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The Great Motorcycle Invasion of 1909: Indy’s First Motorcycle Race
On Aug. 1, 1909 The Indianapolis Star predicted thousands of motorcyclists would soon “invade Indianapolis.” In a week capped by a turbulent motorcycle meet to open the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to motorized competition, the city hosted the annual convention of America’s top governing body of motorcyclists, a parade and the finish of a 388-mile endurance run. While expectations were high, growing pains soon became apparent.  
  
Hundreds of motorcyclists streamed into Indianapolis from points all around the country the week of Aug. 8, 1909. They were greeted by a city draped in gala attire. Streamers and flags stretched across all the major intersections of downtown Indianapolis. Most of its buildings were draped in red, white and blue bunting.

More than sanctioning the first motorcycle race meet at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway; the Federation of American Motorcyclists (FAM) planned its annual convention in the city. Big elections were scheduled and prominent Indianapolis motorcyclists like Charles Wyatt, president of the Indiana Motorcycle Club, were in the running for national offices. 

None of this was taken lightly by city leaders. The relocation of FAM offices to Indianapolis meant prestige and, more importantly, another platform for economic growth. 

The Indiana Motorcycle Club was founded by Wyatt and a handful of friends at his home on Lexington Ave. in October 1907 when there were barely 50 motorcycles in the city. The club, with its new headquarters at 444 W. Vermont St., had ridden a groundswell of interest as motorcycle ownership surged in the following two years. 

New motorcycle dealerships sprouted up. The G.H. Westing Company at 219 Massachusetts Ave. sold Indian motorcycles for $175. Hearsey-Willis Company at 113 W. Market St. sold Excelsiors for $225 and Yales for $200. Much was riding on the success of FAM’s visit to Indianapolis, and the city was prepared.

Less so was its new wonder, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Its irrepressible president, Carl Fisher, threw his inexhaustible energy at completing an almost impossible task: establishing a world-class speedway from undeveloped land in four months. 

An activist for the development of the American automobile industry, Fisher was convinced auto manufacturers needed a giant testing facility. In December 1908, Fisher and three business partners purchased 320 acres of farmland five miles outside Indianapolis. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway was not incorporated until March 20, 1909 and development of the land did not start until the end of that month. 

By July 1, Fisher was sweating out the possibility of failing to have the track ready for the contracted FAM motorcycle meet beginning August 13. For the indomitable Speedway president, that was unacceptable.

Most of the facility was ready, including 41 buildings, among them garages, machine shops and grandstands, as well as 3,000 hitching posts for fans arriving by horse. Engineering a solution to a creek running under the southwest corner of the track created big delays. Further, smoothing a running surface of 90,000 cubic yards of three types of stone from 18 different suppliers from around the country was time-consuming work. Despite a crew of 450 men, 300 mules, four 6-ton rollers and three 10-ton rollers, the task was painstakingly slow.

Fisher refused to back down. He ordered a night shift of men hired so the project could run around the clock. Utilizing gas lines installed for the inflation of passenger air balloons for a June 5 event, he illuminated the construction areas. This was augmented by 100 Prest-O-Lite burners, the highly profitable product of a business he and partner James Allison owned. Bright burning acetylene gas emitted a flame used in their car headlight product which was the forerunner to electric headlights.

The first major event of the week was an endurance run originating from Cleveland, Ohio at 6 a.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 10. The Indianapolis Overland Automobile Company’s “official” escort car paced 96 riders as they confronted a passage along 388 miles of roads ranging in quality from fair to nonexistent. 

About 12 hours later, 76 survivors arrived at the end of the first leg of their journey to spend the night in Columbus, Ohio. Along the way the hearty riders were greeted by farmers who had driven wagonloads of people to park under shade trees and wave them on. Others placed chairs in front of their homes and children ran alongside the roads waving flags.

This enthusiasm paled in comparison to their greeting the following day in front of the Dennison Hotel at the corner of Ohio and Pennsylvania Streets in Indianapolis. East Ohio Street outside the Dennison was packed with spectators as 64 dusty survivors, some running full-tilt to check-in with FAM officials before the 6:30 p.m. deadline, dodged those foolish enough to try to grab them.

The next day, Thursday, Aug. 12, offered a jam-packed agenda. At 1 o’clock, 200 motorcyclists posed for a photograph in front of the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument before embarking on a parade of their machines throughout the city. A train ride took others to Kokomo, Ind. as guests of a rubber company, and many competitors tuned their machines at the Speedway. That evening FAM officials and competitors were treated to a vaudeville show and banquet at the German House.

The events at the Speedway produced controversy. The giant track was imposing to riders accustomed to compact wooden velodromes and the hard-packed sands of beach shores. The rough crushed stone surface of the Speedway made their experience terrifying.

The lightweight five to seven horsepower machines exceeded 65 mph and bounced over the rough surface. With narrow tires, they looked more like ordinary bicycles than today’s motorcycles. The loose, piercingly-sharp stones shifted under the thin, narrow tires as the riders leaned into the turns. 

On Thursday night, the eve of the scheduled race meet, FAM officials met to discuss the suitability of the new speedway. Many suggested a last-minute shift of the program to the Indiana State Fairgrounds. 

An angry Carl Fisher asserted that, “the Speedway will positively be in finished condition and ready for record time.” FAM president Earle Ovington ruled in favor of the Speedway late Thursday night.

The Speedway’s first motor competition fell victim to rain as race day morning revealed an unsuitably wet track. The two-day meet was rescheduled from Friday and Saturday to Saturday and Monday.

Despite the trepidation of many of the competitors, there was plenty of excitement. Indisputably, the two top stars of the entry list were Jake DeRosier, frequently hailed in the newspapers as the “world champion,” and Ed Lingenfelder, the top west coast rider. Among the amateurs, Stanley Kellogg had a long list of accomplishments. A sterling field of manufacturers included Indian, Excelsior, Harley-Davidson, Peugeot, N.S.U., Merkel and Thor.

Locals held high hopes for Indian rider Erwin Baker of Indianapolis, who later earned the nickname “Cannonball,” for his daring endurance runs. Baker had dominated a meet in Troy, Ohio on July 31, winning three of five races and finishing second in the other two.

Saturday was hot and clear and 8,000 spectators gathered at the new speedway to witness what had been billed as a series of record-breaking events. On that score they would be disappointed as not one record fell.

The competitors were spooked by the rough track with its tire-piercing rocks. Some of the riders refused to answer the call as the first of eight planned events assembled at 2 o’clock. The race was a 5-mile handicap for private entrants. Seven men entered with the faster riders leading slower ones by several seconds. A.G. Chapple won with a time of 4 minutes, 53.2 seconds. Indian motorcycles of Springfield, Mass. swept the first three finishing positions. 

The second event was a mile race for amateurs riding bikes with engines of less than 61 cubic inches of displacement. It started on the backstretch with the signal issued by telephone. It finished in front of the frontstretch grandstands with Indian rider Fred Huyck winning over favored Stanley Kellogg of the Merkel team.

After the race, J.A. Turner stopped his bike at the judge’s stand saying he represented the concerns of many others in announcing that he was afraid to enter more races. Kellogg simply refused to go on. Some of the FAM officials called their riders “yellow.”

The third and fourth races were 5 miles each. The first of the two was limited to members of the Indiana Motorcycle Club and was won by Paul Kottlowski riding a Minneapolis bike. His time was 5 minutes, 17 seconds. The other 5-mile run was for machines with less than 55 cubic inch capacity and was won by Huyck who beat Chapple to the line by little than the length of his bike.

The fifth event was a 10-mile race for professionals, but initially all the riders refused. Fisher and the FAM officials convinced the two biggest names in the sport, Ed Lingenfelder of Alhambra, Calif. and the top Indian rider, DeRosier, to stage a match race. 

Fisher and his director of contests, Ernie Moross, announced the event as a battle between the champion of the east, DeRosier, and the champion of the west, Lingenfelder. Moross, serving as starter for the meet, shouted into a megaphone to introduce the two riders. This was augmented by loud blasts of patriotic music from a band in front of the grandstand.

Lingenfelder appeared first. Attired in a pure white uniform, his crew secured his feet to the cranking pedals of his N.S.U. bike. DeRosier came onto the scene clad in bright red tights with a silk American flag on his back. As the band fired up the “Star Spangled Banner,” the Canadian-born rider pointed to his flag.

With their engines popping and crackling like musket fire, the racers were away. Lingenfelder led, and on the backstretch of the second lap, DeRosier pulled even, shouting at the Californian, “Take it easy!” To this Lingenfelder replied, “Are you getting cold feet?” 

DeRosier responded by throttling his Indian into the lead in Turn 3. Exiting Turn 4 DeRosier’s front tire exploded and the shredded rubber lodged in the fork abruptly jamming the wheel and hurling him over the handlebars and onto the unforgiving sharp stones. 

The machine slid for 30 feet with DeRosier rolling in front of it. After stopping, DeRosier, stunned and his uniform in shreds, rose to his feet only to stumble into a ditch on the inside of the track. 

The crowds swarmed the area and police fought to keep them from storming the course. DeRosier was rushed to Methodist Hospital where he would recover. Lingenfelder paced off the remaining two laps to officially record the victory.

Despite the realization of their fears in DeRosier’s accident, the organizers were able to assemble two more races. Huyck won his third event of the day in another handicap race, a five mile contest for machines of less than 61 cubic inch piston displacement. 

The last race was a 10-mile national championship for amateur riders. Forty-six riders were originally entered, but only four presented themselves. The race was notable as it helped further the career of its winner, future star Erwin Baker. Baker was the only rider in the meet that would also go on to drive in the Indianapolis 500.

The final scheduled event of the meet, a 25-mile race for professionals, never happened. FAM president Ovington mercifully pronounced the meet over.

Despite the complaints of competitors, the great motorcycle invasion of 1909 had many high points. FAM praised Indianapolis as excellent hosts to their convention and two Hoosiers were elected to national offices. Fred Willis was elected president and Wyatt vice-president, which was enough to bring FAM’s western district headquarters to Indianapolis.

While the track surface was clearly too rough for the lightweight bikes, the progress Fisher and his team made was a marvel of will. There was an air of destiny about the new track that was summed up in the Aug. 13, 1909 Indianapolis News, “It promises to do much toward increasing the fame of Indianapolis.” 

To read more historical content from the IMS archive, visit IMS.com/DigitalArchive.
 
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