The Longest Race

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AS OF FEBRUARY 1908, ONLY NINE people had ever driven across the United States and no car had ever driven across Alaska. No car had driven across Japan. As for Siberia, which had yet to see its first automobile, there was only one man who had ever driven across it alone in any kind of vehicle. It happened in 1791, according to the St. Petersburg newspaper Nichevo , and he had driven a herd of reindeer. Across the countrysides of both continents, the only roads were local roads—unkempt paths for people on errands, not on trips. France was different, though; it had roads designed by civic planners and built by engineers. Tantalizing stretches of smooth white highway incubated something there that was largely foreign to the United States, let alone to Siberia: the pleasure of the open road. French roads were so good that people could race on them, so good that race drivers could go too fast and be killed on them, and so good that city-to-city automobile racing actually had to be outlawed. But the editors of the Paris newspaper Le Matin exercised the opportunity to remedy that by announcing, in the summer of 1907, a great race, The Great Race: New York to Paris by automobile. In need of a new racing oval, the Republic of France—ever imaginative, ever practical—had chosen the Northern Hemisphere.

IN NEED OF A NEW racing oval, France—ever imaginative, ever practical—had chosen the Northern Hemisphere.

The atlas was consulted, and a very specific course laid out, leading from New York west to Chicago and across the prairie. The cars would cross the Rocky Mountains in northern Nevada and arrive in San Francisco, where they would take a steamship to Seattle. There they would change ships for Valdez, Alaska. If a car lost its lead in waiting for passage on a ship, so that other cars caught up, it would be granted its same lead on debarkation, and the other cars held back. The racecars were to drive across Alaska and cross the Bering Strait, then push on across Russia to Europe—to Poland, Germany, France, Paris, the Champs Élysées, the Eiffel Tower. The trip was estimated at six months.

Experts on conditions along the route assured the Race Committee that it was impossible. They were right. The problem was not with the automobile, which had matured very quickly as a sporting machine, even though it was only about a dozen years old as a practical invention. The problem was with climates or roads, or both: The worse the roads, the more effective the weather, after all, and in most places on the route, roads were neither good nor bad, because they were nonexistent. Working backward, the Race Committee made a schedule. In order to cross Siberia before the summer floods turned it into a vast sponge, and Alaska before the spring thaw turned it into a runny mess of mud, the racecars would have to leave New York in mid-February. In a warm, dry office in Paris, that didn’t sound so bad.

SIX CARS ENTERED THE NEW York to Paris race. For the young automobile industry it was like the Olympic Games—an exhibition of skill, of course, but a test of national will. For those who entered, it was an adventure of the type so often cooked up in the earliest years of the century, to at once amuse and display the rich amateur. And to utilize him. For the world watching, it was to be an arbitrary and all the more fascinating sampling of people on earth, people along a straight line from a skyscraper in Chicago, each window filled by a girl dressed in white, waving at the racecars, to the people living in dugouts in the ground and gathering silently just to look at a car, in eastern Russia. It was a straight line that was made by the automobile.

The length of the trip was calculated at 19,877 miles, passing through five hundred towns and cities in the United States alone, and the estimated cost for each participant was ten thousand dollars. Since places without roads don’t need gas stations, fueling the cars could have been a great problem. However, the power of the Standard Oil Company, under attack at the time as a trust, was reflected in the fact that according to a newspaper report, “a mere notification” to the company ensured that gasoline and oil would be waiting for contestants at convenient stops all the way along the route, except in Siberia. Le Matin was referring to Siberia when it pointed out in advance that “the chief element of this [fuel] expense will be the transportation of the fuel by dog and reindeer sledges from Irkutsk.”

The six cars that entered represented four nations, all the important automaking countries except for Great Britain. They were all fairly large, open cars, ingeniously laden with gas tanks that held, on average, two hundred gallons.