Try and imagine this – its 1908, automotive technology is progressing in quantum leaps but the supportive infrastucture, little things like roads as an example, were lagging far behind. So, you and a few progressive business associates decide to promote the need for good roads as well as the viability of the automobile by sponsoring an automotive endurance race across som of the most inhospitable country in America, the Mojave Desert and the deserts of western Arizona.
That was the origins of the Desert Classic, a race that became a series of races dubbed the Cactus Derby. By the time the final race was run in 1914, it had become an event that garnered international coverage and featured some of the leading drivers of the time, men like Louis Chevrolet and Barney Oldfield.
The event was initially conceived by Dr. George W. Vickers, owner of The Arizona Republican, now the Arizona Republic. George Purdy Villard, president of the fledgling Maricopa County Automobile Club, found the idea a fascinating one.
Sponsored by Vickers paper, the first race was billed as “The Greatest Long Distance Endurance Race in the History of Automobiling.” This may have been an exageration but not by much when one considers the formidable desert landscapes that were between Los Angeles, the starting point, and the finish line in Phoenix.
The monetary reward was sloely for the paper in the form of advertisement from dealers and garages. For the drivers and owners the reward was prestige and a silver cup, as well as possible profits from side bets.
The first race consisted of but four entrants. There was F. C. Fenner at the wheel of his stripped White built “steamer”, an ironic entry as the race was also designed to promote the fesibility of gasoline powered automobiles. Other drivers included C.H. Bigelo and Bert Latham with a Kissel Kar, A.J. Smith with an Elmore, and George Dade with an air cooled Franklin.
The course snaked from Los Angeles to Pomona and Ontario, into the desert and on to Palm Springs, to Indio, and to the Colorado River at Ehrenberg. I Arizona the course ran through Salome and Buckeye to Phoenix.
There were breakdowns, ditches, rocks, sand, rocks, and muddy washes and stream crossings. In spite of these obstacles all cars finished under their own power, an amazing feat in itself, and F.C. Fenner was declared the winner with an elapsed time of 30 hours, 36 minutes.
Fenner’s finish was not the only egg on the face of those who had hoped the race would prove the gasoline engine a viable means of power for automobiles. His White was four years old and had already logged more than 60,000 miles before the race began!
The race proved so popular a second event was scheduled for November of 1909. The course remained the same but the first prize was now a silver cup and a $1,300 purse.
Another change was in the number of entries. The entrants included representative automobiles from Apperson, Studebaker, Ford, Buick, and, incredibly, the four original entrants with the cars run previously.
The racing went world went wild when Joe and Louis Nikrent clipped eleven hours from the 1908 finish time. Further fueling the excitement were the disasters and accidents that resulted in only four drivers finishing the race from an entry field of ten.
Sponsorships poured in as news about the 1910 race was released. This time there were fourteen entries, more mayhem, and a finishing time of 15 hours, 45 minutes.
To ensure the enthusiasm did not wane the course was changed for 1911. Now the drivers would race down the coast from Los Angeles to San Diego, weave back and forth across the Mexican border to Yuma, and then on to Phoenix – a distance of 520 miles.
This time there was a $1,000 bonus purse for the first racer to reach San Diego as well as the grand prize in Phoenix and sixteen entrants. The winner, Harvey Herrick at the wheel of a National, completed the grueling course in 20 hours and 22 minutes.
Only nine cars crossed the finish line. The others were scattered across the desert and one team was not rescued for two days. None of this detered plans for another run in 1912, a double headed race with one team leaving Los Angeles and the other from San Diego.
However, the most exciting race was also the last. For 1914 the drivers would follow the course of the National Old Trails Highway, later Route 66, across the desert from Los Anglese to Needles, cross the river on the railroad bridge, climb through Oatman, over the Black Mountains at Sitgreaves Pass, then through Kingman, Hackberry, Peach Springs, and Seligman to Ashfork. Here the racers turned south through Prescott and down the winding grades on Yarnell Hill to Phoenix.
For this race there were twenty entrants including Barney Oldfield, Louis Nikrent, a participant in every race, and Louis Chevrolet. H.J. Pink at the wheel of a powerful Thomas was seriously injured when his car slid into a ditch an hour from the starting line.
Amazingly no one was killed in spite of horrendous crashes and spectacular breakdowns that included broken frames, broken axles, broken springs, punctured radiators, and stipped gears. Bill Bramlett completed the race with two fence posts wired to the broken steering components of his Cadillac. Another driver limped to the finish with a broken piston, both rear springs, cracked differential, and broken radiator mounts.
The last and final Cactus Derby marked the end of an era. With the coming of the good roads the race had been created to promote the days of swashbuckling, Hell for leather racing came to an end.
The Mexican Road Races of the early 1950s, the legendary Baja, and the recent great race across Asia and through the Gobi Desert in vintage vehicles captures the essence but not the spirit of those early races. Today we have cell phones, GPS, and all manner of support that negates the raw thrill of literally pitting man and machine against the elements.