There were only 4,250 automobile owners in New Mexico at the time.
The covered wagon and horseback were still the favored mode of transportation in the state of New Mexico as well as in Arizona, its neighbor to the west. Both states had entered the union in 1912 just four years prior. And yet both states were garnering headlines for some pretty spectacular automotive events. They were also attracting a growing number of tourists, including Emily Post and Edsel Ford, that traveled to and through the state by automobile, many on the National Old Trails Road. It was an era of transition, to say the very least.
In 1914, the last of the great Desert Classic, “Cactus Derby” races culminated in a pretty spectacular finish with legendary racer Barney Oldfield declared the winner. These races had commenced in 1909, and each year followed a different course across the desert from Los Angeles to Phoenix. The 1914 race followed the National Old Trails Road to Ash Fork in Arizona before turning south to Prescott, and the precipitous grades of Yarnell Hill. Aside from Oldfield another legendary racer, Louis Chevrolet, also participated in the grueling race that was a test of man as well as machine.
The Desert Classic Race is fairly well known among automotive enthusiasts. However, a Fourth of July Race held in 1916 has slipped through the cracks to become little more than an obscure historic footnote.
In May of 1916, the Albuquerque Automobile Racing Association, in partnership with business owners in Gallup announced a Fourth of July race. There would be a $700 prize for the first place finisher. To put this into perspective that was about the cost of a new Ford. The entry fee was $40.00.
At this point in time, the average time required to drive the 174 mile “highway” between Gallup and Albuquerque was 13 hours. In a Gallup newspaper editorial of the time it was said that, “automobiles and Fords are able to go somewhere but not get back.” Still, on a bet, the owner of a new Hudson Six had made the drive in just under nine hours, a feat that had inspired the idea for an automobile race.
Organizers of the event carefully examined the route and noted that there would be a need for signs or markers as there were none. Resultant of the exploratory trip they also printed a summary of obstacles and potential problems that were provided to entrants. The festivities kicked off on July 1 with entrants drawing their starting positions. Newspaper reports fueled the growing excitement and as a result, the race course through Albuquerque was lined with throngs of people at 8:00 AM on July 4, for the start of the race.
The cars set out from the starting line in three minute intervals. Immediately drivers were beset by problems and mishaps. A Buick with an electrical issue would not start. The driver of a Chalmers took a curve to fast just outside the city limits and rolled the car. The driver of an Overland slid into a telegraph pole east of Gallup and was thrown from the car. The driver of a Reo made it Grants, took a wrong turn, and wasn’t seen again for two days. Leo Leyden of Gallup, at the wheel of a Paige-Detroit, had his first blow out thirty miles from Albuquerque. His next obstacle was a wagon and four horse team blocking the road. Around 100 miles from Albuquerque, water caused an electrical short and a 15 minute delay.
The crowd in Gallup began gathering, and drinking, long before the racers arrived. At 3:02 PM a driver named Cunningham at the wheel of a Maxwell roared into town setting a new record time for driving between the two cities; 6 hours, 53 minutes, and 31 seconds. Leyden took second place and arrived ten minutes later. Incredibly, even though several automobiles were destroyed, there were no major injuries or fatalities.
The race sparked an awakening of interest in automobile ownership as well as thoughts of potential commerce that could result from an improved roadway. So, throughout the summer and fall road construction crews working on building a “boulevard” between Albuquerque and Gallup. Even though the road was dramatically improved, it remained a dirt track across the desert into the early 1930s, even when signed as U.S. 66.
As it turns out, this wasn’t the only obscure automotive event that took place during this era. In fact, it appears that the desert southwest was a favored location for races of all kinds. As an example, a newspaper report on the 1914 Desert Classic race noted the the drivers arrived at the fairgrounds at almost the same time as racers driving from El Paso, Texas to San Francisco. It makes one wonder what other events await discovery.
Two last minute notes. First, please don’t forget that your tips made through the tip jar, or a commitment through our Patreon platform are what keeps the wheels rolling at Jim Hinckley’s America. They are also what enables development of programs such as our weekly Facebook live series.
Next, here is a link for the interview about Route 66 with Rick Steves (program 530). Latter this week I will provide the link for the PBS interview given for the Las Vegas, Nevada station.