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What Was Auto Racing Like in the 1890s?

Auto racing in the 1890s was a thrilling spectacle of innovation and daring. Early automobiles, more carriage-like than today's sleek machines, roared to life, challenging the limits of speed. Drivers, clad in goggles and dusters, became the era's daredevils. Imagine the roar of engines amidst the gasp of onlookers. What daring feats did these pioneers achieve? Join us on this historical circuit.

Auto racing is a thrilling sport loved by people all over the world. These days, race cars are engineered to go extremely fast. Formula 1 spectators can expect a top speed of 223 miles per hour (360 km/h). However, auto racing had to start somewhere, even if a decently fast runner would have left those early vehicles in the dust. Back in 1895, the average speed of the winning car in the first U.S. automobile race was only 7.3 miles per hour (11.7 km/h)!

Sponsored by the Chicago Times-Herald newspaper, America’s first auto race took place on Thanksgiving Day, November 28, 1895 in Chicago. The idea of the automobile itself was so new that there was no general term to describe it at the time. After all, the world’s first automobiles had only been produced two years earlier and were still known as "horseless carriages." In a poll conducted by the Times-Herald inviting readers to coin a new word, the term “motocycle” won.

The average speed of the winning car in the first US automobile race, held in 1895, was just over 7 miles per hour.
The average speed of the winning car in the first US automobile race, held in 1895, was just over 7 miles per hour.

Just six vehicles showed up to the race. Temperatures hovered around 30 degrees Fahrenheit (-1.1 °C) and there was six inches of snow on the ground, with drifts of up to 24 inches. These were definitely not ideal weather conditions for a race, but at 8:55 a.m., six drivers left Chicago's Jackson Park for a 54-mile (87-km) odyssey to Evanston, Illinois.

Only two of the six entrants would ultimately finish America's first auto race. The winning vehicle was driven by J. Frank Duryea, who along with his brother Charles is credited with inventing America's first gas-powered automobiles. Duryea's Motorized Wagon finished the race in 7 hours and 53 minutes, with an average speed of just over 7 miles per hour. He used 3.5 gallons of gas along the way and took home the first-prize award of $2,000 and a gold medal. Although the race itself was something of a mess, the publicity of the event helped to accelerate automobile development in the United States. In 1896, a year after the Chicago Times-Herald race was held, the commercial production of American automobiles began.

Slow and steady wins the race:

  • The second-place Mueller-Benz car (the only other finisher) was driven by Oscar B. Mueller, but he had to be replaced by a race umpire, Charles Brady King, as Mueller had gone unconscious from exposure towards the end of the race. That vehicle is on display in the Mueller Museum in Decatur, Illinois.

  • Motocycle, the first English-language automobile magazine, was published in October 1895.

  • In another car-related first in 1895, the American Motor League, the first automotive club in the U.S., was established on November 1, 1895.

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    • The average speed of the winning car in the first US automobile race, held in 1895, was just over 7 miles per hour.
      By: The U.S. National Archives
      The average speed of the winning car in the first US automobile race, held in 1895, was just over 7 miles per hour.