Ed Fletcher, driving a Franklin, and three companions set out for Phoenix in 1912. / San Diego Historical Society
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Civic pride on the line in Phoenix road race
By Richard Crawford, Special to the Union-Tribune12:04 a.m.March 11, 2010
Ed Fletcher, driving a Franklin, and three companions set out for Phoenix in 1912.
In the early 1900s, Southern Californians reveled in auto road racing. One of the most popular events was the annual Los Angeles-Phoenix road race. As a test of fragile machines running on barely existent trails, nothing else compared to the dash across the desert.
In October 1912, San Diegans were casting envious eyes upon Los Angeles as that city prepared for its fifth annual race. Why shouldn’t such a contest begin in San Diego, civic boosters asked? After all, Phoenix was a straight shot from San Diego. A successful showing would also highlight the town as the logical terminus for the proposed national “Ocean-to-Ocean Highway” stretching from Baltimore, Md., to California.
A committee led by San Diego businessman and road enthusiast Ed Fletcher proposed challenging Los Angeles with its own race starting on the same date and time. Prize money was quickly raised — much of it from the city of Phoenix, which was delighted with the San Diego bid.
Official sanction for the event came from the American Automobile Association. The races would begin about the same time, but Los Angeles drivers would reach Arizona by way of San Bernardino and Indio before turning southwest to Yuma. San Diego contestants drive due east. Despite a detour north after El Centro to avoid several miles of sand hills, the southern path was at least 100 miles shorter than the Los Angeles route. “We will beat the Los Angeles cars by a full 12 hours, at the very least,” boasted one San Diego driver.
For the most part, Los Angeles ignored what was happening in San Diego. The Los Angeles Times barely acknowledged its southern neighbor. The Los Angeles Examiner was more enthusiastic and challenged Fletcher to a separate “pathfinder” race between the two cities. Starting earlier in the day than the official entrants, the Examiner car would race to Phoenix via Blythe, ignoring Yuma. Fletcher, represented by the San Diego Evening Tribune, would follow the more direct route due east across the desert. When the Phoenix Gazette joined in as a co-sponsor of Fletcher, the car became the “Tribune-Gazette Pathfinder.”
The great race began on Saturday night, Oct. 26. Enormous crowds filled the sidewalks and street as 22 race cars lined up on Fifth Street, between D and C streets. At 10:15 p.m., the celebrity starter — Gen. Leonard Wood, hero of the Spanish-American War — yelled “Go” and the first car “shot forward with a bound.” At 5-minute intervals, the rest of the field started on their way, speeding up Fifth to University then east out of town on El Cajon Boulevard.
Up north, only 12 cars began the traditional “Los Angeles-Phoenix” version of the great race. According to the Times, “tens of thousands of frenzied men and women” gathered for the start in front of the Hollenbeck Hotel. At 11 p.m. the drivers began “the most sensational fight ever waged on the sand of the lonely desert” as they sped east toward Ontario before turning southeast.
The last two cars to start that night were the “outlaws.” Running their own separate match race — unsanctioned by the Automobile Association — were San Diego Mayor James Wadham and future mayor Percy J. Benbough. At 12:05 on Sunday morning, the big touring cars, each carrying three passengers besides the driver, set off toward Arizona for the “honor and glory” of San Diego.
One car was already well on the way to Phoenix. “Pathfinder” Ed Fletcher, driving a 20-horsepower, air-cooled Franklin, had left early Saturday morning. Fletcher and his three companions decided to ignore the detour taken by the San Diego racers (north toward Niland to avoid the towering sand dunes east of El Centro) and risk the more direct path, straight through the sand to Yuma.
But first Fletcher had to drive through 30 miles of scrubby desert. “The Franklin did nobly,” Fletcher recalled, but he found that small twigs were filling his engine and began popping through his cooling system. Fletcher stopped the car, lifted the hood and the twigs blazed. The men frantically threw sand on the engine to stop the fire.
To negotiate the sand hills, Fletcher reduced his tire pressure to 20 pounds. He had also prudently stationed a horse team in the area. When the car labored in the hubcap-deep sand, the 6-horse team pulled his touring car 4½ miles across the dunes.
It was dark by the time the Pathfinder reached the Colorado River, opposite Yuma. With the ferryboat gone for the night, Fletcher tried the railroad bridge. “We took that risk; used blankets and seats to keep (the rail spikes) from puncturing out tires — but we made it.”
Fletcher’s next obstacle was the weather. Heavy winds and rain beat down on the crew as they reached the Hassayampa River, flowing at flood stage but negotiable on another railroad bridge. Downed eucalyptus trees on the trail then slowed their progress. The men sawed through the trees and continued on. Outside of Phoenix, the Agua Fria River was crossed by yet another convenient railroad bridge.
Fletcher finally drove into Phoenix — “exhausted but happy” — 19 hours after leaving San Diego. The competing Examiner pathfinder car never arrived. It had broken down in the desert near Blythe.
The next cars to appear in Phoenix were the “outlaws.” Mayor Wadham pulled in at 5:40 a.m. on Monday morning. Percy Benbough arrived two hours later, bemoaning a delay caused by being stuck in the sand but claiming a better running time than Wadham. The two men bickered over the result before agreeing to call it a tie.
The official drivers from San Diego and Los Angeles — all delayed by a checkpoint in Yuma — began arriving that afternoon. Only seven San Diegans finished the hard race. D.C. Campbell, driving a Stevens-Duryea, was first with a running time of 16 hours, 59 minutes.
Los Angeles’ best finish was by Ralph Hamlin in 18 hours, 45 minutes. The Times reported his victory with a stirring story of Hamlin’s race. The San Diego Union proudly headlined its account with: SAN DIEGO CAR BEATS LOS ANGELES.
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