|1895 Duryea, winner of the first race in America|
Sunday, September 7, 2014
Early Automobiles and the Quest for Speed
The Quest for Speed
In real life, however, an out-of-control automobile could prove to be extremely deadly, especially when it came to racing. The origins and early history of the automobile in America are closely tied to competitions, whether it was endurance and reliability runs, road racing, hill-climbs, or oval track events. Indeed, the automobile took on new significance in American life when, on November 28, 1895, “The Race of the Century” took place in Chicago.50 Sponsored by the Times-Herald and run during a snow storm, Frank Duryea won the race between Chicago and Evanston and back. While rival newspapers were harshly critical of the event, the race sparked America’s fascination with the automobile. Racing resulted in considerable publicity and this fact did not elude many of the early manufacturers, including Alexander Winton, Henry Ford, and Ransom Olds. Match races, high-speed runs, competitions on the glass-smooth beaches at Daytona and Ormond Beach, Florida, and the Vanderbilt Cup races on Long Island that began in 1904 became very popular during the first decade of the twentieth century.51 The first generation of American race heroes included Willie K. Vanderbilt, Bob Berman, and Barney Oldfield, whose name would become a household word (“Who does that guy think he is, Barney Oldfield?”).52 The Glidden tour, which took place on public roads between 1905 and 1913, emphasized reliability over speed, and enabled the leading luxury marque (Pierce-Arrow) to establish an enviable reputation among the well-to-do. Events became trans-national as well; the 1908 New York to Paris race featured seven cars from France, Germany, Italy, and the United States, with a Buffalo, New York-made Thomas winning the 17,000 mile event.53 And while road racing’s popularity would decline somewhat by 1910, the construction of large wood plank circular racetracks across the country beginning in 1913 ensured that automobile racing was here to stay as an important spectator sport in America.54 That same year the mass-produced Ford Model T was introduced. With its low cost and reliability, even an Alabama farmer at the wheel of a modified Model T at the local county fair could at least think he was driving like Barney Oldfield.