History of Auto Racing: From Horseless Carriages to Supercars of Today

Some watch for the competition, others tune in for the wrecks -- but all fans should know the history of auto racing.

Do you ever marvel at the automotive feats that have produced today's racing machines? Fans around the world have been fascinated throughout the history of auto racing by these skilled drivers. And more than a few confident cruisers have earned fortune and fame taking on competitors. Whatever the type of auto being tested on the track, these races all share a common origin. We wanted to follow this storied tradition back to its roots and determine what made racing such a popular pastime.

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What is the real history of auto racing?

While we recognize the sport to include a variety of disciplines and specialties, its roots were simple. As you might imagine, it did not take long after the invention of the automobile for drivers to crave speed. And since early vehicles had little power, this led to some inventive thinking. It also meant that early races focused more on distance than speed. Since cars were notoriously unreliable and slow, proving you could drive one long distances was a feat. 

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Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The First (Official) Race

The first organized event in the history of auto racing took place in 1894. It was designed specifically to test whether the race cars involved were reliable. Of course, even by this time there were documented unofficial races. Dating back to the 1880s, drivers had gathered to show their skills. But the 50 mile endurance race from Paris to Rouen in France set the new standard. 

Drivers in this race averaged a speed of just over 10 miles per hour. Obviously not much by today's standards, but it marked the beginning of a love affair. Longer distances and higher speeds soon became standard. And the sport of racing would be forever changed by the introduction of the internal combustion engine.

The Fad Caught on Quick

Not only did the earliest races lead to other events, it also sparked a spike in the formation of clubs. This helped solidify auto racing as a legitimate sport early on in its history. The year after that first race, a much longer competition was held between Paris and Bordeaux. Pretty soon, auto racing had gone international. On Thanksgiving in 1895, drivers took part in a round trip race between Chicago and Evanston in Illinois. 

France remained influential in those early days. A city in France often served as a key point in races that also stretched to other parts of Europe. By the time the 20th century rolled around, the history of auto racing was entering its next phase. 

The Era of High Speed

With cars more reliable than ever, drivers soon began souping up race cars for maximum speed. This is when the sport of auto racing as we know it begins to take shape. Earlier races began to be discontinued during this era because of increased crashes. The popular event from Paris to Madrid, for example, was halted in 1904.

Closed-circuit races became the norm, as they are to this day. Race tracks soon started to pop up around the world. And local drivers decided they could train to become part of this fledgling sport. The first such race was staged in 1898. These tracks not only added to safety but allowed drivers to reach higher speeds. Pushing the tech of the day to its limits, drivers hit more than 80 miles per hour by 1900.

In Pursuit of the Trophy

Shortly after the turn of the century, drivers began competing for trophies. The first major prize was offered in 1901 by New York Herald owner James Gordon Bennett. The Bennett Trophy remained a prominent race for years to come. In 1906, though, another international trophy race was established. The Grand Prix held in Le Mans was staged as a French protest. 

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Credit: La Vie au Grand Air

Back in the U.S., New Yorker William K. Vanderbilt established a Long Island race in 1904. The Vanderbilt Cup spanned the peak of this influential period in the history of auto racing. It was later held in various locations across the nation until 1916. It was revived two decades later for two years on the Roosevelt Raceway on Long Island. During this period and before the stock car era, race cars were highly specialized. With only a few exceptions, these did not really resemble the autos you saw on the road.

The Evolution of the Speedway

When the first dedicated auto racing tracks were constructed, they were covered in dirt. As speeds and distances steadily increased, that surface obviously fell short. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is probably the best known example of this evolution. In 1909, it opened as an rugged dirt track. 

Two years later, it received an upgrade to brick paving. That coincided with a lengthier race for the first Indianapolis 500. Dirt tracks remained popular during the 1910s and '20s, but longer tracks like Indy kept advancing. Around the start of World War I, it received board tracks and began to resemble the banked tracks of today. These days, specialized paving techniques are part of any modern speedway.

The Rise of Stock Cars and Hot Rods

You might have heard the story about how Prohibition in the U.S. led to the rise in stock car races. Selling illegal moonshine after Congress approved the 18th Amendment required some quick thinking. And these late night deliveries often happened in public. Drivers used typical commuter vehicles. This helped them blend in but wasn't much use if police gave chase. So as they started to tune their cars for more performance, hobbyists took note. Then, when the amendment was repealed, these stock cars stuck around. And that led to the most iconic period in the history of auto racing.

Fans know the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing better by its acronym: NASCAR. It's been going strong for more than 70 years. And those high speed races gave way to hot rod racing. Drivers began taking the fastest cars imaginable to the strip. Drag racing introduced fans to funny looking cars with outrageous power. And the history of auto racing now continues with a new generation of cars and drivers. Experts say the future of the sport faces unique challenges. Changing social ideals and tastes might take their toll. But we think auto racing can survive and thrive in coming decades. It has adapted throughout previous eras and increased in popularity. Humans have always enjoyed watching -- and participating in -- competitions. And cars still offer the biggest speed factor in an event we can all appreciate.

The history of auto racing is full of fascinating facts.

We find the constant harmony between drivers and machines especially inspiring. Enthusiasts and racers have pushed themselves and their cars to go further. And every generation has built on the success of those who came before.

If you enjoyed our exploration of the history of auto racing, share this article with your friends. Be sure to leave a comment below if you have any thoughts or questions. 

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