For as long as the automobile has existed, racing has been a tool used to dictate the standards of speed. But as time goes on, technology progresses, mankind gets bolder, and these standards change. We’ve come a long way from our roots. The first official race, held in 1895, ran from Paris to Bordeaux, and its winner clocked a walloping 24.15 kph. (That’s roughly 15 mph for us non-metric folks.) Today, F1 and Indy car racers easily hit speeds of over 200 mph and dash into turns at similar speeds. So what brought us to this point? What were the historic races that made motor racing what it is today?
In the beginning, almost all racing occurred on closed public road courses. Racers pushed the limits on these “raceways” that often ran right through town. Crude, unforgiving, and exceptionally dangerous, most of the races on this list took place in such an environment. Such high stakes only served to feed the excitement, though. And they allowed these historic races to not only shape motor racing, but also determine the design innovations and technologies that fueled the developmental evolution of the modern automobile.
So, ready your engines—because here is part one of the top 10 most influential historic races.
Gordon Bennett Races 1900-1905
Established by James Gordon Bennett Jr, the flamboyant and scandalous owner of the New York Herald, the Gordon Bennett Races helped lay the framework for the modern Grand Prix. The rules were straightforward and precise. Competition was among automobile clubs, not individual drivers, with each national club sending three lucky entrants. Every part of the vehicle appearing in the race had to be manufactured in the country being represented. And the next year’s race would be held in the country of the previous year’s winner. Limits were put on the design of the cars, the length of the races, and even the weights of the drivers.
While Gordon Bennett never witnessed any of the races himself, and in fact had no real passion for automobiles or motor racing, he did love publicity. His races successfully boosted interest in the growing motor industry and inspired several other historic races on this list.
Vanderbilt Cup 1904
William Kissam Vanderbilt II followed the footsteps of James Gordon Bennett Jr. and fired up his own namesake racing competition in the United States. Titled the Vanderbilt Cup and launched in 1904, it was the first international road race held in America. Unlike, Gordon Bennett, Vanderbilt was a true gearhead. He sponsored races from the time he was a teenager and frequently earned the scorn of neighbors for doing burnouts on dusty roads.
The first Vanderbilt Cup race covered a triangular course of just over 30 miles of public roads across Long Island. Protests from local farmers only served to heighten interest and come race day, tens of thousands of people gathered to witness the event. Roughly seven hours later, George Heath crossed the finish line in a French Panhard to win the first definitive trophy in American auto racing. The Vanderbilt Cup races ran from 1904 up until 1968. Which just goes to show: you should never be too hard on the hell-bent teenagers in your neighborhood, for they might just have the right idea!
Targa Florio 1906-1977
A contender in both the Gordon Bennet Cup and the very first French Grand Prix was Vincenzo Florio, an ambitious young man from a wealthy Sicilian family. Rather than follow the path of his family’s successful winery, Florio longed to travel. His treks across Europe introduced him to automobiles and in turn, motor racing. After competing and winning several races (much to his family’s chagrin) Florio took it upon himself to establish a race in Sicily. Without any suitable roads on the island, he decided to build a dedicated course. Set in the Madonie Mountains, competitors endured three laps of nearly 277 miles filled with rough roads, steep hairpin turns, wild animals, and even bandits!
The Targa Florio races ran seven decades, enduring national economic troubles, personal tragedies for the Florio family, a European auto industry depression, two world wars, earthquakes, and even a tsunami. But they couldn’t withstand safety concerns and after several fatal incidents, the historic races came to an end in 1977. The Targa Florio still left a rich legacy and even inspired a prestigious name like Porsche to tilt its hat in respect with a 911 variant dubbed “Targa.”
Peking-Paris Race 1907
With no roads that tie the continents together, those with big dreams of racing a car around the world had to reach for the next best thing. The Peking to Paris Race, which was first held in 1907 is exactly that. Spanning a distance of 14,995 kilometers (that’s a little over 9,300 miles) this rally spanned nearly a quarter of the earth’s diameter at the equator.
Established to showcase that automobiles could withstand long travels, the event was a challenge put forth by Parisian newspaper Le Matin. There were no rules or stipulations and the price was merely a large bottle of Mumm champagne. But the glory of having achieved the seemingly impossible was enough to draw forty crews to enter. Granted, only five teams actually showed up in Peking on June 10, 1907 and only four finished. Unlike many other historic races on the list, this was not an annual event. Although, over the years, it has been recreated in various ways over different routes.
New York-Paris Race 1908
With the Peking to Paris race of the previous year serving as the “next best thing” for those seeking round-the-world automobile travel, the New York to Paris Race saw those dreamers closer to their goal. Beginning in Times Square and ending at the Eiffel Tower, the route spanned over 22,000 miles. That’s right folks, they took the long way ’round. Traveling west across the United States, with stops in Chicago, San Francisco, and Seattle, contestants would then take a ship to Valdez, drive across Alaska and over the frozen ice of the Bering Strait, continue on to East Cape, Siberia, across Asia and into Europe.
American competitor George Schuster and his crew, driving a Thomas Flyer and leading the race, discovered the conditions in Alaska were impossible to cross. Racers were instead rerouted via ship to Japan. They drove across the island, rode a ship Vladivostock, Siberia, crossed the frozen tundra into Russia, traveled through Germany, and finally arrived in Paris. After 169 days and untold challenges, only half of the contenders actually finished the race, with our American buddy George taking the prize. Funny enough, he never actually requested to participate. As a mechanic for the Thomas firm, it was his job to compete and win. And win he did, by margin of 26 days.
That’s Not All…
Open road racing and massive rallies spanning literal continents were miraculous events that required tough cars and even tougher drivers. These historic races, along with the daredevils who competed in them, opened the doors for modern racing. So stay tuned, because there’s more excitement where this came from. We’ll be back soon with five more historic races that helped define the sport!