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Thanksgiving, Electric Cars, and a Blizzard: The First Car Race in America

Photo of the Duryea during the race
The Duryea, the only gas-powered American car to enter.

While looking up something cool to put in our Thanksgiving blog, something like “Motorsport Moments on Thanksgiving”, we were surprised to see a very important racing event took place on a cold, blizzardy Thanksgiving Day back in 1895 – the very first car race in America. The story was too important to use as a minor factoid, so we’ve decided to give thanks for the event and devote a blog entirely to it. Read on to discover what happened that one Thanksgiving when cars went wheel-to-wheel for the very first time in the United States.

The Creation

the map of the 1895 race from Chicago to Evanston
The Map of the 1895 Race Route

The idea for America’s first car race is credited to a man named H. H. Kohlsaat, the publisher of the Chicago Times-Herald newspaper. He was inspired by a race that was held weeks before in France, between the cities of Paris and Bordeaux (often cited as the world’s first car race). Kohlsaat realized a race’s potential of boosting interest in the new horseless carriage industry, while conveniently selling a TON of newspapers in the process. So the plan was to host the race in Chicago, and a $5,000 total prize purse (nearly $150,000 in today’s money) was promised for “inventors who can construct practicable, self-propelling road carriages”. A plush $2,000 award (nearly $50,000 today) was up for grabs to whoever won.

The course was originally planned as a 92-mile trek, but due to poor road conditions, the route was abbreviated to a 54-mile loop from Chicago to nearby Evanston and back.

 

Hosting the race on Thanksgiving wasn’t in the original plan either. The race was supposed to be held on the Fourth of July to take advantage of holiday crowds. However, competitors complained they would not have enough time to prepare. So the race was postponed until Labor Day weekend. But as that date approached, competitors once again begged for more time, so Thanksgiving, November 28, became the date.

The Race Itself

There’s a reason most racing series end by late November – bad weather. And sure enough, a blizzard came through Chicago before the race, dumping a half of foot of snow onto the rough, rutted roads. Of the 89 entrants promised, only 11 agreed to run in the snowy conditions. But only six actually made it to the starting line at Jackson Park (within 40 miles from our Addison and Buffalo Grove locations) without breaking down.

 

Three cars were imported from Germany and built by Karl Benz (yes, that Benz). One of the Benz’s was modified by Mueller Co, a large industrial manufacturing company that still exists to this day, and driven by the founder’s son, Oscar Mueller, while the other two were sponsored by companies – one a refrigeration company, the other by Macy’s Department Stores. A single gas-powered American car – the Duryea – was built by the driver, J. Frank Duryea and his brother Charles, and featured a single cylinder engine mated to a 3-speed transmission.

photo of the Morris & Salom Electric Wagon
The Morris & Salom Electric Wagon, 1 of 2 electric vehicles in the race.
photograph of the Mueller-Benz
The Mueller-Benz

There were also two electric vehicles, one being a Morris & Salom  (the first American electric car company), and the other entered as a Sturges, (though it was America’s first electric vehicle built by William Morrison in Utah). This just goes to show people have chosen electric vehicles as a race car since the very beginning!

 

The race was a timed stage run, so the start was staggered with the Duryea first to leave at 9am. Each car carried the driver and an umpire to ensure rules were not broken. Over the full-day race, the attrition was predictably high. Unfortunately, the electric vehicles didn’t last long in the frigid conditions. The Morris & Salom vehicle lasted the longest of the two, 15 miles, before returning the car to testing headquarters.

It took a total of 10 hours 23 minutes before the Duryea crossed the finish line as the winner, though it technically ran for only 7 hours 53 minutes – a broken steering arm needed to be repaired by a blacksmith at one stage during the race. The average speed of the Duryea was a speedy 6.6mph.

 

The once “large and jolly crowds” at the start of the race was now a small crowd of not more than 50 people when the Duryea crossed the finish line, as many had long ditched the cold to celebrate the holiday festivities that evening.

 

Around an hour and a half later, the Mueller-Benz crossed the line in second, only without the wealthy founder’s son behind the wheel. It was Mueller’s umpire that drove the car in the final stretch. Reports vary why this was the case: either Mueller had collapsed due to fatigue, become unconscious due to exposure from the cold, or was too drunk to drive after loading on booze to fortify himself against the conditions. The real story’s unclear, because only the judges and a few reporters were around long enough to witness its finish.

 

The Duryea and Mueller-Benz were the only two cars to finish the race. The other Benz machines had suffered their own problems, though the Macy’s-sponsored Benz did prove to be a contender for most of the race.

photograph of the macys benz during the race
The Macy-Benz passes onlookers during the race

The Aftermath

Though it wasn’t the strong showing the organizers had hoped for, the race still demonstrated the advantages of the automobile to the masses, who had previously viewed these new machines as nothing more of a fad. Particularly of note was the durability of the Duryea in conditions that were typically unsuitable for a horse.

 

The Duryea went on to become one of the first car manufacturers to adopt the “win on Sunday, sell on Monday” idea, as they were able to sell 13 vehicles the following year – more than any other carmaker in America. Thus the Duryea became the US’s first commercially successful automobile, years before Ford came into the picture.

 

Unfortunately, the winning Duryea was destroyed years later due to “a workman’s misunderstanding”, but the second-place Mueller-Benz is currently on display at the Mueller Museum in Decatur, Illinois.

 

As far as American racing is concerned, well as they say, the rest is history.

 

We’re not sure what you’re thankful for this Thanksgiving, but we certainly are thankful for this race that began auto racing in the United States some 123 years ago. Why not celebrate the runs of the two electric vehicles with some electric kart racing this holiday season! Since we’re indoors, you won’t need to worry about the karts suffering the same fate, even if there’s a blizzard outside.

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