Few people know the forerunners to the popular NASCAR races were locally held events, including beach races in Galveston. The Galveston Automobile Club organized the first public race in 1906. The event attracted 3,000 spectators, but that was just a hint of the excitement to come.
After the devastating 1900 storm, community leaders and business owners were searching for ways to reinvigorate the formerly successful cotton industry by demonstrating the versatility of the island to outside investors. The creation of the Cotton Festival in 1909 seemed to be the answer, offering a wide variety of activities including a beauty pageant, speeches, school essay contests, motorboat parades, and even a new Cotton Palace exhibition hall.
The most thrilling of the events, however, was undoubtedly the automobile races on the hard-packed sand of Denver Beach, one of the earliest major races in the south.
Capt. J. W. Munn, president of the Galveston Automobile Club, traveled to New York City to gain sanctioning for the event from the American Automobile Association, and the city was on its way to its place in the racing record books.
The first Cotton Carnival included a parade of local cars driven by their owners on the day before the races began. Because only the well-to-do could afford such a luxury at that time, the spectacle reinforced Galveston’s image as a lucrative city. Families decorated their vehicles in the carnival theme colors of green and white, representing cotton, and added flourishes of patriotic red, white and blue.
The original course for the car races was on Denver Beach, west of the end of the street railway track and was a mile long with turns at either end. Denver Beach stretched from the west end of the city limits to about Thirty-Ninth Street.
Most attendees to the free event traveled to the track via streetcars and horse-drawn carriages, but the excited throng braved the summer heat in their finest attire.
Both automobiles and motorcycles raced for modest monetary prizes. Drivers could participate in one and one-half, two, five or 10-mile races, or challenge themselves and their autos in the impressive 50-mile “free-for-all” course of 10 five-mile laps. This last race was set on a separate course east of Denver Beach.
Many of the cars reached a mile a minute speed on the courses, which were rolled hard by waves.
In 1909, a first-place winner could expect to receive $75, with $50 going to the second place finisher and $25 to third place. Each winning position also was awarded an engraved silver loving cup.
The prestige of the Denver Beach races drew many famous drivers of the day, including Barney Oldfield, Len Zengle, Harry Endicott, Ralph Mulford, Joe Horal, Fred Belcher and Eddie Rickenbacker (later a famous World War I fighter pilot). The cars were as impressive as their operators, with Studebaker, Buick, Peugeot, Chadwick, National and Duesenberg being represented.
As the event increased to over 15,000 spectators, rope boundaries did little to deter eager fans who seemed oblivious of the dangers of wandering onto the track during the races. Eventually, substantial wooden fences, grandstands and a large force of special deputies were used to keep crowds away from the speeding autos.
In 1912, the length of the race circuit was cut in half to increase fans’ excitement as racecars passed the stands in increased repetitions.
One of the most popular souvenir postcards of the event featured a photo of an airplane piloted by famous aviator Charles K. Hamilton racing his plane against a car along the Galveston beach in 1913.
San Antonio native Tobin Dehemel, just 19 years old at the time, broke the record for a three-mile track in Waco, Texas, prior to racing in Galveston. In his first race on Denver Beach, he completed 21 miles in 22:05:50, driving a Stoddard-Dayton Model 14.
Dehemel shared in an interview that “the wind blows so hard when you’re going a mile a minute or more that once open, you can’t close your mouth.” He described the Galveston course as the “swellest track I ever saw.”
Dehemel also participated in an astounding 200-mile straightaway course. With the auto designs of the day, this required the driver to hold the steering gear in a precise position the entire time in order to control the engine, to say nothing of understanding the physics, abilities and positions of other vehicles on the track. Setting a world record, he drove the course in three hours, two minutes and 22 seconds and received a $1,000 prize.
The Denver Beach races grew quickly between 1909 and 1914, attracting locals to try their skill as well as visiting professionals. Names recognizable to the Galveston community included Maco Stewart and organizer Captain Munn, himself.
In 1914, America’s champion Ralph Mulford won 10 of the 16 events he entered in his famous No. 7 Peugeot, driving an average speed 74.65 mph in the longer events. He led the prize-winnings for the third year running, receiving $600.
The Cotton Carnival races at Denver Beach began losing their prestige by 1915 and were discontinued. The cotton money that supported the event could no longer compete with the larger oil and auto part industry-funded races in the north, including the Indianapolis 500.
To learn more about the subject, visit the website for the Great Savannah Races Museum at www.greatsavannahraces.com.
For further reading about the history of auto racing, Galveston Monthly recommends “Auto Racing Comes of Age: A Transatlantic View of the Cars, Drivers and Speedways, 1900-1925” by Robert Dick, and “”Mad for Speed: The Racing Life of Joan Newton Cuneo” by Elsa A. Nystrom