The stories of three Johnson County men - Omar Jolliff, Lora Vandiver and A. M. Ragsdale - were forever entwined on a hot August weekend when three days of racing resulted in speed records broken at a dizzying pace, grueling endurance, large crowds, costly lessons and loss of life.
Large crowds turned out to watch brave drivers push proto-type steel motorcars to the absolute limits of their power for that very first “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” held on Aug. 20, 21 and 22. Total ticket sales for three-day attendance that weekend put the crowd size at 75,000. Small speed contests where held the two days leading up to the big 300 mile race scheduled on Aug. 22. Thirty-seven thousand spectators filled the racetrack that day quickly causing an overflow from the grandstands located on the inside of the track and the bleachers opposite.
The races were grueling for the drivers. The track then, as it is today, is a 2.5 mile oval and it was brand-new. The track itself was lined with gravel which meant controlling these huge vehicles at speeds of 80 miles an hour in such conditions gave the crowds spectacular drama on the race track that weekend.
Two men from Johnson County came to watch the 300 mile race. Omar Jolliff and his employer Lora Vandiver were in attendance. Another former residence A. M. Ragsdale, an ambulance owner, was there also. As fate would have it, these three men’s paths would cross on that day.
Tall fences with huge “Danger” signs lined the track. These fences were a magnet for the overflow of spectators from the grandstand and bleachers. The police drove the crowds of spectators back from the fences but time and time again the crowds made their way back along the fences again.
Jolliff and Vandiver were very close to the fence. The two of them witnessed the race pass the 125 mile mark when they decided to prepare to leave for home in Nineveh. Before Vandiver left the race, Jolliff said to him “I guess I’ll turn back and minute and see this car go by.”
The car was National #10 driven by Charlie Mertz and his mechanic Claude Kellum. Mertz had been a front-runner in races all weekend. Kellum started the race as a mechanic for another team that had car trouble, and became a mechanic for Mertz when Mertz’s mechanic became ill.
Just before Mertz’s car reached the spot where Jolliff was standing, Mertz’s racer blew a front tire. Mertz lost control of the car sending it through the fence where Jolliff was standing. Without a moment to react the racecar plowed into the fence killing Jolliff, Kellum and another spectator by the name of James West. Many other spectators were injured as well as Mertz before the car flipped over, coming to a rest.
Vandiver didn’t witness the accident as he had gone ahead home. He supposed Jolliff was still in the crowd. It was not until later that Vandiver became aware his friend was one of the three victims of the accident. The ambulance was on the scene to assist in taking the victims and injured to the field’s Emergency Hospital was owned by A. M. Ragsdale. Jolliff was the son of schoolmate of Mr. Ragsdale, Joseph Jolliff, a farmer living near Nineveh.
The Jolliffs, Vandivers and Ragsdales were names of families who were original pioneer families in Johnson County. Jolliff is buried at Licksprings Baptist Church Cemetery in Trafalgar, Indiana.
If you would like to read more about this event, please visit the Historical Room at the Franklin Branch. We’ll log you into our research computers to access articles from the Indianapolis Star in 1909.
Pam Caito is the assistant to both the Historical Room and Marketing and Communications Department. She believes history connects the past and the present to give us a feeling of being at home. There are places and activities right here in Johnson County that help us to step back in time for relaxed, off the grid adventures. Email Pam at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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