AUTOMOBILE RACING. On 28 November 1895, the Chicago Times Herald sponsored the first automobile race held in the United States. Its purposes were to test American cars and promote the nascent automobile industry. The winning speed, in a Duryea car, was 7.5 miles per hour (mph). The first series of races on American soil was organized in 1900 by Gordon Bennett, the owner of the New York Herald, with national automobile clubs of entrant nations choosing teams of three cars to compete on open roads. With a variety of mechanical and design improvements, race speeds had increased significantly and fatal accidents were not uncommon, involving both drivers and spectators.
The years from 1904 to 1910 saw the first Vanderbilt Cup street races on Long Island, organized by William K. Vanderbilt and held despite both legal threats and public misgivings. The first race, held on 8 October 1904 and sanctioned by the new American Automobile Association, had eighteen entrants on a 30.24-mile course mostly through Nassau County in New York. In 1906 the race attracted 250,000 spectators, but because of safety concerns it was canceled in 1907, resuming the following year after the Long Island Motor Parkway was built.
In 1908, the Savannah Automobile Club hosted the first American Grand Prize race. The original seventeen-mile course, built in 1904, was expanded to 25.13 miles. Present were sixteen thousand crowd-control marshals and thirty doctors. There were fourteen European and six American entries. The Gold Cup prize for the race was $5,000, twice that of the Vanderbilt Cup. Production cars were introduced to the American Grand Prize in 1909. Governed by the Automobile Club de France rules, the American Grand Prize was now the main American race entered by European drivers.
Also in 1909, the first closed-circuit dirt track was opened in Indianapolis, Indiana, by a group of automobile manufacturers to test the endurance of American-made automobiles, but this "stock car" testing course was later transformed into a racing speedway. The inaugural race was called the Indianapolis 500 and was run on Memorial Day in 1911. The Indy 500 continues to be run on Memorial Day every year.
In 1914, the Santa Monica speedway was established to host both the Vanderbilt Cup and the American Grand Prize. The 8.4 mile course along the Pacific shoreline included a ninety-degree left turn known as Death Curve. After a year in San Francisco, the races were again held in Santa Monica in 1916, the last time an American Grand Prize was held on a road course until the Vanderbilt Cup was held in New York in 1936.
The first major race after World War I was the Indianapolis 500 on 30 May 1919, in which Arthur Thurman was killed and Louis LeCocq and his mechanic were burned to death when their car overturned and caught fire. The Americans Howdy Wilcox and Eddie Hearne took first and second place, respectively. In 1921, American driver Jimmy Murphy won the French Grand Prix at Le Mans with a time of 4 hours, 7 minutes, and 11.2 seconds. The total distance was 322 miles at a speed of 79.04 mph.
The first world championship race was held in 1925 at the Indianapolis 500, a contest between manufacturers rather than drivers, but escalating costs subsequently forced manufacturers to abandon racing car production for nearly a decade. In 1928, racing rules changed from a strict formula based on engine size and weight to Formula Libre rules, with drivers in partnership with such racing car specialists as Alfa Romeo, Maserati, Bugatti, and in 1930, Scuderia Ferrari.
In 1935, at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, the British racer Sir Malcolm Campbell became the first driver to go faster than three hundred miles per hour. On 12 October 1936, the first three-hundred-mile Vanderbilt Cup race at the new Roosevelt Raceway was held. For the first time, the European Auto Union and Mercedes entered drivers. The race was won by the German racer Bernd Rosemeyer driving for Auto Union. The Roosevelt Raceway was a post-depression attempt to resurrect international motor racing in the United States by Eddie Rickenbacker and a group of Wall Street financiers, who established the Motor Development Corporation to create a racing circuit for the best European and American drivers and automobiles. Designer Mark Linenthal, however, failed to deliver a suitable venue. Afterward, international road racing took place primarily in Europe until 1959.
Broad public interest in stock car racing lead to the formation of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) at Daytona Beach in 1947. Stock car racing enjoys wide popularity and is the fastest growing spectator sport in the world. The 1990s in particular saw major growth in the sport's popularity primarily due to NASCAR's proactive marketing efforts and television's hunger for ratings. With inventions such as in-car and bumper-mounted cameras, fans watching the races on television were able to feel as if they were in the middle of the action. Additionally, in a society enamored of superstars, race drivers, more so than other sports figures, are accessible to their fans, typically having come from small towns in the South and racing in venues that are far removed from Hollywood or New York City. In 2001, NASCAR had a broader television viewership than Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League, and the Women's National
Basketball Association. In 2001, Fox, NBC, and TNT (Turner Television) signed a six-year, $2.4 billion deal for NASCAR's television rights. (In comparison, NASCAR received only $3 million for its television rights in 1985.) Fox's television viewership in 2001 averaged 5.2 million fans per broadcast race (a 41 percent increase over the previous year), and NBC and TNT television viewership in the same year averaged 3.9 million viewers per race (a 35 percent increase over the previous year). NASCAR conducts stock car races under the auspices of its Grand National Division. The Sports Car Club of America (SCCA), established in Westport, Connecticut, in 1945, oversees sports car racing in the United States. Additionally, the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA), founded in Los Angeles in 1951, sponsors drag racing at the Winternationals in Los Angeles, the Springnationals in Bristol, Tennessee, a national meet in Indianapolis, and a World Championship race in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The NHRA, the SCCA, NASCAR, and the United States Auto Club belong to the Automobile Competition Committee of the United States (ACCUS), which is the U.S. representative to the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), the controlling body of automobile racing worldwide since World War II.
In 1950, the first World Championship for drivers was held based on the results of the British, Swiss, Monaco, Belgium, French, and Italian Grand Prix and the Indianapolis 500. The Indy 500 was included to promote Grand Prix racing in America.
The U.S. Grand Prix, the first American Formula One (F1) race since the American Grand Prize series from 1908 to 1916, was held at the Sebring, Florida, air base in 1959. There were nineteen entrants, including six Americans. The American Bruce McLaren was the youngest driver to win an F1 race. In 1961, the U.S. Grand Prix was relocated to Watkin's Glen, New York, one of the best U.S. tracks, comparable to Monza and Silverstone. Watkin's Glen hosted Grand Prix races through 1980. The first U.S. Grand Prix West was held at Long Beach, California, in 1975. Other Grand Prix circuits included Long Island (1904–1910, birthplace of the Vanderbilt Cup); San Francisco (1915, on a 3.84-mile circuit constructed on landfill in the San Francisco Bay); Riverside, California (1960); Long Beach, California (1976–1983, considered the third best street course in the world after Monaco and Adelaide); Las Vegas (1981–1982, a "parking lot" course, that is, not a street course or circuit course built purposefully for racing, but literally a parking lot used as a race track); Detroit (three races in 1982); Dallas (1984–1985); and Phoenix (1989–1991, the last year a Grand Prix was held in the United States).
Brown, Allan E. The History of the American Speedway: Past and Present. Marne, Mich.: Slideways Publications, 1984.
Macgowan, Robin, and Graham Watson. Kings of the Road: A Portrait of Racers and Racing. Champaign, Ill.: Leisure Press, 1987.
J. A. Cannon