“People have been racing cars since the invention of the automobile … and racing horses and carriages long before then,” chuckled Karen Salvaggio, a renowned road racing champion.
We guarantee after breezing through this short road racing history, you’ll be asking us for Salvaggio’s number, so you can chat vintage road racing and Factory Five. But first, the facts!
While the competitive spirit of amateur racing is summed up in Salvaggio’s opening quote, most formal auto racing events didn’t start popping up with frequency until around the late 1880s. And at that time, they were mostly running from town-to-town. France led the pack in this arena and organized what is generally agreed to be the first closed circuit race in 1898—The Course de Périgueux.
According to Encyclopedia Britannica, it covered a distance of 145km on one lap and was governed by the very first car club, the Automobile Club de France. This style of racing became very popular in Europe, as before that, both spectators and racers (as well as some unfortunate and unsuspecting livestock) were frequently put in danger since many races were performed on roads not at all equipped to handle them. You know, with people as sitting-duck targets like in rally car, but I digress…
Oh Wait, There’s a Prize…?
But like most things in life, offer a trophy or some prize money and watch competitors and bystanders crawl out of the woodwork despite that danger. James Gordon Bennett, owner of The New York Herald, did just that and helped lift road racing to an international stage during the process.
National automobile clubs, instead of individuals, competed against one another in the Bennett Trophy races. Entrants could send up to three cars, which were designed according to set specs, and which had to be manufactured completely in the country they competed for. The first three races were held in France in 1900, 1901, and 1902, and were organized by the Automobile Club de France. Per Bennett’s rules: races were to be hosted in the country of the last year’s winner. Which meant that in 1903, the race was set to be in England. As racing was illegal on British roads, the event was held at the Circuit of Ireland. Out of respect, the British team donned Shamrock green as their competing color, leading to the now-renowned “British racing green.”
A (Tiny) French Revolution Sparks a Movement
The races of ‘04 and ‘05 were held in Germany and France respectively, but according to Encyclopedia Brittanica, “the unwillingness of French manufacturers to be limited to three cars, led to their boycott of the Bennett Trophy Race in 1906.” The next year, they established the first French Grand Prix Race at Le Mans. A 12-hour race that covered 106 km of French roads and offered a grand prize of 45,000 francs—worth 13kg of gold at that time! (Not too shabby, eh?) Some of the greatest cars and racers made their mark at the world’s oldest Grand Prix race. And while the event ended in 2008, it returned to Formula 1 on June 24, 2018.
These legendary racing events inspired some of the best known speedways across America, including the 4-km Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which opened in 1909 and was later paved with brick for the first Indianapolis 500 race in 1911. It remains as the highest-capacity sports venue in the world. And the race just crowned its 102nd champion this past month, Will Power.
The Vanderbilt Cup races at Roosevelt Raceway in Long Island, New York, and other tracks thereafter, really infused a passionate appreciation for road racing across North America. Around the same time, the three sons of Road Racing, the Collier brothers—Barron Jr., Miles, and Samuel—founded the Automobile Racing Club of America in 1933, evolving into the Sports Car Club of America in 1944. American race car drivers such as Briggs Cunningham, Lake Underwood, Carroll Shelby, and Mark Donohue were among the contestants at these road racing events. The SCCA now encompasses nine divisions and 115 regions, organizing and sanctioning events in road racing, rallying, and autocross all across the United States.
Throughout the years, speedometers have climbed from 16.4 kph, 24.15 kph, and 80.46 kph up to 120.04 kph in the 1911 Indianapolis 500 and nearly 260 kph during the late 1970s, with unprecedented speeds on the track today. In 2004, Rusty Wallace set a record of 348.116 kph in a NASCAR vehicle. And only one year after setting the record for F1’s fastest lap, Juan Pablo Montoya broke his own record with a top speed of 372.6 kph. “Today, road racing is about speed and the dynamics of a challenging track that’s fast with blind corners,” added Salvaggio.
“Road racing just mushroomed in the 40s-50s and 60s-80s. Whereas it was once only for the wealthy, now it’s an everyday man’s sport,” she continued. And the definition of road racing, itself, has shifted over time as well. Here in North America, the term refers to motor racing held on a paved closed circuit with both left and right turns (unlike oval track events such as NASCAR). This exhilarating form of competition can be on purpose-built race tracks called road courses or street/temporary circuits like closed-off airport runways and public roads. Once deemed too risky, road racing over public streets is now making a comeback, the most famous of which is held at the Long Beach Grand Prix. Other popular street circuits in North America include events held in Saint Petersburg, Florida; Montreal, Québec; Detroit, Michigan; and Toronto, Ontario.
Some contemporary American road courses are not only purpose-built, but also rich in history and have influenced the original tradition. Riverside International Raceway at Riverside, California (closed since 1989); Watkins Glen International at Watkins Glen, New York; Road America at Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin; and Sonoma Raceway at Sonoma, California are just a few. These tracks influenced other purpose-built road courses throughout America, including Alabama’s Barber Motorsports Park, Utah’s Miller Motorsports Park, Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Connecticut’s Lime Rock Park, California’s Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, Road Atlanta, Texas’ Circuit of the Americas, Michigan’s Waterford Hills, Oregon’s Portland International Raceway, Virginia International Raceway, and New Jersey Motorsports Park.
In British English, the term road racing is usually reserved for short circuit events held at purpose-built facilities that are typically one to three miles in length. The routes are often scenic, with landscaped surroundings that resemble parkland. They, too, have officially-sanctioned races that take place on public roads closed for the duration of the event. Others are held on “rovals”, road courses that incorporate parts of an oval track and its infield—think of the 24 Hours of Daytona at the Daytona International Speedway.
Global road-racing series such as Formula One, FIA WEC, and MotoGP are nearly exclusive to dedicated race tracks, such as Spa-Francorchamps, Suzuka, Monza, and Silverstone. Rising popularity and expansion of these series have resulted in the development of dedicated tracks in Qatar, Middle East; Sepang, Malaysia; and Shanghai, China.
What’s certain is that road racing has continually reinvented itself on the international stage. And since its humble beginnings, it has been attracting a diverse range of drivers interested in a variety of competitive splendor. From sportsman and vintage to endurance and beyond, the sport is sure to live on with plenty of more laps to go. Do we have you hooked? Next you’ll be asking for Salvaggio’s number!