By: Gary Fisher
President - Genesee County Historical Society
The inspiration for Back To The Bricks, The actual bricks of Saginaw Street in downtown Flint have seen a lot of action over the years. This included some actual auto racing led by none other than Louis Chevrolet himself. Louis would often test his latest Buick racer on the bricks after the town had gone to sleep. One witness saw Chevrolet and Buick Racing Team member “Wild” Bob Burman tearing up Saginaw Street, flip the racer, land upright, and tear off for Chevrolet’s home on Root Street. In another incident Chevrolet was actually ticketed for speeding. His defense? He said that his Buick racer was so sleek and shiny that it just “looked fast.” That defense didn’t work, and he paid his fine.
Chevrolet and Burman were both members of the best auto racing teams in American history, the Buick Racing Team. Put together by GM Founder, and Buick savior and leader William C. “Billy” Durant, it was originally conceived as a marketing and promotional tool. In a way it’s still like that today in racing. Back then it was a very new concept, and Durant put the team together like he did everything: He played to win.
To do that he needed the best team he could gather, and Chevrolet and his brothers Arthur sf Gaston were just the right fit to create a strong foundation. Adding in Burman and the adventurous and speedy Lewis Strang filled the core of the team out. They were set to compete in the raucous new world of auto racing.
At the turn of the century auto racing was considered an extreme sport. Amazing entertainment to be sure, but also perilous and extraordinarily dangerous. An editorial in the Detroit Daily News opined in 1909 that: “A man prominently identified with motor racing said that he would as soon ask a man to stand against a wall and be shot at with a Winchester as to ask him to drive in track race.”
But drive they did. The early racers flipped over with alarming regularity, tires blew out launching the cars upside down, flinging the drivers and their ride along mechanicians (later called mechanics) headfirst into trees, walls, and the grandstands. When cars ‘turned turtle’ after flipping the customarily crushed the occupants. Bookies would offer odds on the chances of a driver’s likely outcome: Win, Live, or Die. Drivers sometimes gathered together a pot of money the night before an event to offer to the following day’s newly created widows and surviving children.
Into this wild world entered Durant and the Buick Racing Team. Durant had already sent a Buick form new York to San Francisco for the 24-hour coast to coast record in 1906, and later, set up a race between a Buck and an airplane (the Buick won). Louis Chevrolet was a star by then but so were his teammates. Burman’s philosophy was simple. “I go all out. All the time. The car either holds together and I win, or it breaks apart and I lose.”
Strang was 13 years younger than Chevrolet, flamboyant, athletic, and prone to dramatic crashes and even more dramatic victories. He was raised by a widowed mother in Manhattan’s rough and gritty Longacre Square, which would soon be known as Times Square. An early high school dropout he would soon learn the trade first as a chauffeur, and then as an auto mechanic. He would keep the daredevil drama going by marrying Ziegfield Follies steamy vixen Louise Alexander, and later by falling out of a biplane as it took off (he lived). All stories making the papers, along with his dramatic crashes and checkered flags. Strang was the perfect publicity boy for auto racing.
George Dewitt filled out the team, and soon the Buick Racing Team was touring the county in specially customized railway cars provided by Buick. Durant had each traveling car equipped with its own machine shop, luxury dining, sleeping and recreational cars, a blacksmiths forge, and a baggage car. The Buick Racing Team was the first Dream Team of auto racing, and they were racking up wins at a prodigious pace.
Durant had placed William Pickens in charge of the racing squad and commanded Buicks’ engineering guru, Walter Marr, and chief engineer Loren Hodge to get to work designing state-of-the-art racing engines to complement the overhead valve engine that Marr, Buick founder David Buick, and engineer Eugene Richard had created.
In two racing seasons, the Buick Racing Team won half of all of America’s road races, over 500 trophies in sum, and there was little question that they had the best mechanics, managers, publicists, engineers, and owner in the country.
In August of 1909, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway opened, and the Buick Racing Team would play a huge role. Buick entered 15 cars including those driven by Chevrolet, Burman and Strang. The main event was to be the 250-mile Prest-O-Lite Trophy, named after a company that made acetylene headlamps for cars owned by one of the Speedway founders Carl Fisher. In an earlier race that first day the Buick boys had finished 1,2,3: Chevrolet, Strang, and Burman.
But tragedy struck in the Prest-O-Lite as rival racer Billy Bourque was killed on the flimsy track, which was disintegrating in the blazing August heat. Chevrolet would be forced out of the race with engine issues as Burman jetted to the win. He would go on to win both races held on day two at Indy, with his Buick teammate Dewitt taking second place.
The stage was set for the next 100+ years of auto racing and auto marketing. Durant would parlay the Buick Racing Team success in to helping build the Buick brand, which he had already leveraged in to a merger with Oldsmobile that ultimately established General Motors, and Buick as of the premiere brands the world.