By: David L. Morrill
Updated: August 17, 2014
I've had a fascination with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway since my childhood. I remember taking a Sunday family ride in 1964, and listening to descriptions of the horrendous crash in the 500 Mile Race on our car radio. I have never made it to the Speedway in person, but rarely miss the 500 Mile Classic on television. Indy race fans know the Speedway opened in 1909, but few know the first event held there was a motorcycle race. Time to share this little known piece of early motorcycling history.
Updated: August 17, 2014
|Indian Motorycle Club France Collection|
In early 1909, construction began on a racetrack in Indianapolis, Indiana. The 2 mile oval track was surfaced with gravel and tar.
|Chicago, IL. Tribune - January 24, 1909|
By mid 1909, arrangements had been completed between the Federation of American Motorcyclists (F.A.M.), and the management of the newly completed Indianapolis Motor Speedway for a National Championship Motorcycle race to be held on August 13 & 14, 1909. Wire service articles about the planned races began to appear in newspapers across the country. The motorcycle races would be followed one week later by Championship Automobile Races at the Speedway. President William Howard Taft was scheduled to take part in the opening ceremonies for the Speedway's automobile races.
|Bakersfield, CA. Californian - August 14, 1909|
|Harrisburg, PA. Courier - July 25, 1909|
|Indianapolis, IN. News - July 30, 1909|
|Indianapolis, IN. News _ August 9, 1909|
|Indianapolis News - August 10, 1909|
|Indianapolis News - August 11, 1909|
That same day, a more positive wire service article about the races appeared in papers across the country. It gave details of the races being run during the two day event, along with information on the convention, and details about the Speedway.
|Warren, PA. Times Mirror - August 11, 1909|
On the morning of the 13th, rain fell, and the races were postponed to the following day.
|Indianapolis News - August 13, 1909|
|Indianapolis Motor Speedway - August 1909|
Ramin Faz Collection
|Bicycling World and Motorcycle Review - August 14, 1909|
Things came to a head, when professional rider, Jake DeRosier, crashed heavily. DeRosier's crash, was said to have been caused when the rough track surface ripped his front tire off the rim. DeRosier was traveling at over a mile a minute, and his injuries were appeared very serious. Word spread through the competitors, that DeRosier's injuries might be fatal. This was the final blow, which forced the rider's into action.
|Wichita, KS. Daily Eagle August 15, 1909|
The threat of suspension, along with word from the Speedway Hospital, that DeRozier's injuries were not serious, put an end to the threatened strike. Many of the top riders entered in the days races, did not appear to have their hearts in the competition. Spectators, and the press, thought they were just riding around at less than full speed.
The Ten Mile National Amateur Championship Race had been postponed after J.S. Tomey's crash. When the race resumed, without Tomey, Indianapolis rider Erwin Baker took an easy win on his Indian. Baker's win in the 10 Mile national Amateur Championship Race got nationwide coverage, eclipsing the winners of both the professional race, and the other amateur classes.
|Indianapolis News - July 13, 1909|
|Washington, DC. Post - August 15, 1909|
Erwin Baker, became a top competitor in professional motorcycle competitions across the country. In 1914, he set an endurance record crossing the country in eleven days on his Indian Motorcycle. That record earned him a new nickname, and he would be known "Cannonball" Baker for the remainder of his life.
|Erwin George "Cannon Ball" Baker - Indianapolis, Indiana|
|Jacob "Jake" DeRosier 1880-1913|
Daniel Statnekov Collection
The following weekend, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway held it's first automobile races. The poor track surface is said to have contributed to two fatal crashes during that event.
In 1910, the track was repaved with bricks, giving it a length of 2.5 miles. The first Indianapolis 500 Mile race was held in May 1911. In 1922, one of the entrants in the 500 mile race was one "Cannon Ball" Baker, who finished 11th.
In September 2008, ninety nine years after the 1909 F.A.M. Championship Races, top motorcycle riders from around the world once again gathered at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to compete in the Moto GP World Championship Races.
Bakersfield Californian - Bakersfield, CA.
Bicycling World and Motorcycle Review
Harrisburg Courier - Harrisburg, PA.
Indian Motocycle Club France Collection - Indian Motocycles Club of France on Facebook
Indianapolis News - Indianapolis, IN.
Smithsonian Library - Bicycling World and Motorcycle Review - August 14, 1909
Daniel Statnekov - Pioneers of American Motorcycle Racing
Warren Times Mirror - Warren, PA.
Washington Post - Washington, DC.
Wichita Daily Eagle - Wichita, KS.