Pre-Indy 500 Races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway
The balloon "UNITED STATES" won the Paris race. A young
Lieut. Frank P. Lahm, of Ohio was the pilot. His aid was
Major H.B. Hersey, a meterologist. They traveled 415 miles
in the balloon.
While the $3,000 trophy (shown above) went to the ACA,
Lahm received $2,900. The win also meant that the next
race would be held in the United States, home of the winners.
St Louis was selected as the host city. One of the movers
and shakers in St. Louis was Albert B. Lambert, who learned
how to fly balloons. He helped organize the Aero Club of St.
Louis. He purchased a balloon launching site near St. Louis
which he named after himself. It was later converted into an
airport and is now the St Louis International airport.
CREATION OF AMERICA'S NATIONAL
Dr Julian P. Thomas, a well-known Illinosisan devotee of
ballooning said, "What we should now do is to have a cup
for annual contests among Americans alone, thus to prepare
ourselves for the greater contest in the International
competition. Lieutenant Lahm's victory will also tend to
stimulate inventors of aerial machines and of aerial
appliances on this side of the water." This idea would lead to
the US National Balloon race, which would be held at the new
Indianapolis Motor Speedway which opened in 1909
|The First Balloon National Championship
Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Saturday, June 5, 1909
|The History of Gas Balloon Racing Leading Up to Indianapolis
|1909 National Championship Race Results
382 Miles /
26 Hours 35 Minutes
Landed 6 miles south
of Ft. Payne AL
355.5 Miles /
35 Hours 10 Minutes
Landed 2.5 miles north
of Corinth, MS
325 Miles /
26 Hours 30 Minutes
265 Miles /
11 Hours 40 Minutes
230 Miles /
18 Hours 30 Minutes
2 Hours 45 Minutes
1905 - AMERICAN BALLOONISTS ORGANIZE
Sportsmen and other people enthusiastic about autos were
also intrigued by another newly emerging form of transpor-
tation: the gas balloon. The balloons were filled with flamm-
able natural gas.
For the most part, ballooning and aviation were synonymous
in the public mind, since the only other method of flying,
gliders, was still very experimental.
While the Wright Brothers would succeed in attaching a motor
to a glider-type device in 1903, they kept it under wraps for a
few years as they worked on securing patents.
In the summer of 1905 several avid balloonists, having found little
support in America for the sport, determined to establish a new
club, the Aero Club of America (ACA), to promote aviation.
(It thrived until 1923, when it transformed into the National
Aeronautic Association, which still exists today.)
|Indianapolis Race Results
CARL FISHER'S BALLOON STORY
Carl G. Fisher called from Tennessee: "Yes, we are safe and
sound, thanks to the poor marksmanship of a number of
"They began firing on us when we were in Brown County, IN,
and have kept up the target practice ever since - right up to 6
o'clock Monday evening, when we stepped out of the basket.
"It has been a regular fusillade down here in Tennessee.
"We decided to land Monday night on a farm about seven
miles from Tennessee City, but it was almost worth our lives.
We began to hello, and the farmer, Frank Burgess, in
whose oats field we descended, began to run. He soon
emerged from his house with a rifle, but by this time we were
close enough to earth for him to know we were human beings.
"Convinced of this fact, he took our rope and gave us every
assistance possible, proved a good host and assisted us
with getting out of the country.
"And such a country. Hills! Hills! But we are out and the first
train for Indianapolis 7 o'clock Wednesday morning will carry
Fisher said he saw in the papers that Leo Stevens intimated
some of the balloons he made were tampered with at the
Speedway. Fisher denied it and spoke of the people he
called to get the balloons and inspect them.
Fisher also talked about how they came down for water in
Shackle Island and took on 5 gallons with the aid of others
who held the ropes and got them the water. They also
stopped in Ashland City, once again not getting out of the
basket nor the basket touching the ground. So he think there
stops were not landings. He also noted that Ashland City
was further from Indianapolis than Tennessee City where they
He talked also about a scary situation, "We shot up 14,000
feet and over with such rapidity that I expected the gas to
explode any minute. Ordinarily we would have to throw out
about forty pounds of ballast. The gas congealed, and it
came out of the bag like white smoke. Then we would spin
around and around. It was some spinning, and I thought our
time had come. When we weren't spinning or cutting some
other caper, we would shoot down, but as rapidly we would
"Our teeth were chattering and we almost froze to death,
although we put on our overcoats and everything around us we
had in the balloon in an effort to keep warm This continued
practically all night."
June 8 - John Berry said he expected the prize as he
believed he went further than the balloon "New York", driven
by A. Holland Forbes, and eliminating the "Indiana", driven
by Carl Fisher, which he maintains is disqualified.
Berry, who piloted the balloon "University City", tonight stated
that he had won the distance record in the Indianapolis balloon
races by covering a distance 375 miles in clean, straight
Berry and P.J. McCullough, his aid, landed on Freestone
Mountain, one of the Lookout Mountain range, in Alabama,
at 7 o'clock Sunday night, after being in the air a total of 26
hours 35 minutes.
The "New York" is said to have alighted in the same general
circle as the "University City", but probably a few miles nearer
the starting point than the "St. Louis" balloon.
Berry said, "If we had landed two hours sooner than we did
we would have been fifty miles farther south. We were being
driven rapidly north. But I refrained from landing in the hope
that the wind would turn favorably. When I saw that there was
no chance in the wind I decided to land and release my gas.
I could have stayed up many hours longer, but I believe that
we would eventually have been driven back in the vicinity of
The first race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was not
a automobile or motorcycle race, but rather a balloon race.
A.B. Lambert of St. Louis,
the young millionaire aeronaut
who would pilot the "St. Louis".
|Cortland F. Bishop
of New York
A. Holland Forbes, of New York, was, perhaps, the most
famous American balloonist, or 'aeronaut', at the time.
In October, 1909, after the Indianapolis race,
accompanied by Max C. Fleischmann of Cincinnati, he
won the Lahm Cup in the longest flight made in the United
States in 1909. His balloon, The "NEW YORK", covered
731 miles in 19 1/4 hours.
Vice-president of the Aero Club of America, Forbes
was head of the contest committee in charge of balloon
races in Indianapolis.
St. Louis III
110,000 cu ft
A small army of workmen were at the speedway rushing
to get it in shape for the spectators. Stands to hold 6,000
people were erected. The speedway itself was something
for the spectators to enjoy seeing as it had been completed
enough for the visitors to see what it would like when
completed - the finest automobile speed course in the world.
The balloons were of various sizes and colors - from Dark
brown, pure white and different shades of brown and yellow
that help identify the balloons. They were also festooned
with large flags and pennants.
The gas poured into them over night and guards watched
over the balloons
The gates opened at 12:30 p.m. and the Big Four trains was
run to the course every 20 minutes.
Every aero club in the country sent delegations and all the
leading aeronauts of the country attended.
The pilots hoped for a north-east wind. Major H.B. Hersey,
the U.S. weather expert from Washington and the local
official W.T. Blythe, spent all day on Friday studying the
weather indications and then received reports till late in the
night from Cleveland, Columbus and Toledo. They
announced the winds would take the balloons east. Hersey
said, "The wind is the motor for this kind of a balloon and as
in the case of an automobile the driver should know all about
this motor power."
Like today's weathermen, they were wrong, and the balloons
would all sail south.
A. Holland Forbes, pilot of the balloon "NEW YORK", was
perhaps the best known aeronaut in the world. He was also the
vice-president and one of the founders of the Aero Club of
He received international attention In the 1907 International
balloon races in Berlin when he and his aid had a miraculous
escape from death.
Forbes was predicted to win as he had a special balloon
material thought to give him a big advantage over all the
After arriving in Indy at night, Forbes visited the speedway
and witnessed two night ascensions by Carl Fisher and
C.A. Coey. Fisher, the president of the speedway, needed to
make a night flight and stay up past midnight as one of the
requirements in earning a balloon license..
Capt. Clifford B. Harmon
Aug 14, 1908 - Captain Lovelace of the NY Aero Club
had been giving balloon demonstrations in London.
The balloon was being filled and a great crowd had
gathered to watch the work. When the balloon was nearly
full, a bystander lighted a match, in violation of warning
posted near the balloon.
Instantly there was a huge explosion that rocked the ground
and blew out hundreds of windows. A fireball engulfed
scores who were standing near the balloon. The crowd
panicked and many were hurt in the scramble for the gates.
Miss Blanche Hill, 18, secretary for Captain Lovelace,
was burned to a cinder. Another man employed by Captain
Lovelace was also killed.
A week prior, Captain Lovelace had climbed up the rope
covering to adjust a tangled rope. He fell through a rent in
the bag and was nearly dead from asphyxiation when taken
New York, 10-15-1908 - Stricken by meningitis induced by
excessive motoring, Cortland Field Bishop, president of the
Aero Club of America, was declared to be dying in a sana-
torium at Aux Les Baine. He had been in Europe attending
the various flights recently made.
Later in the race, the balloon "MONTANES" also burst at a high
altitude and the crew also miraculously survived.
By day three, there were missing balloons. Six had went
down in the sea. Fourteen German torpedo-boats and twenty
fishing trawlers were sent out into the North Sea in search of
them. All but one was found and rescued. One balloon was
never found, the pilots lost to the sea.
The third American balloon, the "ST. LOUIS", was rescued .
The missing Spanish balloon, "CASTILLA", dropped into the
ocean six miles out the morning of Oct 14th and was rescued
by a fishing boat.
The pilot of the German balloon "BUSLEY" thought he could
make it across the North Sea. One hundred miles later the
wind started to push them north toward the artic and they
thought they were doomed. They threw off everything to
lighten the balloon, even their clothes, but knew they were not
going to reach the English Channel. When they spotted a
steamship, they signalled them with lights and descended.
The wind blew them and the balloon far from the ship, but it
sent out a rescue boat that eventually caught them after 90
minutes. They were wet and cold.
The Swiss "HELVETIA" eventually came down in the sea near
Norway and were rescued by a fishing boat right before they
sank. They estimated they'd gone 775 miles. They set a
world record in the race for staying up the longest - 73 hours.
The winner of the race was the English balloon "BANSHEE",
which landed on the coast of Denmark. It was piloted by
1909 - ZURICH
FOURTH INTERNATIONAL BALLOON RACE
While the English won the cup race the previous year, the
race was held in Zurich Switzerland, due to fears of a repeat
of balloons landing in the ocean if launched from England.
It rained at the start of the race and almost continuously until
the finish, making it impossible to take observations.
The race was won by the "AMERICA II" balloon, which landed
north of Warsaw Poland. It was piloted by
The race would return to the United States in 1910 and be held in
St. Louis once again.
|1908 International Race in Berlin Germany
|Zurich International Race Medal
26 hours 35 minutes
26 hours 30 minutes
35 hours 12 minutes
11 hours 40 minutes
18 hours 30 minutes
2 hours 45 minutes
St Louis III
Ever since an American won the first international balloon
race in Paris, ballooning was becoming more popular in the
United States, growing exponentially each year.
While popular on the coast, the long distance races needed
to be started from the heartland, to avoid pilots getting lost at
St. Louis was chosen to host the international contest (the
Gordon Bennett Cup) when ever America was the host
The American Aero Club had been planning to hold a national
contest to help prepare and choose American entrants for the
international race. Up to three balloons could be entered in
the Gordon Bennett Cup from a nation.
The new Indianapolis Motor Speedway was determined to
host the national race, beginning in 1909.
|The "University City" Balloon
Won the Race
DISTANCE / TIME
Charles J. Glidden of Boston was another
of the men who founded the ACA. (He
famously became the first man to circle the
world in a automobile in 1902.)
Glidden represented the Aero Club of
New England, was an international pilot
and had made 28 ascensions.
The head of the ACA, he was the official
time keeper for the Indianapolis race in
C.A. Coey's balloon - "Chicago"
was the largest balloon in the world
with a capacity of 110,000 cubic
feet, standing as tall as an 8-story
building. He was competing in the
handicap race because his balloon
was too big to fit the rules for the
In this photo, men are attaching the "Chicago" balloon
to the basket. In the background is the "Cleveland"
|1909 NATIONAL BALLOON RACE
Copyright © 2021 IndySpeedway.com All Rights Reserved
1906 - INTERNATIONAL COMPETITION
An international gas balloon race was sponsored by James
Gordon Bennett, Jr., an American millionaire sportsman
and owner of the New York Herald newspaper.
The annual event, referred to as "The Gorden Bennett Cup",
had one basic goal - "To fly the furthest distance from the
launch site," as opposed to seeing how long a balloon could
stay up or how high it could go.
It was decided that the race would be held in the country that won
the previous race. The first race was held in Paris France on
October1, 1906, with 16 balloons competing.
|The Conqueror Atop a House After Crashing
There were many mishaps during the race.
Nations were allowed to enter up to three balloons in the race.
The balloon "AMERICA II" was decorated with the stars and
stripes. It was piloted by James C. McCoy, accompanied
by Lieut. Voghmann.
Another American-made balloon was the "CONQUEROR."
It was the largest balloon entered in the race, standing 80
feet high, with a gas capacity of 80,000 cubic feet.
As the CONQUEROR took off, it hit a fence which ripped off
two ballast bags. It shot upward rapidly, the basket swaying
violently. When it reached 4 or 5,000 feet, the top of the
If fell to earth like a rock. The crowd of 80,000 gasped in horror
as the balloon started ripping up. Thousands stood petrified
and some turned away fainting, as the balloon fell rapidly.
Everyone knew the men would be killed.
As they fell, pilot A. Holland Forbes cut the ropes holding 39
bags of sand while his aid, Augustus C. Post, began throwing
everything out of the basket.
After 2,000 feet, the remainder of the envelope was trans-
formed into a sort of parachute at the top of the net and the
descent of the balloon slowed greatly. They crashed through
the roof of a house, terrifying the man inside. The two men
had only minor injuries and their equipment survived!
of New York
|A. Holland Forbes
|1906 James Gordon Bennett International Cup
1907 - ST LOUIS
SECOND INTERNATIONAL BALLOON RACE
Held October 21, 1907, the race attracted a reported 300,000
spectators, enough to persuade U.S. President Theodore
Roosevelt to dispatch the Army to help keep order.
Leo Stevens was on hand to supervise the filling of the nine
competing balloons, three of which were American entries.
As the contest progressed, it proved to be a long race, with
each balloon remaining aloft for over 24 hours.
As they passed over central Indiana, towns would ring their
fire and church bells to alert the populace that the race was
Some people found letters dropped from the balloons, asking
them to report their time and location to a newspaper.
Some people tried chasing the balloons in their cars, reaching
25 mph, but the balloons beat them.
By the 23rd, the race was over and the German balloon
the "Pommern" landed in New Jersey, having traveled 873 miles
from St. Louis. The Germanpilot was Oscar Erbsloch and his
aid was Prof. A. Lawrence Rotch of Harvard.
Since the German balloon had won, the next race was held in
1908 - BERLIN
THIRD INTERNATIONAL BALLOON RACE
At the Berlin race on Oct 11, 1908, 23 balloons from 8
countries competed, taking off 2-minutes apart, on a warm
sunny day. It had been thought that the balloons would head
toward Russia, however they flew off in the opposite direction.
BALLOON RACE PROCEDURES
Teams would begin to set up the balloons the day before the
race. They would spread the balloon bags out on the ground.
Then they'd lay the netting, which would constrain the balloon
bags, out over the bags. A hose was then ran from the mouth
of the balloon to a pipe delivering the gas. It would take all
night and the next morning to fully inflate the balloons.
Each balloon held two occupants - the Pilot and his Aid.
They and their equipment were loaded into the basket.
The balloons were released one at a time, often at 5-minute
intervals. This was done to help prevent them colliding with
one another. It made no difference to the competition since
the race was about distance traveled.
The balloonists, known at the time as aeronauts, had several
mechanical devices aboard, such as the statiscope and the
aneroid, to measure altitude and air pressure. They also had,
a compass and a battery- powered flashlight to read their
instruments and to signal people on the ground. They kept
constant records, estimating their speed direction as they
tried to determine their location. At least one of the
balloonists usually were an expert in meteorology.
The baskets were only 4 foot square. The pilots, trying to save
weight, carefully chose the things they took with them. They
would take blankets and rain coats for the weather. They
carried a rifle and ammo in case they landed in the
wilderness. A life preserver was taken in case they landed
in water. They took medicines and stimulants, small cans of
soup, coffee and edibles and plenty of water.
Their most important item that they carried with them was their
ballast (heavy bags of sand) because without it, they were at
the mercy of depressing air currents.
The balloons were filled with natural gas which is very
flammable. Hence, they were not able to use fire to heat their
food and coffee. The balloonists used slacked lime which
they'd mix with water in a tin. That would cause a chemical
reaction which heated up the water and cans of food or water
could be heated thusly. Thermo bottles were also used to
keep things warm.
Competitors had to be tough and very brave as the sport was
very dangerous and could be rigorous.
Besides the risk of a spark causing a massive explosion,
obstacles included inclimate weather, being struck by light-
ning, getting lost at sea, falling out of the sky due to balloon
damage, running out of ballast or freezing to death. In
America, they were subject to getting shot at by scared or
mean men on the ground!
The balloons were often too high to be identified. During their
journey, the would drop notes above towns to alert people as
to their progress. This information would be relayed to the
press, and the news would go out across the country.
|AMERICANS CRASH IN THE CONQUEROR
Carl Fisher was a wealthy business man in Indianapolis
who owned the Fisher Automobile Co. Like many rich men
interested in automobiles, he also became interested in
In October of 1908, he arranged for G.L. Bumbaugh to bring
his 40,000 cubic foot balloon, the "COLUMBIA" to Indy. It was
filled at the Indianapolis Gas Company. Fisher also
arranged to have four fast cars on hand which would race the
balloon. A crowd gathered to watch the start. The drivers
hoped to prove that transportation by car could be as fast as
that of the balloon. Fisher, meanwhile, was going up in the
balloon for a lesson in aeronautics. This was his third flight.
His enthusiasm for the sport led him to purchase a new
balloon, the same size as the "COLUMBIA", from Bumbaugh's
Fisher was also one of the founders of the Indianapolis Motor
Speedway, which was preparing to open in 1909. This led
to Indianapolis being selected as the host city for the new
annual National Balloon Championship.