American Motorsports Timeline
January 6, 2010
Compiled by Gene Crucean
The following Timeline was compiled from various sources over a period of many years. It highlights the significant events that contributed to the growth and development of American auto racing. While its focus is on domestic auto racing, a confluence of world events, mostly European, had a significant effect on American racing. To the extent that those people, places and events are relevant, they are also included. Please feel free to provide corrections and clarifications if they are warranted and documented.
The first successful gasoline engine was developed by Nikolaus Otto. The engine was then modified and in 1876, Otto introduced the four-stroke, cycle engine. Top of page
George Selden of Rochester, NY. filed for the first patent for an automobile (5-8-1879). The US Patent Office did not grant it until 11-5-1895. Top of page
The first sale of a motor car, by a German Co. (Benz) to a Frenchman (M. Emile Roger of Paris), was recorded. Top of page
Charles & J. Frank Duryea introduced the first American gas powered, four wheel, automobile. The modest carriage was powered by a one cylinder engine (9-21-1893). Top of page
The first official auto race in the world, a 732 mile, round trip race from Paris to Bordeaux, was won by Emile Levassor in a Panhard-Levassor. He was later disqualified because his car could carry only two people (more than two were required). The win was then given to M. Rigoulot in a Peugeot. The race enjoyed heavy prize fund contributions from American newspaper publisher James Gordon Bennett and Wm. K. Vanderbilt. Edouard Michelin was the first to use pneumatic tires – he changed them 22 times (6-1895). George Selden was granted the first U.S. patent for an automobile (11-6-1895). The first official American auto race was held. James Franklin Duryea, driving a Duryea won a six car, 54.36 mile race from Chicago’s Jackson Park to Evanston, Il. and back. He won a $2000 prize from the Chicago Times-Herald, the race sponsor (11-28-1895). Top of page
The world’s first closed track (an oval track) race was held between eight four wheelers (five gas powered) on a one mile dirt, horse racing, track in Cranston, R.I. The five mile race was won by driver A.H.Whiting in an electric powered auto at an average speed of 26.8 mph. None of five gas powered vehicles built by the Duryea brothers of Massachusetts was able to win (9-1896). Top of page
Equipment improvement is progressing quickly. Panhard cooled down their motors with a gill-tubed radiator; and the steering wheel had replaced tiller steering. Pneumatic tires were common since Edouard Michelin first used them in 1895. The first recorded fatal accident occurred during the 90 mile Marseilles to Nice race in France. A slow moving Benz driven by M. de Montariol moved over to allow the Marquis de Montaignac to pass. Montaignac raised his hand in gratitude then swerved into Montariol who was forced off and overturned. Montariol was thrown clear but his mechanic was crushed to death. As Montaignac turned to watch the accident, his hand came off the steering tiller. He also rolled his auto, killing both himself and his mechanic (5-1-1898). Travelers Insurance Company of Hartford, CT. issued what is believed to be the first auto insurance policy. Top of page
The first woman to take part in a motor race was Mme. Labrousse, who came in fifth in the three seater class in the Paris to Spa race (7-1-1899). The Automobile Club of America (ACA) was established as the official body to represent American racing at the international level.
On September 13, 1899 Henry Bliss stepped out of an electric taxi in New York City and was struck by a passing auto, thusly becoming America’s first reported automobile accident fatality. Top of page
The nation’s first auto show opened in Madison Square Garden, NY (11-3-1900). Top of page
A reported 4000 automobiles, produced by more than 50 manufacturers, were in operation. Henry Ford drove his 26 horsepower racer, called Sweepstakes, 10 laps around a mile track in Grosse Point, MI. at an average speed of 46 mph to beat Alexander Winton’s 70 horse Bullet. This would be Ford’s only race as a driver. His initial auto building venture, the Detroit Auto-Mobile Company, had just been liquidated. Ford would use his fame from winning and his prize of $1000 to find investors and form the Ford Motor Company in 1903 (10-10-1901). Top of page
Racing bicyclist Barney Oldfield won the 5 mile Manufacturers Challenge Cup at Grosse Point, MI. in Henry Ford’s car, the 999 (10-23-1902). A road race on a 53 mile circuit near Bastogne, Belgium was the first European race on a closed circuit. All previous races were held on roads between cities. The American Automobile Association (AAA) was founded in Chicago. Nine loosely knit clubs of horseless carriages with less than 1000 members banded together for the purpose of bettering driving conditions e.g. improving the muddy, rutted trails that passed for roads and scuttling onerous edicts like the one that required drivers to turn off their engines whenever a horse approached (3-4-1902). Top of page
Alexander Winton hit 69 mph for the flying mile with his Winton Bullet at Daytona Beach (3-28-1903). Out of a world output of cars totaling 61,927, 30,204 were French, 11,235 were American, 9,437 were British, 6,904 were German, 2,839 were Belgian and 1,308 were Italian. The Wisconsin State Fairgrounds held its initial race. The one mile oval continues to be the oldest continuously operating circuit in the world (9-11-1903). A day later, America’s first recorded fatal accident occurred when driver Frank Day was killed during practice. Barney Oldfield became the first man to drive a gas-powered automobile around a mile dirt oval at less than a minute at the Indiana State Fairgrounds in Indianapolis. Oldfield exclaimed: “I tell you, gentlemen, no man can drive faster and live!” Oldfield was driving Henry Ford’s 999 (6-20-1903). Top of page
Wealthy William K. Vanderbilt who briefly held the world land speed record of 92.2 in a Mercedes, ordered a silver cup from Tiffany’s and gave it to the AAA to present to the winner of a new American international road race, The Vanderbilt Cup. Vanderbilt’s choice of the AAA helped to establish them as America’s premier race organizing body. Although the first two races were to be held in the US, each subsequent race was to be held in the country of the previous year’s winning driver. Vanderbilt’s goal was to encourage Americans to develop cars and drivers on a level commensurate with the French. The race was held on a 28.4 mile circuit at Long Island, NY. Many local residents were against the race and threw glass and nails on the track. The race was won by American George Heath in a French Panhard. Vanderbilt is perhaps the father of American auto racing. The checkered flag was used for the first known time. And riding mechanic Carl Mensel was killed when driver George Arents lost control. A news report stated: “This accident was due entirely to the foolhardiness of the driver” (10-8-1904). In France, the FIA was established to oversee international racing. Today it includes 207 national motoring organizations from 122 countries on 5 continents. Top of page
The second Vanderbilt Cup race was held again at Long Island, NY. Vanderbilt’s mission of encouraging American competition was successful in that the AAA was forced to hold elimination trials due to the large number of entries. The race was won by Victor Hemery, a Frenchman driving a Darracq. Last year’s winner, Heath, was second in a Panhard (10-14-1905). Top of page
Racing in Europe became better organized and more professional. France began to see increased competition from the Italians and Germans. Professional racing drivers slowly began to replace the wealthy playboys who enjoyed racing. The French racing club staged an international Grand Prix in order to establish France’s position as the dominant racing country. The race, held June 26 and 27, 1906, at Le Mans, was the forerunner of today’s Formula One Grand Prix championship. Francois Szisz was the winner in a Renault. The Renault, among a few others, used a drive shaft to replace the chain drive. The Vanderbilt Cup, again at Long Island, was won by Louis Wagner in a Darracq. Crowd control Issues ended the event. Winner Wagner said: “The miracle was not my winning but that hundreds Were not killed in my doing so” (10-6-1906). Top of page
Brooklands, the world’s first purpose built track was opened in England. In the approximate shape of an oval, it measured 2.75 miles per lap (6-28-1907). The first drive-through gasoline filling station was opened by Standard Oil. Top of page
The Vanderbilt Cup was won by American George Robertson in a Locomobile, an American car. The revived race (it was not held the previous year) lacked foreign entries because the AAA chose to ignore international car specifications and no foreign manufacturers entered in protest (10-24-1908). The Automobile Club of America (ACA), formed in 1899, seized on this as an opportunity to assert its control over American racing and established an American Grand Prix using the new international formula. The well organized event on a 2.5 mile circuit near Savannah, GA. was run on Thanksgiving Day. The best from the world appeared. Ralph DePalma led early in a Fiat. But the race was won by Frenchman Louis Wagner in a 120 HP Fiat. His average speed was 65.11 mph. Henry Ford, who was on the technical committee, observed the superiority of European equipment and understood that America needed to build specialized cars if the country wished to compete. The AAA established its Contest Board, appointing Samuel M. Butler of New York as its first chairman. Butler was killed in an auto accident 2 years later. Ford Motor Co. introduced the Model T. The car sold for $825. The ubiquitous T engine block was the underpinning of most “Specials” which later raced on the country’s many dirt tracks in the 20’s & 30’s. Racing engines named for cylinder heads (i.e. Riley, Fronty, Roof, Miller-Schofield, Cragar, etc.) used the four-cylinder block. The engine made racing possible for the masses (10-10-1908). Top of page
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway opened. Top of page
Barney Oldfield, at the wheel of a Benz, set a new track record in the standing mile, running 131.7 mph on the sand at Ormand/Daytona Beach (3-16-1910). Said Oldfield “…for fully a third of the distance the wheels were off the ground while I fought for control…I knew if a tire burst I would be beyond mortal help. I shot through space until all before me became enshrouded in a dark haze and I approached the verge of unconsciousness…I had traveled faster than any other human being on the face of the earth”.
The first Indianapolis 500 was held on Memorial Day and was won by Ray Harroun in a Marmon Wasp. His car was unique in that it was the only car with a single seat and it utilized the first rear view mirror. The race featured the first rolling start and first use of a pace car. Top of page
The first purpose built racing cars – “Specials” – were built to replace the modified stock cars of the early days. Fred & Augie Duesenberg, working for the Mason Manuf. Co. in Waterloo, IA., built their first car and entered it in the 500 with Lee Oldfield driving. Entered as a Mason, the car suffered engine problems and failed to qualify. The car, however, scored other wins during the year with drivers Harry Endicott and Ralph Mulford. Mercers and Stutz were also built. Swiss engineer Ernest Henry, working for Puegeot, designed a 4 cylinder, double overhead camshaft, 7.6 litre, engine with 4 valves per cylinder and hemispherical combustion chambers. Known as the L-76, its head was formed from a single casting. Henry’s revolutionary design was the basis for engines in use for years (the Offenhauser) and still in use today. The engine immediately won the French GP at Dieppe with Georges Boillot driving (Boillot later became a WWI fighter pilot and was killed in action over the Verdun battlefield on 5-21-1916). Backers for the American Grand Prix combined with the Vanderbilt Cup and move the track to Wauwatosa, WI. Of the eight entrants, four cars were European. American “Specials” were competitive but the race was won by Ralph DePalma in a Mercedes. During practice for the GP, America’s best driver, David Bruce-Brown and his mechanic Tony Scudelari were killed. American drivers were fast but mostly in European equipment. Caleb Bragg won in a Fiat. No promoter could be found to promote the Vanderbilt Cup and Grand Prix in 1913. Top of page
Jules Goux dominated the Indy 500 with his Peugeot and its L-76 engine (it’s the same car Boillot used to win at Dieppe in 1912). Goux reportedly consumed 6 bottles of champagne enroute to victory. American “Specials” Mercer (Spencer Wishart driving) and Stutz (Charles Merz) were second and third. Goux’ victory margin of 13 minutes 8 seconds was and is the largest in history. Top of page
In Europe, Peugeot was first to use wheels which were held on by a single locking nut with “ears” which could be quickly knocked off with a hammer. Top of page
The Vanderbilt Cup was revived and was run at Santa Monica, CA. The race was billed as a grudge match between Barney Oldfield and Ralph DePalma. Oldfield had the race in hand but his tires were badly worn. DePalma, in second place, replaced his tires. Oldfield, in a Mercer, saw this and, falling for the fake, stopped to change his. DePalma then motored on to win in his old Mercedes. DePalma later claimed this to be his most satisfying victory (2-1914). Top of page
War was underway in Europe and racing was halted. In the US more and more tracks were built. In 1915 & 1916 board tracks were built in Chicago, Omaha, Tacoma, Des Moines, Sheepshead Bay (Brooklyn), Cincinnati and Uniontown, PA. Road racing began a decline in popularity. In 1915 10 road races were included in the AAA championship, 2 in 1916 and none in 1917. Increasingly, shorter races were being held on dirt ovals, mostly fairgrounds horse tracks. Top of page
The International Motor Contest Board (IMCA) was founded. Top of page
Indianapolis 500 drivers Eddie Rickenbacker and Peter Henderson became the first to wear helmets (steel) in the race. Top of page
Barney Oldfield drove Harry Miller’s first chassis and engine creation, the enclosed cockpit “Golden Submarine”, to 80 mph over a mile in St. Louis (8-9-1917). Top of page
Tommy Milton became the first driver to win two AAA championships in successive years. Milton was blind in one eye from birth and passed his eye exam by memorizing the charts. American cars Frontenac and Duesenberg began to dominate after the successes of French machinery. A Monroe (built by Chevrolet) won the 1920 Indy 500 and a Frontenac (also by Chevrolet) won in 1921
Jimmy Murphy won the French Grand Prix in a Duesenberg. It was the first GP win for an American car and driver. It was a terrific race. Car owner Fred Duesenberg lacked funds to enter until French born spark plug manufacturer Albert Champion stepped up with $60,000 sponsorship. The Duesenbergs were the first to race in a GP with four wheel hydraulic brakes. The brakes permitted Murphy to slow down later for the turns. Murphy crashed in practice, breaking a rib. Later, Murphy’s radiator was punctured in the race by a stone when the track broke up. Then a tire burst. Swathed in bandages due to his broken rib, Murphy made it to the pits. After repairs, he again led. With only 8 laps to go and his engine steaming, he burst another tire and finished the race on the rim.
American Sig Haugdahl became the first to travel three miles a minute, reaching 180.27 mph at Ormand-Daytona Beach in his Wisconsin Spl. Haugdahl was also the first to balance his wheels by using weights attached to the wheel rim. Top of page
Jimmy Murphy won the Indy 500 and the AAA championship in the Duesenberg he used to win the French GP (he bought the car and installed a new Miller 183 ci, double overhead camshaft, engine). He called the car a Murphy Special. Top of page
Benz, in Germany, produced the first mid-engine (rear-engine) GP car in which the driver sat in front of the engine. The car also had independent suspension all around. The car finished fourth in its only GP at Monza. A lack of resources ended the experiment after one year.
Famous WWI flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker waved the green flag to start the 500 from the overhead foot bridge which was strung across the start/finish line. The footbridge was replaced after the race with a starters stand on the outside of the track.
Indianapolis ruled that riding mechanics were optional. Harry Miller responded by building the world’s first racing cars designed for a single occupant. With Miller’s new 122 ci engine, his sleek, thin body cars dominated the 500 with Tommy Milton becoming the first driver to win twice. Three Mercedes competed with the first supercharged engines at Indy. Miller’s cars would dominate American racing throughout the decade. Milton finished the 500 with badly injured hands when sweat caused the immaculate white kid gloves he was wearing to shrink. He then decided to drive barehanded but glue oozing from the adhesive tape on the steering wheel
stripped the skin from his palms.
The total Indy 500 purse was $50,000, of which the winner took home about half. The average annual industrial wage in 1923 was $1,500.
The gasoline additive Ethyl made its debut at Indy, increasing octane ratings from the 50’s to the high 80's. Top of page
For the first time in history there were no foreign cars in the Indy 500. Millers and Duesenbergs ruled. Joe Boyer, in a supercharged Dusenberg, stormed into the early lead but the drive on his supercharger sheared. When teammate L.L. Corum pitted, Fred Duesenberg replaced him with Boyer, telling him: “Put that ship in front or burn it up”. Boyer worked toward the front, eventually passing Earl Cooper and Jimmy Murphy for the win. Duesenberg became Indy’s first winner to use a supercharger. Boyer, a millionaire playboy, was later killed on 9-2 in a crash at the Altoona board track. Murphy was killed on 9-15 at the Syracuse mile dirt track when a board pierced his body. Murphy became AAA national champion posthumously.
One hundred twenty-two automobile manufacturing companies were in production in the U.S. Fords accounted for 55% of those cars built. Top of page
Effective with the Indy 500, the AAA reduced engine displacement to 91.5 ci…and, strangely, winner Frank Lockhart’s average race winning speed was faster than his qualifying speed. Top of page
Oldsmobile was the first production car to sport chrome plating (replacing nickel plating)
Duesenberg, utilizing a concept that would later become the basis for the roadster design, built and entered two cars in the 500. In an effort to achieve a lower center of gravity and reduce wind resistance, the rear-drive cars featured the driver seated beside rather than over the drive train. Their concept saw the engine offset to the right of the chassis and the drive shaft angled diagonally to the differential which was offset toward the left rear wheel. The drivers were seated on the right side of the cars. The Perfect Circle Spl., driven by Benny Shoaff was running second with
only 5 miles to the finish when broken gears sidelined the car. The second car, the Thompson Valve Spl., driven by Wade Morton, encountered various difficulties along the way.
Twenty nine Millers and five Duesenbergs made up the Indy 500 field. Frank Lockhart dominated in a 91.5 ci Miller but broke. Rookie George Souders won in a Duesenberg he had purchased for $1500 (DePaolo had won with it in 1925)
George Souders’ winning, two year-old, Duesenberg was powered by a 90.29 ci engine which was (and still is) the smallest to win the 500.
Eddie Rickenbacker purchased the Indianapolis Motor Speedway from Carl Fisher and Jim Allison for $700,000. Top of page
Taking note of the Grand Prize of France, the AAA announced that, going forward, the Indy 500 would be known as the Grand Prize of America (the idea didn’t stick).
In what was to become a long list of regional then national sprint car titlists, the AAA anointed Mel Kenealy its first Pacific Coast Champion. Top of page
Following the Wall Street crash in ’29, Indy established a new formula designed to lower costs and to encourage manufacturers to again participate. The new specs were called the “Junk Formula” (366 ci, 2 valves per cylinder, no superchargers, 2 seats and an obligatory riding mechanic). Billy Arnold, in a reworked, front wheel drive Miller (widened to accept mechanic Spider Matlock and with its 91 ci engine bored out to 151.5 ci) won.
Significantly, a four cylinder, Miller engine, designed for marine use and reworked by Leo Goossen, finished second at the hand of Shorty Cantlon. This was the first of what would become a long line of successful Offenhauser engines. Top of page
Shorty Cantlon,, driving a Miller, won the last race at Altoona, ending the board track era (9-7-1931). Top of page
Ford Motor Company introduced its flathead V-8, perhaps the greatest V-8 of all time. The affordable engine was used to power race cars, hot rods, boats, etc. It spawned an aftermarket for performance parts. It became the racers’ engine of choice and helped to speed the growth of racing (3-9-1932). Top of page
Harry Miller filed for bankruptcy. Employee Fred Offenhauser then purchased the tooling for Miller’s engines and hired fellow Miller employee Leo Goossen. The Offenhauser Engineering Company was born.
Wilber Shaw re-introduces the crash helmet…and Chet “Radio” Gardner became the first to successfully use a radio during the race. In this way he was able to communicate with his mechanics. He finished fourth.
Organized midget racing commenced in Sacramento, CA. (6-4-1933). Top of page
On 8-16-1934 the first issue of National Speed Sport News was published as a stand alone weekly tabloid
In an effort to reduce speed, Indy established a 45 gallon fuel consumption limit. Winner “Wild” Bill Cummings, however, set a new speed record anyway.
The last true Duesenberg, with the personal involvement of the Duesy family, raced in the Indy 500. Driven by Joe Russo and prepared by Augie (brother Fred had died in 1932), the Wonder Bread Spl. finished 5th. The Duesenberg brothers had been involved with racing since 1912.
Driver Curly Mills tested Fred Offenhauser’s first midget engine at Gilmore Stadium in
Hollywood, CA. in the fall. It was a 98 ci Offy. Midget racing was one year old.Top of page
A four cylinder “Offy”, descendant of the successful Miller eight, won the Indy 500 for the first time. Indy also installed electric warning lights and mandated the wearing of helmets. Top of page
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