2/9/2013 9:55:00 PM Days Past: The Cactus Derby of 1914 - Part I
Sharlot Hall Museum/Courtesy photo
Avid racing fans line up along West Gurley Street anxiously awaiting a glimpse of the first racer into Prescott on Nov. 11, 1914.
By NANCY BURGESS Special to the Courier
As the automobile was beginning to gain popularity in the early years of the 20th century, auto racing was evolving into a sport of national significance. In Arizona, the annual Los Angeles-to-Phoenix Road Race, otherwise known as the "Cactus Derby," was held each year from 1908 through 1914. The race gave manufacturers the opportunity to promote their automobiles and related products - everything from tires to magnetos. It also served to demonstrate the need for a good road between Los Angeles and Phoenix.
In all but the final year of its existence, the Cactus Derby was conducted over a 511-mile route that roughly tracked today's Interstate 10. In 1914, however, the organizers of the derby changed the course, adopting a northern route that extended the race by 132 miles and encompassed the communities of Needles, Calif., and Prescott.
On Nov. 9, 1914, at daybreak on a chilly, overcast Monday, 20 racers lined up in Los Angeles for the start of the Seventh Annual Cactus Derby. Drivers included well known road racers Ted Baudet, Bill Bramlett, Louis Chevrolet, Olin Davis, Cliff Durant, Louis Nikrent and Berna Eli "Barney" Oldfield, the "Grand Old Man" of auto racing. Drivers Nikrent and Davis were both previous winners of the Cactus Derby, Nikrent in 1909 and Davis in 1913.
Automobiles which would run the race included Alco, Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet (2), Cole, de Dietrich, Ford, Kincaid Special, Kisselkar, Metz (2), Maxwell, Paige (2), Simplex, Stutz and Thomas. Most of the autos were stripped-down stock cars. It was a very rugged array of cars that lined up for the race.
Starting at 5:30 a.m., the drivers and their mechanicians (mechanics) left Los Angeles on the 696-mile route at two-minute intervals after a pouring rainstorm. Initially, they stuck together, checking in at San Bernardino only seconds apart. But, it wasn't long until, according to a lengthy report published in the November 19, 1914, issue of Motor Age, "one by one the mechanical camels were conquered by the desert and mountain roads."
One of the first "machines" out was the Alco, driven by Bill Taylor, who skidded into a telephone pole. Many of the autos had trouble in the snowy El Cajon Pass, but, with the exception of the Alco and the Metz #11, which turned over in the snow, all remaining racers arrived at Victorville in a two-hour span. The storm cleared on the desert between Victorville and Barstow, but the new problem was mud.
Arriving in Barstow, the veteran Oldfield, with his mechanic George Hill, was in the lead in his big, white, wire-wheeled Stutz, but a youngster, Durant in the Chevrolet, was hot on his tail. Davis in the Simplex was running a close third. Motor Age described the leg from Barstow to Needles as follows: "Durant in the Chevrolet No. 2 and Barney (Oldfield) in the Stutz checked in and out of Barstow not a minute apart, and from that point on across the desert to Needles, one of the most spectacular road races ever witnessed took place between the veteran and the curly-headed youngster.
Two clouds of dust moved across the desert. Then there was a third. Four more cars were out once the race reached Needles, the first overnight night control: the de Dietrich, Ford, Kisselkar and the Thomas. The next morning the 15 racers crossed the Colorado River into Arizona on the Santa Fe Bridge 17 miles below Needles and headed for Kingman.
With the storm following behind them, a cold wind blowing in the faces of the drivers and the dust flying, all were anxious to make the best time possible before the storm caught up and turned the desert roads to mud. Speeds along this stretch exceeded 65 miles per hour. Coming into Kingman, Davis was in the lead with Beaudet, Oldfield and Durant close behind.
From Kingman, the route took the race north and east through Hackberry and Seligman, where the storm caught up with the racers. Leaving Seligman for Prescott, the drivers encountered rain, sleet, hail and snow, and, of course, more mud.
For more than 40 miles through the mountains, Oldfield led Nikrent and Davis as the eleven remaining racers headed for the 558-mile point at Prescott. According to Motor Age, the drivers said that the hail felt like rocks on their faces, and they were freezing, but they pressed on, making "fast time at that."
As Prescottonians lined Gurley Street in anticipation of the arrival of the Cactus Derby, all were wondering who would be in the lead: Davis, Durant, Nikrent or Oldfield? Or would it be someone else?
(Days Past is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners, International. This and other Days Past articles are available at www.sharlot.org/library-archives/days-past. The public is encouraged to submit articles for Days Past consideration. Please contact Assistant Archivist, Scott Anderson, at SHM Archives 445-3122 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org for information).