Okay, what is the link between Route 66, Barney Oldfield, and Louis Chevrolet? Give up? Well, to make a short answer into a long story, the story begins in the late spring of 1908 when some of the leading businessmen in Phoenix, Arizona, gathered together for some relaxation and spirited conversation about the future of the Territory of Arizona.
Now, even in a remote outpost of civilization such as Phoenix, the automobile, its future, and its role in society, were the favored topic of conversation among the movers and shakers of the community during the first decade of the 20th century. So, it should come as no surprise to learn that in this meeting, with attendees that included George Purdy Villard, president of the fledgling Maricopa County Automobile Club, and Dr. George Vickers, owner and publisher of The Arizona Republican, now the Arizona Republic, the primary topic was automotive in nature.
In particular, there was spirited discussion about the future of gasoline engines as the primary mode of power for automobiles versus the popular and proven steam engine, or for urban settings, electric cars. Surely there must have been a bit of drinking involved. How else can one explain the idea of an automotive race from Los Angeles to Phoenix across the desert on tracks and trails that would have been recognizable to Wyatt Earp or Henry Wickenburg?
The race began at the stroke of midnight on November 7, 1908 in front of the Hollenbeck Hotel at the corner of Second and Spring Streets in Los Angeles. The course would lead through Pomona, Ontario, Palm Springs and Indio, cross the Colorado River by ferry at Ehrenberg, and across Arizona through Salome and Buckeye into Phoenix.
When the dust settled 30 hours and 36 minutes later, F.C. Fenner, and his “mechanician”, “Happy” Forbes, driving a White built steamer dubbed Black Bess were declared the winners. The proponents of gasoline engines must not have been to happy as Fenner had whipped a new Kissel Kar, an air cooled Franklin, and an Elmore with a steam powered automobile that was four years old and that had already logged more than 50,000 miles in the Arizona desert!
The excitement generated by the event, as well as income earned by a bit of friendly wagers and the attention garnered for the city of Phoenix, and the need to prove the superiority of gasoline powered automobiles, called for a rematch. So, another contest was scheduled for November of 1909 with the race now officially titled as the Desert Classic and derisively labeled by reporters as the Cactus Derby.
The event was now more than a mere contest between gentlemen to settle a point and win a silver cup. A purse with a $1,300 grand prize lured professional racers and amateurs alike. This time the entrants numbered ten, including the original four, three of whom were driving their cars from the previous years. The exception was Fenner who decided to retire his now famous steamer and enter the race with a new Isotta Fraschini.
Motorcycle cops in Los Angeles ensured there was a respect for speed limits, at least in the city. In spite of this precaution, the racers became tangled with spectators and city traffic, which resulted in one racer, John Burr, a former L.A. county sheriff, being involved in an accident that left him critically injured.
The winners of this challenging event, the Nikrent bothers, Joe and Louis, driving a Buick finished with a running time of 19 hours, 30 minutes. As a testimony to the grueling conditions found along the course, only four of the ten entries crossed the finish line.
The international attention focused on the race led to the organizers immediate announcement of another race scheduled for November of 1910. Even though the course remained the same, and the roads were not improved, the winning time for this event was 15 hours and 45 minutes, a testimonial to the dramatic and rapid improvements being made in automotive technology during this period.
To ensure the excitement remained at a fever pitch, the course was altered for 1911, as well as 1912 and 1913. In 1911 and 1913 the course ran south to San Diego before turning east and zigzagging back and forth across the Mexican border to cross the river at Yuma.
The 1912 race followed the course of the earlier races as far as Palm Springs, and then turned south to Brawley before crossing the river at Yuma. By this year the event was large enough, and the publicity wide enough, to attract international legends of racing such as Barney Oldfield.
The 1914 race would mark the end of this now largely forgotten series. Fittingly, it would be the grandest escapade of all. The course would follow the National Old Trails Highway, the future path of Route 66, from Los Angeles to Ashfork in Arizona, before turning south to Prescott, down Yarnell Hill, and into Phoenix.
The list of entries in themselves were more than enough to grab headlines and included Barney Oldfield, Louis Chevrolet, and Louis Nikrent, the local Phoenix boy turned celebrity that had driven in every race. At the traditional starting line on November 10, 1914, there were twenty cars.
The first casualty, H.J. Pink driving a Thomas, occurred within the first hour when his car slid into a ditch on a tight curve. As the racers crossed the Mojave Desert, the mechanical devastation began to mount.
Adding to the circus like atmosphere in towns and sidings along the way were a rowdy and inebriated group that called themselves the Howdyites and chartered a chain they dubbed the Howdy Special. By the time their excursion reached Kingman, their exploits had resulted in confinement to the train.
After leaving Needles the racers roared tot he Colorado River, crossed on the railroad bridge, set out for Topock, and then began the climb to Oatman and over the Black Mountains at Sitgreaves Pass. Today, when driving the pre 1952 alignment of Route 66 through these mountains, just east of the hairpin curve at Goldroad, you can see remnants from this road immediately below.
Broken frames and radiator supports, stripped clutches and broken gears, blown head gaskets and bent wheels were just a few of the maladies addressed at the pit stop in Kingman at the Old Trails Garage. Then the survivors, including Barney Oldfield at the wheel of a Stutz Bearcat and Louis Nikrent with a Buick, raced away from Kingman, across the wide Hualapai Valley and into Hackberry with mere seconds separating their times. The excitement and bets were building.
The late fall rains had transformed the road into a sea of mud at Ashfork and south to Prescott. Reports on the front page of The Arizona Republican, November 11, 1914, stated the mud was so thick in Prescott that Barney Oldfield was hitting both curbs on the wide corridor of Cortez Street.
The destruction of the automobiles, and the ingenious repairs made, were nothing short of spectacular. Bill Bramlett driving a Cadillac claimed fifth place, with two whittled down fence posts wired into place as replacements for broken steering components.
Still, he did better than most of the entrants as only seven vehicles crossed he finish line. The first was Louis Nikrent but as this was a timed event, the crown went to Barney Oldfield whose elapsed time had eclipsed Nikrent by 36 minutes.
The Cactus Derby is now little more than a forgotten footnote to automotive history. But for those who cross the Black Mountains on now legendary Route 66, they do so in the shadow of barney Oldfield and Louis Chevrolet.