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Bob Burman

“Wild Bob” Burman, of Michigan, was a superstar in the early days of racing, amassing wins, records, and respect. He earned the nickname Wild Bob “because he would drive his car where many another nervy driver did not dare go” (here). Burman started his automobile career as a tester for Buick Motor Company, testing the first Buick ever made. After moving to Jackson Automobile Company as a tester, he launched his racing career with a win in his first race.


At the 1911 Daytona Automobile Tournament Burman distinguished himself and further defined Daytona as the fastest racing destination. At the meet he set new records at multiple distances, including in the mile and 2 mile events. After driving the records down throughout the meet, Burman set the new low records on April 23, 1911, his 27th birthday.


Burman set the records driving the same German 200 horsepower “Blitzen Benz” his rival Barney Oldfield had driven to records on the beach in 1910. Just a few years after the two miles a minute craze tested drivers and cars to go 120 mph, Burman drove an amazing 141 mph. Burman’s mile record stood until 1919 when it was eventually broken by Ralph DePalma as post-World War I America re-embraced racing.


Beyond the beach Burman also found success. In the 1908 Savannah Grand Prix Burman drove a Buick to a second-place finish and was the highest finishing American car despite mechanical trouble. Buick was considered the lowest priced of the American cars and Burman was cheered as a hero in the “David versus Goliath “story of the Buick nearly beating an Italian car.


Burman also participated in the early Indianapolis events and while he never won an Indianapolis 500, he did make his mark on the speedway. Burman won a 250 mile race at Indianapolis in 1909. In 1911 he drove his 200 horsepower Blitzen Benz to records for the speedway in the quarter, half, and mile distances and at the kilometer distance.


Burman was scheduled to compete in the May 1916 running of the Indianapolis 500 before he was killed in a racing accident in April 1916 in the Corona Auto Classic in California. At the time of his death Burman was working with the Premier specials being built in Indianapolis to incorporate his racing knowledge into the construction of a new automobile.


Burman was considered a pioneer of the sport whose methods were copied by others. In addition to mechanical theories, Burman had philosophical theories of racing. He believed the key to never being killed in a racing accident was being an honest person. While his philosophies may have been flawed and never caught on, the mask he devised to protect his face was an innovation that, though it has evolved, has stood the test of time.


Burman made his mark on American automobile racing and the Indianapolis general manager offered this tribute to the late racer: “He was a clean sportsman, a thoroughbred in every respect. I have known him to help competitors when such help jeopardized Burman’s own opportunities of success. He did much in an experimental way to perfect the construction of motor cars, and this good will on forever.”


A newspaper tribute said of Burman: “His racing days were days filled with success and nerve. His reputation as a driver was the envy of his mates. And at the same time Bob Burman kept a delightful acquaintance with men he met on the streets, and was at all times a “good fellow.” The passing of Bob Burman means more to automobile fans than the mere passing of a good driver. It means that the racing game has lost a credit to it, and a man who could do what others dared not do, and who did it with an assumption that troubled his friends.”

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