- Historic Sites
Every spring thirty million Americans watch the Indianapolis 500. It’s the nation’s premier racing event and the pinnacle of a glamorous, murderous epic that stretches back nearly a century.
May/June 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 3
Racing is a technology in which change is constant; competition and emotion make it a sport. Aside from that, it differs from other American sports in that practically every spectator partakes in its form every day. Driving a passenger car is monumentally different from racing a competition car, obviously—but not obviously to the imagination. Racing in this country has existed not to make heroes out of drivers but to make self-imagined heroes out of every fan.
Within one year of the Times-Herald races, New York City’s Cosmopolitan magazine staged a fifty-two-mile run, and then, in July 1896, the Rhode Island State Fair sponsored the nation’s first track event at Narragansett Park. Spectators giggled at the sight of automobiles chugging around a track meant for horses, but eventually the popularity of track racing in America would far outstrip that of road racing. It can even be said that the fans arrived before the sport did: in 1899 Hiram Percy Maxim drove a Columbia car from Hartford, Connecticut, to a race he’d entered in Branford, about thirty miles away. He arrived hours late, hoping just to see the finish. As he drove up to the track, everyone in the grandstand was cheering wildly, and a man ran over to the Columbia. “He urged me to hurry right up to the starting line,” Maxim wrote thirty-eight years later, “explaining that the crowd had been waiting all afternoon for me so they could have a race!” Maxim looked across the track and saw a little Stanley Steamer waiting forlornly at the starting line. They gave each other a tough race, and the Columbia won.
Before another decade was out, however, track racing in America had been established with a kind of grinding hucksterism. A year’s schedule for a typical race team, circa 1909, started in California, with stops at the Los Angeles Motordrome and the Golden Gate Park road race. It then migrated to the Midwest, to compete at the Indianapolis Speedway, at the Elgin Park (Illinois) Road Race, and in meets on horse tracks throughout the region. By late summer the team was on the East Coast, entering hill climbs and other races as it drifted South toward Savannah and the Grand Prize races held there in the autumn. After that the drivers convened on the flat sands of Florida for beach racing before moving back West and picking up races along the way to California to start all over again.
If the first age of American automobile racing belonged to tinkerers, the second belonged to wealthy sportsmen. Their exploits were covered in sporting journals next to the yachting and fox-hunting news, whether they were dashing around the world in their new toys, like Mr. and Mrs. Charles Glidden, or competing as amateurs in Europe’s burgeoning road races, like Foxhall Keene. Charles Glidden had made a fortune in the telephone business, and from 1905 to 1913 he devised and sponsored the Glidden Tours, an extremely influential series that tested nearly every aspect of automobile performance except speed. Keene, the scion of a New York banking family, was an accomplished horseman and sailor in addition to being a race driver. In a 1906 race his giant Mercedes caught fire, but he stayed aboard in hope of getting to the pits; people who witnessed it recalled the sight of Keene driving madly with one hand as he patted out the sparks in his mustache with the other. The fire, however, was even quicker than a Mercedes, and he finally had to pull over. Starting in 1902, many of the swells of auto racing came together in the winter for some very serious fun at Ormond Beach and Daytona Beach in Florida. The specialty was straight-line racing on the hard-packed sand, between two cars or one car against a time clock. “From all stand points,” said one leading participant, Samuel Stevens, “those of sport, speed, and safety, this competition is undoubtedly the acme of motor sport.”
Stevens was a millworks owner from Rome, New York; by 1904 he already had need of a seven-car garage, fully equipped and tended by a master mechanic. Stevens was a good customer for Benz cars, and when he bought a Rolls-Royce in 1907, the Rome Daily Sentinel reported it on the front page. In 1906 Stevens was present at Ormond Beach when a terrible ruckus broke out. A French factory driver named Victor Hémery had brought four new Darracq racers to the sands, intending to try for an all-time speed record, but after a raging dispute with the judges, he was not only disqualified but arrested. For the sake of the record attempt, Sam Stevens purchased all four Darracqs on the spot; he drove one to a minor victory and trusted the two-hundred-horsepower flagship car to Hémery’s riding mechanic, Victor Demogeot, who made a fabulous record at better than two miles per minute.
As the sheer novelty of auto racing wore off, outside observers grew outraged at the death and violence common to the sport. It was called commercial murder, spectacle on a par with Roman gladiator fighting and feeding Christians to hungry lions. Exact figures do not exist, but a casual reckoning finds more than fifty deaths that occurred in American races in 1908. Small-time promoters provoked public opinion by advertising races with headlines such as 20 DAREDEVIL DRIVERS IN THRILLING SPEED DUELS—THE FIELD VS. DEATH—WHICH WILL WIN ?