The Very First American Auto Race

It’s a new year, let’s learn new and fun things about the fascinating world of cars. We don’t want to bore you with a novel, but rather provide a few facts about the very first American car race. Show off your knowledge next time you’re at a dinner party, on a blind date, at a cocktail party where you’re trying to fill the awkward silence with small talk.

Here’s all you need to know about the Chicago Times-Herald Race, the very first American auto race:

  • It was sponsored by the Chicago Times-Herald newspaper
  • Up for grabs during the race were 4 prizes totaling $5,000 (roughly $147K in today’s economy) to be distributed among contestants:
    • $2,000 for first place, $1,500 for second place, $1,000 for third and $500 for fourth
  • The race was originally called “Moto Cycle Race”
  • It was supposed to take place in early November but was rescheduled to late November since only 2 cars had shown up on the original race day, November 2
  • Chicago had to pass a quick ordinance allowing cars not being pulled by horses to enter city limits
  • Several cars were damaged en route to the race and were therefore unable to compete (particularly Elwood Hayne’s car which was favored to win)
  • The race finally took place on Thanksgiving, November 28, 1889
  • It snowed during the race, causing muddy roads
  • Six cars entered the competition, an improvement from 2 earlier in the month
  • 3 gasoline powered Benz cars entered the race, which were imported from Germany
  • 1 gasoline powered  Duryea car entered the race, it had a two-cylinder engine and was the only American-made gasoline car
  • 2 of the vehicles that entered the competition were two-wheeled electric automotive
  • The cars were to drive from Chicago, IL to Milwaukee, WI, but due to the bad road, the route was changed to Chicago, IL, Evanston, IL and back

  • Frank Duryea won the race with his motorized wagon
    • Frank and his brother Charles are credited with the invention of the first gasoline-powered automobile in the U.S.
    • Frank and Charles were mechanics with a passion for innovation
  • Duryea took the lead on the return trip from Evanston back to Chicago
  • The wagon traveled 54 miles at an average speed of 7.5 mph
  • It took Frank over 10 hours to complete the race
  • Frank encountered many hiccups on his journey in the form of breakdowns and repairs
  • The winning car unfortunately no longer exists, since it was damaged in an accident

  • The second car, one of the 3 Benzes entered in the competition, took an additional 1.5 hours to complete the race and had an unconscious driver on board, due to exposure to terrible weather
    • This car can be found on display in a museum in Decatur, IL

  • It took the judges several weeks to announce the results, ultimately concluding the outcome:
    • 1st: Duryea Motocycle Company from Springfield, IL
    • 2nd: H. Mueller & Co. from Decatur, IL
    • 3rd: R. H. Macy & Co. from New York, NY
  • None of the other cars finished the race
  • Newspapers across the U.S. started to predict the demise of horse transportation
  • The success of the race sped up the rate of automobile development
  • The commercial production of American automobiles began in 1890


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