Ask Donald Davidson: The first motorcycle races at IMS, and the Stones

Published On July 29, 2015 » 2129 Views» By Donald Davidson » Ask Donald Davidson, Blogs, IMS, IMS History, Indy 500, MotoGP, Red Bull Indianapolis GP

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Is it true that the 1909 motorcycle race at Indianapolis was won by “Cannon Ball” Baker and that he, therefore, won the first motorized competition ever held at the Speedway? – Jeff S., Wisconsin

"Cannon Ball" Baker

“Cannon Ball” Baker

Well, not quite, but close. There were to have been two days of motorcycle racing in 1909, on Friday and Saturday, Aug. 13-14, but the hurriedly applied track surface of crushed rock and tar was far from ready. As fate would have it, Friday the 13th was rained out, and so the dates were moved to Saturday and Monday, with no activity on Sunday. The Saturday schedule called for eight events, the seventh of which was to be a four-lap/10-mile dash for amateur riders. It was THIS one – event No. 7 – which was won by Baker. In fact, he was not yet “Cannon Ball.” That nickname was not bestowed upon him until about four years later by a New York journalist when he completed one of the earliest of his many coast-to-coast record runs for various motorcycle and automobile firms. In August of 1909 he was still, quite simply, E.G. Baker (the initials stood for Erwin George) and since event No. 8 was cancelled due to deteriorating track conditions, as were all of Monday’s activities, that win at IMS turned out to be the LAST motorcycle event to be conducted at the track until MotoGP arrived in 2008, some 99 years later.

Although the colorful Baker does not appear to have raced anything other than for a few pre-WWI years with motorcycles, he did actually compete in the 1922 Indianapolis 500. He was one of six drivers on the Indianapolis-based team of Frontenac Specials, fielded by the Chevrolet Brothers, and he wound up finishing 11th, completing the full 500 miles about an hour after Jimmy Murphy had won the race. The “500” was quite a different proposition in those early days, being much more of an endurance contest rather than one of out-and-out speed. The large-framed Baker, whose body apparently may just as well have been cast out of iron, was perfect for withstanding six-plus hours of continuous pounding over the bricks and mortar, which he did without the aid of a relief driver. For several years in the 1950s, long after his coast-to-coast stints were a thing of the past, he held the title of NASCAR Commissioner, and he was still living next to Garfield Park on the east side of Indianapolis when he passed away on May 10, 1960.

"Cannon Ball" Baker, right, finished 11th in the 1922 "500" -- 13 years after winning at IMS on two wheels.

“Cannon Ball” Baker, right, finished 11th in the 1922 “500” — 13 years after winning at IMS on two wheels.

Did you get to sit down with Charlie Watts and Keith Richards during their stop at IMS? – Tim Trowbridge, via Facebook

Although I have met a few rock musicians over the years (some of whom were real enthusiasts), I have never had an encounter with any of the Stones, but it is funny you would single out Charlie Watts, because he is the one I would have been most interested in meeting. And that is not because of any interest in cars or racing – which I don’t believe any of the Stones have – but because of his strong ties with British jazz musicians. Somewhere at home, I have a 1986 album (33-1/3 rpm vinyl) which I purchased new called “Live At The Fulham Town Hall,” featuring a big band he put together. And I mean a BIG band. As I recall, he envisioned a standard outfit of 16 or 17, but as more and more friends heard about his project and wanted to be a part of it, it ended up doubling to 32! I don’t recall the exact breakdown, but it seems to me there were 10 saxophones and THREE drummers, Charlie being joined by two others. Everybody was perfectly serious about the whole thing and the photos accompanying the LP’s sleeve notes confirm the camaraderie among the musicians. The album contains six tracks, opening with “Stomping At The Savoy” and winding up with “Flying Home.”

The sound produced by that huge outfit is phenomenal, and in the immortal words of the late Lou Palmer, whom I miss a great deal, “YEAHHHHH!!”

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About The Author

Donald Davidson

Indianapolis Motor Speedway Historian Donald Davidson, based at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum, developed a passionate interest in the Indianapolis 500 as a teenager in England. Arriving at IMS in 1964, he delighted the racing community with his ability to recite year-by-year accounts of participants’ careers. Returning permanently in 1965, he was invited by Sid Collins to join the worldwide IMS Radio Network and was hired by Henry Banks as USAC statistician, remaining at USAC for almost 32 years. He was named Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian in 1998. Along with numerous television and radio assignments, raconteur Davidson has played host to the popular call-in radio show “The Talk of Gasoline Alley” on 1070 AM in Indianapolis during the month of May continuously since 1971. His writing credits include countless historical articles and columns, a pair of “500” annuals in 1974 and ‘75 and co-authorship with Rick Shaffer of the acclaimed “Autocourse Official History of the Indianapolis 500,” published in 2006.
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