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The Cactus Derby Races of 1908-1914: Los Angeles to Phoenix

Updated on September 21, 2017
mactavers profile image

I've lived in Arizona for 65 years (Tucson, Glendale, and Sedona). I love writing about Arizona history, antiques, collectibles, and travel.

1913 Swift

A 1913 Swift with wire wheels
A 1913 Swift with wire wheels | Source

The Los Angeles Auto Club Organizes the Cactus Derby in 1908

To call attention to the "newfangled" autos and the lack of safe roads, the Los Angeles Auto Club organized a race from Los Angeles California to Phoenix Arizona (still a Territory at the time) over a distance of 517 miles. Steam engine autos were pitted against the new gasoline powered autos. There was also a debate about the future of automobiles. Should they be developed for sport racing or for more utilitarian use? Four automobiles entered the first 1908 Cactus Derby. The route was across Southern Arizona close to the route of Interstate 10 today with the crossing of the Colorado River set at Eherenburg. Since there weren't any service stations, the drivers had to carry their spare parts and gasoline with them. The winner of the race was Colonel FC Fehner whose steamer auto averaged a top speed of 17.6 miles per hour. Another driver finished, but two of the drivers missed a turn and wound up in Colorado!

The Cactus Derby continued, over the next 5 years, but the Cactus Derby of 1914 was the last and best.

The 1914 Cactus Derby Begins

On November 10th in 1914, twenty drivers in a variety of cars, which included two Chevrolets, an Alco, a Paige, two Metz a Cadillac, a Ford Kincaid Special, a Simplex, a Maxwell, a Stutz and several stripped down stock cars lined up near the Eastlake Park in Los Angeles. Each driver was allowed a number 2 man who was a mechanic. The main racing sponsors were the Southern California Auto Club and the owners of the Phoenix Fairground, but other sponsors included Firestone, Chevrolet, Buick, Cadillac and Franklin Motors. The drivers included the famous racers such as Louis Chevrolet, Nikrent, Ted Baudet and Bill Bramlett. Chevrolet sponsored Cliff Durant who at 24 had never raced before and the Grand Old Man of Racing, Barney Oldfield. Barney had just turned 36 and was panned by the press as being too old to continue racing. He had managed a 5th place at Indianapolis that May. He owned a saloon in Los Angeles where he staged races against hired drivers, and of course he always managed to win. He didn't need the prize money of $2,500 as much as he wanted to win the diamond studded trophy pin which proclaimed the winner of the Cactus Derby as "The Master Driver of the World." No one really believed that Barney's Stutz with its wire wheels could withstand the rocks, sand and lava fields of the route.

The race route was over El Cajon Pass to Victoriville with the first overnight stop in Needles. The next day, the race continued to Kingman, Seligman, Ashfork, Jerome and then over Mingus Mountain and into Prescott for the second overnight stop. The final race day would end at the finish line in the Phoenix Fairgrounds.

Race day was overcast with rain in the forecast. One AP reporter had written a poem for the start of the race, which began "Straight into the Sun with its scorching rays" but the drivers' first challenge was a snow storm at El Cajon Pass where the Alco and the two Metz cars tipped over and were out of the race. Next, the drivers encountered a hail storm right before the Mojave Desert which was described as nails going into their faces. Then more rain and mud between Victorville and Barstow. In Needles, Barney managed to end the first day with a lead of six minutes.

1912 Benz Grand Tourer

Source

Racing Fans and Day Two of the Cactus Derby

The population of Needles at the time was 1,200 but many more people were at the finish line to greet the racers at the finish line. A train named the Howdy Special carried a load of race fans called Howdites dressed in black and red striped Yamer Yamer suits. One reporter called them Yama Yama suits. Yama Yama suits were featured in a musical and popular song that featured clowns in black and white striped suits. The Howdites race fans did paint their faces like clowns, and they formed a band with Kazoos and pots and pans. It was reported that the fans had consumed many strong drinks.

The next day was no easier as the drivers had to cross the Colorado River on the Santa Fe Railroad bridge. Durant's Chevrolet slipped off the planks that had been laid over the tracks. He shredded his tires and bent his rims. Billy Carlson's Maxwell broke a wheel near Kingman. He walked into town and found a replacement, but thieves had stripped his car and he was out of the race. Louis Chevrolet also had a disaster. A sheep herder had offered gasoline which was stored in 5 gal. metal cans at the time. A few miles down the road, Louis discovered that the sheep herder had mistakenly filled his tank with water, and he was out of the race. However, Durant had managed to fix his rims and find new tires for his car, so Durant and Chevrolet decided to finish the race as a team.

Barney couldn't get enough power in his Stutz to make the steep climb on Gold Road near Prescott. Luck was with him when he found miners willing to push his car. When he crossed the line in Prescott, the citizens who lined the street said Barney was a mud man covered in mud from head to toe. He was now in 5th place.

More Disasters and the Winner is.....

Barney became stuck in the sand new New River, but found a team of mules to pull him out. The road to the Phoenix Fairground was lined with fans and a brass band, when he managed a speed of 29 miles per hour to cross the finish line for the win. Seven cars had managed to finish the Cactus Derby of 1914.

A banquet was held at the Adams Hotel in Phoenix, which was the finest hotel in Phoenix at that time. He had won the title of The Best Driver in the World, and the other drivers gained the title The Motormen of Speed. In 1916, Barney Oldfield became the first race driver to complete a lap of 100 miles per hour at the Indianapolis Speedway.

Marshall Trimble, our official Arizona Historian, always felt that driver Bill Bramlet should have received an award for having barrel rolled off a mountain and landing on his four tires unhurt, getting stuck in quick sand and breaking his steering rod at a farm in Glendale. Bramlet managed to put two fence posts together for a steering rod and finish the race.

After 1914, Arizona became more populated and more roads were built, but by 1929, Arizona still had only 300 miles of paved roads.

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    • Natalie Frank profile image

      Natalie Frank 4 weeks ago from Chicago, IL

      What a story! I don't think of car races as particularly exciting but it was different once. I can't believe what the driver Bill Bramlet did to be able to finish the race even though he knew he couldn't win. After rolling off a cliff and landing on all four wheels unhurt I think I would have just walked away, gotten a drink and counted my blessings. Then quick sand and a broken steering rod? That would definitely have been the end for most people. But he used branches to fix the rod and crossed the finish line. There definitely should have been some award given for most tenacity in a race! Thanks for writing this.

    • mactavers profile image
      Author

      mactavers 4 weeks ago

      Thank you for the comments. Arizona's history is so bizarre, that I keep reading about and writing about it. For me, it's fun.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 4 weeks ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Super cool. I think we took that Prescott route before I17 I can just barely remember it. And I think the old bridge at needles is still there, of course not used.

      Thank you for sharing this great piece.

    • WheelScene profile image

      WheelScene 4 weeks ago from U.S.A.

      This is awesome! I didn't know about this race, and the pictures of the cars you included were great. Keep up the good work!