Start Your Engines!

November 28, 1895
The First American Automobile Race

Auto races of today, such as the Indianapolis 500, have sleek, colorful cars screeching around a racetrack at speeds so fast that some spin off into the sides of the track, flipping over as they go.

Back in 1895, auto racing was just beginning and it was a very different sort of sport. On November 28, 1895, six “motocycles” (a nickname for a horseless vehicle) left Chicago’s Jackson Park at 8:55 a.m. for a 54-mile race to Evanston, Illinois, and back through the snow. The winner, Number 5, driven by inventor J. Frank Duryea, won the race in just over 10 hours with an average speed of 7.3 miles per hour!

The Chicago Times Herald sponsored that first race with $2,000 going to the winner and $500 to the fan who named the horseless vehicles “motocycles.”

Two years earlier, the winners, J. Frank Duryea and his brother Charles, had built and driven what they claimed to be the first American gasoline-powered automobile. Yet by the time the Times Herald race came along, more than 70 entries were filed. This huge response prompted President Cleveland to ask the War Department to oversee the event. After their victory, the Duryeas made 13 copies of the Chicago car, and J. Frank Duryea developed the Stevens-Duryea, an expensive limousine that remained in production into the 1920s.

The Duryeas were not the only people inventing cars. The Stanley twins built a steam-powered vehicle, the “Stanley Steamer,” in 1897. The vehicle achieved fame when F.E. Stanley did a mile in 2 minutes 11 seconds on a dirt track with a 30-degree incline. Eventually the “Stanley Steamer” became known as the “Locomobile.” By the time Henry Ford incorporated the Ford Motor Company in 1903, the Stanley plant already employed 140 workers.

This is a photo of Samuel Holland’s Repair Shop in Park River, North Dakota, where Holland, a native of Norway, built self-propelled motor vehicles in his spare time. In 1904, the local newspaper reported that he built an automobile and may have built as many as eight. One copy of his car is known to exist.