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Peugeots, Chowchilla, Death Curve and a bear in a Ford – a tale from Wilshire Boulevard!

Published in blog.hemmings.com

[Editor’s Note: Except for the usually brief mention of the Indianapolis 500, the prewar era of auto racing in America has largely been forgotten. Robert Dick’s recently released book, Auto Racing in the Shadow if the Great War, brings a portion of this incredible history to life again. Subtitled Streamlined Specials and a New Generation of Drivers on America Speedways, 1915-1922 and published by McFarland Books, the author concentrates the narrative on this dangerous epoch of rapid-paced race car development, masterfully recounting the circumstances that made America a hotbed of auto racing while Europe was embroiled in both conflict and the recovery that followed. Though Indianapolis was already considered hallowed ground, boulevards and a new series of short-lived board tracks were often equally fast, conquered by the likes of Barney Oldfield, Pete DePaolo, Bob Burman and Eddie Rickenbacker with support from Stutz, Duesenberg and Maxwell, to Peugeot, Delage and Bugatti. This 446-page softcover narrative, complete with race and car stats and countless images, offers an insight on an unprecedented scale, a segment of which we can share here courtesy of McFarland and Robert Dick.]

The scene of the last point races for the A.A.A. championship changed from the East to the West Coast, to sunny California. The Vanderbilt Cup and the Grand Prize were run at Santa Monica. Both races were classed as speedway events since they were part of the championship and since they took place on a boulevard course having not the features of a dirt road course. The Vanderbilt was open to any car of 600 cubic inches or less and with a minimum weight of 1,600 pounds. The Grand Prize was a free-for-all. But only cars of the 300-inch class won championship points, in their order of finish. Entries for both events closed on 11 November at noon. The entry fee for each event was $200. Entry fees were refunded to cars that started. The A.A.A. fixed the points at 900 for the Vanderbilt and 1,000 for the Grand Prize, so that followers of racing looked for a decision of the supremacy of Resta and Aitken to come in these two events. The division of prize money was the same for both races, a total of $7,500 in each race, first $4,000, second $2,000, third $1,000, and fourth $500.

The eleventh Vanderbilt Cup was run on Thursday, 16 November 1916. Distance was 35 laps of 8.401 miles, a total of 294.035 miles, on Santa Monica’s boulevard course. From the starting line on Ocean Avenue, the course followed the famous Death Curve and Wilshire Boulevard to Soldiers’ Home, and via San Vincente Boulevard back to Ocean Avenue. The track was fast, although rough and dusty on the Nevada Avenue and San Vincente stretches. An ocean breeze and a wall of clouds kept the race track cool. The grandstands were filled. Around 20,000 cars were within the enclosure and lined the 8-mile course almost hub to hub. A big crowd had gathered at Death Curve and the Soldiers’ Home turn. There were 65,000 spectators. “Miss Lorna Avery has been selected official mascot for the 1916 races. Miss Avery is well-known among automobile racing drivers and film folk and has many friends. The petite actress was selected from 15 other film favorites for her personal beauty and attractiveness.” [Editor’s Note: a quote attributed to The Sunday Oregonian]. The moving picture camps had been deserted for the race. Enterprising directors took advantage of the occasion to film a number of spectacular racing scenes. There were movie queens in pairs, in dozens and in boxes. Barney Oldfield was there on his day of rest, with the usual black cigar, but otherwise dressed as the average spectator. At 12:00 noon, 19 cars were sent away at ten-second intervals: [Editor’s Note: a brief list of cars was included, which we’ve expanded]

#1 Dario Resta, Peugeot; #2 Joe Thomas, Mercer; #3 Glover Ruckstell, Mercer; #4 Eddie Pullen, Mercer; #6 Clyde Roads (Rhodes), Hudson; #8 Earl Cooper, Stutz, #11 Mike Moosie, Duesenberg; #12 William Bolden, Chowchilla/Stutz; #14 Sterling Price, Gandy/Duesenberg; #16 John Aitken, Peugeot; #17 Eddie Rickenbacher [sic], Duesenberg; #18 George Buzane, Duesenberg; #19 Ira Vail, Hudson; #20 A.H. Patterson, Hudson; #21 William Weightman, Duesenberg; #22 William Carlton, Owl/Ono; #23 William Cody, Cody/National; #24 Lewis Jackson, Marmon; #27 Omar Toft, Toft/Duesenberg.

The Peugeots started with the front wheel brakes of the 1914 French Grand Prix, certainly an advantage in view of the slow right-angle turn at the end of the Wilshire Boulevard straight. William Bolden’s white Chowchilla, or “Chow Chow,” was a combination of 300-inch Duesenberg engine and Stutz H.C.S. chassis. The car made its appearance in October 1916 as a Bolden-Crosby Special, and at Bakersfield even won a 10-mile sprint ahead of Durant’s 436-inch Stutz. Bolden was a taxi driver from San Francisco. William Carlton’s Owl was the renamed Ono, the combination of a chain-driven Fiat frame and Pope-Hartford engine, driven by Hughie Hughes to third place in the 1915 Grand Prix at San Francisco. The Ono continued to appear on its original wood wheels with detachable rims. Carlton replaced the originally nominated Harry Marshall who had broken his ankle when cranking the Ono. The Cody Special was an older National modified by “Smiling” Bill Cody and his mechanic Charles Priday. Cody came from San Francisco, where he ran a racing shop with business partner Joe Barry, “The Speedway,” at 564 Golden Gate Avenue. Three 445-inch T-head Mercers (4.80 x 6.189 inches) were entered by George Bentel’s Pacific Coast Mercer agency. A few days before the race, Barney Oldfield announced the new Miller engine to be mounted into his Delage chassis suffered from a cracked cylinder head and could not be repaired in time. Oldfield as well as his relief, Cliff Durant, were unable to start. Earl Burman, Bob’s younger brother, intended to start in the Vanderbilt and the Grand Prize, but the car, probably the Burman driven by Gable earlier in the season, was not ready. A team of 300-inch Milacs to be entered by Frederick Robinson and announced in August did not materialize. William Weightman entered two 16-valve Duesenbergs, a car for Eddie Rickenbacher and the other one for himself. In practice, Rickenbacher turned a lap in 5 min 37 sec, averaging 91 miles per hour. In the first week of November, Rickenbacher had resigned from the Presto-O-Lite team and signed a one-year contract to manage and drive the Weightman cars. Weightman paid Rickenbacher a handsome salary and financed a winter trip to Wolverhampton, England, in order to buy or lease two Sunbeams.

Mike Moosie in his older 8-valve Duesenberg was the first to be sent away by starter George Adair. Resta in the Peugeot was sixteenth, and Arthur Patterson in his Hudson Super-Six the last to leave the starting line (the starting order was: Moosie, Jackson, Cooper, Ruckstell, Aitken, Thomas, Vail, Roads, Weightman, Rickenbacher, Price, Bolden, Cody, Carlton, Buzane, Resta, Pullen, Toft, Patterson). Aitken in the 4.5-liter Peugeot of the Indianapolis Team was fifth to start and first to finish the first lap. On lap 4, Sterling Price’s Gandy went out with a burned clutch, and Bill Cody’s Cody with seized brakes, while Rickenbacher retired his Duesenberg with a stripped high gear. After five laps, Resta was in third position. William Carlton docked the Owl after 8 laps, having exhausted his supply of old style clincher tires. On lap 9, Lewis Jackson retired his old Marmon because of a defective clutch, Toft his Omar because of a burned out bearing, and Joe Thomas his Mercer because of a leaky radiator. Resta was in second position. On lap 13, Resta took the lead from Aitken, ahead of Cooper, Weightman and Pullen. Moosie’s Duesenberg went out with burned bearings, and Buzane’s Duesenberg with a cracked cylinder, due to frost during the shipment from the East Coast. On lap 19, Aitken failed to reappear before the judges’ stand. An ambulance was sent to scout for him. Far around the course, Aitken was found sitting on a fence while his mechanic was working on the engine. The labor was in vain. The Peugeot was out because of a broken crankshaft. On lap 22, Cooper and mechanic Reeves Dutton changed a tire on the course and subsequently came to the pit to take on a spare and add some fuel to the tank.

On lap 24, Resta stopped for a right rear tire, fuel, oil and water. He lost 50 seconds. When the Peugeot returned to the race, it had still a lead of nearly three minutes over Cooper’s Stutz. Eddie Pullen was the idol of the stands, following his 1914 victories in the Grand Prize at Santa Monica and the Corona race. After 30 laps, while in fourth position, he was disqualified after taking on fuel near the Soldiers’ Home curve, at the end of the three-mile straight along Wilshire Boulevard. One lap later, Bill Bolden’s Duesenberg-engined Chowchilla was forced out because of a broken driveshaft, the result of a wild skid. Resta won comfortably in 3 h 22 min 48 sec, averaging 87 miles per hour, eight minutes ahead of Cooper in his Stutz, twenty minutes ahead of Weightman in his Duesenberg, 32 minutes ahead of Clyde Roads in his Hudson Super-Six. The Hudsons of Patterson and Vail were flagged. The Vanderbilt was Weightman’s first whirl at big league racing and he maintained as consistent a pace as Resta and Cooper who finished ahead of him. While the race ground along, all the competitors had to stop at the pits one by one until Weightman was the only one with a clean slate. Weightman covered 285 miles without a stop at the rate of 79 miles per hour. At the start of his 35th and last lap, Rickenbacher flagged him down to make certain that he had enough fuel and oil to complete the distance. Weightman lost a few minutes, but his position was certain and there was no reason to take chances. The mascot of the Weightman stable, a trained bear travelling in his own Ford, made good for his owner, although Rickenbacher was one of the first to withdraw.

A full list of detailed results compiled by ChampCarStats and can be viewed here.