2020/2021: 125 Years of Motor Sport in the United States

On Thanksgiving Day, 28 November 1895, those participating in the event that the Times-Herald newspaper of Chicago lined up at Jackson Park for the start. Unfortunately, over the preceding several days over a foot of snow had fallen on the area, with the weather turning very cold and windy. Of the expected eleven starters for the event, only six actually appeared at the starting point.

1895 Chicago start

Some ten hours later, the motor wagon driven by J. Frank Duryea completed the fifty-four mile run to Evanston and back.

1895 Chicago Duryea motor wagon

Although there was an earlier event on 2 November 1895 — the original date scheduled for the race — between the Duryea motor wagon and the Mueller-Benz that finished second in the Thanksgiving Day event, the Mueller vehicle winning when the Duryea was forced into a ditch to avoid a farm wagon, this is correctly considered to be an exhibition rather than an actual contest.

1895 Chicago Mueller Benz

On Decoration Day, 30 May 1896, a popular magazine, the Cosmopolitan, sponsored a road race from City Hall in Manhattan to the offices of the magazine in Irvington, with lunch at the Ardsley Country Club. There were six starters in the contest, four of them being motor wagons produced by the Duryea brothers, J. Frank (the winner of the event) and Charles. The event was notable for the first traffic accident in New York City, when one of the entries tangled with a bicyclist.

1896 Duryea Barmum & Bailey Poster

In September 1896, the Rhode Island State Fair sponsored a series of automotive races at the Narragansett Park horse track. Originally, there were to be five events run over a distance of five laps or five miles of the track, but severe weather reduced the number of events to only three. A.L. Riker in an electric vehicle won two of the three events held.

1896 Narragansett start SA

The events held at Narragansett Park were the first automotive contests that reflect what was to become the template for races in later years: events on a closed course — an oval-shaped track in this instance — with a massed start.

1896 Narragansett Park 1

In November 2020, motor sport will be 125 years old in the United States. From the events held in Chicago and New York City to the races at Narragansett Park in September, motor sport in the United States has developed and changed in many aspects, in some ways scarcely resembling these original events. It would seem appropriate that we use the occasion of the sport’s 125th anniversary to consider just how it has grown and developed over that span of time.

A series of panels held spanning 2020 and 2021 at various venues to discuss motor sport in the United States from those early years to today would be one way to mark this occasion. Panels composed of motor sport historians and open to the public is one way to do this. The panels on the various forms of the sport could take place at venues lending themselves to those discussion. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum, for example, could be the site for an consideration of national championship racing. The NASCAR Hall of Fame Museum in Charlotte, in conjunction with Appalachian State University and its Stock Car Racing Collection, could be a site for stock car racing. The Wally Parks NHRA Museum in Pomona is an excellent site for panels on speed contests. from drag racing to speed trials on the beaches and salt flats. The Simone Foundation Museum in Philadelphia, the International Motor Racing Research Center in Watkins Glen, and the Benson Ford Research Center at the Henry Ford Museum are other sites where panels could be held.

This would be an opportunity for motor sport historians to discuss the many issues relating to motor sport in the United States from its beginnings to the present day and engage the public in those discussions.