Bob Burman was born in Imlay City, Michigan and was an American racecar driver active in the formative years of auto racing.
In 1905 William Durant, the founder of General Motors, decided to enter his company into the world of motor racing. He entered a little Buick into the race at Grosse Point that year.
While not an official entry, the car was allowed to compete as the field was somewhat sparse. Burman, who had originally been a wheel painter in the old Durant-Dort Company, drove the car to victory. Durant was quick to see the potential for publicity and Burman was thus entered into the races at St Louis and Grand Rapids with similar results.
By 1908, the Chevrolet brothers, Arthur and Louis, joined Burman and Lewis Strang in the works team. Burman took victory in the Massachusetts Dead Horse Hill Climb, Giants Despair Mountain Climb and the 100-mile Free for All at Empire City Track, New York.
In 1909 still racing for Buick he raced at the inaugural meeting at the new Indianapolis Speedway. Hailed as the The Brooklands of America, the races were held over three days between the 19th and 21st of August. With 100 cars and 20 different events organised the main event for the first day of racing was the 250 mile Prest-O-Lite Company Trophy. At the 150 mile mark, the lone Knox entry driven by Wilfrid Bourque with Harry Holcombe as the riding mechanic was running second to Burman's Buick. Unfortunately tragedy followed as it appeared that a rear wheel came off the Knox. It had just made a pit stop and it is possible that it had not been properly tightened when the wheel was changed. The car veered off the track, crashed through the fence and overturned crushing its occupants. Bourque and Holcombe both died from multiple injuries. Burman went on to take the win.
After his success at Indy, Burman took the Buick Bug to Pablo Beach where he won a 20-mile free for all at an average speed of 91.06 mph. He also raced a stripped-down Buick agaimst an early biplane at Daytona that year. The Buick reportedly won easily.
At the Vanderbilt Cup race in 1910 the field was dominated by American entries. Louis Chevrolet at over 70 mph dominated the opening laps. On lap seven his teammate Burman took over the lead. Chevrolet returned to the lead but later lost his steering and crashed killing his mechanic. Joe Dawson then took the lead but the race was ultimately won by Harry F. Grant in an ALCO.
1911 saw the first running of the Indy 500. Burman drove well but on the eighty-fifth lap, a right rear tire burst with a loud bang that brought the spectators to their feet. The car swerved but Burman quickly regained control however he had passed the pit entrance and continued on another lap on the rim as the tire had come completely off. Going through the south curve he lost control and crshed over the stone retaining wall,fortunately without injury.
On April 23, 1911, he took the Blitzen-Benz to Daytona Beach. Burman had replaced Barney Oldfield as the driver, and set about using the long, wide expanse of coastline to set a new land speed record.
The car had been built as a sports car by Benz & Cie. in 1909, with the aim of breaking the 200 km/h (124.26 mph) barrier. Powered by the 150 hp engine from the Grand Prix car, the displacement was enlarged to 21.5 liters, eventually developing 200 hp. The car used the chassis of the Grand Prix car. The car was raced successfully in Europe and in 1910, fitted with new bodywork, the car was shipped to America. There it was bought by racing promoter, Ernie Moross, and named the Lightning Benz. Driven by Barney Oldfield, it broke the world land speed record, setting the mark at 211.97 km/h st Daytona Beach.
Re-named the Blitzen-Benz, Burman achieved 225.65 kph for the mile with flying start and 228.1 kph over the kilometre with flying start setting a record that remained unbroken until 1919.
Buick pulled out of racing and in 1914 he aquired a 1913 Grand Prix Peugeot. He took a win on the dirt oval at Kalamazoo and a second at Galesburg after leading the race from lap 21 until lap 99 when he ran out of fuel and coasted across the line.
Late in the year the Peugeot engine broke a con rod and destroyed itself. So, early in 1915, Burman hired Harry Miller to build a replacement. Miller and his engineers rebuilt the Peugeot engine with pistons machined out of aluminum alloy. This made them 44 ounces lighter than the steel originals, producing an engine that was lighter and more powerful than before. As a result, Burman won the 200 mile Southwest Sweepstakes road race at Oklahoma City. He finished 6th at Indy and also won a race at Burlington and a 25-mile race at Providence, Rhode Island.
In 1916 he made another attempt at the world land-speed record at Brighton Beach, New York, and then raced in Corona, California. The town had a three mile long, 70ft wide circular main street called the Grand Boulevard than ran around the city center. Races were held there in 1913 and 1914 with great success. After a break of some 18 months a third race was organised in 1916. Burman had led most of the race but about 12 laps from the finish, the rear wheel of his Peugeot collapsed, sending it crashing off the track at over 100 mph. The car hit a parked spectator car and rolled into the crowd. Burman and his riding mechanic, Erick Schroeder(Schrader), were thrown out and landed nearly 50 feet away. The Peugeot finally came to rest against a telephone pole.
Schroeder died instantly along with William Speer, a track steward. A number of other spectators were also injured. Burman was taken to Riverside hospital where he died shortly after. The tragedy prompted his friends, Barney Oldfield and Harry Arminius Miller, to join forces to design and build a racing car that incorporated a roll cage inside a protective streamlined driver's compartment. The result was the famous Goldern Submarine.
The events at Corona in 1916 effectively ended racing away from the coast in Southern California for almost 40 years.