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Endurance Racing: First Leg, the Bunion Derby
Vacationers traveling in the United States usually do so by car, plane or train, but in 1928 (and again in 1929), approximately 200 runners signed on for the challenge of crossing the country coast-to-coast on foot. These were the runners in the Transcontinental Footrace, jokingly called the “Bunion Derby” by the newspapers. The race was used to advertise everything from foot products to the new Route-66 highway to Madison Square Garden, and was managed by a sports promoter of questionable character named C.C. Pyle, whose legal troubles added an additional bit of entertainment for the reader or radio listener following the race.
Who were these men who ran such incredible distances? Well, in 1928 there were around 200 runners present for the starting gun on March 4th, and 55 survivors who limped into New York at the end of May, only to find they had to run a final 20 miles around the cement floor of the new Madison Square Garden. In 1929, the numbers were 76 and 19, respectively. There were trained professional racers, speed-walkers, a millionaire’s son, a member of the Hopi tribe, farmhands, mechanics and even a bum. According to the New York Times, the youngest runner in 1928 was 16 years old; the oldest 63.
Competitors came from as far away as England, Italy, Finland and South Africa. The men ran for fame, to earn money to start their own farms or businesses, and to impress their sweethearts. While it’s pretty amazing that 55 runners managed this feat in 1928, that means over 70% of the competitors dropped out! The men who quit did so because of exhaustion, heatstroke, blisters, injuries to knees and feet, plain ol’ loss of motivation, and in a few cases, after having been hit by a car on the open roadway.
The race itself was rather poorly organized by sports agent C.C. Pyle—referred to jokingly in the papers as “Cash and Carry” (pdf) or “Cold Cash” Pyle (pdf). He had intended to make a mint off of the race, charging towns along the route for the honor of featuring it on their roads, and hosting the traveling carnival that accompanied the runners each night. The caliber of the carnival can be summed up by two images: two-headed chickens and the taxidermied remains of a bank robber.
Unfortunately for Pyle, many of the towns in question balked at paying, the runners curiously demanded decent meals and sleeping conditions, and Pyle became entangled with the law in several of the states they crossed. Authorities in Illinois even appear to have lain in wait for the race, attempting to recoup around $20,000 in defaulted personal loans Pyle owed one bank in their state (pdf).
All of these financial and legal troubles meant that Pyle did not have the promised $48,500 in prize money to pay the winners in New York, hence the extra 20 miles tacked on at the end: the owner of Madison Square Garden, Tex Rickard, put forward cash in exchange for the “free” advertising.