Vanderbilt Cup, Part Two
I'm simulating a conversation with author Bellamy Partridge, using excerpts from his 1952 book Fill 'er Up! and adding illustrations and other information I've found on the Internet.
In Part One, wealthy motorsports enthusiast Willie K. Vanderbilt established the Vanderbilt Cup Race in 1904. It was contested over public roads on Long Island. The course was considerably revised for a second annual race in 1905, with more turns to challenge the drivers. Now let's continue the saga.
Below is a photo looking west to the start/finish line and the judges' stand; the grandstand is off to the left. But what's that skyscraper in the background?
It was an angled two-sided scoreboard. Nowadays we're used to leader boards on which the rows represent running positions, as I've simulated on the right below using the actual Vanderbilt times, but in 1906 each horizontal row represented a car.
The vertical columns represented the laps, of which there were only ten. Near the top was a horizontal rail, upon which slid a ladder at least 20 feet tall. As each car completed a lap, the time was noted, and somebody climbed up to add the elapsed minutes and seconds to the display.
In today's America, steering wheels are on the left side of the vehicle. However, you'll observe that these steering wheels are on the right.
Notice the wire suspended above the chalked starting line. Car #10, the Darracq driven by Louis Wagner, would ultimately be the winner. Here is some film footage of the event.
Hardly was the last car out of sight when word came that a man had been killed at Krug's Corner where the Hotchkiss driven by Elliot Shepard, W.K. Vanderbilt's cousin, had gone out of control and charged into the surging crowd.
More than 20,000 spectators were jammed around Krug's Corner alone. The sponsors, and indeed all the contest officials, were dismayed at the size and conduct of the crowd.
Unfortunately, the AAA announced afterwards that unless the National Guard was called out to control the onlookers, no further races would be allowed on Long Island's public roads.
He had been busying himself with the promotion and construction of a concrete motor speedway on the Island. By the spring of 1908 more than 10 miles of the Motor Parkway had been completed, and since it was the first concrete road in the country, people used to drive out just to see it.
But if I may interject, Mr. Bellamy, it wasn't the first concrete pavement in the country. That honor belongs to Bellefontaine, Ohio, just 28 miles west of my old hometown. However, only a short stretch of street was paved there in 1891.
Long Island Motor Parkway was an actual concrete road, the
first roadway designed exclusively for automobile use. It
had banked turns, plus overpasses and bridges to eliminate intersections.
But I'm sorry; you were speaking of 1908, when the road was new.
For one dollar a visitor could take his car on the Parkway and stay as long as he wished. It was well protected with strong wire fencing so that there would be no cheating.
So it was also the first limited-access toll road.
I paid my
dollar and drove through the gate. It was like a
In a dream I drove as far as it was finished, and went back and forth several times. This would be something to tell my children, if I ever had any.
Did Mr. Vanderbilt intend to use this as a new course for his Cup race, avoiding public roads for the most part?
not know, but demands for a renewal of the famous race became so
urgent and so insistent that the donor and the sponsor decided to
give it another trial in 1908.
Besides the paved sections, another innovation that year was the pit stop, copied from the French Grand Prix held three months before.
Heretofore the various competing manufacturers had "made camp" in fields at points scattered around the course, where their cars would stop for service as needed. Flat tires were common in those days, so there were also half a dozen Diamond Tire Controls.
for 1908, a five-foot-wide trench, 300 feet long, was dug in front
of the main grandstand and divided into five- by ten-foot pits where
each team could store their fuel, spare tires, and other supplies.
These depressed official replenishment stations concealed the clutter and were deep enough not to block the view of the first few rows in the grandstand. Only two of each pit's crew members were allowed to go over the wall and help the driver and mechanician replenish fluids and change tires.
The management had made arrangements to have the course well patrolled, as they thought, by a regiment of Irish volunteers assisted by a large force of Pinkertons. But nobody seems to have explained to the constabulary that the spectators would be arriving all night. By the time the patrol had arrived between five and six in the morning, the huge crowd was already out of hand.
public parts of the course the constabulary had all they could do to
open a wide enough lane in the crowd to let the racers go
through. There were many close calls, but luckily not a
spectator was injured. Nor were there any more serious
casualties among the drivers than happened to Foxhall Keene when his
Mercedes cracked a cylinder directly in his face and squirted him
with steam and hot water. He was not seriously burned
but was his face red!
Contests of the giant racing contrivances having been pretty thoroughly tried out, it was decided that to be of real benefit to the everyday motorist the Vanderbilt should be run as strictly stock, no others being eligible.
the 16 cars competing for the Vanderbilt Cup, five were of foreign
make three Fiats, a Mercedes, and an Isotta all
strictly stock. The big crowds were there but they seemed
overawed in the well-protected precincts of the Motor Parkway.
The course consisted of 22 laps around a 12.7-mile triangle.
There was a feeling abroad that this was to be the last appearance of the famous cup race on the Island, and all who had never gone to one wanted to go. It was the maddest of the Vanderbilts, the most thrilling, the most destructive the most wonderful, and the most unforgettable. I know, for I was there!
I presume you knew to leave early to beat the traffic.
My friend John and I left the Algonquin Hotel at ten o'clock the night before and went to the Brooklyn Bridge, which we thought would be less crowded than the new Queensboro Bridge or any of the ferries. We crossed in a slow-moving procession of horse-drawn vehicles which, to our delight, fell away soon after we had emerged from the bridge.
When we had reached Metropolitan Avenue we found ourselves in a line of motorcars, and at every corner we were joined by still more motorcars. For a while we went along in a single line, then two abreast. After that we were three abreast, sometimes even four and woe betide the vehicle which tried to go the other way. There were vegetable trucks and farm wagons stranded in almost every driveway.
Nowadays one would hear a lot of honking of horns in such a jam, creeping along at eight miles an hour or less. How did the race fans handle the situation?
There was a fine camaraderie about the caravan of pleasure seekers. Everyone seemed to be in a jolly humor, all out to have some fun and determined to make the best of any emergencies of the road.
yes, emergencies of the road. As Billy Murray sang on an old
record that reached #2 on the charts, sometimes a motorist had
to become his own mechanician.
So did you meet anyone?
An extra girl in one of the nearby cars accepted our invitation to come over and ride with us, and we found her very charming company for several miles. She was a pretty girl and had a lovely voice. She told me she was studying for the concert stage where, as I learned afterward from letters I received from her, she met with great success.
Good for her!
Her brother-in-law and sister with whom she had come had a plentiful supply of drinkables in a built-in cooler installed where the folding seats were usually to be found in the big seven-passenger touring Packard. There was also a well-filled picnic hamper.
We contributed the refreshments the Algonquin had packed for us and a pleasant time was had by all. As the night was changing slowly into morning, the weather turned colder, and we pooled our robes and all crowded into the Packard where we awaited the sound of the bugle to summon us to the grandstand.
The morning mists were still hanging over the surrounding fields when we climbed the many steps into the stand. Cars were already roaring and barking and thundering and smoking as they took their positions back of the starting line tier upon tier, each row moving forward as the row in front moved out. And somewhat to my surprise I discovered that the start is the most exciting part of a road race, for it is the only time when all the cars are seen together.
Didn't you witness a lot of daring passes or battles for the lead?
A road race almost never ends in a neck-and-neck sprint for the tape. The finish is a solitary affair a car comes roaring down the stretch and is waved off by a checkered flag. It is the winner. Another car may not come along for two or three minutes. It's a rather tame ending for such a vicious fight.
The cars began to go past in great confusion. After watching them go by for an hour or more, my companion and I concluded that the grandstand was a poor place from which to see any of the real excitement that was going on. Accidents were reported by megaphone from time to time, but they came in as prosaically as election returns.
Track announcer Peter Prunty had reports fed to him from 25 telephone stations around the circuit.
But it was motorcars racing around corners that you had come to see.
So we quietly left the grandstand and went some distance down the course on an exploring trip. By this time the crowds were tearing the barriers down so that they could get out on the course for a better view. Once more the constabulary was helpless, and it was largely in trying to avoid spectators on the roadway, especially at the turns, that most of the wrecks occurred. And after the race was over, miles of the Motor Parkway looked as if it had been traversed by Sherman's march to the sea. Half a million people had enjoyed their fun, and the curtain had come down on the world's greatest sporting event.
That was the last Vanderbilt Cup race on Long Island.
To the old-timers, the passing of the Vanderbilt was like the death of a hero. Henceforth it would be a road company barnstorming in the tall timbers. The eleventh and last Vanderbilt was at Santa Monica in 1916.
And what was its legacy?
Mr. Vanderbilt had set out with the idea of proving and improving the American automobile in the laboratory of speed, and during the 11 years that his cup was in competition he had seen the American car develop from a fair example of self-propelled vehicle into a swift, powerful, reliable form of road transportation. Where the Vanderbilt races left off, speedway racing took over.
Because of automobile racing, every owner is driving a better car, a faster car, a safer car. The motorist is indebted to the race track for all the following improvements:
Many things we need to know for the safety of our cars cannot be learned even at the speeds we drive when the law is not looking. They can be learned only at speeds our passenger cars could never make and we would never dare to use up where the stresses are terrific, where wear is swift, and the ability to hold the car on the road is a matter of life or death. If we are to get the answers, somebody has to go that fast.