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Motor Sports, Spectators and Death (1906-1921): Topics in Chronicling America

In the early 20th century, deadly crashes were as much a draw for races as was the need for speed. This guide provides access to materials related to "Motor Sport Spectators and Death" in the Chronicling America digital collection of historic newspapers.


"When wild aeroplane smashed into crowd." May 31, 1912. The Seattle Star (Seattle, WA), Image 1. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers.

The massive crowds in attendance at motor sport events were “treated to plenty of thrills in the way of cars catching fire, running into telegraph poles, breaking down, sliding off tires and otherwise misconducting themselves”. Swarming around the tracks and jamming into the grand stands, “speed-maddened visitors” witnessed the perils that these speed machines were subjected to. In cases of accidents, great throngs of people would rush on scene, further endangering themselves and the racers. The chances of some deadly incident were as high as the attendance at these great events. Read more about it!

The information in this guide focuses on primary source materials found in the digitized historic newspapers from the digital collection Chronicling America.

The timeline below highlights important dates related to this topic and a section of this guide provides some suggested search strategies for further research in the collection.


October 6, 1906 Spectators cause chaos on and off the track at the Vanderbilt Cup.
February 28, 1909 “Public Demands Danger” from high speed motor events.
July 24, 1910 Popularity of aeroplane events causes concern over deaths of audience members.
June 4, 1911 At the first Indianapolis 500-mile Race, the Evening Star reports that “promoters even went so far as to wager on the number of those participating in the event who would meet with death in the long grind.”
August 26, 1911 Crowd brushes off near death experience when the grandstand collapses. The race goes on.
September 22, 1911 10 people were killed at race, but the race goes on despite this fact.
May 31, 1912 Plane crashes into crowd because a photographer in pursuit of the perfect photo.
July 5, 1913 Crowd prematurely announces death of racer, storming the track even as other contestants race on.
November 13, 1921 Driver killed in accident. After, the crowd rushes scene and a careless spectator lights car on fire.