The Vanderbilt Cup
35 artifacts in this set
William K. Vanderbilt, Jr., pictured at center, was a great-grandson of steamboat and railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt. "Willie K." had both the time and money to pursue auto racing seriously. He won an early hill climb at Newport, Rhode Island, in 1901, and then he raced in Europe. Vanderbilt returned to America determined to organize a major race on Long Island.
Long Island's western end stood at the foot of New York Harbor. In the early 20th century, this area was an increasingly suburbanized part of the New York City metropolis. The island's eastern tip, which lay opposite the Connecticut-New Hampshire border, was remote and rural. In between lay the exclusive enclaves and estates of some of America's wealthiest families.
Sixty years after this woodcut, large parts of Long Island remained bucolic. Willie K. garnered support from wealthy families, but farmers protested the use of public roads for a rich man's game, and newspapers raised safety concerns. Vanderbilt's status, wealth, and persistence carried the day, and the inaugural Vanderbilt Cup race was scheduled for the fall of 1904.
For his grand prize, Mr. Vanderbilt commissioned a silver cup from Tiffany & Company. It stood two feet tall, with a capacity of ten-and-a-half gallons. The cup featured an image of Willie K. himself at the wheel of his Mercedes, along with winners' names -- to be added after each race. (Mr. Vanderbilt gifted the cup to the Smithsonian in 1934.)
The first race followed 30.24 miles of dirt roads through Long Island's center. Drivers made ten laps around the triangular circuit. Subtracting 1.8 miles of "control points" left a total competition distance of 284.4 miles. Willie K. Vanderbilt, pictured on page 24 of this album, personally waved the flag that started the race at 6:00 am on October 8, 1904.
The 1904 course passed through populated areas in Hicksville and Hempstead. Officials required cars to stop at these two "control points" during each lap. Every car carried a box, and its arrival and departure times were recorded on papers dropped into the box. At the race's end, "control time" was subtracted from elapsed time to determine a car's actual racing time.
Racing on public roadways was part of the Vanderbilt Cup's appeal -- but it brought considerable dangers. The 1904 course crossed the Long Island Railroad at four locations, only one of which was safely separated by a bridge. Flagmen posted at each crossing alerted racers when a train approached, but the temptation to ignore those warnings must have been strong.
The cars were fast and dangerous. Tragedy marred the 1904 race on only the second lap. American driver George Arents, Jr., attempted a turn with a flat tire on his Mercedes. His front wheel buckled, and the 2,000-pound car rolled over onto Arents and his riding mechanic Carl Mensel. Arents recovered from his injuries, but Mensel died at the scene.
American Herbert Lytle raced in the 1904 Vanderbilt with the #6 Pope-Toledo. He finished third, but he earned another niche in motorsport history. This photograph shows Lytle seven years later, when he competed in Carl Fisher's new 500-mile sweepstakes race at Indianapolis. Lytle was the only driver to compete in the first Vanderbilt Cup and the first Indianapolis 500.
Panhard Race Car Driven by George Heath Winning the First Vanderbilt Cup Race, Long Island, New York, October 8, 1904
George Heath beat 17 other entrants from the U.S., Germany, Italy, and France to win the first Vanderbilt Cup race. His French-built #7 Panhard finished in 5 hours, 26 minutes, 45 seconds, for an average race speed of 52.2 mph. Crowds swarmed the track after Heath crossed the finish line, and officials quickly ended the race out of safety concerns.
The Vanderbilt Cup returned on October 14, 1905. The course was modified to a length of 28.3 miles, with the race's length again set at ten laps. Nineteen cars from the U.S. and Europe competed before a crowd estimated at over 100,000 people. Spectator facilities included a grandstand and press box at Mineola, 12 miles east of Queens.
Contestants included Swiss-American driver Louis Chevrolet, who broke an axle on the seventh lap and didn't finish, and defending champion George Heath, who finished second for 1905. That year's victory went to French driver Victor Hemery in the French-made #18 Darracq. Hemery averaged 61.5 mph and completed the race in 4 hours, 38 minutes, 8 seconds.
Official Program and Score-Card of the Elimination Trial of the American Team in the Vanderbilt Cup Race, 1906
As in 1905, the 1906 Vanderbilt Cup was preceded by an American Elimination Trial race to determine the five drivers and cars to represent the United States. Twelve cars competed in the qualifying race -- which reportedly attracted larger crowds than the 1905 Vanderbilt main event. Oldsmobile, Pope-Toledo, Thomas, Maxwell, Haynes, and Locomobile were among the represented American manufacturers.
Driver Joe Tracy and riding mechanic Al Poole won the trial race in a 90-horsepower Locomobile specially built by the company at a reported cost of $20,000. (Locomobile's standard 20-horsepower 1906 touring car started at $3,130.) The Connecticut-based company was quick to capitalize on its American Elimination Trial win with advertisements proclaiming itself builder of "the greatest American car."
The 1906 race featured a 29.7-mile course with portions rerouted to avoid a new trolley line. Hairpin turns and hills added new challenges for the 17 cars and driver-mechanic teams. More than 200,000 people watched the main event on October 6. This album includes photos of the crowded grandstands at Westbury, 18 miles east of Manhattan.
Reporters and enthusiasts alike were bullish about the #9 Locomobile's chances. But the top American qualifier had problems in the main race. Flat tires -- and the time lost changing them -- kept Tracy and Poole out of contention. Their only joy was their 67.7 mph average on the fifth lap -- the fastest lap for any car in the 1906 race.
Joe Tracy and Al Poole covered the ten-lap, 297-mile race in about 5 hours, 41 minutes -- an average speed of 52.3 mph and good for a tenth-place finish. The 1906 Vanderbilt Cup was Tracy's last, as he soon retired. But his Locomobile would return to the prestigious event.
Driver Louis Wagner and riding mechanic Louis Vivet took the checkered flag in a French Darracq, marking three straight wins for a French-built automobile at the Vanderbilt Cup. Wagner's and Vivet's #10 Darracq finished the 1906 race in 4 hours, 50 minutes, 10 seconds, for an average speed of 61.4 mph.
Wagner and Vivet finished under a checkered flag -- said to be the first time such a flag signaled the end of an American auto race. The checkered flag -- its unique pattern impossible to confuse with other banners -- went on to become the most iconic symbol in motorsport. The Vanderbilt Cup's checkered flag appears on page 7 of this album.
Officials built fences to control crowds at some of the busiest locations on the 1906 race course -- but people quickly broke through them. Other parts of the course remained wide open. Spectator Curt Gruner ventured too close to the action, and he was killed by a competitor car. After a rash of critical newspaper editorials, officials canceled the 1907 Vanderbilt Cup.
Determined to save his race for 1908, Willie K. Vanderbilt organized a company to build the Long Island Motor Parkway. It was among the world's first limited-access automobile roadways complete with grade separations, guard rails, banked turns, and a reinforced concrete roadbed. Vanderbilt's company ultimately constructed 45 miles between Queens and Lake Ronkonkoma at a cost of $6 million.
Emil Stricker, Driving the #3 Mercedes, Passes Under the Long Island Motor Parkway Bridge, 1908 Vanderbilt Cup Race
The parkway's first section opened in time to host the 1908 Vanderbilt Cup that October. Mr. Vanderbilt's new roadway improved on earlier race courses in every respect. Safety was greatly enhanced by bridges, which eliminated intersections with roads and railroads, and guard rails, which helped hold back spectators. Overpasses also provided new -- and safe -- vantage points for onlookers.
The 23.46-mile course for 1908 included nine miles of the new parkway, and 14.46 miles of traditional public roads. The race length was now set at 11 laps. Seventeen cars from the United States, France, Germany, and Italy participated in the race on October 24. Crowds were estimated at 250,000 people.
Another innovation for 1908 were the supply pits dug in front of the grandstand on the Hempstead Plains. Crews inside the pits passed gasoline, oil, and tires to the drivers and mechanics. The pits allowed a clear view of the track for spectators in the grandstand. The term "pit stop" -- if not the literal pits themselves -- endures to this day.
American driver George Robertson first raced about 1904, competing in hill climbs and short-distance contents. He attempted to qualify for the 1905 Vanderbilt Cup, but his engine failed. Robertson did qualify in 1906, but his car was destroyed in a crash during pre-race practice. Years later, Robertson managed Duesenberg's racing team to a victory at the 1921 French Grand Prix.
Robertson and riding mechanic Glenn Ethridge competed in the same Locomobile piloted by Tracy and Poole in 1906, though it was now #16. While Robertson drove, Ethridge worked an air pump that pressurized the gas tank, and he operated plungers that pumped oil to the 990-cubic-inch, four-cylinder engine. This time, Locomobile equipped the car with improved tires and faster-to-change demountable rims.
Locomobile entered two cars in 1908, with the second driven by Jim Florida. Among the other American contestants were George Salzman, Joe Seymour, and Howard Gill in Thomas cars; Louis Chevrolet and James Ryall in Matheson cars; Al Denison and William Bourque in Knox cars; Cyrus Patschke in an Acme; and Willie Haupt in a Chadwick.
Six foreign cars competed in the 1908 Vanderbilt Cup. American driver E.J. Kilpatrick piloted the French-built #9 Hotchkiss, seen here, with riding mechanic Gustav Kiehn. Other foreign entries included Herbert Lytle in an Italian Isotta; Karl Luttgen, Emil Stricker, and Foxhall Keene in German Mercedes cars; and Lewis Strang in a French-built Renault.
Tires nearly foiled the #16 Locomobile again. Robertson and Ethridge suffered a flat on the final lap and scrambled to replace it with their last spare. That done, they crossed the finish line first -- but only 1 minute, 48 seconds ahead of their nearest rival. The Locomobile completed the 258 miles in 4 hours, 48 seconds, for an average race speed of 64.4 mph.
Locomobile quickly promoted Robertson's victory. This advertisement from Harper's magazine heralded his car's "more than a mile a minute" speed, and it described the race as "a supreme test under which only a car of perfect design and material integrity could win." Readers who mailed ten cents to Locomobile received a color poster of the car soon to be nicknamed "Old 16."
Locomobile's Vanderbilt Cup victory was just one of several events that marked 1908 as a watershed year for America's automotive industry. Henry Ford introduced the Model T, Billy Durant formed General Motors, Cadillac won Britain's illustrious Dewar Trophy for its demonstration of interchangeable parts, and a Buffalo-built Thomas Flyer won the New York to Paris Race.
The 1909 and 1910 Vanderbilt Cup races both saw victories by Harry Grant in the same American-built Alco automobile dubbed "Black Beast." The 1910 race also saw more tragedy. George Robertson suffered a career-ending accident during a pre-race run, and riding mechanics Charles Miller and Matthew Bacon were killed in separate accidents. Those deaths ended road racing on Long Island.
The Vanderbilt Cup relocated to Savannah, Georgia, for 1911, where Ralph Mulford bested 13 other drivers in his American-made Lozier. Milwaukee, Wisconsin, hosted the 1912 race, and Ralph DePalma won with his German Mercedes. After a break in 1913, the Vanderbilt resumed in Santa Monica, California, for 1914. DePalma repeated his win with another Mercedes, averaging 75.5 mph.
San Francisco hosted the 1915 Vanderbilt Cup -- tied in with the Panama-Pacific International Exposition and the separate American Grand Prize race. Dario Resta won the Vanderbilt in a French-built Peugeot. The Vanderbilt Cup was back in Santa Monica for 1916, where Dario Resta repeated his win with the same Peugeot. It was the last of the original Vanderbilt Cup races.
The Vanderbilt Cup was no longer profitable. War in Europe took away some of the best drivers, and purpose-built American race tracks now provided safer and more lucrative motorsport venues. But William K. Vanderbilt, Jr., had achieved his goal. He gave America its first great race, and "Old 16" gave the country its first big win.