Remembering the Southwest Sweepstakes Race of 1915, part 2

by Lynne Rostochil.

Go here to read Part 1 of the Southwest Sweepstakes story.

Tuesday, April 20th dawned bright and warm in Oklahoma City and provided the perfect spring weather for the kickoff of the highly anticipated Southwest Sweepstakes.  I imagine that classrooms and offices were very near vacant that morning as thousands drove or hopped the trolley to Linwood to check out the action.  Women and young ladies wore their finest walking suits topped with wide-brimmed hats …

… while men donned their summer straw hats and baggy sack suits for the occasion:

I’m sure that with temperatures rising throughout the day, they were all very hot in those layered looks and their feet were probably quite sore, too, but it was important to look your best for all social occasions, so hot and painful they were.

All morning, the hoards continued to arrive, grabbing all of the seats in the bleachers and the reserved boxes on the flat beds or snatching a favorite spot somewhere along the track, especially at the Willard Hook and Rainbow Curve.  According to the Oklahoman, 15 carloads of Apache motorists and 17 cars filled with Enid residents were among the throngs who showed up for this, the largest gathering of people in the city’s short history.  By the time of the first race at noon, the place was completely packed with orderly but anxious spectators waiting for the fun to begin.

The Motorcycle Race

As the day began to heat up in earnest, the first of the dozen motorcycle racers started lining up for their 150-mile race, the inaugural event of the Sweepstakes.  In the lineup were rival Indian and Harley teams, along with several individual riders with no team affiliation:

Earl O. Watts — Apache, OK — Indian
J.W. Eggleston — Ft. Worth, TX — Thor
S.L. Cheney — Tulsa, OK — Excelsior
Ray Weishaar — Wichita, KS — Harley Davidson
Joe Walter — Milwaukee, WI — Harley Davidson
Red Parkhurst — Milwaukee, WI — Harley Davidson
Spec Warner — Ellsworth, KS — Indian
Marty Graves — Springfield, MA — Indian
Sam Correnti — Dallas, TX — Indian
Millard Depew — Oklahoma City, OK — Harley Davidson
M.  Murry — Arkansas City, AR — Harley Davidson
C.E. Johnston — Ellsworth, KS — Indian

At the stroke of 12:00, the starting gun sounded and the riders were off:

The early leader was Leslie “Red” Parkhurst, a 6’4″ South Dakota native with a shock of red hair and an easy smile, who was also the first factory racer for Harley Davidson:

Gunning it at speeds up to 83 mph, Parkhurst kept all competition at bay:

Mishaps began soon after the race began.  Spec Warner’s front tire got stuck in a rut on the track and twisted, causing him to crash, and S.L. Cheney also experienced tire trouble when his front wheel blew out.  Both men had new tires put on their bikes and they rejoined the race, but they were too far behind to be any real competition for Parkhurst.

The treacherous Willard Hook, described in the Oklahoman as hovering “low over that northwestern corner of the race course, a heavy pall ready to enshroud the hardy men who matched against it their endurance and ability,” also claimed its first victim during the motorcycle event.  As he entered the hook on the last lap of the race as a strong third-place contender, rider Marty Graves catapulted “through the air from his stricken machine and lay quivering in the grass to be carried away swathed in bandages.”

Parkhurst experienced some challenges of his own during the race.  Midway into the race, his gas tank came loose and the skilled rider had to hold the teetering tank between his legs for the last 50 miles of the race while also averaging 68.5 miles per hour.  Parkhurst’s tenacity paid off, however, when the lanky racer was the first to cross the finish line a full seven minutes ahead of the second place rider, teammate Joe Walter, to claim the $500 purse.  His Harley team finished first, second, and fourth in the race.

The Oklahoma Championship

Shortly after the last cyclist crossed the finish line, it was the amateur racers’ turn.  One by one, the 11 souped-up open-air cars lined up at the starting line and drivers anxiously revved their engines waiting for the signal to start the 99-mile Oklahoma Championship.  The loud pop of the starting gun sounded, sending the racers off to see who could complete the 41 laps in the fastest time.  Almost before the dust settled at the start line, the race claimed its first casualty, and it was our pal Earl Swan:

Unfortunately, Earl washed out at the Willard Hook in the second lap.  Spectators looking for a show saw Swan’s “magnificent Knox rear like an angry steed to spring from the course and stop, smoking and misshapen, against a tree, while the driver and his mechanic lay sprawled in the grass, badly shaken but otherwise unhurt.”

R.G. Wallace left the race soon after Swan when his Wallace Special developed engine problems and stalled near the Willard Hook.  He and his car were removed from the track without incident.

J.H. Strickler of Enid zoomed his Buick Special into the lead for the first nine laps and claimed the fastest lap of the day at two minutes, 33 1/3 seconds, but engine trouble got the best of him, too, and he gave up the lead to pull into the pits and get it sorted out.  M.J. Main took over the lead in his Mercer but wasn’t able to hold onto it for long and by lap 15, Claude Foster of Tuttle claimed the top spot with his Overland, which looked similar to this racer from 1912:

Foster led until lap 25 when his oil tank fell off the car and he had to venture into the pits to have a new one attached.

Roy G. Thomas then took over the lead in his Hupmobile, but Claude Foster was back on the track in just a few minutes and wrestled the lead away from Thomas, holding it until the end.  Averaging a speed of 50 mph, Foster won the race in two hours, two minutes, and three-and-a-half seconds, Thomas was just a few seconds behind, and Charles Shaffstall and G.E. Chandler tied for third.  As the winner, Foster was offered the opportunity to race with the pros in the main event in two days, but he had had enough of racing for the time being and declined.

With the two races of the day complete, drivers and mechanics loaded up their rides while spectators unloaded the stands and headed home, anxiously awaiting the car/plane race at the Fairgrounds the following day.

The Big Race

As anyone who has lived in Oklahoma City for any length of time knows, April isn’t always the best time to plan outdoor activities and this certainly became true as the city awoke on Wednesday, April 21st to a deluge of wind and rain.  Visibility was so bad that the Fairgrounds race between Barney Oldfield and DeLloyd Thompson had to be cancelled and all anyone could do was hope for clear weather for the big race the following day.

Overnight, the rain continued to fall, and it didn’t stop the next day.  Puddles filled up all indentations in the track and caused damage to the Rainbow Curve, forcing organizers to postpone the main race until the next day.  Friday dawned cloudy and ominous as more rain began to fall, leaving racers and organizers with no choice but to reschedule again, this time for Sunday, April 25th.

As you might have guessed by now, Mother Nature continued to toy with everyone involved in the Southwest Sweepstakes when people awoke to even more spring rain on Sunday, which covered the already saturated track in two more inches of water.  Disappointed organizers announced that the race would be rescheduled for Thursday, April 29th to give them time to dry out the track and fix the problems at Rainbow Curve.  Luckily, the third time proved a charm and race day dawned clear and bright.

Newly elected mayor, Ed Overholser solidified his popularity, at least among school-age children, when he announced that schools could close early so students would have the chance to catch the big event.  He also closed all city offices at noon and encouraged retailers to shutter their businesses during race time, too.

Once again, throngs of people, over 16,000 of them, made their way to the grandstands, Rainbow Curve, and the Willard Hook to get the best views of the 200-mile race, which was comprised of 83 laps.  One racer who didn’t make it to the event was Eddie Rickenbacker, who had been having chronic engine problems with his car for awhile now and was forced to back out of the Southwest Sweepstakes at the last minute.

Shortly before the 2:00 start time, drivers began getting into position at the start line.  They lined up in rows of two, with each pair taking off at 20-second intervals.  The first two drivers out of the gate would be John Raimey and Earl Cooper.

The loud bang of the starter’s gun signalled that the race was now underway, and Raimey and Cooper gunned their motors and sped quickly down the track, leaving the other drivers to inhale the thick dust and fumes they left behind.

Raimey took an early lead in his Case:

The dreaded Willard Hook claimed its first victim of the race in the inaugural lap when Andy Scott blew a tire on the turn and crashed into the same tree that Earl Swan’s car sailed into in the previous race.  Scott and his mechanic sustained minor injuries and were out of the race for good.

In lap four, Billy Carlson and his Maxwell overtook Raimey, but he was soon passed by Barney Oldfield.  Oldfield didn’t keep the lead for long when he began having engine trouble and had to return to the pits several times to get it sorted out, leaving Carlson, Earl Cooper, and Dave Lewis to battle it out for first.

On the 28th lap, Carlson’s oil line broke near the Rainbow Curve, causing him to spin.  Cooper was right behind him and crashed into the dirt bank at Rainbow Curve to avoid a crash.  While Carlson was able to regain control of his car and continue to the pit to get his oil line fixed, Cooper’s car sustained too much damage to continue, all of which enabled Lewis to take a solid lead for the first time in the race.

More drama came at lap 62 when Oklahoman George Clark ran out of oil and returned to the pits. His crew added oil and gas to the car, but so much oil had leaked underneath the racer that it caught fire and ignited the entire back portion of his Mercedes.  The crew put out the flames quickly and no one was hurt, but the car was too damaged to go back into the race.

Lewis maintained the lead for a whopping 40 laps before reluctantly relinquishing it to race favorite, Bob Burman.  Up until lap 45, Burman had been going at an easy pace in his powerhouse Peugeot, but now he had passed everyone but Lewis, who he finally caught up to in lap 70.  Burman later said, “I just wanted to see what they had before extending myself.  That Stutz (the Lewis car) had more speed than oil, though, and I gave my car everything I could from then on.”

Once in the lead, there was no stopping Burman and his innovative new engine, even though Lewis gave him a good run for his money.  Here’s Burman in the lead at the Willard Hook:

Lewis stayed on Burman’s tail until the former leader nearly ran off the course at the Willard Hook, losing 20 precious seconds, but his fate was sealed when he had to go to the pits for a tire change in lap 77.

With no serious contenders now, Burman easily won the Southwest Sweepstakes with a time of two hours and 56 minutes:

The driver’s average speed was 67.8 mph and he finished a full minute and a half ahead of Lewis, but the show wasn’t over yet.  When Raimey was crossing the finish line, he nearly sideswiped the starter, who had been changing flags and didn’t realize he had strayed too far onto the course.  Luckily Raimey missed the man and just barely crossed the line without incident.

As soon as the winner crossed the finish line, Burman called for medical attention.  Apparently, way back in Lap 7 as he was passing Eddie Hearne, a pebble was thrown up by Hearne’s tire and hit Burman’s right goggle, breaking the glass and causing a splinter to settle in his eye. He had to drive the rest of the race wearing the broken goggles and trying to ignore the pesky splinter.  Ironically, Hearne received his payback at the same time when another pebble shot from Burman’s passing car and flew into his goggles, shattering one side.  He wasn’t injured, though.  Here’s a photo of Hearne at the Willard Hook during the race:

Here’s an exhausted looking Burman and his mechanic soon after they crossed the finish line…

… and second place Lewis and his mechanic:

The following day’s Oklahoman celebrated Burman’s victory with a full-column headline and several stories about the race:


So, what happened to all of these racers after the Southwest Sweepstakes spectators left and the track was disassembled?  Let’s start with the big race winner, Bob Burman.

Burman went on to race his Peugeot at the Indy 500 the following month, but his luck didn’t hold and he came in 6th.  Sadly, just a short year after his victory in Oklahoma City, Bob Burman was dead.  On April 8, 1916 in a race in Corona, CA, Burman’s left rear tire blew and his beloved Peugeot hit a telephone pole, flew into a crowd of spectators going over 100 mph, and skimmed over a car parked near the track, ripping off its top and steering wheel and injuring the occupants before coming to a rest back on the track.

Burman and his mechanic, Erick Schraeder, were pulled unconscious from the car and later died of their injuries.  Four people in the crowd – including a policeman – were killed and 15 were injured.  Even though his last and most famous racer was the tride and true Peugeot, Burman’s marker in Michigan reads, “A Buick race driver without peer, on the track he knew no fear.”

Struck by the tragedy of the gregarious Burman’s untimely death, his racing rival but good friend, Barney Oldfield, began working with fellow racer, Harry Miller, to design the first-ever roll cage to completely enclose drivers and keep them safe during high-speed crashes.  Oldfield continued racing, too, and on May 28, 1916, became the first person to lap the Indianapolis Speedway at more than 100 mph.  The driver and movie star finally retired from auto racing in 1918 but continued to make movies and public appearances until he died of a heart attack in Beverly Hills, CA in 1946 at the age of 68.

As for the other racers, the Southwest Sweepstakes was the last professional race for John Raimey, Louis Disbrow, and George Clark, who were all suspended by AAA in July 1915 for racing in unsanctioned events.  Likewise, Oklahoma native, Andy Scott, raced two more times in 1915 then disappeared from the circuit forever.

Millionaire Eddie Hearne had 106 AAA championship starts in his career and raced in nine Indy 500s.  He won the 1923 National Championship before retiring in 1927.  He died in 1955 at the age of 67.

Billy Carlson participated in his second Indy 500 just after the Southwest Sweepstakes and placed 9th in that match up.  Sadly, three months later on July 4th, 1915, Carlson and his mechanic were killed in Tacoma when the racer’s tire blew on a banked curve, sending the duo and their car flipping and rolling.  Earl Cooper had a much happier fate.  After he retired from racing in 1927, he and his mechanic, Reeves Dalton, began building front-drive Cooper race cars, one of which raced at the Indy 500 in the 1940s.

As for Howard “Howdy” Wilcox, he had 11 starts at Indy and won the race in 1919, but he was killed in another race in Altoona, PA in 1923.  Possible murderer, Louis Disbrow retired from racing after the Southwest Sweepstakes and, in the ensuing years, became a garage owner, an aviator, a race car and boat builder, an engineer, and a race official.  He died in 1939 at the age of 62.

Dave Lewis continued racing and placed second at Indy in 1925, but his career was cut short when the racer committed suicide in 1928.

As for good ole Earl Swan, don’t you think he can claim more than a passing resemblance to George H.W. Bush?  That’s Earl in the top photo and Bush in the bottom one…

They could be twins!

Anyway, Earl married the beautiful Edna Waller in 1917:

Shortly after his marriage, Earl was off on another adventure, this time flying Curtiss hydroplanes and keeping an eye out for enemy submarines along the Eastern seaboard:

After the war, he worked in New Mexico, Kentucky, Missouri, and Oklahoma as an engineer on oil drilling sites.  Later in his career, Earl joined with his brother, Leslie’s insurance firm and spent the rest of his life enjoying Edna, holding national offices in the Shriners organization, and travelling.  Earl died in Oklahoma City in 1968 at the age of 78.  His wife, Edna, followed in 1979.

As for the Southwest Sweepstakes, everyone declared the race a great success — even with the delays — and organizers declared that the race would be the first of many annual events; however, this would be the only Grand Prix race in Oklahoma City history. Why?

With war raging in Europe for over a year by the time of the race, people in the U.S. were on edge about America becoming involved in the conflict, too.  A little over a week after the Southwest Sweepstakes, a German submarine sunk the passenger liner Lusitania on May 7, 1915, killing 1,198 people, 128 of whom were Americans.  After the sinking of the Lusitania, it was a given that the United States would enter the conflict, which it did in 1917.

During the war, AAA suspended all racing, even the Indy 500, and after the end of hostilities, the idea of OKC hosting another Grand Prix event wasn’t mentioned again until 2010, when Mayor Nick Cornett offered up the idea of hosting a big race in Bricktown.  For some reason, most people weren’t in love with the idea and it never came to fruition, so the 1915 event remains the only big race the metro has ever hosted.

The Southwest Sweepstakes Track Today

As for the Southwest Sweepstakes track, the roadways are now quiet residential streets lined with beautiful homes.  Where the terrifying Willard Hook once enticed drivers to their doom is now the quiet intersection of NW 16th and Drexel:

The turn at NW 12th and Drexel:

And here’s the straightaway on NW 12th heading towards Youngs:

The turn from NW 12th onto Youngs:

Here’s Rainbow Curve at Youngs turning onto NW 16th:

And the straightaway on NW 16th heading to Drexel:

The race must have exposed a lot of potential buyers to the fledgling neighborhood because housing construction began in earnest in the area in 1916 and continued well into the 1930s.

The large arch that appears in so many photos of the race was located at NW 16th and Drexel:

Today, a smaller replica has been built at NW 19th and Drexel:

Interestingly, there is no historical marker or any other memorial dedicated to the great Southwest Sweepstakes race of 1915 and the event has been largely forgotten by historians and residents alike.  I would have been one of those people had I not stumbled upon a few weathered photo albums at an antique store one fall day and discovered the historic treasures they contained.