Friday, August 1, 2014

Indy's First Race - Episode #26

By: David L. Morrill
@ Mototique

Updated: August 17, 2014

Indian Motorycle Club France Collection
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.

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
The races would coincide with the F.A.M.'s annual convention, which was also to held in Indianapolis. An August 10th article in the Indianapolis News, announced that entries for the race were closed, and that "Leading Riders of the World Will Compete." The article also went on to state that "riders had tested the track" and that "records will be smashed."

Indianapolis News - August 10, 1909
On August 11th, an unflattering cartoon, which appeared to mock the races, appeared on the front page of the Indianapolis News.

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
There were already concerns that the rush to complete the track's surface, prior to the scheduled races, had resulted in a racing surface that had not been properly laid. Many of the 32 race competitors entered began to complain the track surface had not been properly rolled for smoothness, was both rough and dangerous for the riders.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway - August 1909
Ramin Faz Collection
The events of the August 14 motorcycle races held at the Speedway are documented in a two page article that appeared in the August 14, 1909 edition of Bicycling World and Motorcycle Review.

Bicycling World and Motorcycle Review - August 14, 1909
Controversy started after an amateur rider J. S. Tomey crashed, at the beginning of the 10 Mile Amateur National Championship race. Tomey was not seriously injured, but was forced to drop out the the race.

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 riders gathered and began to talk of a strike, to shut down the races. All but two of the thirty riders in the event voted to strike. However, the strike failed to materialize. The F.A.M. Official in charge of the meet stated any rider, who did not compete would be suspended from competition for sixty days.

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
The race results went out in a wire service article to newspapers around the country. That night, F.A.M. Officials met, and cancelled the remaining races scheduled for August 15th.

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
Jake DeRosier recovered from his injuries, and went on to be hired as a factory rider for Indian Motorcycles. In 1911, he set a new World Speed Record at Brooklands in England. He died in 1913, as the result of racing injuries.

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.

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