Caleb Bragg, a wealthy "playboy" of the 1920s, made immense contributions to motor racing and aviation as well as in the field of speedboat racing. In his first major appearance as a complete unknown he beat the great Barney Oldfield in two straight match races. He went on to win the Vanderbilt Cup and many other races. He set speed and altitude records in aviation and won the Gold Cup for powerboats at least twice.
Caleb S. Bragg was born in Cincinatti, he was a handsome playboy of the 1920s, the son of a wealthy publisher. Educated at Yale and always attired in expensively tailored suits and fine leather gloves, he developed a passion for fast cars. He quickly found that not only could he afford the best, but he could drive with the best as well and while still a student At Yale he indulged his interest in automobile racing by taking part in a number of amateur races with considerable success. He graduated in 1908 and took a post-graduate engineering degree at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1909.
Then in 1910 he stepped his racing up a gear or two. Board tracks came about when Fredrick Moscovics took three million feet of 2X4's, and 10 tons of bolts and nails, and hammered and sawed them together until he formed Playa Del Rey, the first board track in the World.
After conceiving the idea of a one-mile saucer shaped oval, banked at 20 degrees and then building the monster 20 miles West of Los Angeles, in Venice, California, Fredrick was confronted with another problem, how to launch this monster?
So Fredrick hired the most famous racing drivers in the World for the grand opening and put on a match race between Barney Oldfield and Ralph DePalma.
Knowing the pair were scheduled to clash on the sands of Ormond Beach in March, Fredrick figured if he could bring the feuding twosome to the West coast for the planned April 8 to 17, 1910 inaugural meet he should be able to pack the grandstands.
Well the Florida meeting fizzled when DePalma's Fiat had all kinds of mechanical problems, but Moscovics thought it was still worthwhile, he figured if he could get Oldfield, DePalma would be eager for a rematch.
He guaranteed Barney a thousand dollars, plus fourteen hundred expense money, Oldfield jumped at the offer, he loaded up his big Knox 6, and headed West with his traveling circus. It didn't take much coaxing to get DePalma to load his 200 horsepower Fiat and head West.
The idea of racing on the unheard of wooden circle, and the lure of big money, attracted other "names" in automobile racing such as Marmon and its number one driver Ray Harroun and our intrepid amateur, Caleb Bragg.
Bragg's main goal in life at the time seemed to be bugging the hell out of Barney Oldfield and events got underway as planned on April 8, 1910 with a series of short heat races, with the Oldfield - DePalma shoot out scheduled to be the grand finale of the ten day show.
DePalma won the second five mile exhibition with speed of 91.6 mph and Oldfield won his five mile heat with an average of 77.5. But, wait a minute, whose this kid Caleb Bragg, he won a five mile heat April 10, with a speed of 91.8 miles per hour.
The "big" story was still Oldfield-DePalma match race with the two taking potshots at each other every time they spotted a reporter within hearing distance. But as luck would have it when the Grand Finale day approached, DePalma's big Fiat broke. Barney was thrilled and let it be known that it was the same thing that happened in Florida. So come the showdown there is no DePalma. In desperation Ralph said he would race Barney if he could use Bragg's Fiat 90. Oldfield said no, his contract said he was supposed to race DePalma's Fiat, not Bragg's.
Barney began yelling, he demanded the $1,000 he had been guaranteed for running the match race, even though Ralph had nothing to drive. Poor Moscovics was in a jam, if he couldn't sell tickets for the race that wasn't going to happen, how could he pay Oldfield the $1,000 he didn't have.
So up steps the good looking, young, rich Mr. Caleb Bragg, with a $1,000 in hand offering to race Barney, not for a $1,000 but for the promoters thousand and the thousand he has in his hand as well.
His terms were one two lap race on Saturday and two two lap races on Sunday, the winner would be two out of the three races. A grinning Barney quickly agreed to the terms. It would be hard to find to such different characters, Oldfield, the famous cigar-chomping famous showman Bragg, the unknown well educated and dapper amateur, whose appearance earned him the nickname the 'Chesterfield of the racing crowd'.
Caleb got a break on the Saturday when he drew pole position for the first race and another break when Oldfield made a huge mistake when the flag dropped. Barney broke the rear tires loose on the slick boards and went up in a cloud of smoke and the powerful Knox was never able to makeup for the bad start.
Come Sunday and this time Barney had the pole and told the starter he wanted a rolling start. This time he didn't break the rear wheels loose and Bragg's Fiat was no match for the Knox. In accelerating out of the corners and down the backstretch a gap opened up between the two cars and Barney easily led the first lap. But Oldfield's tires were beginning to heat up and the big Knox was wanting to drift higher and higher on the slick, circular boards.
Barney was fighting the steering wheel and had the Knox in a constant four wheel drift. Finally three quarters of the way round the last lap, Oldfield couldn't hold the Knox any longer and it went even higher, the opening was all Bragg needed.
In a move that has been going on ever since in automobile racing, the youngster put the nose of his Fiat underneath the Knox and headed for the finish line.
As the slipping, sliding, speeding pair crossed the finish line it was Caleb Bragg's Fiat in front of Barney Oldfield's Knox by about a hood's length.
History doesn't record Barney's words, or whether he bit his cigar into two pieces, but the book still records the veteran barnstormer was beaten in two straight races by Caleb Bragg, the 22 year old youngster from Cincinnati, Ohio.
Bragg's debut at the inaugural Indianapolis 500 the next year was less successful. His Fiat was parked in the pits when another car plowed into it. End of story. But at Savannah, "Caley," as he was called, showed real skill, finishing fourth in his first big road race.
Then in 1912, at the Santa Monica road race, Bragg finished second to "Terrible Teddy" Tetzlaff. The very next day, Bragg won a 5-mile match race at Playa Del Ray, setting U.S. closed circuit records for 2, 3, 4, and 5 miles. Among those who were impressed was Tetzlaff, who asked the young charger to relieve him in the 500 later in the month. Bragg's second drive at the Speedway was spectacular if short. At 220 miles, Tetzlaff pulled into the pits and signaled for relief. Bragg pulled out of the pits in third place, quickly gained a lap back on the leader and advanced to second before having to return to the pits to replace his abused tires. Tetzlaff jumped back in and finished second. He also won the Fourth International Grand Prix automobile road race at Wauwatosa, Wis., for the Vanderbilt Cup against twelve of the world's leading drivers.
When chasing Caleb Bragg for the victory in Milwaukee in 1912, DePalma crashed heavily on the last lap. Taken out of the ambulance bleeding profusely and suffering internal injuries, DePalma said, "Boys, don't forget that Caleb Bragg wasn't to blame. He gave me all the road." For such gallantry in defeat - and for his exciting victories - DePalma was a vastly popular driver. Sadly David Bruce-Brown was killed in the race. He had become good friends with Caleb so his victory was somewhat muted.
Seven months later Bragg was the fastest qualifier for the 1913 Indianapolis 500, driving an American-made Mercer. In the race itself, he went out on lap 129 with mechanical failure. The next year at Indy, Bragg qualified the Mercer sixth-fastest and twice led the race for short periods, but then fell back and eventually went out with a broken crank, the same problem that would force his "Californian" Mercer out of the 1915 American Grand Prize, his last race.
Bragg was in Paris in 1914 as an attaché' at the United States Embassy when the First World War started. He returned to America in 1915 and learned to fly and became financially interested in, and vice president of, the Glenn L. Martin Company. He purchased a Martin plane and made his first solo flight in the spring of 1916, becoming the holder of the Aero Club of America Certificate No. 70. He was co-organizer of the Wright-Martin Company in 1916.
In the summer of 1917 he set American altitude records twice within a few days, first by exceeding 20,000 feet, then by reaching 21,000 feet.
When the United States entered the war against Germany, Bragg trained a Yale aviation unit in Florida. Then he became an Army captain and test pilot at McCook Field, Dayton, Ohio. He later became director of flight activities at the field.
In 1918 he flew from Dayton to Washington, D.C., in two hours and fifty minutes, then a speed record. The next year he established an altitude record for seaplanes by flying to a height of 20,000 feet.
Between 1920 and 1924 he was governor of the Aero Club of Amereica and a member of its contest commission for the Pulitzer, Curtiss-Marine and other trophy races. For a period after the first war, he was a director of the Wright Aeronautical Corporation. In the Nineteen twenties he and Mr. Kliesrath invented the booster vacuum brake bearing their names and formed the Bragg-Kliesrath Corporation in Long Island City, Queens, with Bragg serving as president. The company was absorbed by the Bendix Aviation Corporation. Bragg then served as a director of this organization and later was vice president of the Bendix Marine Products Company.
His next post was that of president of the Langley Aviation Corporation. This company was formed to build a molded plastic plywood plane for private use. His last position was a vice president and engineer of the C.M. Keys Aircraft Service, Inc., here. He resigned because of poor health. He continued his automotive development experiments.
Between 1924 and 1927, Caleb Bragg was one of the world's most successful motorboat racers. He took a hand in the design of many of the engines and boats he used and won many races. He commissioned several top-ranking speedboats during the 1920s to participate in the famous Gold Cup races held near Detroit. In the mid-'20s, Bragg vied with Gar Wood for top positions in the annual races. Bragg's most well known speedboat was "Baby Bootlegger" which won the Gold Cup twice in 1925 and 1926.
With thanks to the late Dick Ralstin and earlyaviators.com