So… What Really Happened in 1905?

This week on as the world turns, AAA edition, we take a peek back to 1905; when the recently created AAA Contest Board sanctioned the very first points paying championship in the western hemisphere. The legality of this championship, like many other things AAA related, has always been a point of debate for scholars of such minutia. Nevertheless, the championship did in fact actually take place and golden era motorsports favorite and AAA racing outlaw Barney Oldfield won the season championship. For reasons officially unknown, the championship was cancelled after its maiden season and it was 1916 before AAA created a championship trail again.

The 1905 championship trail consisted of eleven races and a single, non championship event. The season was a compressed contest running from June through September. There were 21 drivers who at least showed up with intentions to qualify for a points race. The season was dominated by Barney Oldfield who entered eight races, started six and won five events en route to clinching the points standings by years end. Oldfield was the only competitor who entered races throughout the season. Louis Chevrolet, P2, started the year strong, winning three of the first four races, but cracked his block in race five removing him from competition for the rest of the season. Jay Webb, P3,  drove a White Steamer but was unable to compete in many events. The non championship event, as far as I can tell, had a bad wreck early in the race and was restarted, only to be removed from the championship trail at a later date.

The championships main problem seemed to be the lack of a consistent competitor for Oldfield. More entrants were needed but there was definitely interest shown by the 21 drivers attempting at least one race during the season. But not all of these drivers attended all races, in fact no one made an appearance at all eleven races. Car count ranged from two to four with one race, Morris Park 2, having only a single entrant. However, the gate draw was good with multiple accounts of two to three thousand spectators at some events.

This is all fine and dandy. The issue that has plagued historians is the continued forgetfulness of AAA, as a sanctioning body. For reasons that have long been forgotten, the 1905 season seemed to actually disappear from the AAA records collection. Remember, in 1926 and 1927, the then Racing Board falsely created championship seasons for 1909 – 1915 and 1917-1919. If the 1905 season records was still in AAA possession, I can only assume that the records would have been officially added, changed at this time or even alluded to in what remains of the historical record. It would appear that a mere 21 years would be all that was needed to officially erase the 1905 season from history.

AAA was long guilty about not being the best record keepers; often discarding swaths of storage boxes to make room for new, more important data. I can’t really blame them. Consider the mindset of those at the time. These men were clearly not convinced that this whole racing thing would even pan out considering it took the loud and persistent pleas of Motor Age, an automobiling journal of the time, for the AAA to finally install an official championship. I don’t think that saving every shred of information from these clandestine state fair sideshows was AAA’s main concern. Sufficed to say, sometimes events are not considered historically relevant when they happen only to become a gaping hole the record; why in their right minds would think we would be pining for actual results over 100 years later?

If the creators didn’t think it was important, why would history want to remember? Another issue with the 1905 season is its overall length. Although to initially be considered for a championship event, organizers had to hold a race of at least five laps, but at most ten. Even in 1905, the worlds major races were substantially longer. In 1905 the earliest vestiges of the French Grand Prix, the Gordon Bennett Cup, was contested for four laps over and 85 mile open street course. The 1905 Vanderbilt Cup was contested for ten laps over a nearly thirty mile open street course. These races were hundreds of miles long and took hours to complete. There are many, many examples of massive tracks holding endurance races during this time period. The entire championship trail of the 1905 AAA season consisted of 61 miles total, spread across the eleven race season; not quite a festival ‘o endurance. State fair sideshow indeed.

Finally, in 1952, Russ Catlin famously steps in again to “save” the day. AAA was on the eve of celebrating its 50th anniversary of operation when Catlin had a remarkable idea; give 50 years of championship winners for 50 years of operations. By this time, unbeknownst to Catlin, there were already quite a few bogus champions included on the official tally and history was set to repeat itself. Using no known rubric, Catlin added seven new champions, for the years 1902 through 1908. Other than awarding false champions, the largest rub comes with him awarding Victor Hemery the 1905 championship.

To Catlins credit he was a a student of the sport and wanted its history to be as accurate as possible. I really do believe that he simply was unaware of the 1905 championship. Similarly to the situation in 1926, if he had access to said historical documents, why would he not include anything dealing with the 1905 season? Catlin was not a historical butcher; he was just confused by non period documentation created in 1926. There was no way he had access to any 1905 information as he innocently selected that years Vanderbilt Cup winner for the season champion; a driver that did not contest a single race of the official season.

Although the official INDYCAR historical guide contains the unofficial years of 1909 – 1915 and 1917-1919, curiously 1905 in excluded. I find it difficult to believe that a short in length championship is any less valid or historically important than ten years of falsely created champions. The fact that these champions are absolutely bogus is not hidden in the guide; why in the world would 1905 not be included? It was still ran to “championship” rules of the time and fully sanctioned by the AAA. Only being guilty for being forgotten for nearly eighty years, it took an independent group of historians to piece together the true story using period sources.

With not much thanks to the official sanctioning bodies of American open wheel racing; the supposed keepers and purveyors of this information, we seem to be getting a more clear picture of how racing in America developed. Unlike the European style country road courses, our first championship was distinctly American; Running on horse tracks and turning left because it was the farthest thing from European automobile racing we could come up with.

Although probably more deserving of a footnote than along side the yearly championship winners in the annuls of indycar racing, the events of the 1905 season are official and actually did happen. What do you think the legality of this season is? Do you think it deserves to be included as a full voting member in the history of American racing?

Eric Hall

Note: Don Capps is my main source of historical confidence for this post. He has researched period media and included them in an extensive season recap on the Autosport nostalgia forum.

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4 Responses to So… What Really Happened in 1905?

  1. Nice work. This is the sort of stuff I love.

  2. H. Donald Capps says:

    Eric,

    A nice summary regarding a too often overlooked and forgotten American championship.

    To answer your question: it was definitely an official championship and should be included in the records. Indeed, that it is excluded and bogus seasons included is a serious bone of contention and a good reason to have historians and not statisticians or PR people keeping the history records.

    As to 1905, several factors to it being “forgotten” are the new leadership of of the AAA were not kindly disposed towards automobile racing in light of the deaths and injuries on the track during the 1905 season, an attitude which the Racing Board clearly reflected during 1906. It is also good to keep in mind that the Racing Board records are very few and very far in-between, being primarily in the form of the Contest Rules from the period. It is not known exactly what happened to the Racing Board records when the Contest Board was formed in early 1909 under an agreement with the Manufacturers Contest Association. The assumption is that the were retained by the Contest Board. If so, they are now long gone.

    As for Russ Catlin, I am not so kindly disposed towards him as I may have been once upon a time. It is now clear that Catlin DID NOT rescue the records of the Contest Board as was often claimed. As if that were not enough, the damage he has done to the pre-1921 history of the sport will take years upon years to undo, as the Izod IndyCar 2012 Historical Record Book clearly demonstrates.

    But, I digress….

  3. Pingback: INDYCAR – How Did We Get Here? Pt. 1 When Did We Start? | anotherindycarblog

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