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The Vanderbilt Cup, Part Two
Written July 2021

 

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.


 

What happened next, Mr. Partridge? 

A much larger grandstand was built for the 1906 race, and a quarter of a million people lined the course that morning.

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.


Promptly at six o'clock Hubert Le Blon, a Frenchman with a black spade beard, led off with an American-made Thomas Flyer. 

And it wasn't long until Le Blon encountered an unchained dog.

The other cars followed at the usual intervals.

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.

Historian M.G. Lay traces this custom to horse-drawn vehicles.  Like today, they kept to the right.  The driver had to sit on the right to watch out for the ditch, and he wanted the side-mounted whip near his right hand.

But with the advent of high-speed automobiles, the greater danger became other traffic.  Drivers sitting on the left were better able to dodge oncoming vehicles.  The 1908 Model T was built that way, and by 1915 it had become so popular that the rest of the automakers followed Ford's lead.

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.  

This painting by Don Packwood shows the French-built Darracq, painted in France's racing color of blue.

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.

At that corner next to Krug's Hotel in Mineola, the racers had to turn from Willis Avenue onto the Jericho Turnpike.  Some spectators broke through the six-foot protective fences to venture onto the roadway.

 

Another dangerous corner was the “Hairpin Turn” at Old Westbury, from Wheatley Road onto Old Westbury Road.  Here's a present-day view of the location, 19 miles east of Central Park.

In the 1906 race, as Arthur Duray's Lorraine-Dietrich approached the Hairpin, a spare tire and rim strapped to the back of the car broke loose and began to bounce off the gas tank. 

His riding mechanician, Louis Franville, grabbed it, lost his balance, and almost fell out of the car as it skidded through the sharp turn.  Duray used his left arm to rescue his companion while keeping his right hand on the wheel.

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. 

Except, of course, for the crowd in the grandstand three miles to the east of Krug's.  There, on the south side of the start/finish line, were seats for Very Important Persons.

Willie K.'s wife, "Birdie" Vanderbilt, is at the blue arrow in her hat and veil, looking towards our left (her right) to follow an eastbound departing car.

Behind the grandstand, a map of the circuit was updated through telephone reports. 


The map was laid out "backwards": north at the top but east to the left, because to a person viewing this map, the actual east was to the left.  Imagine the top edge pulled toward the viewer to lay the map over the course.  Krug's Corner is at the bottom center in this view, followed by the start/finish line on the bottom left.

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.

Therefore, there was no Vanderbilt Cup Race in 1907.  But Willie K. had a solution in mind.

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.

The 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.

 
Eventually 45 miles of it would be completed, all the way out to Lake Ronkonkoma.  And later, right in the middle of that stretch would be the Chyron factory where I would receive my instruction on the character generator.

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 motorist's heaven.

Roadway smooth as a ballroom floor.  No speed limit.  No grade crossings.  No motor cops.  No dust, no mud, no pitchholes, no bumps. 

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?

I would 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.


As laid out, the new course covered a 10-mile section of the Motor Parkway which, with portions of the Jericho Turnpike and other public roads, made a circuit of 23.46 miles.  The grandstand was along the Parkway in what is now Levittown.

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.

But 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.

Along the 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!


Until now, the machines had been mostly custom-built racers, some with huge engines and quite unusual designs.  But enough of that!  It was time to race stock cars, models that were available for the public to purchase.

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.

 Among 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.

 

Above, from 1904:  the 30.3-mile original circuit.

On the right, at the same scale:  the 1909 circuit, shortened to 12.6 miles so that the cars would run closer together.  The Motor Parkway's 5.1-mile portion is shown in blue.

The 1909 event was won by Harry Grant in a six-cylinder Alco called the “Black Beast,” which is now a museum piece.



Grant won again in 1910 with the same Alco car, and he raised his speed to 65.18 miles per hour, the record for the life of the course.

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.

Ah, 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.

Though it was the first day of October, the weather was extremely mild and nearly all the cars had their tops folded down, which contributed greatly to the conversational possibilities with people in other cars and the opportunities for getting acquainted.

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!

Our charming visitor remained with us until we were stopped at the entrance to the parking lot behind the grandstand.  But to our delight after we were parked, we found her party was located right behind us.

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.

With a field of 30 in the Vanderbilt alone in addition to the light-car entries, the racers had to be sent off only 15 seconds apart instead of the usual interval of 60 seconds; for with a course of only 12 miles, the big fellows would be coming around under full speed in less than 12 minutes.

Louis Chevrolet (#29) came past in his Buick in only 10:46, practically on the heels of the last car to get away.


We've mentioned Louis Chevrolet before.  He and his friend William Durant, who owned Buick and founded General Motors, would establish the Chevrolet Motor Company the following year.


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.




The race was only minutes old when word came that Harold Stone's car had leaped from a bridge and killed his mechanician.  Shortly afterwards I saw the victim's wife being led from the stand.

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:

Knee action

High-speed engines

Streamlining

Better shock absorbers

Four-wheel brakes

Aluminum pistons

Balanced crankshafts

Longer-lasting sparkplugs

Improved bearings

Balloon tires

Lower radiators

Rear-view mirrors

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.

 

TBT

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