By Phil Roberts, Department of History, University of Wyoming
During the same week in 1909, two cities held what each billed as their “first annual” automobile race. One race grew to become an international classic; the other failed to have a “second annual” run.
Host cities for the two races that week were Indianapolis and Cheyenne. One doesn’t have to be a car-racing fan to know which city’s race continued.
Although the first recognized auto race in the U. S. occurred in 1895 near Chicago, supervised car races didn’t come into vogue until 1904. By 1908 international road races were being held, including the famous New York-Paris “Great Race” between cars from several countries. The organizers of the Cheyenne track race may have been prompted by this overland race because the cars passed through town the previous year.
Cheyenne race promoters built a four-mile
“circular track” with the finish line set in front of the Frontier Days
grandstand. The races were scheduled as one of the Frontier Days events.
World-class racers, each accompanied by a mechanic riding in the car, would compete in the “Cheyenne 200.” The headline in the Wyoming Tribune proclaimed: “Big Auto Racers Making a Mile a Minute Today.”
Crowds filled the grandstand and nearby bleachers an hour early “and hundreds of spectators were lined around the track in automobiles, carriages and various other styles of machines.”.
The first three events were short races—two of 25 miles and the third of just 12.
The crowd thrilled to the speed of the world’s fastest car, a Stanley Steamer. “He started from the grandstand and the little red car shot by like a streak of red lightning,” the Tribune reported poetically. The Steamer driver developed a slight problem during the exhibition: “about half a mile from the grandstand the rear seat of his machine fell off, but he kept on without stopping.”
The main event, the 200-mile race, drew seven entrants: an Oldsmobile, a Renault, two Coburns, a Marmon, a Moon and a Buick.
“The Buick car was flagged in the fourth lap when a tire fastened on the back became loosened and was dragging…..”
The driver of the Olds “had to stop to adjust a spark plug and lost considerable time….”
“On the fourth lap [the Buick] made a startling pass, going by the French Renault on a dangerous turn near the grandstand….The Buick had to stop in the 13th lap to repair a radiator” and by the 20th lap, it was out due to the break.
Three laps later, the Moon auto went out with a “broken frame,” but no explanation was given of the exact damage.
Both Coburns, too, dropped out of the race, one with a broken axle and the other after the driver “ditched the car.” Spectators told about the mishap.
The Renault had been hugging the bank and was creeping up on the other cars. The Coburn driver, noting the Renault’s success, tried the same thing. “The driver was looking back at the time he lost control of the car. [It] struck a bank, jumped into the air and made a complete somersault, throwing the mechanic out of the car but holding the driver under it.” The driver later died from the injuries. Estimated speed of the car was “over 50 miles per hour” at the time of the crash.
With only four laps left, three cars were still in the race. Rain started falling and it spelled trouble for the Renault. “The rain caused a short in the magneto, preventing a spark.” The Oldsmobile, the only car to finish the 50 laps was declared the winner with an average speed of 54.4 mph.
The winning time was a new world record, eclipsing the Indianapolis “250” track mark of 53.8 mph set the following day.
The death of the Coburn driver was not mentioned, but the paper highlighted the “danger” of the Indianapolis event. “Seven Killed During the Automobile Race” there, a Cheyenne headline read. The count was deceptive because one victim, a young boy, had died when he was hit by a car driven by an elderly doctor on his way to see the race.
Cheyenne hosted other auto races over the next decade, including one in which racing legend Barney Oldfield set a dirt track record. But the races soon were discontinued. Reasons for the suspension are not known although legend has it that Frontier Days officials complained that cars were damaging the park track.
Meanwhile, in Indianapolis, the event first held the same week as the “Cheyenne 200,” evolved into an auto racing classic and Memorial Day event of national interest.
Return to Buffalo Bones: Stories from Wyoming's Past page