Open Wheels, Dirt, & Speed

Pope-Toledo photo Courtesy of the National Automotive History Collection,

Detroit Public Library (see complete photo credit in “Sources” section, below);

 Caruso photo from www.carusomidgetracing.com/racing-photos.html

As we’ve seen here recently, early 1900s life was not always slow for the people of dusty Hicksville .  There were racing cyclists ( http://hixnews.com/1809/hixtory.htm ), and there were racing sleigh men, too. ( http://hixnews.com/1812/hixtory.htm )  But one October, people in the village saw road vehicles go by at speeds they never expected to witness.  The world’s most famous drivers were racing motorcars through town, in the first international automobile race held in America .

This is the first part of an Ancient Hixtory article devoted to Hicksville ’s role in the formative years of American automobile racing.  What follows below is the story of privileged and wealthy men.  They garnered fame by owning and driving huge automobiles, which raced against each other in exotic places like Vienna , Paris , Madrid , Bordeaux – and Hicksville .

The next part of this article, to appear in April’s Ancient Hixtory, will look at different men.  Resourceful, ingenious, and dedicated, they worked to create a world of racing for powerful but small cars.  Among them we will find Mike Caruso, a man who put down roots in Hicksville and went on to achieve remarkable things.

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The Vanderbilt Cup Races

In 1900, William Kissam Vanderbilt Junior was 22 years old, and heir to an immense fortune.  He was also fascinated by fast cars.  He became convinced that American automobiles of the day were inferior to those of Europe .  That realization spawned an idea: he could sponsor an international road race in the United States .  If the prize was worthwhile, the race would attract the fastest cars and the best drivers in the world, all racing together over the same course.  The American auto industry (and public) would see where things stood, and innovation would be stimulated.

 

 

William K. Vanderbilt Jr. Challenge Cup

Smithsonian Institution,

  National Museum of American History

William K. Vanderbilt Jr. in 1903

Wikimedia Commons

“Willie K,” as his friends called him, knew speed first-hand.  In January 1904, he set a new world record, driving his Mercedes for a mile on the sands near Daytona at an average of 92.3 mph.  Tiffany and Co. depicted that feat on the trophy it created for the fruit of Vanderbilt’s musings, the Vanderbilt Cup Races, the first of which rolled right through Hicksville in 1904. 

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The 1904 Race

State of the Art

In 1904, breakdowns were to be expected.  The automobiles of the era were not reliable, and driving them long distances over rough roads at high speed made things worse.  Thus, a race car had to carry a “mechanician.”

The Ford Motor Company was one year old, and the Model T still four years in the future, but other automakers were on the scene.  Only a few of those who supplied cars for the Vanderbilt Cup Race exist today: FIAT, Renault, and Mercedes (no Benz yet).  The cars were not standard models; each had unique quirks.  This uniqueness made the men in the passenger seats indispensable.  As they rode, they were vigilant, listening and watching for any hint of problems.  They had stocked their toolboxes beforehand, trying to be ready for anything they might need as the hundreds of miles sped by.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 2, 1904

The vehicles were fast, heavy, and clumsy, with high centers of gravity.  Little was known about designing suspensions that could keep them upright and controllable.  Ruts in dirt roads, excessive cornering speed, or blown tires could cause roll-overs that threw or crushed the men in the cars to their deaths.  Even if nothing went wrong with a car, its mechanician might be momentarily distracted by a problem, relax his grip on the car, and get bounced headfirst to the ground.

Spectators fared as poorly.  Despite frequent newspaper reports of cars’ striking onlookers at races, the public refused to believe that standing at the edge of – or even on – the course, as close as possible to the trajectory of an approaching car, was a bad idea.  What could go wrong?  Anything.  More than once, a punctured tire diverted a ton of speeding steel towards a cluster of spectators.

The Course

Nassau County was chosen for the first races in the series.  This is not surprising, given the Vanderbilts’ ties to Long Island, the rural countryside which still prevailed in Nassau , and the ready access to the Port of New York which it offered European participants.

The race consisted of 10 clockwise laps around a 30.24 mile course, almost triangular in shape.  The points of the triangle were Jericho , Plainedge, and Queens Village .  Starting at Westbury, cars went east to Jericho , south through Hicksville to Plainedge at the “Massapequa Corner” (reportedly the most dangerous turn), west to Queens Village , briefly north, then finally east, regaining the road to Westbury and Jericho .  The cars were started at two-minute intervals, and a scoreboard at the Westbury grandstand was constantly updated to show each car’s cumulative elapsed time on the course.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, September 11, 1904

There were railroad crossings.  At Hempstead and Hicksville , competitors slowed for “controls,” areas at which they stopped for mandatory inspection.  When ready, they were escorted slowly through the grade crossing area by officials on bicycles, who first ascertained that the route would be clear of rail traffic.

The newspaper story excerpted below relates how an LIRR train was cleared to proceed through a crossing during the race, and promptly almost hit a speeding auto that failed to stop for inspection.  This was not a matter of recklessness; the car’s brake lines had failed as it approached the control.  So as not to collide with the train, the driver sped in front of the moving locomotive, with a very few feet to spare.  Once safely beyond the crossing, he slowed and coasted to a stop, his race finished.

New York Press, October 9, 1904

A Fatality

During the second lap of the race, the Mercedes of driver George Arendt blew a tire at high speed near Elmont .  The bare wheel rim caught in streetcar tracks, and caused the car to roll, crushing to death the mechanician, Carl Mensel.

Top Finishers

After about five and one-half hours, the contest ended very abruptly (see notes below).  French cars held the two highest spots, followed by an American car.  The winning driver was described by the press as “an American millionaire.”

Place

No.

Car

Driver

Time / Speed*

1

7

Panhard

( France )

George Heath

( U.S. )

5h 26m 45s

52.22 mph

2

12

Clement-Bayard

( France )

Albert Clement

( France )

5h 28m 13s

51.99 mph

3

6

Pope-Talbot

( U.S. )

Herbert Lytle

( U.S. )

n.a.**

*To calculate average speed, one must exclude both the time spent not racing in the controls, and the distance driven in the controls.   The speeds above were calculated from the published times and an adjusted race length of 284.4 miles.

**When Heath’s Panhard finished his last lap, no car still racing could possibly beat his time except one – the Clement-Bayard.  As soon as Clement’s final time was posted, the spectators saw that Heath had won, and they ran down from the grandstand, flooding the track.  With the remaining contestants still racing towards the finish, Willie K desperately ran amongst the people, urging them to clear the course for their own safety.  Quick-thinking officials telephoned others stationed around the track, stopping the race immediately.  The standings from third place down were assigned according to where cars stood at that time.

Albert Clement’s time made his the closest second-place finish of any international road race to date, but Heath’s approach to the race had kept Clement closer than he might have been.  Heath tried to balance his pace against the limits of his Panhard’s endurance, driving only as fast as required to maintain first place.  This strategy proved wise; another Panhard driver went all-out from the start.  He recorded the fastest lap of the race – but during the fourth lap, his car’s clutch failed, and his race was over.

Some highlights of the race can be viewed on several YouTube postings, including this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zYoA4aTTyCE

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Beyond 1904

The race over, it was time for Vanderbilt to revise his plans, for there had been many problems.

The track record (no pun intended) of European road racing was rife with serious injuries and fatalities, with respect both to spectators and participants.  Casualties seemed to be unavoidable.  A number of people feared that the Vanderbilt Races had brought the same problem to the U.S.

 

New York Times Editorial, October 9, 1904

Furthermore, closing public roads for such an event had been met with legal challenges.  Some were based on individual cases (i.e., people whose businesses or lives had been impacted by road closures).  Others were based on more abstract issues, e.g. should taxpayer-funded public roads ever be closed so that wealthy non-residents could race?

There also had been ugly, unspoken objections.  The night before the race, nails had been sprinkled on the track near the starting area, causing numerous tire punctures.  Worse, a rifle had been fired blindly into a barn used as headquarters for one of the racing teams; no one was injured, and the car was not significantly affected.  Apparently, people in the “good old days” were not always innocent and kind.

Willie K realized that the differences between America and Europe ran deep indeed.

That was true in another way, too.  American country roads, although newer by millennia than their European counterparts, were often unsuitable for ordinary driving, let alone for racing.  Hoping to stir public support for road improvements, Vanderbilt undertook construction of the Long Island Motor Parkway, relics of which survive today.  Some of it was used later in the Cup Race series, as a safer alternative to public roads along the southern leg of the courses.

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Return to Hicksville : 1909 and 1910

The Course

Note that I deliberately ended the previous paragraph with the word “courses,” plural.  The road to the Vanderbilt Cup changed almost annually.  The race did not return to the streets of Hicksville until 1909.  In that year and the next, the course was truncated to 12.64 miles, with Cup entrants driving 22 laps, for a total of about 278 miles.

www.vanderbiltcupraces.com

The northern leg of the new route was Old Country Road, the eastern leg was Broadway (the modern Route 107), the southern leg incorporated sections of the new Motor Parkway, and the western leg was (I think) along or near Glen Cove Road.  The grandstand was on the southern leg, and – unlike in 1904 – the course was driven counter-clockwise.

The revised course did not cross any LIRR tracks, and there were no “controls.”  A shorter course meant fewer roads to close, fewer legal disputes, etc.  The reason most often given for shortening the course was that having more and quicker laps offered spectators a better experience.  From a single spot, people saw the cars more times and at shorter intervals; there were few lulls.  Attendance each year topped one-quarter million.

A Different State of the Art

The automobile now was a more familiar part of American culture than in 1904.  Auto racing had acquired a broader fan base, one which was less interested in exotic cars.  The country’s affair with stock-car racing had begun.  Racer versions of production American cars now competed all over the country, usually on ovals, driven by men like Barney Oldfield, whom the public idolized.

Ithaca Daily News, August 23, 1919

Swiftly navigating a series of curves now was appreciated less than pure speed.  Compared to road racing, both drivers and cars had to be agile in a different way.  Oldfield embraced the change, and he took it to an extreme.  He had “observed” a Cup race “to see what he could learn,” but afterwards he returned to ovals and pure speed pursuits.  Eventually, he forsook sanctioned auto racing completely, opting instead for one-man events, like speed record attempts, or one-on-one challenges.  Once, he even raced a car against a biplane.

Willie K must have been conflicted about these developments.  He had wanted the excitement of road racing to promote innovative engineering, leading to improvements both in racing and pleasure driving.  Now, the racing public was understandably caught up in the moment, cheering for American cars with familiar names.  Deep down, the cars they saw on the track were pretty much the same as the ones in their own garages, right? 

A Family of Races

In 1909 and 1910, each race was three races in one.  The most powerful cars competed for the Vanderbilt Cup, and raced for all 22 laps.  In the same race, cars with slightly smaller engines competed in the Wheatley Hills Sweepstakes, but ended their race after 189 miles (15 laps).  Cars with still smaller engines competed in the Massapequa Sweepstakes, racing only for the first 126 miles (10 laps).

This arrangement might seem to suggest that the Vanderbilt Cup cars would have the course to themselves for about 7 laps of the race, but that was not necessarily true.  The laps driven by the smaller, slower cars took more minutes to complete.  For example, when 1909’s last Wheatley car completed 15 laps, the fastest Cup car had only 4.5 of its 22 laps – 20% of the race – left.  For 80% of the Cup race, its driver had had to work his way around the slower car(s).

Carnage

In both 1909 and 1910, the winner of the Vanderbilt Cup was Harry Grant, steadily driving the ALCO Black Beast at average speeds well over 60 mph.  In the public eye, however, casualties ultimately overshadowed the racing achievements of Grant and the other participants.

Unlike the 1904 race, the 1909 contest incurred no fatalities.  However, two Wheatley Sweepstakes competitors had major accidents.  Both crashed into telegraph poles while rounding the Massapequa Corner, with one of the cars also breaking a spectator’s leg.

1910 was much worse.  In East Meadow , the race course passed over Newbridge Road .  On the first lap, driver Charles Stone’s Columbia went off the overpass.  Witnesses said it rolled over twice before landing on, and killing, mechanician Thomas Bacon.  Stone was seriously injured.  Some reports say that he was forced into a rut by congestion – that might refer to spectators on the course, or to too many cars’ funneling onto the bridge.

Swiss driver Louis Chevrolet (yes, the man after whom today’s Chevrolets are named) competed in 1909, scoring the fastest lap at 76.3 mph, but his Marquette-Buick broke down, and he did not finish.  He and the car returned in 1910.

From Wikipedia

Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0003451

Courtesy of the Chicago Historical Society

Quickly taking the lead, he was forced to pit by a magneto problem.  Once back in the race, he again worked his way into first place.  On the fourteenth lap, the Marquette-Buick hit a rut in Old County Road ’s dirt, completely breaking its steering linkage.  Incredibly, automobiles filled with race watchers were parked by its side.  Chevrolet watched helplessly as his racer struck a parked car, sending it and its five occupants flying off in different directions.  The Buick next caromed off a tree and rolled, stopping upside-down atop mechanician Charles Miller, who was fatally injured.  Chevrolet had been ejected from his car, but he did not sustain critical injuries.  The accident occurred near Duffy Avenue , probably in the area highlighted below:

modified from Google Maps image  

The night before, there had been two serious non-race accidents on Long Island .  Each involved people tangentially connected to the event, and each caused multiple injuries and a fatality.  Careless driving seemed a factor (e.g., driving fast over unfamiliar roads at night, with a passenger standing unprotected on a running board).  The press added up the four fatalities and argued that the series be ended.

The stigma was too much to overcome.  In subsequent years, the event went to Georgia , Wisconsin , and California .  Finally, America ’s entry into World War I put an end to it.

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Another Vanderbilt’s Races

In 1936 and 1937, George Washington Vanderbilt, Willie K’s nephew, sponsored races on a course built on the Roosevelt Raceway grounds.  A new cup was won, one year by Tazio Nuvolari in an Alfa-Romeo prepared by Scuderia Ferrari, and the next by Bernd Rosemeyer in the legendary Auto-Union.

Bernd Rosemeyer driving Auto Union Type C at Nürburgring in 1937

Wikipedia (Italian Edition)

Public reaction was lukewarm, and the series was discontinued.

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Epilogue

Before closing this installment, let’s look ahead.

American and European interests in racing differed.  A Barney Oldfield, for example, had no interest in driving cars around a twisty course full of corners; he wanted to go as fast as possible.  Most European drivers thought (mistakenly) that there was no challenge in racing on ovals.  The right kind of man, however, might be sufficiently open-minded and creative to find ways of fitting together pieces of both worlds.

In the next part of the story, we follow American racing as it branches out, and we also follow the career of one man in particular, Mike Caruso: born in Italy , raised in Brooklyn, and by choice a resident of Hicksville .

Mike Caruso in the car he built in 1929 for American sprint races,

utilizing a British Riley engine

www.carusomidgetracing.com/racing-photos.html

“Exotic car” purists would cringe if they looked back to the beginning of this article, and saw driver Johnny Duncan in Mike Caruso’s midget #6.  To make this car, Mike did something truly impressive (and perhaps to some, sacrilegious): he sliced the block of an 8-cylinder Bugatti engine in half, and rebuilt it into a 4-cylinder racing engine.

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Sources

Information

As always, old newspapers from the New York City area provided much information for this edition of Hixtory.  In addition, the broad coverage of the races also led me to old newspapers from far-flung places.

Of special note is the 1904 race map from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.  As far as I know, it is the ONLY published map found online which accurately shows that the race course ran along Broadway – other maps have drawn the course running south along Jerusalem Avenue ! 

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Howard Kroplick’s comprehensive website at www.vanderbiltcupraces.com proved invaluable for helping me piece together the many disparate – and sometimes conflicting – news reports which I found elsewhere, and also for filling in some otherwise unfillable gaps.  Note that within the website, one can search for specific topics, including Hicksville .

Mr. Kroplick also is the author of a book filled with great information about both Willie K and the races: Vanderbilt Cup Races of Long Island, published as part of the Images of Sports series by Acadia Publishing.

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A fascinating set of 260 images of the 1904 event exists online in the Digital Collections of the Detroit Public Library.  To browse through them, search for 1904 Vanderbilt Cup Race on the website at https://digitalcollections.detroitpubliclibrary.org/   And yes, one also can search for images of other years’ races.

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The factual information in this article about Michael Caruso comes primarily from Brian Caruso’s excellent Caruso Racing Museum website, which also is credited as the source of two of the photographs used above.  It can be found at www.carusomidgetracing.com

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Images

Again as always with Ancient Hixtory, almost all the images included in this article have been digitally modified for various reasons (improved contrast, file size considerations, and the “removal” of the most egregious of the defects, such as dust, stains, tears, etc.).  No attempt was made to change the purport of the images.

An extreme case was the photo of driver Herbert Lytle and his mechanician, sitting in the Pope-Toledo, which appears at the start of this article.  It is a composite of images from two damaged prints in the Detroit Public Library collection which was mentioned above: C14,751 and C14,797 of the Nathan Lazarnick Collection.

Here are the original images, followed by the combined / edited result:

 

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That’s all for now; more racing to follow in April!