Wild Ride

“What is to be, will be.” – “Wild Bob” Burman // Photographs courtesy of the Library of Congress

When death finally got around to claiming “Wild Bob” Burman, it was a shock to the public, but not entirely unexpected by those who knew him best. The young man from rural Lapeer County had been pushing the envelope for years as a “crazed speed imp” who would wipe the grime and oil off his face with an economical grin at the end of yet another record run. Ever since man first learned the joys of mechanical locomotion, there has been a primordial urge to go faster than the other guy — and Burman never liked being the other guy.

Although he is all but forgotten today, a century ago, “Wild Bob” was racing royalty, with tire magnate Harvey Firestone fitting him with a jewel-encrusted crown before the inaugural running of the Indianapolis 500 in 1911. “As a driver he was a genius in point of skill and fearlessness,” one Buick official said of Burman. “Whether he was in the lead or back in the ruck of the ‘also-rans,’ he never faltered, but drove his race always to the very best of his ability and with an unwavering spirit of pluck.” Burman’s go-for-broke style burned out a lot of cars, but never himself. “Hard luck and his grinding tactics eliminated him from many long races,” one Detroit reporter observed, “but his driving skill and daring made him a big favorite.”

Despite the spectacular implications of his nickname and the freewheeling nature of his exploits, away from the adoring crowds the popular racer was more mild than wild, says Dick Burman, a West Bloomfield Township man whose great-grandfather was the racer’s brother. “The name’s a bit misleading. He was quite dapper. He never swore. He never drank. He just loved racing.”

Robert Burman was born April 23, 1884, on a small farm near Imlay City. He hated the tedium of farm life and left when he was 17. Growing industrial centers like Detroit (45 miles to the south) and Flint (35 miles to the west) were magnets for mechanically inclined young men like Burman, who didn’t mind getting grease under their nails and bugs in their teeth.

Burman started off painting, then testing, engines at the small Buick plant, which was then in Jackson. He moved to the Jackson Automobile Co. as its chief road tester. One day in 1906, he talked his employer into letting him enter a widely publicized 50-mile race at the Grosse Pointe racetrack. Among the familiar names on hand were Henry Ford and racer Barney Oldfield, who had helped make each other famous with a monstrous speed wagon known as the “999.” The unheralded newcomer in a stock Jackson beat them all. “Burman took awful chances on the turns,” Oldfield said. “But he won the contest and beat Ford and me.” Burman followed up that victory with another, this time winning a grueling 24-hour race in St. Louis. It was during this period that the young racer acquired the sobriquet “Wild Bob.”

Paying attention was William C. “Billy” Durant, who had purchased the small, failing Buick company, and was in the process of merging it with other car manufacturers to form General Motors. Durant extended an offer “too lucrative to turn down,” recalled Burman, to join the racing team he was putting together at Buick.

For automakers, the philosophy of “win on Sunday, sell on Monday” was particularly important in the early days of the industry. Victories and headlines were essential in helping consumers and investors sort out a field crowded with hundreds of brands. Racing could also be seen as a form of public service. According to longtime track official Fred Wagner, author of the classic memoir The Saga of the Roaring Road, few people realize that “practically every improvement that has come to the modern motor car first made its appearance on the racing course. Without exception, everything the race has found advantageous has been adopted and everything found worthless has been discarded.”

Shortly after signing Burman, Durant took him for a tour of the new Buick factory in Flint. “Bob,” he said, “now that you have a good racing team, you drive your Buick car as hard and fast as you can. I don’t care if you win races or not. When some part breaks, or wears out, you bring it to the factory immediately, and we’ll build it better. And when better automobiles are built, Buick will build them.” Henry Ewald, co-founder of the Campbell-Ewald advertising agency, later turned Durant’s words to Burman into one of the industry’s most memorable and effective slogans.

The Buick squad remains the greatest factory team ever assembled. In addition to Burman, the heart of the roster included the storied Chevrolet brothers, Louis and Arthur, and Lewis Strang, a handsome, strapping Georgian who was destined to die a couple of months after winning the pole position in the first Indianapolis 500. Between 1908 and 1911, the team won more than 90 percent of the events in which they competed, everything from hill climbs and reliability runs to endurance races. Grabbing his share of racing cups and bowls was Burman, whom Durant described as “happiest when the hazard was the greatest.”

Burman never referred to himself as a race driver, but as a “test driver.” Because of frequent breakdowns, racecars during this era included a ride-along mechanic called a “mechanician.” While drivers often let the mechanic handle most of the diagnosing and repairs, Burman enjoyed this integral part of racing as much as he did the actual driving. In 1910, he had a hand in designing the famous Buick “Bug,” a 2,600-pound racing machine with a 622-cubic-inch engine. Only two were ever built, one for Burman and the other for Louis Chevrolet. Burman used his “Space-Eater” to gobble up several short-distance sprint records.

Unlike many drivers of his era, Burman was not given to “dissipation,” the popular term for drinking and carousing. A quiet, intense, and confident man, he made sure he stayed in top physical condition to handle the rigors of his profession. His 160 pounds were spread firmly over a 5-foot-11 frame. He had tremendous strength in his arms and shoulders, built up over years of handling an oversize steering wheel and keeping a 1-ton machine under control for hours on end. His vices, if they could be called that, were a love of oysters and fine clothes. For years, he raced in a suit and tie, a cloth cap jammed backward on his head, until his manager convinced him that business attire was not necessary to win a race or the public. After that, “dressing down” on race day still meant wearing a silk shirt, a bow tie, and dark trousers under his coveralls. A diamond stickpin served as his ever-present good-luck charm.

Burman’s car after an accident at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The driver wouldn’t be so lucky in April of 1916, when he died after a crash in Corona, Calif.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway opened to great pomp in 1909. Burman and his Buick teammates were among the featured attractions of the first program at the 2.5-mile oval. The culminating event of the day was a 250-mile race for the Prest-O-Lite Trophy, with Burman outlasting the field to win the speedway’s first major race.

Fred Wagner, who flagged the events, later characterized the brick course as “Heaven’s gift to morticians.” Two young men from Massachusetts, driver William Bourque and mechanician Harry Holcomb, died in the Prest-O-Lite race. They were hurtling around the track aboard their Knox racer when the machine suddenly skidded out of control. “It was all over in an instant,” an Indianapolis daily reported. “The maddened demon of speed rushed headlong into a ditch beside the track. The car was hurled and thrown end over end to the ground and against the fence, while the two unfortunate men were tossed helplessly to either side.

“Holcomb’s head struck a fencepost and he was killed instantly. His brains were scattered on the post and the ground.” Bourque, barely alive, was rushed to the hospital with a crushed skull, mangled legs, and several broken ribs that had punctured his right lung. “The blood was pouring into the lung at such a rate that the driver drowned, as the physicians termed it, in his own blood.”

After the race, a Knox official declared an end to the company’s participation in racing. “It is simply suicide,” he said, “that’s all it is.” The characterization wasn’t far off the mark. The cars and their drivers lacked even rudimentary safety devices, such as seat belts, helmets, and roll cages. The dirt tracks threw up thick clouds of dust that cut visibility down to practically nothing. Hot oil sprayed into the drivers’ faces; flying rocks shattered their goggles. By one account, between 1904 and 1911, more than 200 drivers and mechanicians around the country lost their lives through mechanical or human error. That toll didn’t include the unlucky bystanders also killed in the frequent mishaps, nor the number of drivers too seriously injured to continue racing.

Burman had his share of close calls. Throughout his career, tires blew, throttles stuck, and exploding cylinder heads whizzed past his face. He wrapped one car around a tree in Atlanta and went airborne in major races at San Francisco and Indianapolis. One Christmas Day, his car caught fire on the beach in San Diego and he drove it into the Pacific to douse the flames. A similar episode saw him plow his burning machine into the Atlantic. Throughout all the narrow escapes, Burman remained fatalistic about his livelihood. “What is to be, will be,” was a favorite expression.

Burman’s reputation was cemented on the packed sands of Ormond Beach, Fla., in the spring of 1911. By now, “Wild Bob” had hired Ernie Moross to manage his personal career, and the promoter wasted no time in scheduling various exhibitions and record runs to enrich both of them. After the incorrigible Barney Oldfield was given his first of many “lifetime suspensions” by racing authorities for staging a controversial exhibition with black heavyweight champion Jack Johnson (see related story), Burman and Moross bought Oldfield’s beloved Benz racer for $13,500. Oldfield had set records all around the country in the German-made machine, which was dubbed “Blitzen” (German for lightning).

Over the course of two days, April 23-24, 1911, Burman drove his new acquisition harder and faster than its former owner ever had. After shattering Oldfield’s records for the fastest kilometer and mile, he trained his sights on establishing a new mark for the fastest two-mile run. The Benz leapt forward and in quick order was eating up 208 feet of sand per second. The force of the rushing wind threatened to pop the lens out of Burman’s goggles. Keeping the rushing Benz on course was like riding a bucking bull. One tremendous bump shot Burman straight into the air, causing his foot to slip off the pedal. He immediately recovered, “and old ‘Blitzen’ and I were chasing up the beach again after that two-mile mark,” he recalled. “My death-grip on that steering wheel was the only thing that had kept me from flying out of the seat.”

In less than a minute, it was all over. Officials looked at their stopwatches and shook their heads. Burman had covered two miles in 51.28 seconds, shooting through space at better than 141 mph, or roughly one-tenth the speed of a bullet. “God knows how I ever reached the end of that death-ride without smashing the car and myself,” he exclaimed afterward. “Every moment in that ride seemed to me the last on earth, and I’m glad it’s over.” Not so glad, however, that he wouldn’t go on to better his own times in various straightaway categories. This particular land-speed record would stand for eight years. Various other marks he set would last for a decade.

A few weeks after the record runs at Ormond Beach, Harvey Firestone ceremoniously placed a crown embedded with pearls and gems on Burman’s head. It was modeled after the one King George V had worn at his recent coronation, and was valued at a reported $10,000. With trumpets sounding and the packed stands at Indianapolis Speedway cheering, Firestone declared Burman “Speed King of the World.”

Burman raced in the first five Indy 500s (1911 through 1915), always finishing out of the money. However, his heavily hyped presence helped establish “The Brickyard” as the mecca of American motor sports and the Memorial Day race as a popular culture mainstay. In one promotion, he took an adventurous soul named Betty Blythe for a bone-jarring, mile-a-minute ride. Her carbonated account of being the first woman around the famous course appeared in papers across the country. “Talk about going like the wind!” she wrote. “Well, I have never traveled on the crest of a gale, but you have got to show me that it can get you around the Speedway any quicker than ‘Wild Bob’s’ racer carried me.”

Burman and a host of admirers with the driver’s beloved Benz. It was nicknamed “Blitzen,” which is German for lightning. Burman bought the car from fellow racer Barney Oldfield. // Photographs courtesy of the Library of Congress

The world’s speed king, described by one historian as an “aw-shucks, toe-in-the-sand American archetype,” had no royal affectations. He was married to a young woman, Helen, who encouraged his passion for high speeds even as she feared its consequences. They had two daughters, Eugenia and Florence, and in 1914 moved into a house at 70 Chandler Ave. in De-troit, near Chandler Park. When he could find some time away from the track or the garage, he enjoyed a quiet day of fishing or a genial gathering with childhood pals back in Imlay City.

Once, a friend came upon Burman parked outside a store on Woodward Avenue, waiting patiently for his wife to finish shopping. He remarked that probably only a handful of passersby recognized the daredevil who tore into turns with such wild abandon. “That is my work,” Burman responded, “and now I am just an ordinary family man.”

His compensation was far from ordinary. In 1915, a year when the average annual salary of American workers was $687 and a new house could be bought for $2,000 or $3,000, Burman pulled down $18,000 in winnings. Other money came in from sponsorships, equipment testimonials, and such. It was a good life, but it was going to end soon.

Early in 1916, Burman left for California. He was approaching his 32nd birthday and still finishing in the money. He won a boulevard race in San Diego and grabbed second place in two events at the Ascot Speedway in Los Angeles. Afterward, he turned his attention to the upcoming race at Corona, a small, tidy community known far and wide for its lemons. A dozen top drivers were set to fly around the leafy Grand Boulevard in pursuit of a hefty $12,000 purse put up by local citizens.

Burman had helped develop the annual 300-mile event, which was in its third running. Later, some claimed the course never should have been sanctioned by city fathers or the American Automobile Association, as large shade trees prevented the banking of curves, and spectators were allowed to stand dangerously close on the curbs. At least two people had uncanny premonitions. Before the start of the race, Helen Burman tearfully pleaded with her husband to withdraw; the night before, she’d had a vivid dream about him crashing. W.D. Edenburn, who covered motor sports for the Detroit News-Tribune, persuaded his editor to pull a photo of Burman scheduled to run the day of the event. “I’ve got a hunch that Bob will be killed this afternoon,” Edenburn said.

April 8, 1916, was a muggy, breezeless Sunday in Corona. Burman climbed into his pale-blue Peugeot, a temperamental machine that he’d bought from Jules Goux, a Frenchman who three years earlier had steered it to victory in the Indianapolis 500. Riding along in the mechanic’s bucket was Eric Schroeder, a former jockey from a wealthy Chicago family. He considered racing a thrill, and riding with Burman a privilege. After leading for the first five laps, Burman fell back into a see-saw battle for first, bedeviled by a slipping clutch and 11 tire changes. Schroeder, who was feeling sick, at one point asked to be relieved, then thought better of it. It was a fateful decision.

On the 96th lap, Burman was tearing around the track at nearly 100 mph, attempting to claw back into contention, when the right rear tire exploded. The car careened out of control, skidding upon a culvert before hitting a guideline and flipping over. In scythe-like fashion, the hurtling Peugeot sheared off two posts and the top of a parked car before mowing down part of the crowd. A police officer was killed and nearly a score of spectators were injured, some critically.

The victims were rushed to Riverside Hospital. Schroeder was dead and Burman was breathing his last. His skull had been fractured, his chest crushed, and both legs broken. As he was being hurriedly prepared for surgery, his frantic wife asked if she could hold onto his good-luck diamond stickpin. It was then that nurses discovered a square of the patient’s silk shirt had been expertly cut out by an unknown woman who had helped bring the injured to the hospital. The thief was discovered a while later hiding inside a bathroom, the missing stickpin in her girdle. By then, Burman was dead.

A train brought Burman back to Imlay City where 2,500 people, twice the population of his hometown, paid their respects as he lay in state at the Masonic Hall. The next day, hundreds of mourners and banks of floral tributes were squeezed into the small Baptist church he had attended since he was a child. “Henry Ford, Louis Chevrolet, Harvey Firestone, Barney Oldfield, and Eddie Rickenbacker were all at the funeral,” Dick Burman says. “Rickenbacker had a funeral wreath made to resemble a checkered flag.”

Burman was one of six Indy 500 drivers to die in 1916. Oldfield was spooked enough by the carnage to build his “Golden Submarine,” a one-of-a-kind machine with a caged cockpit that was the first fully enclosed racecar. A more practical innovation was the use of vertical roll bars in open-cockpit cars.

Burman was buried in a cemetery a short distance from his birthplace. According to Dick Burman, one of the racer’s daughters, Eugenia, died a few years later in a scandalous crash. “She was speeding down Dixie Highway with a young man who was not her husband,” he says — a highballing exit that mirrored that of “Wild Bob,” speed king in a silk shirt.