Drama & Madness, 1909


The drama and madness of the first weekend of racing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in August 1909 hit its zenith of tragedy in the final race of the final day. This was the 300-mile Wheeler-Schebler Trophy when three men died, two of them spectators. The richness of detail in the reporting of the day periscopes into a tumultuous world of danger, bravado, and brutally-earned education.
Read through the attached and immerse yourself in the scene. "Captain" George Bumbaugh, who holds an exalted role in seminal Indianapolis Motor Speedway history as Speedway Founder Carl Fisher's ballooning mentor, was in the middle of the most vicious accident of the weekend. He reported that the National Motor Vehicle Company racer of Charlie Merz passed by him so closely as it plowed through a cluster of spectators that he could feel the heat of the engine.
Confusion reigned supreme as people tumbled like bowling pins and one of the dead, James West, was first identified as Benjamin Logan. The Coffin-Fletcher Packing Compay employee had Logan's business card in his pocket - and no other identification. Logan's family received a devastating call to notify them of their loss. Imagine their shock when he walked through their home's front door like a ghost.
Merz' car blew a tire on the front stretch and careened off the running surface to annihilate inadequate fencing in an area where spectators were warned not to be. Of course, without policing, that was the seductive vantage point where they gathered. The view they got included them in a horror show.
Claude Kellum, who originally started the race with National superstar driver Johnny Aitken, had spotted Merz' first riding mechanic, Herb Lyne. Lyne collapsed of exhaustion during a frantic pit stop that had him running from one side of the track to the other carrying a battery to revitalize his racer. The decision to slide into the seat beside Merz was fateful as he was hurled from that spot as the car barrel rolled off the running surface.
The car landed upside down with Merz in it. It tumbled into a muddy area fed by a creek. The resulting ooze may have spared the 21-year-old driver as it cushioned his head when he opened his eyes and realized the car was wheels up. He shut off the still running engine and slithered through the slime to emerge into the sunlight and battlefield-like scene. Dazed, he still managed the presence of mind to ask people to get to his father, a police officer working at the Speedway, to let him know he was okay.
Several people lay about the area near the grandstand, most simply stunned and bruised from tripping over each other in their panic to save themselves. One, Henry Tapking, would find his next stop St. Vincent's hospital. Three others - spectators Homer Jolliff and West, as well as Kellum, had ascended from Earth leaving bodies headed to an examination by Coroner Blackwell at the city morgue. The body of Gottlieb Knittel, an elderly man discovered behind the Indianapolis Brewing Company, was already at the facility. His remains were moved to a back office out of view to mitigate further confusion.
A crowd consisting of family and friends of the deceased, along with a throng of the morbidly curious, swelled in the facility for the next few hours. Just two days before the bodies of driver Billy Bourque and his riding mechanic, Harry Holcomb, had been delivered there.
A population of adults all born in the 19th century collectively dropped their jaws in the face of the perplexing and sometimes destructive power symbolic of how their lifestyles were being disrupted. How could they process what was happening? How could they resist the urge to witness it?
The lack of experience in dealing with the consequences of the explosive new technologies was reflected in race officiating. Despite the fact that 235 miles of the planned 300 had been completed when stunned American Automobile Association (AAA) stopped the contest, they announced the event was null and void. No winner.
Driver Leigh Lynch and his Jackson Automobile Company team members were shocked. They held a solid lead and had fought through the terror of risking everything at breakneck speed on a rapidly deteriorating, rutted track. The decision that such bravery and commitment would go unrewarded led them to protest. The AAA responded by banning them from the sport for three months.
No major racing event had ever before dealt with a contest halted late in the competition. The ugliness of the situation was hard to process for officials. Understand, too, that much of the AAA held the sensibilities of Ivy League elitists, and, at times, referred to people of Speedway Founder Carl Fisher's ilk as, "Westerners."
That derisive label carried a negative connotation to it in the age. It implied a lack of sophistication, refinement, and culture. This was the kind of event you could expect from crude people.
The carnage would push the very existence of the great track into question. Some called it, "a murder factory," and Hoosier legislators began discussions of outlawing the sport like bull fighting. Fisher and his team quickly announced improvement plans, but their initial suggestions proved inadequate.
Finally, the massive brick paving project, along with a top-to-bottom investment in retaining walls, sandtraps, and new procedures such as credentials to limit foot traffic into high-risk areas, were introduced. The chaos launched a trajectory to establish vast improvements in facility standards, officiating, and track management with a momentum that continues today.
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