When Indy Came To Oklahoma Cityby Galen Kurth
Today, we are pleased to publish an article by noted Oklahoma racing historian Galen Kurth about early Indianapolis-car races held in the Linwood neighborhood of Oklahoma City.
In 1915, the Indianapolis 500 mile race was four years old and already gathering international attention. Concrete and board speedways were cropping up around the United States and road races were growing in popularity. Oklahoma City auto dealer C.R. “Dick” Carhart thought the city could profit from the new craze and set to work staging an Indianapolis car race.
Exhibitions and races had drawn large crowds to the Colcord race course at Reno and Exchange as early as 1905, and a series of speed trials at the new Fairgrounds half mile track had been very successful in 1913 and 1914. Carhart's original plan called for an 8.4 mile course around the city, ending each lap with the cars re-entering the fairgrounds track through tunnels under the grandstand. Crowd control and the problem of collecting admissions on such a large course did away with that idea.
The Linwood Place addition had been platted by developer C.E. Bennett in 1909, but very little growth had happened. The Linwood School was built in 1911 and a few houses dotted what was the western edge of the city, but some publicity was sorely needed. How Bennett and Carhart came together isn't known, but on March 14, 1915, the course for what Carhart titled the Southwest Sweepstakes was announced.
The cars would run west on 16th Street to Linwood Boulevard, which is now Drexel, south on Linwood to 13th Street, east on 13th to Youngs Boulevard, then north to 16th on a specially built fifty foot wide dirt track. City Engineer Guy V. McClure was in charge of constructing the 2.409 mile track, including repaving Linwood, and having it ready by race day, April 20th
The plan for the race meet called for two separate events. A ninety-nine mile Oklahoma Auto Road Race for state-owned cars and drivers and a 150 mile motorcycle race would run April 20th. The track would be repaired as necessary during an off day on the 21st, while exhibitions of cars and airplanes took place at the Fairgrounds. The Indianapolis cars would then race in the 200 mile Sweepstakes on April 22nd, celebrating the twenty sixth anniversary of the Land Run.
Bob Burman left and Louis Disbrow, right
photo furnish by Galen Kurth
Carhart's Southwest Auto Racing Association, formed to promote the race, was successful in attracting many of biggest stars of the time. Louis Disbrow, a starter in every “500,” had set several world speed records at the Fairgrounds. “Wild Bob” Burman was also an established Indianapolis star, having won the first 250 mile races held at the big speedway in August of 1909, before the “500” was conceived. In 1912, he entered forty-three races and won thirty-three, with eight second place finishes. Earl Cooper was the defending National Champion.
The biggest draw of all was landed when Barney Oldfield signed to appear for the Maxwell team. Oldfield and Burman were natural rivals, since Oldfield had been suspended by the American Automobile Association in 1911 and Burman had taken over his car to set a new world's record for one mile of 141.73 miles per hour. Oldfield thought that record should be his. Eddie Rickenbacker was supposed to compete, but a series of mechanical failures had left him so disgusted with his Peugeot that he had sold it to Burman and was “between rides.”
The French-built Peugeot was the fastest speedway car of the time, but the engine was fragile. Burman took the former Rickenbacker car to Los Angeles machinist Harry Miller and together they redesigned and rebuilt the engine, increasing the power and strengthening the weak points. The resulting Burman-Miller four cylinder would develop into the legendary Offenhauser that dominated American racing for forty years, but even the first version that Burman brought to Oklahoma City in 1915 was ahead of what anyone else had. Rickenbacker was later quoted as saying his sale of the car was “the worst mistake of my racing life.”
Practice runs for the Southwest Sweepstakes went well on April 17th. Drivers praised the track, which allowed speeds nearing 120 miles per hour on the long paved stretches. The dirt turns at either end were a bit soft and tended to rut quickly, but McClure was certain they'd be firmed up by race time. Burman was established as the favorite when he set the fastest times, turning twelve laps at an average of seventy four miles per hour. Actual race speeds were predicted at around seventy for the 200 miles.
Final preparations for the races included putting up a canvas fence around the outside of the entire 2.4 mile course and parking railroad flatcars on the Linwood street car tracks to serve as box seats across from the start-finish line. The main seating area and pits were inside the track on 13th Street near where Miller now crosses. Several companies of state militia were brought in at the promoter's expense to police the track.
The first day of racing went well. A large crowd turned out for the Oklahoma Auto Road Race and the motorcycle event. Claude Foster of Tuttle won the auto race in his Overland, beating a field of ten other entrants. A number of minor accidents slowed the race, but no one was injured. The motorcycle race saw the factory Harley-Davidson team finish first, second, and fourth, with winner Red Parkhurst averaging 68.5 mph. One minor injury was reported when “Spec” Warner, on an Indian motorcycle, fell and was cut by a glass bottle of oil he had in his pocket.
As final preparations were underway for the 200 mile race, it began to rain-- torrential, unending rains. A slow-moving storm threatened railroad bridges and flooded parts of the city. The South Canadian river moved its course two miles. Trains could not enter or leave Oklahoma City, and roads were impassable. A scheduled exhibition “race” between Oldfield and an airplane at the Fairgrounds was cancelled when the plane couldn't make any headway against the winds.
The thousands of people who had come into Oklahoma City for the race were stuck as the event was postponed until Friday, and then postponed again until Sunday. Theatres, pool halls, restaurants, and hotels did record amounts of business. From race headquarters at the Lee-Huckins Hotel, Carhart claimed “it is the largest crowd in the history of the city---the largest ever gathered in any one part of the state. It shows how people will subscribe to a really big league attraction.”
On Sunday, 2.62 inches of rain fell, forcing yet another postponement. Many of the race teams were getting ready to leave, anxious to get to Indianapolis. Carhart claimed the delays were costing the promotion $1000 a day. Finally, on Thursday, April 29th, the track was dry enough to race. Mayor Overholser declared a half-holiday and closed City Hall at noon so employees could attend. Downtown stores also closed early.
The 200 miler started badly when Commerce, Oklahoma's A.F. Scott, in a Tulsa automobile, blew a tire and crashed into a tree. He and his mechanic were not injured, but the rumor quickly spread that someone had been killed. John Raimey, in a Case, led the first four laps, and then was passed by William Carlson in one of the Maxwells. Carlson in turn was overtaken by his teammate Barney Oldfield, but the crowd favorite soon had motor trouble and dropped back.
A real battle then began among Carlson, Earl Cooper, and Dave Lewis. Carlson held the lead, but Cooper was all over him as they came up to Sixteenth Street for the 28th lap. Carlson broke an oil line and spun, leaving Cooper nowhere to go. He chose to turn left and crashed into the dirt bank on the inside of the track. He and Carlson were both done for the day, leaving the Stutz of Dave Lewis in the lead.
Lewis held that lead until lap seventy-one. “Wild” Bob Burman, meanwhile, had been anything but wild. After a thirty-five second pit stop to replace a tire on lap nine, he carefully paced himself and his Peugeot. He later claimed “I didn't take after Lewis until the sixty-first lap. I wanted to see just what they had before extending myself. That Stutz had more speed than I thought, and I gave my car everything I could from then on.” Burman thrilled the crowd again and again with his charges through the rutted dirt turns, then used the power of his re-designed engine to pass Lewis with a charge up Sixteenth Street.
Burman ran out the remaining fourteen laps unchallenged, finishing nearly a minute and a half in front of the Stutz driver at an average speed of slightly over sixty-eight miles per hour. It looked easy to the crowd until Burman called for medical attention at the finish line. He had driven since lap seven with a splinter of glass in his right eye, caused when a rock thrown up by Eddie Hearn's Case shattered his goggles.
Behind Burman and Lewis, the finishing order was John Raimey, Eddie Hearn in the last paying position, Louis Disbrow, Albert Striegel, Barney Oldfield, George Clark, William Carlson, Earl Cooper, and A.F. Scott. The winner's share of the purse came to $2500. Attendance was estimated at around 14,000, far less than the 50,000 or more originally hoped for, but promoter Carhart was pleased. “In view of the fact the race was postponed three times, it was wonderful,” he stated. “Never in the history of racing has a road race been postponed three times, and then turned out anything like a success until this one.”
Success or not, it would never be repeated. Most of the racing cars depended on parts from Europe and the First World War had totally engulfed that continent by 1916. Even the Indianapolis “500” would only draw 23 entries that year. Perhaps as telling on the future of the race was what happened to the Oklahoma City winner, Bob Burman.
Burman had a successful campaign for the rest of 1915. He was sixth at Indianapolis and won a race at Burlington, Iowa, finishing eighth in the national standings. Then, on April 8th of 1916, he was running second on a city street and road course in Corona, California when a wheel failed. His Peugeot hit a telephone pole, and then flew into the crowd of spectators. Burman, his mechanic Erick Shrader, and a track policeman were killed. Fifteen spectators were injured. Road races like the Oklahoma City event were suddenly very unpopular. When the United States entered the World War, all racing was suspended, so any future plans would have been thrown out, anyway.
The Oklahoma City race was the final appearance for several drivers. In July, 1915, Disbrow, Raimey, Hearne and George Clark were suspended by the AAA for racing in unsanctioned exhibitions and they were done in the “big time.” A.F. Scott and the Tulsa car ran twice more, and then vanished from the sport. Perhaps the strangest entrant was identified simply as “F. Crum.” He entered a Buick, but it was rejected during pre-race inspections and he disappeared, never to be heard of again.
William Carlson died in a race at Tacoma, Washington on July 4th of 1915 and manager Ray Harroun dissolved the entire Maxwell team. Oldfield came back after the war to race in 1918, and then retired. Of all the drivers from that April, 1915 event, Earl Cooper would have the greatest career. Luckless in Oklahoma City, he went on to win the 1915 National Championship and a third title before retiring in 1927. He died in 1965 at the age of 79.
For a great many reasons, no attempt was made to stage another Southwest Sweepstakes in Oklahoma City. Dick Carhart moved to an Overland dealership in Los Angeles during the 1920's, then eventually to Philadelphia. He never promoted another race.
16th Street today- photo by Galen Kurth
Thanks for sharing your article, Galen!