Along a snow covered 54-mile loop along the lakeshore from Chicago to Waukegan and back to Chicago, the first horseless carriage race was run. Chicago had a huge snowstorm on November 28, 1895 but that did not deter the racers from attempting the race; although only six of 89 racers actually made it to the starting line. The six entrants were Frank Duryea driving an automobile that his brother Charles designed; Oscar Mueller who was driving a Mercedes Benz imported by his father, another Benz that was sponsored by Macy's in hopes that it would advertise the car since they were beginning to sell it; a third Benz that was sponsored by the De La Vergne Refrigeration Company out of New York; and two electric cars that did not get very far as their batteries went dead almost immediately.
Though it was a billed as a race, the main agenda was to see what kind of horseless carriage vehicles people were building. The gasoline-powered vehicles were just beginning to debut in the United States. The criteria for entrants into the race were that they had at least three wheels and could carry two people. Each vehicle would carry a driver and an umpire who had been selected by the judges to ensure that there was no cheating.
The race was eventful, the snow made the roads treacherous as the cars made their way along the route at an average of a little over five miles per hour. At the time, the roads were dirt and the cars did not have rooftops so drivers and umpires were open to the elements. The cars slid into other vehicles, stalled repeatedly, and had to be pulled from snowdrifts. Ten hours and 23 minutes after the start, Frank Duryea sped across the finish line, at a little over five miles per hour, to become the first race car driver to win the first car race in the United States.
The Benz driven by Mueller crossed the finish line a hour and a half after Duryea. According to accounts of the race in the news, Mueller's car made its way slowly and laboriously along the route, the car tires wrapped with twine to keep them from slipping and one of the car's operators sanded the belt on the motor to keep it from slipping. Mueller was not driving the car as it crawled across the finish line as he had fainted from excitement during the race. The Benz sponsored by Macy's collieded with a streetcar and a sleigh on the first part of the loop and on the way back, collided with a hack. The car never finished the race. The De La Vergne Benz did not finish the race either.
Frank Duryea won $2,000 and was acknowledged across the world for beating the Mercedes Benz automobile. Duryea returned to Massachusetts and with his brother started the Duryea Motor Wagon Company. They built 13 cars which, at the time, made them the first manufacturer of automobiles in the United States. Though Charles designed the gasoline automobile, Frank actually built them and corresponded regularly with Charles because the original designs did not work. Charles later attempted to take credit for the first horseless carriage, but Frank was the one who actually built the working model. By 1917 the two brothers had gone their separate ways.
Today's car racing is a far cry from its humble beginnings. The Duryea Company no longer exists, ending production in 1920, but the horseless carriage is on the roads in abundance. Numerous automobile manufacturers, including Benz, enter cars in today's races. And, the racing cars of today go "a bit faster" than the 7.5 mph high speed of the 1895 race.
The copyright of the article "November 28, 1895- America's First Car Racing Event" is owned by Cheryl Weldon. Permission to republish "November 28, 1895- America's First Car Racing Event" in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.