Wilfred Bourque

30/3/1879 - 19/8/1909

Record updated 14-Mar-23

Wilfred Bourque, know as Billy or William, has the dubious distinction of being the first driver killed at Indianapolis

Wilfred Bourque
Wilfred Bourque was born in West Farnham, Qu├ębec, Canada, and moved to the USA and settled in West Springfield, Massachusetts, to pursue his interest in racing. He drove for the Knox factory and though he mainly competed in hillclimbs, he did have a number of success of road circuits.

He finished second in the 1908 running of the Garden City Sweepstakes Race held in Long Island, New York and the following year he finished second again in the Cobe Trophy Race on the dirt oval at Crown Point.

Wilfred Bourque at the start of the 1908 Garden City Sweepstakes

He had made over 35 starts by the time he went to Indianapolis for the opening auto meeting in 1909. Construction had begun in March of that year on farmland on the west side of Indianapolis

The inaugural races had been scheduled for the Fourth of July, but work was not complete and the first race, which was for motorcycles, did not happen until August 13th. It was not a success as many machines suffered blowouts caused by a track's abrasive surface. there was also a problem with flying stones thrown up on the 2.5-mile oval's banked turns.

The 1908 Model R Knox of Bourque and Holcomb, image courtesy of the Jack Hess collection

Two days later the teams arrived for practice for the speedway's first car races, the 300-mile Wheeler-Schebler Trophy. More problems ensued as drivers were quickly covered in dirt, oil and tar as well as having to contend with the flying stones.

The start of the third race at Indy.

Bourque won the third race before crashing fatally in the seventh. Tom Kincaid (#6 National), Charlie Merz (#7 National), Wilfred Bourque (#3 Knox)

Over 15,000 spectators turned up for that first meeting and Bourque won the third race of the day over five miles. However in the 7th race, the Prest-O-Lite Trophy over 250 miles, Bourque crash and was killed along with his riding mechanic, Harry Holcomb. They had been running second to Bob Burman in his Buick at the 150 mile mark when Bourque looked behind him after being notified by his riding mechanic that another car was approaching.

At that point the car veered to the left where there was a long section of unfinished drain. The car caught in this and flipped over at high speed pinning Bourque and Holcombe underneath the car. Bourque died at the scene having sustained a fractured skull, broken legs and punctured lung. Holcomb broke both arms and had severe head injuries. He died in the hospital without recovering consciousness.

The cause of the crash is unclear, however what is clear is that the unfinished state of the track contributed to the fatalities. A rear wheel was found a few hundred feet from the scene supporting the theory that the nuts had not been properly tightened when the wheel had been changed at an earlier stop.

Louis Chevrolet also had to go to the hospital that day, almost blinded with tar and dust from the track. He had been leading early on but had been forced to retire due to the conditions.

The Coroner, Mr Blackwell, ruled that the course was not properly finished and that 200 ft of track at the point where the accident occurred had been torn up by the cars and a further section of open drainage ditch 20 inches wide and 2ft deep had been left exposed directly contributing to the car turning over. He ruled that had the ditch been properly finished the car would have remained upright and Bourque and Holcomb would have probably survived.

Those were the first and last dirt races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The track was paved with bricks by December of that same year, thus becoming known as 'The Brickyard'.