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Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Driven to Win: Dawn of Racing

March 23, 2021 Archive Insight
Early open race car careens around a corner on a dirt road, kicking up clouds of smoke with spectators looking on and houses in the background
Lorraine-Detrich Automobile Driven by Arthur Duray at the Vanderbilt Cup Race, Long Island, New York, 1906 / THF203486

Early American Racing: A Compulsion to Prove Superiority


The quest for automotive superiority began on the track. Innovation proved to be king—it is the fuel that built reputations, generated interest and investment, and paved the way to newfound glory.

Near the end of the 19th century, the infant auto industry was bursting at the seams with ideas, experiments, and innovations. The automobile was new and primarily a novelty—as soon as there were two cars on the road, their builders and drivers were compelled to race each other. Being competitive: It’s just human nature. Which was the best car, the best driver?

Automobile races soon became a proving ground, where carmakers could showcase their design and engineering prowess. Winning built reputations, generated interest and attracted investment.

The “Dawn of Racing” section of our new exhibit, Driven to Win: Racing in America, immerses you in an exploration of the early days of racing, using period settings, images, and authentic artifacts. It features two of America’s most significant early race cars.

1901 Ford "Sweepstakes" Race Car


Early open car with four large white wheels
THF90167

Henry Ford only ever drove one race, on October 10, 1901, and that was in the car they called “Sweepstakes.” He certainly was the underdog, but against all odds he won. In Driven to Win, you will discover the innovations that Ford developed for “Sweepstakes” that helped him achieve that remarkable victory. It gave a powerful boost to his reputation, brought in financial backing that helped launch Ford Motor Company, and a few years later, Ford Motor Company put America—and much of the world—on wheels with the Model T.

1906 Locomobile "Old 16" Race Car


Long open car with number "16" on sides and front
THF90188

Driving “Old 16” in the 1908 Vanderbilt Cup race, George Robertson scored the first victory by an American car in a major international auto race in the United States. At that time, the Vanderbilt Cup race was world-famous and highly prestigious, and “Old 16” became known as “the greatest American racing car.” In Driven to Win, you will learn about and see firsthand the expertise, craftsmanship and attention to detail that made this car a winner.

Additional Artifacts


Red velvet helmet with chin strap and buckle
THF154549

Beyond the cars, you can see these artifacts related to early racing in Driven to Win.

Dig Deeper


Sepia-tone photo of two men in early open race car on beach with ocean behind them; also contains text
Barney Oldfield in "Lightning Benz," Daytona Beach, Florida, March 16, 1910 / THF228867

Learn more about early racing with these additional resources from The Henry Ford.

race cars, cars, race car drivers, Henry Ford Museum, Driven to Win, racing

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