Iowa – 94 Years Of Open-Wheel History

(By Tom Gahr -- Reprinted from Oil Pressure, June 17, 2009)


The history of auto racing in Iowa began on July 9th, 1915 with a AAA sanctioned Championship auto race on a half mile dirt track at Tri-State Fairgrounds in Burlington, Iowa. Seven cars were entered in the race, and four finished, with Bob Burman in his Peugeot leading home the three Duesenbergs of Billy Chandler, Eddie O’Donnell and Tom Alley. While auto racing was still in its infancy, it was not without technical innovations, as described in this quote from the Burlington Gazette:


Image #1 – Bob Burman – From the George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress) –Call Number: LC-B2- 2202-4[P&P]

“Eddie O’Donnell has one of the cleverest arrangements in his car for drinking on the run that could be imagined. Eddie has a hollow steering post in his car and down the hole in the center of the post he runs a small hollow rubber tube. The rubber tube runs into a vacuum bottle containing a liberal supply of ice-cold lemonade. The driver is thus able to sip the lemonade without removing his hand from the steering wheel of his car and is given the benefit of a cold drink without stopping to get it.”


While that first race is noteworthy from a historical perspective, and Burman was among the leading names in racing in 1915, the big time racing really began just one month later on the boards of the Des Moines Speedway. It is hard to believe today, but between 1910 and the late 1920’s Championship Auto races were contested on wooden oval speedways, constructed of 2×4’s laid on edge. The first board track was built in Playa Del Rey, California.


Image #2 – Louis Chevrolet in his #12 Delage Leading at the Chicago Speedway June 26, 1915 – SDN-060343 Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Courtesy of the Chicago Historical Society.

While roads at the time were rutted affairs, more suited to buggies than autos, the board tracks offered smooth, high-banked surfaces where cars could exceed 100 miles per hour. Some of the larger tracks, like Culver City in Los Angeles, and Sheepshead Bay in New York, could accommodate crowds in excess of 50,000 people.


The construction of the Des Moines Speedway began in Valley Junction, Iowa on June 1st, 1915, with John L. (Jack) Prince overseeing construction. Prince was widely recognized as the master builder of board tracks in the U.S. at the time, having started out building wooden velodromes for bicycle racing. Ninety-seven cars of lumber and forty tons of nails were used in the construction of the one-mile oval speedway, as well as the grandstand, garages, pits, and other accessories.


The straightaways were pitched 10 degrees, with 45 degree banking in the curves. Construction took just under two months, and the track was completed in time to see the legendary Barney Oldfield set an unofficial world record for 5 miles in his Fiat with a time of 3:01.8 in front of an exhibition crowd of 7,000 people.


The first race on the Des Moines boards was held on August 7, 1915 in front of 10,000 spectators. It was a 300-mile affair with a field limited to 12 cars. Ralph De Palma, the winner of the Indy 500 just two months prior, took the pole with a qualifying speed of 97.8 mph. General admission to the race was a princely $3, quite a bit less than the current asking price at Iowa Speedway.


That first race was marred by disaster, and controversy. On lap 37, as Joe Cooper in his Sebring Special was challenging Eddie O’Donnell for the lead, he lost a tire coming out of turn four, and crashed in front of the grand stand. As the car broke though the railing at the top of the speedway, pieces of railing planks and splinters flew in every direction. The riding mechanic, Louis Peio, was thrown clear as the car tumbled 15 ft to the ground below, but Cooper was caught, and crushed under the car, his neck and back broken.


The second fatality occurred late in the race on lap 237, when Billy Chandler lost control in the south turn and crashed into the infield. The accident was described by an eyewitness in the Des Moines Register & Leader:


"Suddenly we saw a tire twist. The car swerved, striking the dirt at the edge of the track. Chandler made desperate efforts to bring it back but it turned a clean cut somersault, the two right wheels being crushed.

The driver and mechanic both were hurled from the car, landing in the open about ten feet further and then bounding at least ten feet further. In their path the earth was torn up as though it had been dug with a pick.

The distance from the grandstand was so great that few persons there knew what had happened and it was some time before we could attract attention."


Chandler sustained a broken back, and hip. His riding mechanic, Morris Keeler, was mortally wounded. The race continued, and was won by DePalma. However, after reviewing the results of the timing and scoring, at 2:30 am the next morning A.A.A. officials declared Ralph Mulford, the winner with a time of 3 hours, 27 minutes and 5.35 seconds, for an average of 86.91 miles an hour.


DePalma was awarded second place, but would return to claim his revenge in 1916, by winning a 150 mile points race on June 23rd, and setting a world record for the mile of 35.2 seconds in his Mercedes. Unfortunately, 1916 would prove to be the final year of racing at the speedway. The entry of the U.S. into the World War, led to a decline in attendance. Financial problems surfaced, and in 1917 the track was dismantled and the wood was sold throughout central Iowa to satisfy creditors. It’s rumored that many of the barns and other wooden buildings in the area were built with timber from the old board raceway.


Image #3 – Ralph De Palma in his #10 Mercedes at the Chicago Speedway June 11, 1916 – SDN-060850, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Courtesy of the Chicago Historical Society.

Racing was a wild, dangerous, barn storming sport back then, and it seems strange from our modern perspective. With the exception of the Indianapolis 500 mile race, sometimes we forget just how far back our racing traditions go. And yet despite 100 years of history and innovation, today’s drivers still risk their lives every time they take to the track in pursuit of speed. So, if you are heading out to the race in Newton next Sunday, I hope you’ll take a moment to think about the long and proud tradition of open wheel racing in the heartland.


And the next time you hear someone complaining that IndyCars don’t belong on 7/8 mile ovals, I hope you will set them straight with a history lesson.


And finally, when you bow your heads for the invocation this weekend, be sure to offer up a prayer for Joe Cooper and Morris Keeler, and ask them to keep an eye out for Helio, Graham, Tony, Danica, and all their descendants. I know I will.


(The author would like to acknowledge Larry Ball Jr., sprint car racer, historian, and creator of the definitive website for history of the Des Moines Speedway.)