Sunday, November 29, 2009

"Wild" Bob Burman (1884-1916) -- once the fastest driver alive

Informal three-quarter length portrait of automobile driver Bob Burman sitting in the driver's seat of a Buick automobile parked in front of a building in Crown Point, Indiana, during the Cobe Cup Race, holding on to the steering wheel. Automobiles are parked in front of the building in the background, and men are standing in front of the building. One man is sitting in an automobile.

This photonegative taken by a Chicago Daily News photographer may have been published in the newspaper.

Cite as: SDN-055225, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

Automobile driver R Burman standing next to an automobile parked alongside a pit on the side of a road during an automobile race]. 1913

Informal portrait of automobile driver R.
Burman standing next to an automobile parked alongside a pit on the side of a road during an automobile race. Crowds are standing in the background, and automobiles are parked in the background. A tiered structure is visible across the road in the background. Banner advertisements are visible on the structure. This image was probably taken in Elgin, Illinois.

This photonegative taken by a Chicago Daily News photographer may have been published in the newspaper.

Cite as: SDN-058718, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

[Auto driver, R. Burman sitting behind wheel of race car with number eight painted on side].

Hi folks, for those who read the blog from time to time, you know I am getting interested in the history of racing, including the years prior to WWII. There still remains much to be done in the period and with this topic, particularly related to the social history of racing. Who were the fans? The owners? The drivers? Why is speed so addictive? I have already expressed an interest in Frank Lockhart, and here is another figure worth more than a side glance- "Wild" Bob Burman. Long forgotten by most, Burman was one of the greats during the period before WWI, especially on dirt tracks. He died at the wheel of his Peugeot race car in California in 1916, and is buried in Imlay Cemetary, just north of downtown Imlay City, Michigan. His headstone reads: "A Buick race driver without peer, on the track he knew no fear."

According to the husband of a granddaughter, "His motto was that he won, finished the race or broke down; there was no in-between for him."

Young Burman left Imlay City, Michigan in 1903 and moved to Flint to paint wheels at the Durant-Dort Carriage Company on Water Street. While in Flint, he became known as a handyman and a year later,in 1904, while still in his teens, he moved to Jackson, Michigan. There he worked at Billy Durant's Jackson Automobile Company. By the time he won his first race in Detroit, Burman knew cars mechanically and in terms of handling. He took several years to sharpen his driving skills before he won a 50-mile race in Detroit in 1906, which followed with victories in Grand Rapids and St. Louis. The St. Louis race was a test of endurance, in which Burman was at the wheel for nearly 24 hours. (How can anyone drive that long?). He kept winning and, consequently Billy Durant's Buick Motor Company recognized his talents.

He formed Buick's race team, and he won the first race he entered after that -- a 187-miler on New York's Long Island -- in a Buick Bug. From then on, "Wild" Bob Burman -- increasingly known for his aggressive driving style, won races, and broke records. Burman beat Louis Chevrolet to take the checkered flag at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's inaugural race in the summer of 1909, and he returned the next year to beat Chevrolet again. During the spring and summer of 1911, Burman smashed the one-mile world speed record (at more than 141 mph), the Indianapolis Motor Speedway track record (35.25 seconds) and the world dirt track record (48.72 seconds). His one-mile mark would stand until 1919.

After a crash in the summer of 1912 put Burman in the hospital for a week, he returned to the track to break his own records. That fall, he was clocked at 129 mph in San Diego before his car, a Blitzen-Benz, burst into flames and rolled into the Pacific Ocean. Burman won 33 of the 43 races he entered in 1912,and finished second eight times. He narrowly escaped death numerous times during his career, including a frightening crash in San Antonio in 1909 in which he was thrown out of his car as it hurdled down the track.

Burman died in 1916 on an oval track in Corona, Calif., after his open-cockpit Peugeot skidded off the track and flipped over at more than 100 mph. He died alongside his mechanic, who rode with him, and at least three spectators.

The above photographs were taken from the American Memory Collection at the Library of Congress.

1905 Automobile Racing Images, Chicago, Harlem Park, now Forest Park

Automobile racing, Harlem Race Track, racing cars at the starting line]

Automobile racing, Harlem racetrack, racing cars leaving starting line]


Image of
racing cars leaving starting line at Harlem Race Track (formerly Harlem Jockey Club) located near Roosevelt Road and Hannah Avenue in Forest Park (formerly the Village of Harlem), Illinois.

[Automobile racing, spectators gathered along a wooden fence lining a drive at Harlem Race Track].


Image of spectators standing on the ground and sitting on a fence at the automobile races at Harlem Race Track (formerly Harlem Jockey Club) located near Roosevelt Road and Hannah Avenue in Forest Park (formerly the Village of Harlem), Illinois. To the far right of the image, a driver is standing at the rear of an automobile that two men appear to be fixing.

This photonegative taken by a Chicago Daily News photographer may have been published in the newspaper.

Cite as: SDN-004005, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

[Automobile racing, drivers and their teams lining up to begin a race at Harlem Race Track].

Image of
automobile drivers and their teams lining up to begin a race on the track at Harlem Race Track (formerly Harlem Jockey Club) located near Roosevelt Road and Hannah Avenue in Forest Park (formerly the Village of Harlem), Illinois. Spectators in the stands are visible in the background. (View from behind)

This photonegative taken by a Chicago Daily News photographer may have been published in the newspaper.

Cite as: SDN-004259, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum

[Automobile racing, two drivers racing their automobiles at Harlem Race Track].

Image of two automobiles and drivers
racing on the track at Harlem Race Track (formerly Harlem Jockey Club) located near Roosevelt Road and Hannah Avenue in Forest Park (formerly the Village of Harlem), Illinois. Spectators standing behind the fence on the inside of the track are visible in the foreground. Spectators along the fence, buildings and trees are visible in the background.

This photonegative taken by a Chicago Daily News photographer may have been published in the newspaper.

Cite as: SDN-004262, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

The Harlem Race Track (originally called the Harlem Jockey Club) was a race track located in Harlem Park (currently Forest Park near the 12th st. and Hannah. The track was opened in 1894 by George Hankins and John Condon and operated until 1904.

From 1899 to 1904 the Lake St. "L" line offered express excursion service to the track.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

1951 La Carerra II -- Intenational Border to Border Test of Speed; Ferarri vs. Hemi=Powered Chryslers and the Ruttman/Smith Mercury

3rd place finish 1951 Chrysler
Ruttman/Smith Mercury
212 Ferrari for export

La Carrera II, “Prueba Internacional de Velocidad de Frontera a Frontera”

“International Border to Border Test of Speed”

For the second year of this event, the course was altered. To begin with the leg from Tuxtla Gutierrez to El Ocotal was deleted, and the direction was reversed, so the end of the race now was at the Mexican-American border near El; Paso. No longer an event that started on Cinco de Mayo or May the 5th, it was now staged at the end of the season, on November 19. Consequently, more American and European competitors were available. Further, the rules were changed so that European sports cars could compete along side Aemerican stock cars. Modifications were allowed; however, the original engine type and camshaft profile had to be maintained. This time the fair weather racers were absent, and only 91starters left the line. Only six older cars, namely those made before 1950 were involved in this race, compared to some 25 pre-1949 cars that were a part of the 1950 event.

La Carerra II marked the appearance of Ferrari as a serious challenger to the Americans. Two new 212 models were driven by race veterans Taruffi and Ascari. Oldsmobile was back, but the big news was the appearance of hemi-powered Chryslers. But then there were also independent entries, including one entered by the team of Clay Smith and Troy Ruttman. Smith, a legendary engine builder, joined with driver Ruttman, and the pair persuaded a dealer to provide them with a 1948 Mercury. This car, modified on as short budget of $2500, would make its mark in Mexico.

The Ferraris ran in to tire trouble early on in this race, as its soft compounds could not stand up to the punishment of the Mexican roads. This cost Taruffi and Ascari time, as the race devolved to a battle between the Ferraris and the Chryslers. In the end the more nimble Ferraris won out, with the Ruttman/Smith Mercury close behind. Finishing fourth, the low budget Ruttman/Smith team were in the limelight, and celebrated for their “Yankee ingenuity” as opposed to the expensive European entries. Other interesting developments during this race included the performance of the “Twin H-Power” Hudsons, the Fords and Mercurys, and flat–eight Packard. Speeds increased, as did the fatalities, as some three drivers died during the course of the race.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Auto Racing at Denver's Overland Park

Race car wreck / photo by Harry M. Rhoads.

Rhoads, Harry Mellon, 1880 or 81-1975.

[between 1910 and 1920?]

View of a race car that has crashed and flipped over at Overland Park in Denver, Colorado. A crowd is gathered behind the wire fence.

Auto race / photo by Harry M. Rhoads.

Rhoads, Harry Mellon, 1880 or 81-1975.

[between 1920 and 1930?]

Overlook view of race cars on a dirt track, probably Overland Park in Denver, Colorado. Spectators watch from the sidelines.

Crowds fill the grandstand to watch dirt track automobile racing at Overland Park in Denver, Colorado.le.

View of automobile racing at Overland Park, in Denver, Colorado; people crowd bleachers by a water tower, and men watch race cars at the finish line.

Hi folks -- now a thriving neighborhood of middle class homes in an excellent location in Denver, Overland Park was once the site of a dirt race track. Here are a a few photographs that are a part of the Library of Congress' American Memory Digital Photograph Collection. The dates are between 1916 and 1930, but my best guess is that these photographs were taken closer to 1916.

1950 Mexican Road Race: La Carerra Panamerica, I

The Mexican Road Race 1950-1954

The Evolution of La Carrera


The Mexican Road Race, held from 1950 to 1954, began as a celebration and promotion of the newly finished Pan American Highway. Sponsored by both the Mexican government and a variety of local interests, competitors from the U.S., Mexico, and South America competed in a timed race from north to south. The initial event consisted mainly of individuals not affiliated with any vehicle manufacturer, and financial support was limited. Yet with each succeeding season, officials modified the race to encourage higher speeds and faster times. These alterations led to the coming of team sponsored and prepared vehicles, professionals and experienced amateur drivers, and a variety of support systems. Also, a greater European presence emerged over time, concluding with the domination of the race by high-priced sports cars. Despite the investments made, safety issues related to both the popularity and speed of the event, led to its demise only after five years.

La Carrera Panamericana was a series of races that tested the limits of cars and drivers. Initially viewed as only a race to promote the newly completed Pan-American Highway, by the end of the 1954, it had become a legendary event, grueling and dangerous. It evolved into a race with increasing amounts of prize money, and for manufacturers a chance for greater publicity and higher sales. Yet it was its very success that led to its demise, as increasing speeds led to more deaths, and the cancellation of the event by the Mexican government.

La Carrera I, “Carrera Panamericana de Mexico de Frontera a Frontera”

The Pan American Highway was hardly completed when racing interests conceived of a new raod racing event. El Asociacion Mexicana Automovilistica, and El Asociacion Nacional Automovilistica, joined with the Mexican Highway Association and the magazine Panorama to convince the Mexican government to promote a race from border to border. Initial planning began in March of 1949; conceived as a rally starting at Ciudad Juarez and ending at El Ocotal, a Race Committee headed by Mexican Pontiac dealer Antonio Cornejo guided these early plans. Estimates of a million peso ($130,000) capitalization resulted in a fund rasing campain that looked to the centeral government, states I nwhich the race was o pass theough, as well as money form highway contractors and manufacturers of auto parts and accessories.

But the committee got ahead of itself, for the road remained to be completed. The Pan American Highway was originally conceived as a thoroughfare from which American troops could be moved quickly to the Panama Canal Zone. And despite some hasty paving, there was at least one section near El Ocotal that consisted of poor graded loose stones.

Safety was a consideration, and each state was given the responsibility to protect derivers, onlookers, and animals. To this end cavalry, motorcycle patrols, and scout planes equipped with radios reported on potential hazards.

California Lincoln dealer Bob Estes and driver Johnny Mantz toured the race course and reported to the American Automobile Association that the event was feasible. Consequently the AAA sent a mailing to eligible drivers, and some 132 entries followed, including those of Mantz, famous Italian drivers Pierro Taruffi, Flice Bonetto and Frenchman Jean Trevoux. Prizes in dollars were: for a first in each of the nine segments of the rally, $232; second, $116; third, $58. The overall winner received $17,442, with the runner up $11,630, and third $5,815.

The cars entered were “stock cars” as defined by the AAA – vehicles of which fifty had been produced, and at least another five hundred were on order…available to all authorized dealers….” Therefore, very few English, Italian, German, or French cars were entered. These cars were to be prepared under strict rules: engines could only be overbored .030”, or .060” for models over two years old. Stiffer shocks and added fuel capacity were allowed. Rear sets, hub caps and fender skirts, could be removed, but air cleaners and the stock exhaust system had to remain on the cars. Fuel and oil was supplied by the race organizers.

Despite the number of experienced drivers entered, there were also a number of drivers who had little if any experience on an open road course. A Few were simply tourists, and others were native Mexicans with money who were looking for excitement. Notable independents included Mrs. Lammons from Jacksonville, Texas, who appropriately drove a Buick advertising “Hi-A Brassieres,” and Ismael Alvarez of Mexico City, who entered a dilapidated 1937 Hudson. Alvarez lasted until the third segment when a transmission failure ended his abortive attempt to gain fame. Other “outliers” included an engaged couple in their sixties and another couple who were retired.

Entries left the starting line at one minute intervals, and challenges were soon encountered. Leg one was smooth and straight, but the high temperatures of the afternoon caused many cars to overheat. The second leg was nearly twice as long as the first, and featured more turns and was thus slower. During the third leg rising altitudes were encountered and sharp turns. Heavy rain and hail had to be dealt with on the seventh leg. And finally the last leg, number 9, featured a road that had fist sized rocks that caused a number of cars to lose all four tires.

Herschel McGriff and Ray Elliot won the race in a 1950 Oldsmobile. Oldsmobile and Cadillac were the most successful marques in this inaugural event, with a total of seven cars in the top ten. Overall there were 21 Cadillacs entered, along with sixteen Buicks and thirteen Oldsmobiles. Only five foreign brands were entered.