Indiana’s Cobe Cup Trophy Race

Two years before the Indianapolis 500, the 1909 Cobe Cup Race gave Indiana its start as the Midwestern mecca of motorsports.

Postcard of the Cobe Cup Race route showing Lowell's Commercial Avenue. (Photo: Collection of Steven R. Shook)

The Race for a “Western Vanderbilt”

The early days of the automobile bore witness to a tsunami of technological change: Tillers begat steering wheels, spark supplanted steam, and new-fangled pneumatic tires replaced the teeth-rattling rides offered by wooden rims. Comfort, performance, and reliability increased in importance alongside function and convenience.

Cobe Cup Race pinback (Photo: Collection of Steven R. Shook)

Road races, pioneered in 1904 by New York’s iconic Vanderbilt Cup Race, quickly sprouted to keep pace with the new technology as automakers sought to prove their latest products to the public. However, most races were held in America’s economic epicenter on the East Coast, not in the heartland where the bulk of automobile production was centered, leaving Midwestern manufacturers and nascent racing promotors shipping their products (and profits) elsewhere.

Enter Chicago investor and entrepreneur Ira Cobe, a rabid auto enthusiast who presided over the ambitious young Chicago Automobile Club, which was battling its crosstown rival, the American Automobile Club, for supremacy. Cobe’s support of a plan to develop a “Western Vanderbilt” led to Indiana’s Cobe Cup Trophy Race in 1909, a motorsport precursor to the Indianapolis 500 that would begin in 1911.

But why did Cobe’s Chicago club look to northwest Indiana and not to The City of Big Shoulders? Race organizers deemed Chicago’s vast network of crisscrossing railroad lines too great a hazard for a road course. Additionally, promoters thought the city would provide fans with so much ready access to the action, with or without a ticket, that surely sales would suffer. Arguments favored organizing a race in Lake County, Indiana, just across the state border, with its hills, switchbacks, and other natural challenges.

After a flurry of proposals between Lake County commissioners and organizers, the commissioners agreed to close local roads for racing if Cobe’s Chicago Automobile Club would pay all property damages and return the roads to good repair after the event. Militias from Illinois and Indiana would provide crowd control, and the club agreed to spend $30,000 on improvements to the 23-mile course spanning rural county roads and small town streets.

The 1909 Cobe Trophy Race would be the first major auto race ever to be staged in Indiana.

Anticipating crowds of more than 100,000, organizers installed grandstands, pedestrian bridges, and telegraph stations along a route that linked Crown Point, Lowell, and Cedar Lake. Telegraph stations relayed standings from one checkpoint to another, and pedestrian bridges gave spectators (and horses) safe passage across the course. Roads were treated with “taroid,” a liquid coal tar designed to keep dust down and ultimately allow for higher speeds. To cover the enormous costs, grandstand spectators paid a $2 admission fee (roughly $60 today).

Future 1911 Indy 500 polesitter Lewis Strang broke in the proposed course and prophesied that speed records would surely be broken, especially on two straightaways, including one nine-mile stretch between Cedar Lake and Lowell on the circuit’s western leg.

Cobe Cup Race route (Image: Lowell Public Library)

The big event included two races. The first, the Indiana Trophy Race (for smaller cars with displacements of less than 300 cubic inches), took place on Friday, June 18, 1909, with 16 drivers competing. Winner Joe Matson took first place in a Chalmers-Detroit Blue Bird, covering 10 laps of the 23.27-mile road course in 4 hours, 31 minutes, and 21 seconds. Eventual Cobe Cup champion Louis Chevrolet—whose Buick suffered a broken axle—finished a lowly 13th place in the first day’s race behind rival and teammate Bob Burman, also piloting a Buick.

Shocking race organizers, the huge grandstands were but half-filled, if that. Many fans simply picnicked along the roadside and watched the show for free.

The second day, Saturday, June 19, unveiled the vaunted Cobe Trophy Race, which saw 12 drivers brace themselves against a 17-lap, 396-mile ordeal of the 23+ mile circuit. Apperson, Buick, Fiat, Knox, Locomobile, and Stoddard-Dayton fielded entries.

Alas, the first driver celebrated across the finish line, Billy Bourque, piloting a massive Knox, was not the winner. Instead, the lowest recorded racing time determined finishing order and the Cobe Trophy was awarded to Louis Chevrolet, who beat Bourque by little more than a minute. Chevrolet completed the grueling course in 8 hours, 1 minute, and 30 seconds (despite a lengthy stop to repair a blown cylinder in his Buick), clocking an average speed of 49.287 mph.

Cobe Cup winner Louis Chevrolet driving a Buick automobile during the 1909 race in northwest Indiana. (Photo: SDN-055448, Chicago Daily News collection, Chicago History Museum)

Disappointing ticket sales and a near-$25,000 loss stung the race’s promoters, but they vowed to stage the race again. When the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was founded later that year, the Chicago Automobile Club decided to host the 1910 Cobe Trophy Race there. By 1911, however, the Speedway had inaugurated a speed contest of its own, the Indianapolis 500, and the Cobe Race was quietly discontinued.

The Cobe Cup Trophy (Image:The Indianapolis Star, June 14, 1909)

If only briefly then, the world recognized the oft-overlooked northwest Indiana locales of Crown Point, Lowell, and Cedar Lake as the mecca of Midwestern motorsport. Today, the original Cobe Trophy resides at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum, prominently displayed as but one of many intriguing artifacts of Indiana’s rich auto racing history.

By Greg Perigo, Board Member, Indiana Automotive

Learn more about Indiana Automotive, an affinity group of Indiana Landmarks, at

(Image: The Indianapolis Star, June 18, 1909)

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