Three Lives Pay the Price

This article about the final day of racing during the first auto meet at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was originally published in the August 22, 1909 Indianapolis Star. These races were conducted on Saturday, August 21, 1909.
Unlike another article published the same day in the Star that focused almost exclusively on the competition this sensational point of view highlights the death and destruction for which the race is remembered. While this is written in sensational style there can be no denying the race was a tragic affair. Perhaps what is most surprising is that any public protest was short-lived. The value of the Speedway was readily apparent to the civic leaders.
While the competition was intense and much of the driving was flat out amazing, such as Johnny Aitken dominating the first 100 miles of the planned 300 mile Wheeler-Schebler Trophy race in his National Motor Vehicle Company racer, no aspect of the contest could rival the massive destruction that cost the lives of three men. Coincidentally the driver of the car involved was Aitken's teammate Charlie Merz, a young driver that had already accumulated impressive credentials as a competitor - including the world 24 hour distance record at just 17 in 1905.
At 175 miles when Merz was approaching the first turn a tire exploded and sent his racer careening though the inadequate fencing at the edge of the track where spectators had clustered. This fencing had nothing to do with retaining errant cars on the racing surface and everything to do with simply restricting spectator access. The National no. 10 snapped five fence posts, tore off five feet of stone culvert railing and barrel rolled through the crowd. The wire that had stretched between the posts collected around the car's nose, described by the article as looking like "a spider's web." There is no record of how many people were injured by the car or the inevitable trampling that happened as the crowd scrambled for their lives. Note the fencing reportedly had danger signs warning people to stand clear and police had repeatedly pushed crowds back.
The car finished its deadly series of pirouettes upside down with Merz still conscious but incredulous over not only his survival but apparent lack of injuries. Beside him was an empty seat as his riding mechanic Claude Kellum was ominously unaccounted for. Perched at the edge of the Speedway's trademark southend creek, Merz' head was pressed in soft mud. The engine still running, Merz quickly shut it down and slithered through the moist earth out from his cockpit to freedom. Dazed, he stood in the middle of the inevitable resulting mayhem trying to assess the disaster.
The article reports that the National hurtled just above the ground some 100 feet with spectator James West pinned to its nose much of the way. The machine had hit the poor man square on. Another spectator, Homer Joliff, was described as not only dead but nearly buried into the ground as the weight of the massive racer bounded over his body along its horrid path. One of the primary witnesses to the destruction was Carl Fisher's balloon-flying mentor George Bumbaugh who had selected the spot as a prime vantage point. Much of the article's description was provided by interviewing the balloon master builder and pilot.
Merz collected his wits and rushed to Kellum's side to find his body savaged by the violence of the wreck. Red Cross workers were on the scene quickly and surrounded Kellum who was still breathing but not for long. Merz was reportedly led away weeping. Later he was quoted, providing his point of view.
"I remember my car hitting the fence, there was a blurred vision of men falling beneath us as we swept through the air. Then the rest came in an instant, the car turned over and I found myself underneath it on the other side of the creek. I don't remember when my mechanician left his seat. I don't remember any details. It's all one blot of swift crashing. I knew enough to stop my motor. Had I not stopped it there might have been an explosion that would have cost many more lives and my own. At that time I did not know whether I was hurt or not. I expected to find my legs broken at least, but when I began to crawl out through the mud and water I realized the greatest joy of my life - I was saved. Of course I did not know then who were hurt nor where my mechanician was. The first thing that entered my mind was to let my mother and father know I was alive."
The crazy panicked scene did not become orderly for an hour. People searched frantically to find friends and family all the while fearing the worst. Speculation was rampant and no one among the chaos could possibly know how many were killed or maimed. For Kellum it was an unfortunate twist of fate that he was even in Merz' car. He had started the race as teammate Johnny Aitken's riding mechanic but was sidelined when that National suffered mechanical failure.
Herbert Lyne started with Merz as his riding mechanic. During the race their National failed on the backstretch, apparently in need of a battery. Lyne ran the distance across the track in the hot sun and apparently was not conditioned for such exertion as he nearly collapsed. Eager to return to the fray Kellum jumped at the chance to sprinted back to Merz with a replacement battery or whatever was required. It was a fateful move.
Meanwhile the race continued with the speeding cars described by the article as "looking like angry animals, with their mouths wide open, rushing headlong after some human to devour." Part of the terrifying scene was the obvious wear of the running surface which was riddled with deeping ruts. Some 30 minutes after the devestating Merz incident yet another serious accident startled the stunned crowd, many still reeling from astonishing destruction visited upon them. This accident involved the Marmon no. 17 of driver Bruce Keene and riding mechanic James Schiller. While both men survived Schiller was thrown from the car to incur a scalp wound and what might have been a concussion.
While the article indicates that Keene's accident occurred near the spot of the Merz crash this seems implausible. While Merz was near turn one Keene reportedly struck one of the posts supporting the suspension bridge. Unless I am completely wrong about where the suspension bridge was located (I believe it was north of the finish line and pits) it is more likely Keene wrecked at the opposite end of the front stretch. I suspect where the writer got confused is that it was probably the spot where Bourque and Holcomb had their fatal accident on Thursday.
Regardless the incident triggered a consultation between Referee Charles Root and Starter Fred Wagner to make the call to end the race at the conclusion of the 94th lap or 235 miles of the scheduled 300 miles. The leader was Leigh Lynch in a Jackson. The drivers had been hard at it for four hours, 13 minutes, 51.4 seconds and the time was 5:24 p.m.
Early in the race driver Herb Lytle and his riding mechanic Joe Bitts provided a scare when the former lost control of his Apperson Jackrabbitt racer in the first turn. They appeared to be headed up the embankment to fencing and then spun downward to the infield to come to an abrupt stop by hitting a dirt embankment. Bitts was thrown from the vehicle, tumbling several feet before springing to his feet to the cheers of the fans in the grandstand. The men used shovels to dig out of the dirt, repaired the car and re-entered the competition some 50 laps down.
Throughout the race the drivers endured an epidemic of eye injuries due to dirt and tar dust. A Stoddard-Dayton driver reported as Joe Miller (but I am certain this is an error and it was Bert Miller), described as "big, husky" reportedly pulled his car to a stop in the pits crying like a baby. This is probably an exaggeration as his eyes were undoubtedly tearing due to irritation. Doctors washed his eyes and Miller was back in action. Note the following excerpt:
"Several of the pilots suffered from the heat strain and eye trouble. Their goggles were broken, fell or in other ways the dirt and dust permeated their systems and blinded their sight. The driver of the Jackson No. 52 that was leading when the 300 mile race was stopped, was forced to stay his swift gait once to have physcians wash his eyes. His name is House and he hails from Jackson, Michigan, where his car is manufacturered."
The excerpt is interesting because it documents the challenge of the dust which had to compound the issue of the deterriorating track but also because the driver's name, reported as "House" is wrong. The driver was Leigh Lynch. The name House might have gotten into the mix if that was his riding mechanic's name - but I am not certain of that, it is only a logical guess.
Other interesting points made in the article is that both spectators Jolliff and West were killed immediately. West was originally misidentified as Benjamin Logan of 524 Dover Street in Indianapolis. This is because the two had apparently met earlier in the day and West had taken Logan's business card. In an era before driver's licenses West had no other identification material on him.
The attachment includes a sidebar to the main article that focuses on the officials' decision to curtail the race. Understandably they cited the track conditions but more controversial was the judgment that because the race was called short of its scheduled distance that no prizes in the form of trophies or cash would be awarded. Understandably this would generate a protest from the Jackson Automobile Company which by all reasonable thinking - and by common practice today - was the rightful winner of the contest.
As for the tragic fatal accident, the immediate reaction of National executives Art Newby and George Dickson was to withdraw from racing. This was an emotional response in the moment and but they reconsidered and were destined to win the 1912 Indianapolis 500.

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