It was the fall of 1952. I was a precocious kindergarten student. My father, soon to turn 43 years old, was about to become a small-town Chevrolet dealer.
In the next decade, a much faster auto race was established, the Vanderbilt Cup. Bellamy Partridge tells about it in his eleventh chapter. For this website, I've gathered some illustrations from the Internet and imagined a conversation with the author, in which he speaks with excerpts from his book.
It was, and still there were those among our traveled folk who were greatly concerned because our automotive development was so far behind that of Europe.
Back in New York, at the age of 20 he imported a French motorcar. He acquired more, and soon he was speeding through Long Island towns on his way to his parents' summer estate.
He had driven in a number of European road contests in the days when a racing driver could wear a derby hat in a road race without exciting comment or having his hat blown away by his speed. But he was, in fact, strictly an amateur and was often spoken of as a gentleman racer.
The morning of January 27, 1904, found 26-year-old Willie at Daytona, piloting a 90-horsepower Mercedes over the Florida sands of Ormond Beach.
This announcement must have generated cries of protest from the local residents. I understand you have a clipping from the distinguished New York Times.
Only four days before the race the Times carried another story in which it described the embattled farmers.
But after a public meeting and a ruling from the county judge, the race went on.
Precautions had been taken to make the course as safe as possible for both spectators and contestants. The dirt roads had been scraped and oiled, and the AAA Racing Committee had erected at Westbury near the start and finish line a grandstand seating 400.
the grandstand was the judges' stand, shown below. On the
upper left, notice the cameramen setting up their tripods on the
roof, just like television crews today. Here
is some Biograph motion-picture footage from this camera location and
others around the circuit.
Six from France with some of the most famous cars and skillful drivers; four from Germany; two 90-horsepower Fiats from Italy with daring and colorful pilots. Five American cars came through the elimination trials, three of them White Steamers which failed at the last to be ready for the start.
Every car would carry a "mechanician" in addition to the driver. One of his jobs would be to watch out for overtaking vehicles, as the rear-view mirror had not yet been invented.
Back in the city, there must have been much excitement.
More than 50 breakfast parties had been scheduled at the Waldorf-Astoria for the day of the race, which was to start at six o'clock in the morning.
The breakfasters would have to be on their way soon after midnight if they were to reach the grandstand in time for the start, for it was quite obvious that the dirt roads leading out on the Island would be choked with the vehicles of spectators going out for the race.
Was anybody seriously hurt?
Only one fatal accident: Carl Menzel, mechanic for the Mercedes driven by George Arents, was crushed under the car and killed when Arents lost control while making a turn at high speed.
What was the public reaction to this event? I understand that a writer named E.P. Ingersoll had opposed the idea from the beginning.
He scoffed at the waste of money used in building the great racing monsters described as a danger on the course and useless anywhere else; and he vilified road racing as tending to foster the speed craze which he branded as the bane of automobiling. For Horseless Age he wrote a stinging editorial in which he called the contest the bloodiest event of the kind since the ill-fated Paris-Madrid race of a year and a half ago.
But others must have found value in the competition.
The mechanical-minded saw weaknesses in cars that should be corrected. The people of the Island saw something quite different. It was round, it had an eagle on one side and a portrait of the Goddess of Liberty on the other. The official name for it was the Almighty Dollar.
They had found that spectators would pay almost any price for a good parking place and as much as $25 for the use of a bed overnight. (It was a time of low prices. Men's fine shoes cost $5.) Sandwiches and apples were in great demand, and even toilet accommodations could be charged for.
It did need to be shorter, especially since a 30-mile lap took 30 minutes to complete and only five cars were running when the 1904 race was called (left). A spectator would watch a competitor roar past, and then it might be many minutes before the next one came along.
In general, early motor racing's lengthy courses did become shorter over time. For example, there's the Italian Grand Prix.
The road course began with a Curva Grande (Big Bend), and later (inset) it ducked under the 21° banking of the oval's #9 Curva Alta Velocita (High-Speed Turn). The two portions shared the wide main straightaway, where on every lap drivers would have to cross over from one side to the other. Nowadays Formula 1 racing no longer uses Monza's oval, only the 3.6-mile road course.
Sorry for the digression, Mr. Partridge. You were about to describe the 1905 Vanderbilt. I'll bet the crowd was even bigger than the first year.
The Long Island Rail Road put on special trains leaving for the Vanderbilt Cup course at three and four o'clock in the morning.
However, he decided to stop for new tires at his Fiat station just east of Albertson. A painting by Peter Helck depicts what happened next.
Anxious to be on his way, Lancia started to pull out of the control when his mechanician saw Walter Christie coming down the stretch wide open and thundering like a freight train; he bellowed at Lancia to stop. But Lancia never wavered. He was gunning up his mount to get sufficient momentum for the speedway, and Christie, never dreaming that Lancia would fail to hear the thunder of his exhaust and give him the right of way, made no move to change his course until it was too late. Christie struck the Fiat almost full in the back.
Nowadays Lancia would be penalized for an "unsafe release." The impact smashed his rear wheels, and replacing them set him back an hour. But what about the car that hit him?
The Christie car turned a complete somersault, hurling the mechanician through the air as if he had been shot out of a cannon. The body turned slowly as it went sailing along and landed in a plowed field with no worse injury than a broken rib. The car went end over end and landed a heap of junk.
There must have many been other wrecks. Were the spectators thrilled?
They probably did not hope that anybody would be killed, or terribly maimed or mangled but if such a terrible thing should happen they did not want to miss it. They wanted to be in a position to see, and they did not hesitate to smash down barriers and fences in order to get into an advantageous if extremely hazardous position.
And some of those positions were right out on the roadway itself.
The crowd was greatest as well as most dense at Albertson's Corners where three telephone poles along a serpentine turn were most promising of smashups and bloodshed. Here the plain-clothes deputies were unable to control the crowds at all. On his fourth round Foxhall Keene slammed into one of the poles, wrecking the car but tossing the occupants into the clear.
After the race was over, the course looked like a junk yard. Wrecked cars costing thousands of dollars to build were strewn along the road. Discarded tires, castoff oil cans and empty bottles cluttered the right of way along with paper bags, cardboard boxes and other litter from the thousands of picnic lunches eaten on the side of the road
Nevertheless, the event with its spectacle and its speed now had a classy reputation.
The big cup race smacked of the smart set, the Four Hundred, the polo field and it wore the Vanderbilt trade-mark. The contest had become the most popular and most fashionable of our sporting events. It quickly took a place in public esteem akin to that of the World Series at the present time, only the Vanderbilt had a bluestocking flavor that baseball, being of the people, never could have.
In Part Two of this story, we'll read how an innovative concrete roadway became part of the circuit in 1908. Then in 1910:
They're three wide coming out of the Metropolitan turn! Now four wide! And that was just the traffic headed to the race.
Five fans are huddling under robes in a Packard, waiting for the dawn! And one of those spectators was our author, Mr. Bellamy Partridge.