On Oct. 12, 1910, the Kankakee Daily Republican informed its readers, “All the morning, the speed machines were at the course, traveling around the half-mile track at record-breaking, nerve-wracking speed, and giving their motors a thorough test.”
That was the exciting news — and it was only the “warm-up” for Kankakee’s first-ever automobile race. At that time, “horseless carriages” were a rarity, vastly outnumbered by actual horse-drawn vehicles (in 1909, there were only 62 automobiles on the streets of the city).
Promoted as “the first annual meet of the Kankakee Automobile Racing Association,” the event was held at the Kankakee District Fairgrounds north of the city (now Old Fair Park, located west of Mound Grove Cemetery). The Fairgrounds track, normally used for horse racing, had a covered grandstand capable of holding more than 3,000 spectators.
Noting that the event had “aroused widespread enthusiasm,” the Republican reported, “People began going to the racing course as early as 11 o’clock this morning. By 1:30 o’clock, half an hour previous to the first scheduled race, the mammoth grandstand was comfortably filled. People fortunate enough to possess an automobile and residing at a distance from Kankakee availed themselves of the opportunity and from early morning till noon, the various roads leading to the city were well-sprinkled with motor cars, wending their way to the races.”
Reserved seats for the racing event were sold at a downtown pharmacy, allowing spectators to choose spots “from which they might be able to get a good view of the speed machines. It was a noticeable fact,” the newspaper story pointed out, “that the majority of people requested seats well back in the grandstand, and thus at a safe distance from the racing course, where a machine might ‘go wrong’ at any moment.”
The racing meet was planned to include four races: a five-mile event, with a cash purse of $65 to the winner; two 10-mile races, each with an $85 purse, and a 20-mile race offering a $200 purse. The meet was scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. and last through the afternoon.
The Daily Republican reported the meet was planned by two local auto dealers, George Fortin, and Fleming & Brown, “for the purpose of encouraging the lovers of the sport and incidentally enlarging the automobile business in the community, as well as bringing a big crowd to town.”
A week before the Kankakee race, George Fortin (an avid auto racer in addition to being a Buick auto dealer) had been badly injured during a race at Ottawa, Illinois. He was recovering in a Chicago hospital. The Kankakee Automobile Racing Association announced that the Oct. 12 race would be a benefit, with proceeds going to help pay Fortin’s hospital bills.
The five-mile race, which began promptly at 2 p.m., drew a field of four vehicles: a Buick driven by Steve Jones, of Kankakee; two Fords, one driven by Kankakeean Herbert Stevens and the other by Otha Grubbs, also from Kankakee, and one Hupmobile, operated by a Hammond, Ind., man identified only as “Simmons.”
Slightly more than seven minutes later, Stevens’ Ford crossed the finish line to capture the $65 purse.
Stevens, Jones, and Grubbs lined up again at the starting line for the 10-mile race. They were joined by three other competitors: A. J. Brown, of Kankakee, driving a Reo; Claude Hoobler, of Cornell, Ill., operating an E-M-F auto, and a man named Sawyer from Sandwich, Ill., also driving an E-M-F (the E-M-F Company produced vehicles from 1909 to 1912, when it was purchased by Studebaker). Each of the drivers was accompanied during the race by a “mechanician” (mechanic).
At a signal from starter Dr. McCormick, of Buckingham, the race was on, with Stevens taking an early lead, followed closely by Sawyer in his E-M-F car. Grubbs and Brown battled for third place in the early laps, trailed by the second E-M-F auto driven by Hoobler.
By the fifth lap, Stevens had dropped back, with Sawyer taking the lead. Hoobler, who trailed in the early laps, had moved into third place and was challenging Stevens. Going into the 13th lap, Hoobler attempted to pass Stevens as they entered the north turn.
While trying to pass on the outside of the curve, Hoobler lost control of his car. The Daily Republican reported what happened next: “As he attempted to regain the central position on the track … both the front and rear tires on the left side either blew up or blew off … and within a second, the car skidded and was seen to turn turtle and land on its side ... As the machine landed on its side, it was struck with terrific force by the Buick car driven by Jones.”
As Hoobler’s car rolled, he was thrown clear, suffering only cuts and bruises. Unfortunately, his “mechanician,” George Greener, was pinned under the overturned machine and seriously injured. He was taken by ambulance to Emergency (now AMITA St. Mary’s) Hospital, where he died at 7:45 p.m.
The remainder of the day’s racing activities were cancelled by the Kankakee Automobile Racing Association.