Back in 1908 Ira Cobe, president of the Chicago Auto Club, wanted to prove that the Midwest could promote stock car races that could compare with those in other parts of the country. Plans took shape for the big race of 1909, an event that became the foreunner of the Indianapolis 500 Race.
Harold Wheeler of Crown Point was among those who planned the route from Crown Point to Cedar Lake, and on to Lowell, then returning to Crown Point, a route touching few towns, no railroad crossings, with tarred, stone roads.
Cobe offered an elaborate trophy bearing his name, and cars were to be of the same type sold to the public.
There were actually two races held the weekend of June 18 and 19, 1909, with the first race for the Indiana Trophy. The winner, Joe Matson, drove his Chalmers-Detroit racer the 10 laps in four hours, 31 minutes, and 21 seconds, averaging 52.2 miles per hour.
A huge grandstand was built in Crown Point on the "Nine Mile Stretch," described by Rev. Timothy Ball as follows in his report of 1909: "The stand was an immense structure, in length 864 feet, in depth 60 feet, in height about 25 feet. The number of seats 10,000. Amount of lumber used, 400.000 feet. 59 kegs of nails. Contract price for construction, $10,000."
Grandstands were also built near Creston, Cedar Lake and in at least two sites in the town of Lowell. One location on North Clark St. was advertised as "safe from cars and the racers can be seen for two miles on the fastest part of the course." Tickets for the grandstand on Clark Street were on sale at Fred Schmal's Hotel, according to an old advertisement in The Lowell Tribune.
To keep the public from getting injured by the speeding racers, two walking bridges were constructed in downtown Lowell -- one over Clark St. at Commercial Avenue, and another arched over Commercial Avenue near the big Soldiers' Monument.
An even larger viaduct for horses was constructed over the raceway at the corner of Main Street and Clark Street.
The racers roared down from Cedar Lake on what is now Morse Street and sped down Clark Street because there was no bridge over Cedar Creek on Mill Street. But a speed of only eight miles was recommended at the Clark Street intersection turning onto Commercial Avenue, where a barricade of straw bales was piled up in front of the business places on the south side of Commercial, including the Ed Pixley Jewelry Store.
The daily papers advertised in advance that immense crowds would come and would not be accommodated at any price. They went so far as to picture hungry, crying children and people sleeping on the ground. According to editor Ragon of The Lowell Tribune, those terrible stories kept much of the public away.
The stories about the actual number of spectators present for the weekend vary, but most agree with Mr. Ragon, who estimated that less than 50,000 persons attended both days. One report: "All the grandstands in Lowell were crowded -- with emptiness."
The Chicago Automobile Club went into debt for $25,000, while folks who made hundreds of sandwiches and other refreshments, had to bury their unsold goods, which were spoiling in the June heat. Most of the spectators brought their own picnic lunches and did not pay to sit in the many grandstands because there was plenty of room along the race route.
Former Lowell businessman Harold Love, now deceased, told the Old Timer that as a young lad, he was privileged to ride in Louis Strang's racer on a practice run and said that his mother was not as happy as he was when he told her about the exciting trip on the race course.
Strang kept his speed machine at William Tramm's blacksmith shop on West Commercial during the weekend. Another Lowell businessman, Earle "Babe" Tanner, also deceased, once recalled that he watched the races from the corner of Commercial Ave. and Oak Street on the east side of town, and that he really enjoyed it, even though there was quite a wait between the racers. He was impressed by the many soldiers who were on guard and directing traffic all along the race course.
A notice was published in The Lowell Tribune: "Owing to the immense crowd of people and autos, it will be found necessary to blindfold horses coming in from the country, especially when crossing the viaducts." All people were warned to stay off the streets.
Fred Castle advertised hitching posts for 150 horse teams at Castle Park (now VFW grounds) at 35¢ a team.
On June 19, 1909, the longer Cobe Trophy Race was on with the following entrants: A. Dennison driving a 40 horsepower Knox; W. Bouroque in a 48 HP Knox; G. Robertson in a 40 HP Locomobile; J. Florida driving a 40 HP Locomobile; E.A. Hearne with a 42 HP Fiat; L. Strang driving a 32 HP Buick; Louis Chevrolet with a 32 HP Buick; R. Burman also in a 32 HP Buick; H. Lytle in a 53 HP Apperson; M. J. Seymour driving a 53 HP Apperson; B. Miller with a Stoddard-Dayton 44 HP; C.A. Engelbeck driving a Stoddard-Dayton 44 HP.
The twelve cars were to drive 17 laps for a total of 395.66 miles. When all the smoke and dust cleared at the end of the race, Louis Chevrolet of France was the winner in his 32 horsepower Buick, with an average speed of 49.26 miles per hour, all in 8 hours, 1 minute and 39 seconds. The fastest mile was driven at nearly 88 miles per hour.
Many of the Lowell townspeople were glad to get rid of the speeding drivers with all the dust and smoke, but those involved in grandstands and refreshment sales were very disappointed because, for them, the end meant financial disaster. But even with those losses, the race was called somewhat successful, especially in proving a newer mode of transportation and for modern engineering.
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