1909 – Buick wins the 250 at the opening of Indianapolis
Article reprinted from ‘The Motor in Australia’ – Oct 21, 1909. Researched and contributed by Marc McInnes
BURMAN WINS THE 250 MILE RACE
Buick Driver Finishes with Narrow Margin in Feature Race on New Indianapolis Speedway Photo shows Bob Burman at the wheel of his race winning Buick, model 17 on the Indianapolis track
New Records Created
Lack of preparation on the part of the track management of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, on which the inagural automobile races occurred on August 19, materially interfered with the speed of the cars competing.
The 250-mile race for the Prest-O-Lite trophy, open to cars of 301 to 450 cubic inches piston displacement, with a minimum weight of 2,100 pounds, was a feature of the opening program and although many unexpected happenings conspired to retard the racers very good time was registered. The honors of the event fell to Robert Burman, driving a Buick car, who finished out the distance in 4h. 38m. 57 2-5s.
The Stoddart-Dayton (Clements) was second, in 4h. 46m. 1 4-5s., and National (Mershy) finished third, in 4h. 52m. 39 7-10s. Another National, with Kincaid at the wheel, was the only other of ten starters to finish the long grind.
Barney Oldfield, driving a high-powered Benz, covered a mile in 43 1-10 seconds, breaking De Palma?s mark of 0.51, and Loius Chevrolet, in a Buick, negotiated ten miles in 8.56 2-5, cutting Oldfield?s time of 9.12. Both of these are new American track records.
In the long race Strang was first to come to grief. His car caught fire before he had completed one lap. He was delayed some time by this, and the officials at first refused to allow him to continue, as he and his mechanician had been aided by the track volunteer department in extinguishing the blaze. Finally after a long discussion he was allowed to continue, but he dropped out after making a gallant effort to regain his lost ground.
Chevrolet dashed into the lead at the start, and held it for fifty-two laps, or more than half the race, with the brief exception of the fifteenth and sixteenth laps, when he relinquished it to his team-mate, Burman, the winner. Then he was blinded by dust and tar and was led from the track and his car withdrawn. Miller, in a Stoddart-Drayton, also gave up his losing race about this time. After Chevrolet’s withdrawal, Burman again went into the lead.
On the second day of the meeting more fast times were established. Lewis Strang and Len Zengal divided the honors of the day, Strang winning the fastest 100-mile race ever held in America, and Zengal establishing a new American track record for ten miles.
It had been feared the accident, which resulted in the death of W.A. Bourque, driver of the Knox car, and his mechanician, Harry Holcombe, would keep attendance down, and would have a dispiriting effect on the drivers entered in the races the next day. The accident had just the opposite effect, however, and acted as an incentive to draw the crowd and to spur the drivers on in their struggle to lower records.
The breaking of records was begun early by Len Zengal in his ‘Big Six’ Chadwick. Zengal won the ten-mile free-for-all event in 8:23 1-5, lowering the mark made by Chevrolet when he drove his Buick car over the same course in 8:56 4-5.
The feature of the day was the 100-mile race, captured by Strang. Although he won the fastest race ever held in America for the distance, he did not break the record for 100 miles set the previous day by Chevrolet in the 250-mile race. Chevrolet covered the 100 miles in 1:32 18 9-10, while Strang’s time for the distance was 1:32 48.
Strang beat Chevrolet’s time for all distances up to 25 miles, however, and in addition to that lowered many intermediate records. Strang drove the first twenty miles in 18.41, a new world’s record. He covered twenty-five miles in 23:20 1-10, beating De Palma’s mark of 23:25, and fifty miles in 46:04 6-10, breaking the record of 48:40 1-5 made by Barney Oldfield in 1904. New records were also created for sixty and seventy miles. Strang won the race by a margin of ten miles.
The time trials for the mile record failed to lower the mark of 43 1-10 seconds set by Barney Oldfield in his big Benz. Oldfield covered the distance in 43 1-5, but could not equal his performance of the previous day. De Palma, in his Fiat, covered the mile in 48 3-5, and Zengal, in the Chadwick, made the mile in 49 2-5.
American Motorist Hurled to Death
Urefrid Bourque, of Springfield, Mass., driver of Knox Car No 3, and Harry Holcombe, of Grandville, Mass., Bourque’s mechanician, were killed on August 19 during the running of the 250-mile race for the Prest-O-Lite Trophy of 200, at the inaugural meeting of Automobile Speedway at Indianapolis.
The Knox racing car, in which the two men were riding, of which Bourque was the driver and Holcombe mechanic, left the track and crashed into a fence on the home stretch of the speedway. The accident was witnessed by nearly 10,000 persons, and women fainted, and the faces of men were blanched as they saw the car leave the track and turn over upon the daring occupants, crushing out their lives.
The car in which the two men were riding was running, second to the Buick driven by Burman, the ultimate winner of the race, and the crowd was intensely interested, as it was apparent that the race would be between the Buick and the Knox car that was close upon it. One hundred and fifty miles of the two hundred and fifty mile race was nearly completed when the accident occurred. The two cars were tearing down the track at terrific speed, and every eye in the crowd was centered upon them. Both cars had just passed the grand stand amid the shouts of the onlookers and the waving of handkerchiefs and cries of encouragement when the crash came. Whether the car skidded or the driver lost control in some way will never be known, but with thousands of eyes upon it the Knox machine leaped from the track and dashed into the fence and turned completely over, burying its occupants underneath.
Cries of horror from the grand stand rent the air as the car went over, and in a moment the wrecked machine was surrounded by a thousand persons, all anxious to lend a hand. Bourque was lifted from the machine, limp and helpless, and gasping for breath, and it was seen that both legs were broken and there was a bad fracture of the skull, from which blood was flowing in a stream. He died as he was being taken from the car.
Both Die in a Few Moments
With great difficulty Holcomber was brought from under the car, but he was still alive and was taken to hospital with great speed. His arms were broken, and there were three deep gashes in his skull, one of which had laid bare his brain, but a hasty examination of his pulse showed that life was not extinct. The mad race to the hospital was just completed when Holcombe died, without having at any time been conscious. All of the Knox cars were immediately withdrawn from the races, and gloom succeeded to the hilarity with which the races had been watched.
As the bodies of the men were taken from the machine women were overcome by the sight of the crushed and dust covered forms, and two or three fainted when the fatal result of the accident became known. All interest in the races disappeared, and in a few moments hundreds had left the grounds.
In the meantime, however, the other entrants in the race were tearing over the speedway as though nothing had happened, and the Buick, having lost its nearest competitor, won the race with comparitive ease.
Bourque Lost Control
Theories as to the cause of the accident vary and no one will ever know what really caused the car to swerve from the track. According to the story told by Private Frank Brandoer, Company H, Second Regiment, Indiana National Guard, who was nearest to the scene of the accident, and who had a narrow escape from injury, something caused both men to suddenly turn and look behind. As they did so the steering wheel slipped from Bourque’s hands, and he threw his arms helplessly in the air. Then came the crash.
One of the rear wheels was found a few hundred feet from the scene of the accident, and this has led to the advancement of the theory that the axle nuts on it had not been properly tightened when the machine had taken on a new tyre shortly before. The men probably felt that wheel slipping off, and after they looked behind they realized their helplessness to prevent an accident.
Louis Chevrolet, the French driver of the Buick team, was led into the hospital almost blinded with tar and dust from the track shortly after the two men had died. The Frenchman, who had been leading during the early part of the long race, was forced to give up. As he gazed upon the bodies of his two former rivals of the track he muttered, “Too bad! Too bad!” and then staggered to a chair, too weak to stand both the physical and emotional strain of the moment.
Webmasters Note:Buick ran three factory team cars in this event, all specially modified model 17’s. All the factory modifications made are unknown save those obvious in the photo, however, in it’s production form the model 17 was powered by a four cylinder, 318 cu.in engine, of valve-in-head head design (4.5″bore x 5″ stroke). Fitted with a cone clutch and three speed gearbox, the rear drive was by shaft in an enclosed torque tube. Buick’s factory race drivers for this event were the legendary Bob Burman (No 35) and Louis Chevrolet (No 37) and the team relief driver (No 47) identified only as ‘Ryall’.