In 1909, one of the first long-distance races in the Midwest took place in Crown Point, Indiana. Billed as the “Vanderbilt of the West” (the famed Vanderbilt Cup Race in New York began in 1904), the race sought to live up to the grandeur of its eastern counterpart.
In 1909, automobiles were still fairly new, and many people didn’t own one. The race was a novelty for many Hoosiers who emerged from their homes to witness the strange sight.
The Crown Point race was sponsored by Ira M. Cobe of the Chicago Motor Club. The race ran along rural highways from Crown Point to Lowell to Cedar Lake and back. It began and ended at the intersection of Indiana Avenue and Burrell Dr. Cobe billed his competition as the ultimate endurance race.
In preparation for the event, Cobe built huge grandstands for the expected audience to sit. Telegraph stations were constructed along the race route to relay standings. Pedestrian bridges were built over the route. Roads were treated with a “taroid” process, a mixture of oil and tar that helped the vehicles travel faster. It was an expensive undertaking. To cover expenses, a $2 admission fee was charged to spectators in the grandstands.
Two competitions made up the event. The first took place on Friday, June 18, with 16 racers competing in the Indiana Trophy Race. Some of the country’s most daring drivers turned up for the competition, including Harry Stutz of Bearcat fame. Racers traveled 232.74 miles from Crown Point to Lowell and back. Joe Matson took first place in a Chalmers-Detroit Blue Bird.
On Saturday, June 19, the much anticipated Cobe Trophy Race took place. Twelve racers sped off from Crown Point in an epic, endurance-testing 8-hour, 395.6 mile race. The first racer to cross the finish line was Billy Bourque, but he was not the winner. Start times had been staggered for logistical reasons, so it was the second car to complete the course who actually made the best time.
The Cobe Trophy was awarded to Louis Chevrolet, who, driving a souped-up Buick, had beaten Bourque by little more than a minute. Chevrolet completed the course in 8 hours, 1 minute, and 30 seconds. This was in spite of the fact that he had blown a cylinder earlier in the competition and lost precious time while making repairs. Chevrolet had clocked an average speed of 49.287 mph. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway was founded later that year, and Chevrolet would go on to win nine IndyCar races. In 1911, he founded Chevrolet motor company, which succeeded in large part due to his celebrity as a champion racer.
For Crown Point, Cobe’s 1909 racing competition was the only organized automobile race to take place in the city. The event had been a failure from a revenue standpoint, with nearly $25,000 in losses. The race was too long for most spectators and many who did come to see the epic competition discovered that they could avoid the admission fee by watching from unmanned portions of the rural route.
In 1910, the Cobe Race was held at the newly opened Indianapolis Motor Speedway. By 1911, IMS has begun its own Indy500 series, and the Cobe Race was discontinued. Today, few people remember the epic car race that took place in Crown Point, Lowell, and Cedar Lake back in 1909. Nevertheless, the competition was an important part of early automobile racing history. The original Cobe Trophy is now owned by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum.