Before going in-depth with this review of James R. Powell’s “The 1928 Bunion Derby,” prospective customers should know right away it is not a turn-by-turn guidebook to the infamous 3,423-mile Trans-American Footrace from Los Angeles to New York City — much of it on Route 66.
In short, it’s about one-third of that.
It’s easy for longtime Route 66 enthusiasts to initially misconstrue the large, spiral-bound volume as being a sports-related version of another large, spiral-bound, turn-by-turn guidebook — mainly, Bob Moore’s “Route 66: The Illustrated Guide to the Mother Road” from 1994.
Also, Powell remains well-known as a diligent researcher of Route 66 alignments. One of his best-known accomplishments was sorting out the myriad paths of the Mother Road in the St. Louis region.
Instead, readers should pay attention that Powell’s book is subtitled “A Historical Tour and Driving Guide, Chicago to New York City.” It mentions the Route 66 part of the race in a few pages, but the vast majority of “The 1928 Bunion Derby” instead covers the last 1,000 miles.
I’m not sure why Powell didn’t make a turn-by-turn book that traces the entire race. Perhaps he considered the late 1920s alignments of Route 66 already had been well-documented by other guidebooks.
Perhaps it was because a guidebook of the C.C. Pyle’s entire race would have been simply too big. At it is, “The 1928 Bunion Derby” spans 352 pages, measures a bulky 8 1/2 by 12 inches and weighs nearly three pounds. Writing a turn-by-turn, historically annotated book of the whole race path would have topped out at nearly 1,000 pages.
It’s doubtful any readers will feel shortchanged, however. “The 1928 Bunion Derby” adds many facts to the historical record — which was scant barely a decade ago until two books arrived in short succession.
In addition to the aforementioned turn-by-turn directions for the last 1,063 miles of the Bunion Derby, the book contains about 200 historical images — many from Powell’s own collection.
It contains subchapters such as “The Route Today,” which explains how the racepath has changed over the decades; “Tales of the Times,” snippets of newspaper accounts of the race; and “The Race,” which details how the runners performed during each day’s segment. “The 1928 Bunion Derby” even contains a few shortcuts for travelers trying to follow the race.
One thing Route 66 fans will take away from the book was Pyle detoured runners away from Route 66 and the official path several times because cities refused to pay a fee to host the race. As a result, the Bunion Derby bypassed Needles, California; Santa Fe, New Mexico; Madison, Illinois; and large sections of Oklahoma City, St. Louis and the Los Angeles metro area. Because of Pyle’s penchant for changing the race’s path at the last minute, Powell acknowledges tracing the route is merely a “best guess” based on often-sketchy newspaper reports from the time.
Also, Pyle became a bit more motivated to detour from Route 66 because the U.S. 66 Highway Association withheld $60,000 from the race. The promotional materials apparently didn’t promote the fledgling highway enough for the association’s satisfaction, plus it was hearing negative publicity about Pyle’s antics and his traveling carnival.
In light of Pyle’s haphazard and even neglectful planning, plus the ever-present hazards of dodgy road conditions, sun overexposure, injuries, illness and sheer exhaustion, Oklahoma native Andy Payne’s unexpected victory in the race becomes even more impressive. Payne essentially ran 10-minute miles all the way across the country.
“The 1928 Bunion Derby” lags occasionally with Powell’s attention to historical minutiae, and Route 66 fans might grouse about the meager attention paid to more than 2,000 miles of the race. (For the best overall narrative on the Bunion Derby, check out Geoff Williams’ “C.C. Pyle’s Amazing Foot Race.”)
Still, Powell’s book digs up a lot of useful material for posterity — no small feat for race that happened nearly 90 years ago.