Thursday, May 5, 2016

A Battle Among Nations: Auto Racing in America, 1909-1916

1911 Indy Start

1911 Indy

Industrial America: The “Carnival of Speed” and the Indianapolis 500
Automobile racing entered a new phase of development in 1909, when the American Automobile Association took on organizational responsibility for the sport. At the same time, entrepreneur Carl Graham Fischer and partner James A. Allison had a 2.5 mile oval constructed 4 miles from downtown Indianapolis using crushed stone as a surface.[endnote] Racing began at Indy in 1909, but the problem of thrown rocks and injured drivers and mechanics resulted in later paving the track  with bricks. In 1911 the first 500 mile race took place on Decoration (later Memorial) day, with driver Ray Harroun winning the inaugural race without a riding mechanic and using a rear view mirror.  At a time when critics were calling for an end to racing due to the high death toll.  Even driver Barney Oldfield got into the debate, stating that “I was never famous until I went through the fence at St. Louis and killed two spectators. Promoters fell over one another to sign me up.”  In addition to the major races sanctioned by the AAA, there were hundreds of other events held at state fairs and by “circus” barnstormers. Randall L. Hall characterized the early sport as one linked to manufacturers with the vague promise that the mayhem was somehow connected to technical progress, while in fact in reality it was a commercial spectacle:
"Industrial America spawned automobile racing. In this sport, individuals compete for prizes by operating complex machines at the fastest speed possible. They travel a designated course   and follow strict rules. Fans far removed from participation pay for the privilege of watching (and hearing, smelling and feeling) the spectacle. “Carnival of speed” was the label given to may early races. This characterization is apt, for automobile races are simply particularly modern form of show business, a circus on wheels. And like other niches of entertainment industry, racing’s success lies in organizing and promoting the product." 
By 1913 with the entrance of three French Peugeots in the Indianapolis 500 field, the race became a battle of nations. J.C. Burton’s poem, published in Motor Age, reflected the nationalistic sentiments of the day:
"O! my sons, give heed to the gods of speed
When they call on you today;
There's a race to run form the starting gun
Till the bolts and nuts give way;
And the call to fight is a challenge old
From the men who dare to the men who're bold.
Thus does the Motherland implore her sons
            With nerves of steel
To Conquer Space in grueling race and grind
            Time 'neath the wheel;
Full well she knows to what rare heights
Her daring sons aspire,--
Projectile laws are shot with flaws before
Supreme desire…."

The French reigned supreme at Indianapolis between 1913 and 1916. But with World War one and the coming of the Duesenberg brothers and Harry Miller, the winds of racing supremacy between Europe and America soon shifted. In 1916 Miller rebuilt a Peugeot engine for driver Bob Burman, and in the process began designing and building power plants superior to the pre-war Peugeot twin cam, 4 valve per cylinder engines. Such was the transition that in 1921, driver Jimmy Murphy, piloting a Miller-powered Duesenberg, won the French Grand Prix race, the first American to do so. Thus, at the opening of the Roaring Twenties, Americans not only could make very fast cars more than competitive on the world stage, they could also make inexpensive cars for the masses thanks to Henry Ford.

1 comment:

  1. "Automobile racing entered a new phase of development in 1909, when the American Automobile Association took on organizational responsibility for the sport."

    Actually, the AAA took control of national racing in the United States in 1902 with the creation of the Racing Committee/Board. What changed in 1909, is that the AAA entered into an agreement with the Manufacturers' Contest Association (MCA) in which the MCA contracted out to the AAA and the Contest Board, the reorganized and renamed former Racing Board, its intent to control racing organized by the manufacturers. Although the AAA and the Automobile Club of America (ACA) had waged an ugly war during 1908 over who would represent the USA in international racing, which the ACA won in part due to being accepted in Europe as the US representative. Prior to the ACA quitting the AAA in March 1908, over the issue of due and not anything to do with racing, it was not only a member of the AAA, but the club which had led the move to form the AAA. It is a part of the great misunderstanding that Russ Catlin fostered that it was not until 1909 that the AAA and its Contest Board actually took control of US racing. Not so.

    In the interest of brevity, I have left out much of both the ACA/AAA war of 1908 as well as the development of the Racing Board and the later Contest Board. Things are rarely simple when it comes to such topics.