When the question “what was the first off-road race series?” comes up, many have to think real hard, and if they know their stuff, they might say the NORRA Baja races, or the Riverside River bottom events.
On both counts, they would be wrong.
The answer: The Cactus Derby! It ran from 1907 to 1914 between Los Angeles and Phoenix, alternating starting and finish lines between the two cities. First prize was $2,500.
There was no interstate highway connecting the two, but the race generally followed the route that this road now takes. In fact, the race was run to encourage the building of a paved road between the two towns. Not to parody the present SCORE press releases on how rough their courses are, but this race really did travel over desert trails, wagon routes, river crossings, and silt beds 3 feet deep, and when it rained, turned the silt into 3-feet-thick mug bogs. Throw in some miserable weather, with blowing dust and snow to boot.
November 9, 1914, before the crack of dawn on a Monday, 20 entrants started the last running of the Derby in Los Angeles, Among the racers were such well-knowns as Louis Chevrolet, Olin Davis, Cliff Durant, Louis Nikrent and the “Grand Old man” Barney Oldfield, the first man to go over 60 mph on an oval in 1903. They drove the trophy trucks of the day—Chevrolet, Buick, Cadillac, Ford, Simplex, Paige, Thomas, and Stutz.
There were many similarities to today’s desert racing—the early start times, each entry had a riding mechanic, and they left at 2-minute intervals. Their first difficulty was the El Cajon Pass—the Alco and the Metz rolled it in the snow. The weather cleared between there and Barstow, but mud was a problem. Oldfield and his riding mechanic George Hill arrived in Barstow in first, with Cliff Durant less than a minute behind in his Chevy.
Four more cars bit the proverbial dust between Barstow and Needles, the first overnight stop. The next morning, 15 cars restarted and crossed the Colorado River into Arizona at the Santa Fe Bridge. The next checkpoint was Kingman and speeds exceeded 65 mph on the open stretch where the racers were trying to stay ahead of a storm that could turn the roads into a quagmire.
Oldfield led Nikrnet and Davis through the mountains as they headed for the 558-mile mark at Prescott, the second overnight point. According to Motor Age Magazine, the drivers said that the hail “felt like rocks on their faces,” but they all made good time.
Oldfield had not done well in the last four years, and needed a win in this year’s Derby. He and his mechanic poured it on this leg—they came into Prescott with a 48-minute lead over Davis in the Simplex. The Prescott Courier newspaper describes the scene: “As Oldfield swooped over the hill and neared the scratch (finish line), there was a mighty cheer from all who were in line and as he and the mechanic stepped from the car, they looked like two huge geysers, rather than men, they were surrounded by dozens of enthusiastic fans, each eager for the word from his lips, which were practically sealed by mud and muck.”
Davis and his Simplex were running second, and the previous year’s winner, Louie Nikrent was third. Eleven cars made it to Prescott, and all but the Paige car was ready for the restart in the morning, The next (and last) leg was to the finish line in Phoenix—136 miles away, but the roughest part of the race.
The course went south to Copper Basin Road, to Kirkland, Congress Junction, then through Wickenburg to Phoenix. The grade to Copper Basin took out Davis in the Simplex and Oldfield got stuck in New River, where two racers passed him. He eventually was pulled out by a mule team.
Thinking the race was lost, but being the hard charger he was, Motor Age said, “he opened up and drove as he had not driven before in this race. As Oldfield came down the road, the car and crew looked like an adobe house on wheels, the cigar on his face had turned into a clay clod, and the mask on his face had holes where mouth and eyes were.”
Nikrent had crossed the Phoenix Fairgrounds finish first, but Oldfield won and had him on total elapsed time of 23 hours. Nikrent was second with 23 hours, 35 minutes. It was a great victory for the greatest racer of the era, Barney Oldfield. In all, eight racers finished, and in this event, just to finish was a triumph.
Oldfield suppressed some pre-race controversy with the win; some chided him for entering his Stutz, which was built for the Indy 500, (and not the desert) where he placed fifth in this car the previous Memorial Day.
As the telegram shows, Firestone was elated with the win. Oldfield helped Firestone develop tires, and the company used the advertising slogan “Firestone tires are my only life insurance, says Barney Oldfield.”
Some 50 years later, a driver with a similar style to Oldfield, Parnelli Jones, would put Firestone back in the off-road wins column with victories in the Baja 1000 and 500 in the early ’70s.
The 1914 race was the last, because good roads had finally been built between Los Angeles and Phoenix.
Vaya con Dios
from the staff of Dirt Sports