The Early History of Automobile Racing

Not long after the creation of the gasoline-fueled internal-combustion engine in the 1880s, humanity concocted the idea of organizing an automobile competition. The first organized competition was a reliability test, held in 1894 from Paris to Rouen, France. The distance traveled was about 50 miles, and the winner had an average speed of 10.2 mph.

The first true automobile race was held a year later from Paris to Bordeaux, France and back. The winner had an average speed of 15.01 mph over the course of about 732 miles. In the United States, organized racing began the same year with a 54 miles race on Thanksgiving from Chicago to Evanston, Illinois. For promotional purposes, both of these races were sponsored by newspapers.

By 1900, racers had reached speeds of more than 50 mph. Before the abrupt end of the Paris-to-Madrid race in Bordeaux, France in 1903 due to the high number of accidents, town-to-town races in France and races from France to other countries were incredibly common. The increasing danger to spectators, racers, and livestock on roads that were not built for automobiles or automobile racing, however, caused the overall decline of road races.

During this time, the Automobile Club de France was founded, and closed-circuit racing was born. The first closed-circuit road race occurred in 1898, the Course de Périgueux. This type of racing became the most common form in Europe, except in England, Wales, and Scotland.

The modern sense of international racing didn’t begin until 1901 after James Gordon Bennett, the then owner of The New York Herald offered a trophy to be competed for. The annual Bennett Trophy Race was organized by the Automobile Club de France from 1901-1903 and consisted of national automobile clubs that raced three cars each, all built with parts from their respective countries. In the following years, the races were held in Ireland, Germany, and again in France at Circuit d’Auvergne.

Around this time frame, William K. Vanderbilt chartered America’s first international trophy race in Long Island. With the assistance of other wealthy racing enthusiasts, William formed the National Automobile Racing Association. Then in 1904, he founded the Vanderbilt Cup Race at Garden City, Long Island.

Back in Europe in 1906, French manufacturers boycotted the Bennett Trophy Race because they did not want to be limited to only representing three vehicles. This resulted in the established of the first French Grand Prix Race at Le Mans in 1906. Here, each car was raced by the manufacturer’s team.

Most of the vehicles that were raced in both Europe and the United States were typically prototypes of the following year’s models. When racing became too specialized after World War I, most production cars could no longer be used. It wasn’t until 1939 that stock-car racing began, with standard models modified specifically for racing. While automobile use was relatively similar, the racing itself was quite different in each country until the 1950s when Grand Prix racing was organized worldwide.

This article was originally published at


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