Through my endeavors as an author I have spent a great deal of the past twenty years suspended in that delightful, strange, and exciting era between 1900 and 1920. What an amazing time this was, especially here in the rugged landscapes of the desert southwest.
From 1909 to 1914 a series of races, the Desert Classic dubbed the Cactus Derby, pitted man and machine against the elements and rugged terrain. Of particular interest is the 1914 race that followed the National Old Trails Highway, predecessor to Route 66, from Los Angeles to Ashfork, Arizona, and then south through Prescott to Phoenix.
There are indications the road seen here below the pre 1953 alignment of Route 66 near Goldroad, Arizona, may have been the one driven by Louis Chevrolet and Barney Oldfield in that race.

The “Cactus Derby”, as with many races at that time, was organized in an effort to promote the needs for good roads. Another catalyst for these races was to advocate the viability of gasoline engines in automobiles.
In an ironic twist the winner of the 1909 race was Dr. Fenner of Phoenix at the wheel of a White, a leading manufacturer of steam powered automobiles. Even more ironic was the fact his car was several years old and had been driven tens of thousands of miles over horrible Arizona roads before making the trek from Los Angeles to Phoenix.
In researching the history of the Desert Classic dozens of fascinating and tantalizing clues to similar events were discovered. Perhaps the most interesting was a small paragraph in the Republican, now the Arizona Republic, that noted the racers enroute from El Paso to San Francisco arrived at the fairgrounds just as the first two racers from Los Angeles were crossing the finish line. This was in 1911.
One of the most amazing aspects of the Desert Classic are the times recorded. In the 1914 race, over a course from Los Angeles across the Mohave Desert, through the mountains near Oatman, to Ashfork, through Prescott, down Yarnell Hill, to Phoenix, the winner completed the race in just over 18 hours!
As if the road conditions were not enough of a challenge the weather was deplorable. On the wide streets of Prescott it was noted that the mud was so bad Barney Oldfield was hitting both curbs as he slid through town.
One enterprising driver, in the 1914 race, was forced to use a portion of fence post and bailing wire to keep his steering components together. Another was pulled from the waters and mud of New River by local cowboys.
The zenith for the Desert Classic races was the final year, 1914. Home town boys from Phoenix competed against the world class talents of drivers such as Barney Oldfield and Louis Chevrolet. Manufacturers sponsored some teams and representatives from the international press descended on Phoenix.
The Desert Classic represents but one chapter from this exciting era that is waiting to be written. How many more are yet to be discovered?

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