- 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
The specter of “commercial murder” has haunted and hampered American racing ever since, but no event inspired as much outrage as the Vanderbilt Cup race of 1910. The quintessential millionaire sportsman, William K. Vanderbilt, Jr., brought his enthusiasm for road racing home from Europe, and each October from 1904 to 1910 (except 1907), he sponsored a road race of about three hundred miles on Long Island. It immediately took its place as the most important event in U.S. auto racing, drawing magnificent entries from France (Darracq, Panhard), Italy (Lancia, Fiat), and Germany (Mercedes-Benz), in addition to America (Locomobile, Buick, Alco, Chadwick). It also drew up to five hundred thousand people, and therein lay the trouble.
An avid spectator would awaken at about 3:00 A.M. on the day of a Vanderbilt Cup race and make his or her way through the cool dawn air to a thirty-mile course on western Long Island, defined by Jamaica, Jericho, and Plain Edge. Those nearer to Mr. Vanderbilt’s social status sat in the grandstands erected near Jericho; everyone else just lined up on the course, each spectator a little maddened by the power and its nearness. “It was speed you could feel as well as see, speed that burned your cheeks,” one Vanderbilt Cup fan, George Trevor, explained. As soon as a contestant approached, shouts of “Car coming!” traveled through the crowds. As Trevor described it, “A black spot in the distance grew bigger as the roar deepened, suddenly took shape. The glaring radiator numerals smashed you in the eye; blue flames spurted from the exhaust vents in the bonnet; gay streamers whipped horizontal by the wind, flared backwards from the helmeted heads of driver and mechanic.”
In their greed for excitement the Vanderbilt Cup crowds were uncontrollable—and so were most of the race cars.
In their outright greed for such a sight, the Vanderbilt Cup crowds were simply uncontrollable, and so were most of the race cars, flying along in high gear. Wire fences, fire hoses, police, and militia—let alone an instinct for self-preservation—could not keep people off the road. During the 1906 race Vanderbilt himself was compelled to drive the course in his white Mercedes, imploring people please to stand back. The cars bore down on the packed roadway, and the crowd would part just before them; once a car went by, people fell in for a second look, a reporter noted, as though they were drawn in by the suction of its passing. Perhaps this reckless bravado was due in some part to the Vanderbilt Cup’s being known (in an era known for hard drinking) as a day for hard drinking among both spectators and drivers.
Most years the Vanderbilt Cup featured great racing, and the victory of a Locomobile in 1908 gave America its first success in international racing circles, but the constant danger was insupportable. Four people were killed and twenty-two seriously injured in 1910, the last year the Cup was held on Long Island. Three people had already lost their lives when Joe Dawson, leadine the race in his yellow Marmon, came in late for a pit stop, sobbing and eerily oblivious of the crew’s work on the car. When the stop was complete, fans shouted for him to drive on, but Dawson sat motionless, tears running through the grime on his face. Crewmen stood back uncomfortably, and the manager hardly knew what to do, as valuable seconds and then minutes slipped by. Finally, when Dawson confessed in anguish that he had killed a man on the course, the manager verified with the judges that the man had not, in fact, been killed. Dawson snapped out of his hysteria and continued the race beautifully, finishing in second place by only twenty-two seconds.
By occupational definition, race drivers harbor no fear for their own lives, but in many affecting instances they put the safety of others above all else, crashing their cars to avoid a disabled car or driver. It must be added that the same drivers have always been just as capable of behavior less noble. In one Vanderbilt Cup race, Lewis Strang was so far back in the running, so futilely engaged in the race, that he made his own game of trying to bump Foxhall Keene into the gutter. Drivers were known to throw wrenches at each other and to carry brooms that they dragged behind to kick up dust for pursuers. When George Robertson was accused once of throwing a wrench, he explained with some dignity that he would never throw a wrench when a handful of bolts was just as effective and less valuable.
To drive a race car, especially in the early days, required a rugged physique. The clutch and accelerator pedals were so tight that operating them made drivers limp for hours afterward. Despite their power and heft, race cars could jump skittishly, so a driver had to hold the steering wheel with both hands, except when working the hand brake (which was used more for steering than for stopping). Because there were no windshields on race cars, the driver was buffeted by the wind as well as by flying pebbles, dust, and the occasional handful of bolts.