For years I have had a fascination and love affair with the rich history of the Vanderbilt Cup Series. I must admit, one of my biggest reasons for this interest is because of that same history as it relates to the area which I call homeÃ¢â‚¬Â¦ San Francisco. This story has it all, intrigue, fortunes, men with power, race cars, airplanes, world travel.
To get things started it helps to understand how much more the San Francisco Vanderbilt Series Race stood out than any other race and thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s saying something considering how amazing any of the Vanderbilt Series Cup events were. The Panama-Pacific International Exposition was a worldÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s fair held in San Francisco
in 1915. Its main purpose was to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal but it was widely seen in the city as an opportunity to showcase its recovery from the 1906 earthquake. The fair was constructed on a 635 acre site in San Francisco along the northern shore now known as the Marina. It was unlike anything the world had ever seen. CLICK HERE to learn more.
Having a total understanding of marketing and how to take advantage of a good thing when he saw it, Vanderbilt was sure to make arrangements to hold one of his Vanderbilt Cup Series Races during the Panama Pacific International Exposition and without a doubt it was one of his most lucrative undertakings. That too is quite a mouthful considering the mass wealth the VanderbiltÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s had.
Times were good not only for the VanderbiltÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s but also for other entrepreneurs who found their own niche in which to get a piece of the pie. One such entrepreneur was none other than Art Smith, famous American stunt aviator who made his fortune as a stunt pilot and promoter.
According to Wikipedia, In 1910, his parents mortgaged their home for $1,800 so that he could build a plane, on which he spent six months; however, he crashed it on his first flight, destroying everything but the motor. However, he quickly became a celebrated stunt pilot, notable for flying at night; he was one of the pioneers of skywriting at night using flares attached to his aircraft. Smith made two trips to Asia, in 1916 and 1917 and his aerobatics demonstrations in Korea during those trips are believed to have inspired both An Chang-nam (KoreaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s first male pilot) and Kwon Ki-ok (KoreaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s first female pilot) to learn to fly. He later worked as a test pilot and instructor after the American entry into World War I and he had originally sought to enroll in the United States ArmyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Air Service, but was refused. His height (5 feet 3 inches) was mentioned as one possible reason for the refusal; the numerous injuries he had suffered in earlier crashes were another. During the war he was one of two men trained to fly the De Bothezat helicopter, an early quad rotor helicopter. After the war, he joined the United States Postal Service; he eventually came to fly the overnight mail delivery route between New York and Chicago, established in July 1925. He died in February 1926 at age 32 when he was two miles off-course when he crashed into a grove of trees. After Charles Ames, he was the second overnight mail service pilot to die on duty.
It was during the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition that Art Smith became enamored with the Vanderbilt race cars that raced at the fair. He then decided to have his own Ã¢â‚¬Å“baby racersÃ¢â‚¬Â built using motorcycle engines and transmissions, and made them look exactly like the larger Vanderbilt racers and this is where some of the history gets really exciting and for me personal.
Awhile back I was contacted by Tom Perkins who is the third generation owner of San FranciscoÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Dudley Perkins Company Harley-Davidson & Buell Harley Davidson. Tom also designed motorcycles for sale through Sharper Image. I canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t begin to tell you how exciting it has been corresponding with Tom since he has a personal connection with the Vanderbilt Baby Racers as well that is a story unto itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s self.
Besides sending me these extremely rare photos, Tom wrote, Ã¢â‚¬Å“We know that he (Art Smith) raced at Tanforan race track in San Bruno (Just south of S.F.) before traveling across the Pacific with a handful of his cars to perform in front of the Emperor in both 1915 and 1916. My grandfather, who started our Harley dealership in 1914, helped assemble the cars for Art, as well as making one for the son of Charles Howard, the West Coast Buick distributor, and future owner of the race horse Seabiscuit. That car is the turquoise and white one you see in the color photos, and is in the process of being restored by its owner in Santa Rosa. It is really a very interesting story that encompasses many venues.Ã¢â‚¬Â
I was aware that Art Smith had performed at the horse track in San Bruno I also knew he had performed on the Aviation Field right in the middle of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. The Aviation Field was inside the race course. There was a grand stand erected there for the accommodation of the sightseers and the start of the Baby Vanderbilt Cup Race which was held on the one mile trotting track. The enormous grandstand extended for a quarter of a mile on the south side of the track. This race was held on WashingtonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Birthday, 1915.An interesting side note is that Art Smith also demonstrated how a pilot could carry a amount of life preservers out over the bay as he would perform a Ã¢â‚¬Å“Loop the loopÃ¢â‚¬Â maneuver dropping the life preservers to the people in the water below who had been throw out of their boats.
A little known fact with regards to Art Smith and the Panama Pacific Exhibition is that prior to him performing for the City of San Francisco another stunt pilot had crashed his plane while performing acrobatic stunts. His name was Lincoln Beachey.
Fifty thousand admirers gathered to watch Beachey strap himself to the open seat behind the engine. He made two short flights, then landed to perform some minor adjustments on the engine. By three-forty, when he took off again, the crowd was almost hysterical. Holding their breath, they watched him climb directly to 6,000 feet. Over Alcatraz Island he dropped halfway to the water in a series of heart-stopping loops. Then, climbing back to 3,500 feet, he plunged at full engine into a 1,000-foot vertical dive. When he reached a speed estimated at upward of 200 miles an hour, he tilted the aircraft onto its back. Spectators standing on the marina could read the letters B E A C H E Y on the tops of the wings and fuselage. At 1,000 feet he began another vertical drop, and at 500 feet he jerked the control stick to return the aircraft to a horizontal position. There was a loud cracking sound as the left and then the right wings broke and flapped upward. The aircraft fell straight down. Almost an hour passed before a diver found the monoplane.
Twenty days after BeacheyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s death Smith made his first flight from the fairgrounds. It was eleven oÃ¢â‚¬â„¢clock on a Saturday night in April, and a chilly wind was blowing in from the Pacific. The management, fearful of criticism and public apathy, had let it be known that the philanthropic purpose of the BirdboyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s first performance was to scatter 3,000 free tickets to the Hawaiian Village, the Incubator Babies, and the Bowls of Joy.
The crowd at flight time, accelerated by greed and morbid curiosity, was larger than ever before. Smith had been expecting to do his first performance by day and was ill prepared to be a Human Comet. The Roman candles that someone had hastily fastened to his plane turned out to be giant firecrackers, and they blew the tips off the wings. Smith quickly landed, pushed the aircraft to an unlighted edge of the marina, and covered it with a canvas to hide the damage. Scarcely anyone knew that there had almost been another fatal accident.
It was later that Art Smith would be seen racing his plane against race cars on the horse track both at Tanforan and at the Marina in San Francisco.
I have read that by 1915 Art Smith was celebrated as any movie star as he thrilled audiences while barnstorming, death spirals, sky writing, loops and night fights with fireworks. In 1916, the Japanese offered him $10,000.00 to perform. After his Smith’s death, Lindbergh flew over Forth Wayne and dipped his wings in salute.
Art Smith would race against the Vanderbilt Cup Baby Racers after they ran a timed mile to qualify their times. Then he would come diving in just as they came to the finish line making sure it was close so that the crowd of spectators were assured a thrilling finsh.
Ã‚Â Besides his dare-devilÃ‚Â crowd pleasing exhibitions like this one taken at Tanforan Park near San Francisco, Art Smith was the first pilot known to use a plane to elope with his wife and in doing so they both crashed in Hillsdale where they were taken to the hospitial where they were married while laying in hospitial beds.