Wednesday, December 4

Duryea Wins America's First Car Race

Image = HFMGV.org
By Grant Davies

On this day, (okay, it was on Thanksgiving day, but I'm still catching up) 118 years ago, (put away those smart phone calculator apps; that's 1895) the first car race in America was held in Chicago. The race was won by Frank Duryea. He drove a gas powered automobile of his brother's design.

The race was organized by a newspaper, the Chicago Times-Herald. But the way it was organized was more akin to the way a government organizes a healthcare website. The whole thing was a mess.

On the day of the race -which was supposed to be from Chicago to Waukegan, Illinois, and back- the distance was shortened. Instead, Evanston, Illinois was selected as the midpoint in the round trip. The distance was cut roughly in half, to about fifty miles.

The reason was the weather. As it turned out, eight inches of snow were being dumped on the route by a massive blizzard and whoever was in charge figured out that if no one finished the race there would be no winner. And since the whole affair was cooked up in order to promote automobile sales, it must have seemed like a poor idea to show how unreliable the product was in such weather.

So instead of postponing the race, the geniuses just shortened it. Anyway, the predictable happened when only six of the eighty-nine contestants were able to even show up at the starting line. Everyone was required to wrap their tires in twine to aid traction. Safety first, ya know.

Almost as soon as the race started two of the cars conked out permanently. They were electric cars, which only goes to show the reliability of such vehicles hasn't changed much in 118 years. So off the rest went into the blizzard, sliding into all manner of other conveyances and dropping out one by one. It took in the neighborhood of ten hours for Duryea to cross the finish line. Which just might be about the same speed as today if you drove in rush hour on one of the "expressways."

Frank left his only surviving competitor in the dust, er, the snow. Winning by almost two hours over the only other finisher earned the Duryea brothers the grand prize of $2000, quite a tidy sum in 1895. But more importantly, they grabbed the glory and with it an astounding victory in the sales wars of the coming year. They sold more cars than anyone else in the car business in that year, thirteen.

Today they probably would have been considered "too big to fail", taken over by the government, and forced to manufacture electric cars that nobody wants to buy.

This story was based on information found at History.com. 

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