- Historic Sites
The Longest Race
At a time when driving from Manhattan to Yonkers was a supreme challenge, a half-dozen cars pointed their radiators west and set out from Times Square for Paris
November 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 7
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.
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.