The Cactus Derby: Arizona’s Early Roadways Attract Legendary Daredevils

Excerpt from Arizoniana by Marshall Trimble, the state’s official historian.

Back in those halcyon days, when getting someplace was an adventure, daring drivers ran road races across the Arizona desert to promote the building of better highways. It’s hard to believe but as recently as 1929 Arizona had less than 300 miles of paved highways. In 1908 promoters began staging road races between Los Angeles and Phoenix. Billed as the Cactus Derby, they attracted such racing daredevils as the legendary Barney Oldfield, Olin Davis and Lewis Chevrolet. Drivers vied for a $2,500 prize and the title, Master Driver of the World.

The prize money wasn’t that important—they left more than $50,000 in auto parts scattered across the desert between Los Angeles and Phoenix. It was the lofty title they sought.

Cactus DerbyCactus Derbies were staged from 1908 to 1914 and followed a variety of routes. One passed through Bars tow, Needles, Ashfork, then turned south to Prescott, Skull Val­ley, Wickenburg and Phoenix. Another went to Blythe, forded the Colorado River on a ferry, then on to Salome and Phoenix. An alternative route went from Palm Springs to Brawley and Yuma before heading for Phoenix, now billed as the Speed Capital of the World.

Keep in mind there weren’t any garages or service sta­tions on the 500-mile stretch of barren desert. Drivers strapped on spare parts and gas cans for the long journey. They raced against the clock so each evening the race ended in some town and the cars were impounded under guard in a local corral to keep mechanics from making repairs. The 1908 race was won by a steam-powered car (much to the chagrin of gas-powered enthusiasts) in the time of 30 hours and 36 minutes or an average speed of 17.6 mph. The most exciting race in the series was the last one held in 1914. Mack Sennet and his Keystone Kops couldn’t have done it any better.

The three-day race began in Los Angeles in a driving rain. Spectators, promoters and boosters traveling by rail, on the Howdy Special, rode along to enjoy the spectacle. Each night, boosters wearing colorful costumes of red and black along with a cap with the word, Howdy, emblazoned across the front, took possession of the town, partying until the wee hours then re-boarding their train to the next overnight stop.

East of Needles, the drivers used the Santa Fe railroad bridge to cross the Colorado River. Planks had been spread across the ties and any driver who slipped off was guaranteed a rough ride, not to mention a bent rim and flat tires. Lewis Chevrolet missed the planks and nearly destroyed his auto before reaching the other side.

Near Kingman, Bill Carlson’s Maxwell broke down. He walked into town for spare parts and when he returned, thieves had stripped his auto. (Some things never change).

Chevrolet, driving (you guessed it) a Chevrolet, after a harrowing ride across the Colorado that nearly took him out of the race, was done in by a overly helpful sheepherder at Seligman. Drivers used the same type cans for gasoline as they did for water. When he stopped to gas up, the friendly herder offered to help. Unwittingly, he filled the gas tank with water.

Cactus Derby - ArizonaOlin Davis went out of the race when his car did a swan dive off a mountain road in Copper Basin, south of Prescott.

The redoubtable, cigar-chomping Barney Oldfield in his mud splattered white Stutz Bearcat raced into the fair­grounds at Phoenix in a cloud of dust to finish first. He almost didn’t make it though, as his engine flooded crossing New River and he had to hire a team of mules to pull him out.

Bill Bramlet and his Cadillac provided the most dramatic finish. Had there been a prize for perseverance, he’d have won hands down. Bill rolled his car down a steep hill outside Prescott. Fortunately, the car landed upright. Near Wickenburg he got stuck in quicksand; and, just outside Glendale he slid into a fence and broke his steering mecha­nism. The resourceful driver grabbed a couple of fence posts and tied them to the front wheels. By pulling the posts in unison, he managed to steer the car down Grand Avenue to the fairgrounds for a 5th-place finish. Out of 20 entries, only seven finished the 696-mile race.

That night, a gala celebration was held in the Adams Hotel. Barney Oldfield was awarded the diamond-studded medal proclaiming him, Master Driver of the World, and optimists speculated that one day the automobile would pass from the hands of the professional drivers and the novelty of the upper classes to an essential fixture in the lives of the common folk.

Excerpt from Arizoniana by Marshall Trimble, the state’s official historian.



  1. SaraD says

    Among my grandfather’s effects were the torn-out pages of what appears to have been a small trip diary that was kept by Grampa’s youngest sister, Minnie. It briefly documents an automobile trip that took Grampa’s oldest brother, Barton, and his children, Gertrude and Howard, along with Grampa’s sisters, Olive and Minnie, from Denver to Los Angeles, by way of New Mexico and Arizona. They left Denver on June 13, 1917, traveled down through Colorado Springs, down into Santa Fe and Belin, NM, and over into Springerville, AZ. There are many illegible places in the diary, and Minnie, who was 23 years old at the time, was clearly not a fan of spelling or punctuation, but my transcription of it may be interesting in that it tells of little occurrences that were probably common for Arizona auto travelers in 1917. Mind you, this was no competition and it was 3 years after the last Cactus Derby, but travel conditions had probably not changed much. While these folks were Westerners, and Barton was a Spanish American War vet, they were not experienced desert travelers and could hardly have chosen a worse time of year to make their trek. Note: To complicate things, they had a traveling companion who was also named Barton. Here is what Minnie wrote, beginning with the first mention of Arizona:

    June 21 – 17.
    Camp Magdalena.
    Arose at 5:30 a.m. had some good rest fine camp had Breakfast and started at 7:30 a.m. Fine roads all day, but engine trouble, bum gas paid 50¢ for itat [Quimada?], but it is half distalte [sic] came on to Springerville Ariz gas cost 45¢ all 50% distalate [sic] camp 3 mil this side of town at Becker Lake trees adobe houses Lake with row boat on it some camp, people laid on there for about four days about 7 different camps not at all lonesome. Friends to all some slept in the house some in the adobe houses, some town fine place to lay over and rest a few days. Barton shot a cotton tail to-day poor little fellow we will fix him retired early.
    Traveled 1.35 mi.

    June 22 – 17
    Camp Ideal.
    Becker Lake.
    Arose at 6. a.m. Quemado, friends got 1 hour start of us. Fried rabbit, Howard & Barton went boating got started at 8:30 a.m. Hated to leave, had fine roads all day, excepting a few miles through the petrified forest, it was real pretty whole trees of rock we tried to carrie [sic] of [sic] the whole forest made camp at Holbrook at 5:30 P.M. Went to bed early for some good rest.
    Traveled 96 miles.

    June 23 – 17
    Camp Holbrook.
    Arose at 7. a.m. Got started at 8:30 a.m. Good roads to Winslow some town lunched at about two miles out, bad roads to Flag Staff [sic] . Got mail from May Mc Clay & alfred was sure glad to get it, dident [sic] get in town until 6:P.M. P.O. closed but Barton went to the back door talked real nice to the clerk and finly got our mail camped there on Ideal place water piped right to camp.
    Traveled 102 miles.

    June 24 – 17.
    Camp Flag Staff [sic]
    Arose at 7:30 a.m. Some lazy. There are 9 autos camping here some class to fellow acrost [sic] the way striped shirt, gray pants, and striped socks, some kid going up Grante [sic] Canon to-day they say it is some fine trip. Five autos are going to camp here all summer this is a summer resort found roads to G.C. fine except a few rocky places. Went to the El Tovar Hotel fine view down into the canon I felt like a pig among all the swells cost $7 per day at the Hotel no place for me Howard, Gertrude, Olive, barton, Nellie & Barton Bowlin went up to see c [long space left blank] store Bob and I keep camp, but Bob wouldn’t make friends with me they came back about 8:30 P.M. Said they sure was some swells up there they saw a little Indian about two years old said she was awful cute. Went to bed for a good sleep.
    Traveled 84 miles.

    June 25 – 17.
    Camp Grande Canon.
    Arose at 7:a.m. Started at 9:1.m. Had bad roads all day long had to wait until we go to Winslow she probably meant Williams] for something to eat arived [sic] there at 1:30 P.M. Bowlins still with us, went on to Seligman couldn’t get anything but bread in that burg, so got two loaves of bread, went on to Chino camped there right near a grave marked 1915 Julia Ode [?] Bowlins came over in the evening, went to bed about 9;30 P.M. Time changes here.
    Traveled 118 miles.

    June 26 -17.
    Camp Chino
    Arose at 6:a.m. Started at 8:30. A.m. Got out about 25 miles noticed flat tire went to put in new iner [sic] tube bought in Las Vagas [Nevada] found they sold us an old leakey tube. Put on three patches before we could use it some luck bought tire in Ash Fork costs $16.60 hope it is O.K. Lunched at Hackberry sure some joint bowlins went on out of town to eat there [sic] lunch Barton got grub for lunch and we started out got out of town roads were strait [sic] up stopped for lunch two young fellows came up, they were going to L.A. Went on past us. We went on strait [sic] up hill, got stuck low wouldn’t work car started down hill H. jumped so did I but slipped under car ought to see me scramble we got pretty [near] the top when we met the boys coming back said that road went up to a mine had to turn around and go back cut our tires up we went back to the garage in town the man told us to go out that road and turn left about one block from the railroad we went up quite a ways, but there was no place where we could have turned to our left so we had to turn out in the sand about two feet deep thru forde [?] we got stuck had to push one another out of the sand back into the road started back to town ask some Mexicans the way and they told us to turn right under the railroad bridge struck a fine road on other side lost oil cap. Made Kingman Bowlins were waiting for us but we left them and went for provision came back they was gone we went on to Yucca but bowlins took wrong road went to Oatman camped at Yucca.
    Traveled 125 miles.

    Wensday. [sic]
    June 27 – 17. – 28.
    Camp Yucca
    Arose at 4:15. A.m. Made neddles [sic] was the hotest ever experienced terriable [sic] went on out to Klienfelter a few shadless trees stopped there for the day never was in such a hot place, and never expect to be, you could hardly breath [sic] just like hot waves out of a red hot oven. Mr. & Mrs. Bowlin came out later Mr. & Mrs. Letc & family & another outfit came out we all roasted to-geather [sic] all day long, started out at 5:P.M. Had trouble I got sick from the water two young fellows came along
    Traveled 59 mi.
    stopped to see if they could help us gave me a drink of water G. & O. got in with them so I could have the whole back seat they stopped again and gave me some whisky began to get better right away rode on into Gulf they bought O & G. some pop wanted to know if I wanted some We started out on three pegs the two boys followed us then caught up with us and wanted to lighten our load, so G. & I got in with them they was sure nice we road [sic] with them until 3:a.m. It sure was a help to Barton he never would have make [sic] it with all of us


    Unfortunately, Minnie died less than a year later. The little trip diary is her legacy.

    By the way, allowing for inflation, that 50-cent “bum gas” she mentions buying would cost about $8.00, today.

    • SaraD says

      Andrea, you’re welcome.

      May we always remember these times whenever we go whizzing down an Interstate with the cruise control on and the air-conditioner blowing full blast. =)

  2. Russ says

    Have a great scrapbook and memorabilia of Olin Davis. Early 20th century
    Put together by his son. It needs to be in the hands of their family.
    Any clue on how to do that?

    • SaraD says

      Russ, have you found anything for the scrapbook? If not, look for clues in the memorabilia and think of it as genealogy research. Names and ages of parents, grandparents, aunts/uncles, siblings, children. Look for locations such as birthplace, where he went to school, what type of business he was in. You may find him and his children in census records. Also check the Social Security Death Index, yearbooks, city directories, military records, cemetery records, etc. Google is your friend, but remember to search for alternate spellings, first/last name or last/first name combinations (including placing the combinations inside quotations marks to keep them together), and postings at genealogy message boards. If you are serious about locating the pertinent family, and you can afford it, a software program such as Family Tree Maker and/or an membership may help you keep your findings organized and sensible and give you all the resources you need to locate the family. Some family members just don’t want to be found, though, so there are no guarantees. 😉

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