The First Circuit Race in North America?

In an article in the December 2001 issue of Vintage Oval Racing magazine[1], the Buffalo Transportation/Pierce Arrow Museum makes the very interesting claim that its research indicated that an event using the Fort Erie horse-racing track as part of the Pan-American Exposition in September 1901 was the first auto racing event held on a circuit in North America. Held over three days, 26-28 September, the event was promoted by the Buffalo Automobile Club using a sanction from the Automobile Club of America. The event was held in the wake of the assassination of President McKinley, being postponed from its original date of 14 September, to coincide with the completion of the New York City to Buffalo endurance contest. The track was located in Fort Erie, Ontario, just across the river from Buffalo, perhaps the reason for the staff of the Buffalo museum suggesting that it was the first North American auto race held on a circuit track rather than the first in the United States.

Perhaps the staff of the Buffalo Transportation/Pierce Arrow Museum should have done a somewhat better job in the research, the question mark in the title of the article being justified as it turns out. Prior to the Fort Erie event in September 1901, there were about two dozen (probably as many as 26) race meetings held using race tracks in North America. Holding an automobile race meeting on a circuit such as the Fort Erie Race Track was, therefore, scarcely a novelty by then. Not sure how the staff managed to overlook the event held at Narragansett Park in September 1896, the first actual automobile race to incorporate several of the elements now familiar to many of those who follow automobile racing: a closed circuit and use of the mass start being the primary ones.

Here is a listing of the other events probably held in the United States/North America using track circuits prior to the Fort Erie race meeting:

  • Narragansett Park, Cranston, Rhode Island – September 1896
  • Narbeth, Pennsylvania – September 1899
  • Galesburg, Illinois – October 1899
  • Red Bank, New Jersey – May 1900
  • Davenport, Iowa – July 1900
  • Branford, Connecticut – July 1900
  • Portsmouth, Rhode Island – September 1900
  • Ingleside, California – September 1900
  • Rochester, New York – September 1900
  • Guttenburg, New Jersey – September 1900
  • Taunton, Massachusetts – September 1900
  • Washington Park, Chicago, Illinois – September 1900
  • Trenton, New Jersey – September 1900
  • Reading, Massachusetts – September 1900
  • Frederick, Maryland – October 1900
  • Attleboro, Massachusetts – October 1900
  • Los Angeles, California – October 1900
  • Atlanta, Georgia – April 1901
  • Los Angeles, California – May 1901
  • San Jose, California – May 1901
  • Brookline, Massachusetts – June 1901
  • Dallas, Texas – July 1901
  • Long Branch, New Jersey – July 1901 (twice)
  • Rogers Park, Illinois – August 1901
  • Newport, Rhode Island – August 1901
  • Lewiston, Maine – September 1901

Several of these were rather minor events, to be sure, but it does give one an idea that racing on circuits such as horse-racing tracks was becoming well-established prior to the race meeting in September 1901 at the Fort Erie Race Track.

Incidentally, the article was in a copy of the magazine which was selected entirely at random while conducting research during a visit to the International Motor Racing Research Center, which is located in Watkins Glen, New York.

[1] Bob Harrington, “The First Circuit Race in North America?”, Vintage Oval Racing, December 2001, 32.

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