Henry Ford famously said that "auto racing began 5 minutes after the second car was built". While he was probably right, it definitely started before he build his second Quadricycle in 1898, featuring chain drive and a whopping 20 mph top speed.
It was in Europe where all the fun began, but the United States was not far behind, with the first race held in Chicago in 1895. Six cars entered this Chicago Times-Herald sponsored event, and a Duryea motorized wagon took the victory.
In the first forty years, motor racing went from steam powered death traps to even bigger ones with a thousand horsepower thanks to some aircraft engines. There was a lot to see...
The first is always special
The first officially organized race was on April 28, 1887. It was set up by Monsieur Fossier, the chief editor of Paris publication Le Vélocipède. At that time, even these big wheeled bicycles were pretty modern, since they were only invented in the 1860s. The race ran from Neuilly to Versailles, a distance of only 1.2 miles. The winner was Georges Bouton of the De Dion-Bouton company with his steam quadricycle, but since him and his partner, Count de Dion were the only contenders, it was hardly a glorious victory.
The death of Monsieur Renault
The first race with real competition was held on July 23, 1894 between Paris and Rouen. Sixty-nine cars lined up for this 31 mile challenge, with manufacturers like Peugeot, Panhard and De Dion. 3 horsepower and a bit of reliability was all they needed, and Albert Lemaître took the trophy with his Peugeot. America joined the party in 1895, and by the end of the century, intercity races became very popular all over the western world. The fun lasted until 1903, when Marcel Renault ended up in a ditch with his aerodynamic machine. He died of his injuries, but since eight more fatalities were already on the list, the government banned these competitions.
The British built a track
This photo of a group of workers taking a
coffee tea break was taken in October, 1906 at the construction site of the Brooklands racetrack in Surrey. The banked oval was the brainchild of Sir Hugh Fortescue Locke-King, an entrepreneur who founded and financed the project on his own. In the following year, only eleven days after the circuit was opened, the world's first 24 hour motor event was held, with Selwyn Edge entering in three specially converted Napiers. His own was called the "804", with which he covered 1,581 miles at an average speed of 65.9 mph. Over 300 red railway lamps were used to light the track during the night...
Welcome to Indianapolis
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway was opened in 1909, after a local businessman by the name of Carl G. Fisher got fed up with the dangerous street races America had at the time. Seeing how it's done in France, and also taking a trip to Brooklands, he proclaimed in front of investors and manufacturers that "Indianapolis is going to be the world's greatest center of horseless carriage manufacturers, what could be more logical than building the world's greatest racetrack right here?" It took quite a lot of manpower to reshape the land for the oval, but it has paid off pretty soon. The first day of car racing resulted in four finishes and two land speed records, and the death of Wilfred Bourque and his mechanic, Harry Halcomb, who flipped their car thanks to a rear-axle failure. Around twenty thousand spectators showed up, paying at the most $1 for a ticket to see the first show.
Death was in the corner
This gentleman is J B Marquis overturning his 1913 GP Sunbeam racing car at the 'Death Curve' during the 35th lap of the International Grand Prix at Santa Monica on the 16th of March, 1914. This 8.4-mile course in California had its start/finish straight along the Pacific Ocean, which was a really nice touch. The track also had a tricky 90 degree left hander onto Wilshire, which the press liked to call the "Death Curve". Since only a few Grand Prize races were held in Santa Monica, in reality, nobody managed to kill him/herself in that specific spot at the time. On the other hand, let's not forget that a spectator did fall 20 feet to the ground from a tall palm tree, breaking his left arm after George Clark's Cutting smacked the tree in 1910...
Need for speed
Malcolm Campbell, or "the Captain," was the son of a diamond merchant, which comes handy when someone is into very fast cars. From the age of 21, he won all three London to Lakes End Trials with his motorbike. Switching to cars in 1910, he christened his first to Blue Bird, after seeing the play with the same title by Maurice Maeterlinck at the Haymarket Theatre. After spending the 1st World War with the Regiment and the RAF, he went on to break the land speed record for the first time in 1924 at 146.16 mph. He improved that eight times. He also won the French Grand Prix twice with a Bugatti Type 37A. The then knighted Captain was averaging 301.337 mph at the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1935, then set the water speed record four times before even thinking about retirement. Three years after his third marriage, a series of strokes killed him in 1948.
A tiny punch
The Jappic was advertised as the "world's smallest racecar". Designed by H.M.Walters, it was built by the coachbuilders Jarvis of Wimbledon. First entered at Brooklands in 1925, this two seater cyclecar featured a 344cc JAP motorcycle engine, and the numberplate MH3995. Rolling on motorcycle tires, this ash-framed deathtrap didn't have front brakes, meanwhile it was good for 70.33 mph. Talk about balls...
Later, a 495cc engine was fitted, but when Mrs. Gwenda Hawkes, Britain's famous ambulance driver and speed record holder obtained the car, she put the original back. She also renamed it to Hawkes-Stewart. It didn't bring luck as in 1932, the pocket rocket burnt to crisp in a garage fire at Autodrome de Linas-Montlhéry.
Hill climbing is something we would mostly do on tarmac today, but back in the day, you needed long wheel travel at those speeds if you wanted to get to the top in one piece. The London to Lands End Trial is something the British still organize every year, and as its name suggest, the land ends pretty soon after you crossed the start line. One of the difficult parts of the course is the Beggars Roost hill, where that Riley Redwing you see in the picture was fighting for victory in January, 1925 at the Easter Races. During the thirties, over 500 competitors entered this muddy challenge.
I love you, but I'm driving
Previously, Miss Ivy Cummins had her mother next to her, as she was also her mechanic. While women were not allowed to race at the very beginning of the 20th century, the sexist oppression didn't last for too long. Especially in England, where Dorothy Levitt broke the land speed record in the female class in 1906 at Blackpool, using a six-cylinder Napier with a hundred horses. Ivy Cummin, the daughter of Sidney Cummings of the Essex Motor Club was more of a Brookland girl, using a Type 23 Bugatti that had originally been the UK agents' demonstrator. After a few years of successful racing, she said yes to a lucky chap called Stanley Simpson in the summer of 1925. No, he wasn't allowed to drive.
Your Veyron, Sir!
Sir Henry Segrave was born on September 22, 1896 in Baltimore, Maryland to an American mother and an Irish father. As a British national, he served as a fighter pilot during the war. After he had to resign his commission due to his previous wounds, he turned his attention to racing, starting at Brooklands. The 200-Mile race was almost too easy for him behind the wheel of a Talbot-Darracq, just like the French and Spanish Grand Prix in 1923 and '24. He retired from racing to focus on speed records, making history first with a 4-litre Sunbeam Tiger called Ladybird in 1926. Since the 152.33 mph record lasted for just over a month, he came back the next year with a 1000 hp Sunbeam nicknamed "the Slug". At Daytona Beach, that was enough for 203.79 mph. His final land speed record was set on March 11, 1929. The Golden Arrow did 231.45 mph. Segrave died four years later, while trying to set the water speed record as well on England's largest natural lake. He regained consciousness at the hospital only to be informed that he succeeded. His lungs collapsed moments later.
Photo Credit: Getty Images/Hulton Archive