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Europe vs. America

Sporting European gentlemen, rather than profit-motivated US commercial enterprises, dominated the economics and rules of European sports-car and overseas Formula racing through the 1950s. Until the 1930s, closed tracks in Europe were rare, and many races were held on open roads between cities, or on twisting, multi-cornered courses on public roads or through city streets. City to city races were considered more fun and sporting.

Many racers paid for their own cars and mechanics, and so there was little need for sponsors who might make demands on wealthy car owners or racing teams organized directly by manufacturers. Public safety or noise concerns were afterthoughts. Most long-distance sports-car races could be watched for free, although viewers along the road could only see the cars for the instant they zoomed past. Paying spectators were few. The open-wheeled Formula cars raced more often on closed courses, but still on twisting courses several miles long, where viewing was usually difficult and most guests were upper class.

The first auto race in America

The First Automobile Race in America
The First Automobile Race in America

The first auto race in America was a city-to-city round trip race.

On Thanksgiving Day 1895, several intrepid motorists braved the snow to race from Chicago to Evanston, Illinois, and back.

A Duryea motor “road wagon” won the race. The vehicle was powered by a 2-cylinder, opposed, water-cooled motor of 4 hp. It had a maximum speed of 20 mph, but it averaged only 7.5 mph during the race.

Charles E. Duryea sitting in the winning auto
Charles E. Duryea sitting in the winning auto

On oval tracks

In the US oval tracks became more popular than open-road racing because the tracks allowed large paying crowds to watch all the action from a safer distance.

Oval tracks stemmed from bicycle racing, and later, from motorcycle racing on highly-banked, circular or oval velodromes. In the early days of the 20th century, velodromes made of wooden boards laid longitudinally were very popular because the resulting track was smooth and fast.

First auto race on a track in the United States.
First auto race on a track in the United States.
Line up of cars at Altoona
Line up of cars at Altoona
This race of Miller vehicles took place on August 19, 1928 in Altoona, Pennsylvania. Note the boards used on the race track.

But automobile races on “board tracks” were exceedingly dangerous for both drivers and spectators. Ever-faster cars frequently flew off the tracks, out of control, into the crowd watching from the high bleachers encircling the outer rim of the banked track.

As a result, dirt tracks became more popular. Paved tracks began replacing dirt tracks in the 1920s, although dirt tracks remain popular today as small community tracks.

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