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Nostalgia: The World’s Champion Speed Contest

The Speed Derby of 1941 lasted two months.

Image appears courtesy of Charles L. Franck / Franck-Bertacci Photographers Collection, The Historic New Orleans Collection, 1979.325.184.

The Speed Derby of 1941, billed as the World’s Champion Speed Contest by Creator and Master of Ceremony King Brady, opened on July 31 in the Municipal Auditorium.

The main event consisted of 50 men and women, in 22 couples teams and six solo racers, competing in a months-long endurance race around a track on the auditorium floor. Some competitors were sponsored, racing in shirts branded with logos, including Jax Beer and The Court of Two Sisters. Contestants would walk, run and jump for 24 hours a day, with 45 minutes of race and 15 minutes off every hour. The last ones still racing would win.

Audiences came and left at all hours of day and night, paying admission prices between 15 and 30 cents; the air-cooled stands were often packed. To keep up with the races when away from the venue, updates were broadcast on WDSU at 10 a.m., noon, 4:30 p.m. and 10:10 p.m.

Special entertainment kept the crowds entertained. Acrobats, vaudeville performers, comedians, dancers and live bands provided entertainment both day and night. Elaborate performances with special props, scenery and lights were featured daily, running the gamut from athletic to comedic to absurd: The Gay Nineties Revue, A Nite in the Insane Asylum, Mystery Wrestling Match and The Street Car Scene were just a few of them. Two racing couples were even married in elaborately costumed ceremonies during the months-long racing period.

Jam Bombshell Derby special events involved 20 teams racing around the track, trying to lap members of the competing teams or forcing them into the center of the track, where a fall would cause an immediate disqualification. Winning teams would receive a cash prize at the end of each match.

The Speed Derby ended after about two full months at the end of September with a large gala ball. By then, the last contestants had racked up about 1,500 hours of racing; the winners received $2,000 in cash prizes.


One of the creative entertainments provided for the audience involved two women encased in ice – thawing. The Tomb of Ice participants, most often young ladies in bathing costumes, but also sometimes the Master of Ceremony, were monitored by medical staff during their thaw.


 

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