with sledgehammers - up to just before the track opened for competition.
Reading between the lines, it seems spectators arrived throughout the day, beginning at 9 am. The first race, for small bore (161 to 230 cubic inches) lightweight cars, was launched at noon. At that time the story reports that about 5,000 people were on the grounds. In the race were two Stoddard-Daytons, two Buicks, and one Velie.
At this point in the article, a note is made of the color of officiating flags, and the differences with today should always be highlighted.

  • Red: clear course.
  • Yellow: stop immediately.
  • Green: you are starting your last lap.
  • Checkered: race is finished.
  • White: stop for consultation.
  • Blue: accident on the course.

The five cars of the first race started at the pedestrian bridge near the head of the front stretch coming out of turn four. From there they got up to speed for a flying start. Starter Fred Wagner waved his flag at the starting line. Stoddard-Dayton drivers Louis Schwitzer and Wright led from start to finish. The time was 5:13.4.
It was a Buick 1-2-3 in the second race, with Chevrolet, Strang, and Burman crossing the line in that order. Harry Stillman ran fourth, with a driver named Steity running fifth in a Marion. Ray Harroun brought his Marmon home fifth with Ray Tinkler and Adolph Monson failing to finish in their Marions.
The third race had nine entries for Class 1, 301-to-450 cubic inch engines. The field included Borque's Knox, the three Stoddard-Daytons of DeHymel, Miller, and Clemens, as well as three Buicks with Burman, Strang, and Chevrolet driving. Jackson also entered two cars with Lynch and Ellis at the wheel.
The newspaper assessed this as the most exciting race, ending with what proved to Borque's final victory. He and Burman reportedly diced to the checkered flag. Chevrolet was third with Bert Miller, Strang, Lynch, Ellis and DeHymel following.
The fourth race, a 10-mile handicap, presented the biggest field of the day with 22 starters. Among them was an Apperson, Lozier, National, three Marions, three Marmons, two Stoddard-Daytons, a Peerless, two Buicks, Two Velies, three Jacksons and a Stearns. The paper reports that Harry Stillman, in a Marmon won, but this is almost certainly false. From other sources, I believe the real winner was teammate Ray Harroun. The report says the other drivers finished in this order: Lynch (Jackson), Aitken (National), Chevrolet (Buick), Ellis (Jackson), Heina (Lozier), Miller (Stoddard-Dayton), Ford (Stearns) and Keene (Marmon). The time was 8:22.2.
Nine cars lined up for the feature of the day, the 100-mile Prest-O-Lite Trophy. Starter Fred Wagner waved them into action at 1:30 pm. Two cars, a Stoddard-Dayton and a Jackson had planned to start but had to be withdrawn. The starters were Burman (Buick), Borque (Knox), Kincaid (National), Merz (National), Miller (Stoddard-Dayton), Clemens (Stoddard-Dayton), Ellis (Jackson) and the other two Buicks of Strang and Chevrolet.
Strang had spectacular trouble on the first lap when a fire erupted around his gas tank. It was extinguished and he continued after a significant delay. Burman ended up the winner in a grueling contest that included the tragic accident that claimed the lives of Borque and his riding mechanic, Harry Holcomb.
The final two paragraphs of the article turn away from competition to set the scene. Workmen reportedly stayed busy conditioning the track surface - I assume obliterating rocks with big hammers and leveling the track surface - until just moments before the first event was launched into action. Just a few drivers practiced during a 30-minute session between 8 and 8:30.
The crews spent most of the morning supplying their pit stations directly opposite the main grandstand. Tires and other "changeable parts" were positioned for efficient access. Here's a great excerpt, "Speed in making repairs is as essential in automobile racing as swiftness on the track, and many races are in reality won in the repair pits."
We also attached attachment SummaryNews082009 that contains a table with the finishing order of all five events. It is legible and quite useful. Attachement IMSrecordNews082009 contains a very brief article - a paragraph, really - noting that Louis Chevrolet set a new American speed record for 100-miles by leading at the point in the 250-mile Prest-O-Lite Trophy race.

Indianapolis_Speedway_First_Race_10.pdf6.51 MB
RaceReport092009.pdf3.83 MB
IMSNews081909.pdf10 MB
SummaryNews082009.pdf1.28 MB
IMSrecordNews082009.pdf1.19 MB