The winner of the 1912 LA-Phoenix "Cactus Derby,"
Ralph Hamlin and mechanic Andrew Smith are seen
above in a Martin shock absorber advertisement.
Inland Valley Daily Bulletin
From the west came a speeding automobile racing through the night, its driver unaware that danger lie ahead at the railroad crossing up ahead.
In the opposite direction came a westbound freight train, which spectators there could see was going to reach the west Pomona crossing at the same time as the auto.
Fortunately, through the heroic work of one man that night, there was no crash, allowing the 1912 Los Angeles-to-Phoenix auto road race to continue through the Inland Empire.
On Oct. 26, 1912, hundreds of spectators assembled at the turn where Valley Boulevard crosses the railroad in Spadra, an area of western Pomona, waiting for the high-speed contestants to pass on their way to Colton and on to Arizona.
Some apparently went there, according to the Pomona Daily Review, for the same reason some may attend auto races today.
“Drawn by the morbid curiosity that some fatality might happen, half a thousand assembled by the turn this side of Spadra,” read the newspaper account of Oct. 28.
As one of the 12 cars in the race approached the crossing shortly after midnight, spectators heard the whistle of a westbound Southern Pacific train a mile or two to the east.
“The crowd stood transfixed with horror,” said the article, “for it believed the occupants of the automobile would not see the train.”
To the rescue came Pomona resident Frank Balfour, who was assigned to keep the crossing clear for the drivers. Standing on the tracks, Balfour frantically waved a red lantern, though it looked like a collision could not be averted.
Fortunately, the engineer spotted the signal and brought his train to an abrupt halt just as the auto flashed across the tracks.
In today’s world of freeways and fast cars, it may seem odd there was such fascination about watching no more than a blur of autos careening along city streets. But there weren’t that many autos in the Inland Empire in 1912, and almost no one locally had ever seen a car hurtling down dirt Holt Avenue at 60 mph in the dark of night.
The route of the race — taking drivers through Pomona, Ontario and Colton, to Banning Pass, Indio, Imperial County, Yuma and finally to Phoenix — seemed the logical all-weather route for the western end of such a highway.
For the 1912 race, veteran racer Ralph Hamlin was the winner and took home 65 percent of the $5,600 purse. He completed the course (not including an overnight stop in Yuma) in a running time of 18 hours and 20 minutes, which was 43 minutes ahead of runnerup Charles Soules.
Five of the 12 actually made it to Phoenix on the 28th. They battled mechanical failure, sand dunes, and spectators — one car was disabled near the start in Los Angeles after hitting a bystander walking on the route.
For Ontario, the arrival of the cars was a major event. The city held its annual celebration — El Festivo de Ontario — during the day and evening, after which most of the town lined the route to see the cars on A Street (today’s Holt) just after midnight.
There was a special reason for the drivers to hurry — “Festivo” organizers offered a side pot of $200 for the fastest elapsed time to A and Euclid Avenue (they left Los Angeles in 10-minute intervals starting at 11:05 p.m.).
Fastest to Ontario was Al Faulkner, driving a Simplex auto entered by William Randolph Hearst. He won the $200 for arriving in 44 minutes and 34 seconds — a pretty good time from Los Angeles even today. He held the lead by the time he reached Banning but he wrecked his car in the sand dunes east of the Salton Sea.
Louis Nikrent, in a Buick, provided local residents all the destruction they would want. He arrived in Ontario in second place, three minutes slower than Faulkner, but found disaster near Archibald Avenue in the Guasti area.
Nikrent, driving with his younger brother, slowed down to make a turn in the dark, skidded on two wheels, rolled twice and came to rest upside-down in soft sand. The elder Nikrent was pinned against his seat by the steering wheel, his face in the sand.
The brothers were both rescued and were determined to have only minor injuries, but their car was so damaged it could not continue.
Several other racers also had troubles at the sandy turn at Guasti, including Hamlin who barely missed a fence and, over-compensating, almost hit a telegraph pole on the other side of the road.
One other racer was forced to do what these resourceful drivers always did when something broke: He fixed it himself.
Charles H. Bigelow, in a Mercedes, barely avoided Nikrent’s wreck at Archibald but at Etiwanda Avenue went careening into the sand out of control. He got back to the road, but found he had broken a shock absorber and a truss rod.
Three hours later, using available parts in Ontario, he got the repairs made and was back on the road again, ready for more adventures.