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History of Automobile Racing in America

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

Pre-WWII Racing

History of Automobile Racing in America

Fred J. Wagner
The New York Times
October 16, 1910

Birth of Vanderbilt Cup and Other Road Contests---Early Performance at Ormond Beach---Records of Drivers on Track and Road

When the public was beginning to tire of the bicycle craze ten years ago and was in a mood for some new kind of speed sensation, automobile racing began to come to the front in this country.  Europe had established this branch of sport a few years before and many successful speed events had been held over roads on the Continent.  The popularity shown by the European countries prompted Americans to take up the racing of motor cars and at Detroit, Buffalo and Cincinnati meets were held over tracks which had formerly seen only races between horses.  It was not long before manufacturers and dealers saw that racing gave the machines much publicity and fast motor cars began to make their appearance in this country in large numbers.

In 1901 such men as Henry Fournier, Alexander Winton and his famous "Bullet," and Herbert Lytle sprang into prominence, while as amateurs William K. Vanderbilt, Jr., and Foxhall Keene set people talking about them.  Shortly afterward Barney Oldfield began to do track stunts, also Harry Harkness and Edgar Apperson.  Some of these fellows could reel off miles on running and trotting tracks in about 1:12.  It was the beginning of a big and mighty expensive form of sport.

More and more drivers kept cropping up; Joe Tracy, Al Poole, Maurice Bernin, Charles Basle appearing in 1904, winning races at Empire City track and elsewhere.  Steam cars began to make fast time on tracks, notably old "Whistling Billy," that noisy car which Webb Jay drove, and later made a steam record for mile tracks of 0:48 3-5, a remarkable record which has never been beaten by any sort of car.  Freaks in those days were quite numerous, and most track events were confined to short distances–the 24-hour variety not having come into vogue, for very good reasons.  Track work paved the way for road racing.

It was in 1903 that W. J. Morgan "discovered" the famous Ormond-Daytona beach course, undoubtedly the greatest straightaway course for racing in the world.  Thither went a number of fast cars and set up new world's records for the mile, ten-mile, and kilometer distances.  The next Winter saw Ormond as a mecca for motor enthusiasts.  New world's records from one to fifty miles were smashed; the most notable performer being William K. Vanderbilt, Jr., in his 90 horse power Mercedes, who broke the one, five, ten and intermediate marks from twenty to fifty miles.  The young amateur was credited with a mile in 39 seconds and ten miles in 6:50.

The 1905 Ormond season saw all these marks chipped away by Arthur MacDonald, Edward Russell Thomas, H. W. Fletcher, Paul Sartori, and Louis Ross.  The best of all the meets, however, was probably that of 1906, when the "two-mile-a-minute race" was the feature of the programme.  This speed was thought impossible, but Demogeot, in a 200-horse power Darracq racer, did it and better, covering two miles in 58 4-5 seconds.  Fred Marriott, in the famous Stanley steamer, Bug, a torpedo-shaped affair, made the fastest straight away mile ever covered by any type of car, the mark being 0:28 1-5.  Lancia, Vaughan, Chevrolet, and Clifford-Earp also made new marks.  The following year no records were broken; in 1908 Cedrino in the Fiat, Bernin in a Renault, and one or two other drivers made new marks, while this year George Robertson and Bruce-Brown, in the 120-horse power Benz, and Ralph de Palma, in the Fiat Cyclone, were the chief performers, making a few new short-distance records.  The last three years, however, the Ormond-Daytona carnival has petered out, interest not running nearly as high as in previous seasons.

In the early part of 1904 the Vanderbilt Cup race had its inception.  William K. Vanderbilt, Jr., offered a trophy to be contested for annually under the auspices of the A. A. A., for a distance of 250 or 300 miles on a road course, and in the years 1904 and 1905, on American soil.  After that it might be held whose team won the trophy.  The cup was to be fought for by teams of cars representing clubs affiliated with the A. A. A. or the Automobile Club of France, not by individual entrants.  Subsequently the deed of gift and conditions of the contest were changed considerably.

The premier event took place on Oct. 8, 1904, on a Long Island course, with a field of sixteen starters, representing the four teams of the United States, France, Germany and Italy.  It was won by George Heath, an American amateur, driving a 90 horse power Panhard as a member of the French team.  He covered 284 miles at a rate of 52 miles an hour, while Tart in a Panhard skirted a lap at a rate of 71 miles an hour—sensational indeed.

America showed third at the finish with Herbert Lytle in a Pope-Toledo.  The initial contest was a success in every way and undoubtedly acted as a stimulus for manufacturers to improve the manufacture of cars on this side of the Atlantic—much more than track racing.  The race was spectacular and the public went wild over it.

When the second Vanderbilt was run the next autumn, an elimination race was necessary in order to select an American team.  Bert Dingley being the winner of the trial, and when the final was reeled off five cars each represented America, France, and Italy, while Germany had but four.  A second triumph was scored for France by Hemery in a Darracq, when he drove in a winner at an average speed of 61½ miles an hour, materially better than the time of Heath the year before.  In this contest Heath was second and Tracy in the Locomobile third.

This was the day that Lancia, the daring Fiat driver, piloted one of the most sensational races ever seen on any road.  By fighting hard he had secured the lead from Hemery, and was about to make a meteoric finish when a smash-up with Walter Christie robbed him of a victory.

To France went the third triumph in the Vanderbilt race.  On Oct. 10, 1906, an American team of five cars, (picked after an elimination trial, which Tracy won.) one of the best if not the best of the cup races, took place.  The exciting finish, with its battle between Lancia in the Fiat and Wagner in a Darracq, will never be forgotten by people who witnessed it.  These two drivers, together with Duray and Jenatzy, had been going with but a few seconds difference in the elapsed time for some laps.  In the tenth and last Wagner took the lead, only to meet with tire troubles a couple of minutes later.  There was a frenzy of excitement; the crowds tore down the wire fences and swarmed over the course, and it seemed as if they could not help being mowed down by the fast machines.  Down the stretch came Lancia, snorting across the tape, the first to finish the distance.  Wagner, however, was going again, and he had started several minutes behind Lancia.  Every one wondered if he would cross the tape before too late.  He did—in a whirlwind finish, too!  Wagner's speed was about 63 miles an hour for the 297 miles.  Joe Tracy in the American Locomobile scored the fastest lap of the event.

Nineteen hundred and seven saw no Vanderbilt race, the fourth taking place on Oct. 24, 1908.  It was notable in that Robertson in the Locomobile won the cup for America for the first time and brought the trophy back to these shores.  It was the first cup contest held on the Long Island Motor Parkway, and Robertson's duel with Lytle at the wheel of the Isotta at the finish was the feature of the race.  Robertson's average speed was 64.3 miles an hour, the fastest ever made in a cup race up to that time.

As for road races in recent years Briarcliff, Lowell, Philadelphia, and Western stock chassis events were notable, while the greatest of these was the memorable Grand Prize race at Savannah, Ga., on Thanksgiving Day in 1908.  Never was such a closely contested race of a field of fine cars and great drivers ever seen.  Louis Wagner, winner of the 1906 Vanderbilt, won the gold Grand Prize of the A. C. A., driving a Fiat to a splendid victory, barely beating out Hemery in a Benz.

The Briarcliff race held April, 1908, and killed the next year owing to a failure of the manufacturers to agree upon a piston displacement formula, was won in fiery style by Louis Strang in an Isotta, the late Cedrino's Fiat and Guy Vaughan's Stearns being second and third, respectively.  Aside from being an exciting contest it was about the hardest ever imposed upon drivers and cars, for the course was the most dangerous for racing in America.

A great road performance in 1909 was made by Louis Chevrolet in a Buick in a light car class, when he set up a new American road record of 69.9 miles an hour in the Riverhead (L. I.) Stock Car Derby, the big class of which was won by Ralph De Palma in a Fiat.  It is true, however, that the remarkable smoothness and long, straightaway stretches of this course make faster time possible than any other course that has been tried in the East.  On the Pacific Coast there are two or three fine courses and a couple of good races were run over them this year, notably the Oakland-Potola road race of October, 1909, in which Jack Fleming in a Pope-Hartford made a good showing as winner.

During the past year automobile racing has been more prominent than ever.  Records have fallen with great frequency and the motor cars attack on time has brought the records for short and long distances to a remarkably low figure.  At the Los Angeles motordrome, an Indianapolis, Atlanta and many other courses given up entirely for motor car racing records have been shattered.

The Vanderbilt Cup Race of 1910 showed the great strides made by American manufacturers in constructing racing cars, for Harry F. Grant in one of the American Locomotive Company's Alco cars won for a second time and lowered all records for the classic by covering the distance of 279 miles at the rate of 65.2 miles an hour.  The Fairmount Park race in Philadelphia also brought out faster American cars than before and the winner of this event, the Chadwick car, lowered the mark for that course.

On the whole, all classes of racing have greatly improved the make of foreign and American cars, and while a number of manufacturers have dropped considerable money on the sport, the game as far as the whole industry is concerned, has been worth the candle many times over.  Many of the people who do not approve of motor racing to-day enjoy the comforts of a car of their own, which has been perfected very largely owing to the lessons taught makers by races of the past.  A big racing year for 1911 may be looked forward to, and the fact that the newly formed Manufacturers' Contest Association will control it, beginning Jan. 1, will mean that it will be conducted to the greater advantage of all manufacturers interested in racing, and at the same time put racing on a basis that will protect the public, which pays its money to witness these contests, and also protect contestants, who pay entrance fees, by seeing that all rules are rigidly enforced.

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