- Speed Attractions: Urban Mobility and Automotive Spectacle in Pre-World War I Amarillo
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In October 1910 Amarillo’s new speedway held a three-day auto-racing event that became newsworthy well beyond the Texas Panhandle. One driver was Thomas H. Skaggs, a twenty-five-year-old Decatur, Alabama, native who had worked in Detroit and lived briefly in Dallas before coming to Amarillo for the races. There he entered an Indiana-made Simplex 90, owned by Dallas’s W. H. Bertrand, in a two hundred-mile free-for-all race on October 12. Skaggs’s mechanician (a rider who serviced the vehicle during the race) was Fritz P. Pringle, a Dallas taxicab driver and auto mechanic. Skaggs and Pringle were speeding around the track at seventy miles per hour, trying to make up lost time, when the Simplex threw a tire. The car flew seventy feet and flipped over. Skaggs’s skull was crushed and Pringle was thrown from the vehicle. Once the car finally came to a stop, right side up, it was a total wreck, “with every wheel broken and the entire upper steering devices torn away.” The large crowd was aghast: “A groan went up from the spectators and [cars] were hastily manned for the run of half a mile” to the spot where Skaggs lay dead; meanwhile, Pringle was unconscious. (He later repeatedly asked hospital staff if he and Skaggs were ready to race. Pringle was sure they would win.) The “accident cast a pall over the” crowd and the remainder of the race was canceled.1 [End Page 61]
The spectators who watched that deadly 1910 race were beginning to realize what historian David Blanke calls the “promise and peril” of American motor culture.2 While Skaggs’s death may have been the most dramatic moment in Amarillo’s early automotive story, it was not the only significant one. Although today Amarillo may be best known for the Route 66 Historic District and kitschy roadside attractions like Cadillac Ranch, the windswept High Plains city was a car town well before Route 66 or its present-day equivalent, Interstate 40 (I-40), arrived. Indeed, when Henry Ford introduced the affordable Model T that revolutionized American society in 1908, Amarilloans had already embraced cars, a fact clearly evident by the time the United States entered World War I in 1917. Amarillo, founded in the 1880s, saw its earliest automobiles even before it built its first streetcar lines. The city’s quick and thorough adoption of cars was partly a result of timing and geography, but it also had something to do with the vehicles’ complex meanings for a growing city in the early twentieth century. Automobiles signified modernity by facilitating commerce and mobility on the flat, landlocked plains. But even as they fostered urban movement and growth, cars also became an essential part of culture, spawning popular spectacles, including speedway races, which allowed Amarilloans to attract attention to their growing city throughout the Lone Star State and beyond.
This is a different tale than the one told most often about Amarillo or the Panhandle. Historians have detailed how the U.S. Army removed the Comanches and other Native American groups in the 1874 Red River War, especially the notorious Battle of Palo Duro Canyon, before white settlers such as Charles Goodnight moved onto the frontier, turning the flatlands and canyons of the Llano Estacado and Caprock Escarpment into some of the Southwest’s most famous ranchlands.3 Less scholarly attention, though, has been paid to how turn-of-the-century Panhandle embraced modernity. Although Paul Carlson provides a good overview of Amarillo’s growth in his 2006 book Amarillo: The Story of a Western Town, he and other historians only briefly discuss automobiles in the early twentieth century and devote greater attention to post-1920 roads.4 This article fills [End Page 62] a significant gap...