Passengers rush to board the Overland Limited, which ran between Los Angeles and Chicago over the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe Railway, ca. 1905. / THF207763
Between 1865 and 1920, America’s railroad network increased sevenfold, from 35,085 miles to an all-time high of 254,037 miles in 1916. The rapid expansion of the national rail network corresponded with major technological improvements—including double tracking, improved roadbeds, heavier and faster locomotives, and the elimination of sharp curves—which allowed trains to operate at higher speeds. Travel times were steadily cut year by year. To emphasize time savings, railroad companies began to give their faster lines special names like “flyer,” “express,” and “limited.”
This 1913 timetable for the St. Louis-Colorado Limited line of the Wabash-Union Pacific Railroad boasted that it was the shortest line with the fastest time between destinations. / THF291441
However, increased speed came with disadvantages. High speeds resulted in an increasing number of gruesome railroad accidents caused by both discrepancies in local times and mix-ups between different railroad companies’ timetables.
A catastrophic collision occurred between two passenger trains on the Providence & Worcester Railroad when they failed to meet at a passing siding as scheduled, 1853. / THF622050
Facing governmental intervention to address the problem, the railroads took it upon themselves to enact a single standardized time across the country by dividing the nation into five roughly even time zones. Some people at first rebelled against this arbitrary imposition, especially when the newly drawn time zone designations did not align with local practices. But most people found it increasingly convenient to set their clocks by this new “standard time.”
Residents of Fitchburg, Massachusetts, would have synchronized the time on their personal clocks and watches to the railroad depot clock seen in this ca. 1916 postcard. / THF124830
Another disadvantage, some people complained, was that the increasing speed of railroad travel was unhealthy. Many believed that the rapid pace of life contributed to new forms of stress and anxiety and that the railroad was a key cause of these problems.
Railroad passengers ascending the staircase after arriving in Chicago, via the Illinois Central Railroad, ca. 1907 / THF105820
By 1920, railroad passenger travel was at the highest level it would ever attain. But, with the exception of the unique conditions during World War II, the railroad would never again be the dominant form of personal transportation in America. Within a few decades, the American public would embrace automobiles with the passion they had once given over to the railroads. How did this transfer of allegiance from railroad to automobile occur so effortlessly and completely during the early 20th century, and how does it relate to Americans’ changing concepts of time?
A group of motorists travelling from Davenport, Iowa, to New York, ca. 1905 / THF104740
At first, many railroad managers did not take automobiles seriously—and for good reason. When they were first introduced in the 1890s, automobiles had no practical purpose. They were considered amusing and entertaining playthings for wealthy hobbyists and adventurers.
1909 advertisement for the Pierce-Arrow Motor Car, an automobile geared to wealthy motorists who could afford to have a chauffeur handle the driving for them. / THF88377
Most railroad managers were complacent, agreeing with one claim that “the fad of automobile riding will gradually wear off and the time will soon be here when a very large part of the people will cease to think of automobile rides.” But, as it turned out, the public passion for automobile riding did not wear off. Increasingly, Americans from all walks of life embraced automobiles and their advantages over railroads. By 1910, more than 468,000 motor vehicles had been registered in the United States.
Automobiles would have not achieved the level of popularity that they did without major advancements in the roads on which they traveled. As far back as the 1890s, bicyclists and early motorists had tried to alert the public to, and lobby the government for, better roads—roads that the railroads had ironically either replaced or rendered unnecessary.
The Bulletin and Good Road, the official organ of the League of American Wheelmen, kept bicyclists up to date on advancements relating to the “Good Roads” movement. / THF207011
One reason that people embraced automobiles was because they revived the promise of individual freedom. Compared with railroad travel, motorists were unhampered, free to follow their own path. Elon Jessup, author of several motor camping books, wrote, “Time and space are at your beck and call, your freedom is complete.”
Motorists enjoying life on the road in the Missouri Ozarks, 1923. / THF105550
According to a 1910 American Motorist article, no longer were people tied to intercity train schedules, “rushed meals,” and “rude awakenings.” The motorist was “his own station master, engineer, and porter.” Riding in his own “highway Pullman,” he had “no one’s time to make except his own.” Automobile advocate Henry B. Joy wrote in a 1917 Outlook article that motoring promised “freedom from the shackles of the railway timetable.” Automobiles were also considered a particular advantage for women, who were increasingly venturing out into public spaces to shop, work, socialize, and take pleasure trips.
Four women in a Haynes automobile, travelling from Chicago to New York, ca. 1905. / THF107595
In addition to restoring people’s personal control over their own time, automobiles succeeded in slowing down the fast pace of modern life. Early automobile advocates claimed that railroads were simply too fast. Elon Jessup, in his 1921 book, The Motor Camping Book, described the view from the train as “a blur.” In his 1928 book, Better Country, nature writer Dallas Lore Sharp remarked that railroads rushed “blindly along iron rails” in their “mad dash across the night,” offering passengers only “fleeting impressions.” Automobiles, on the other hand, promised a nostalgic return to a slower time. Harkening back to the “simpler” days of stagecoach and carriage travel, automobiles were “refreshingly regressive.” Instead of being rushed along by “printed schedules and clock-toting conductors,” motorists could stop and start whenever they wanted, or when natural obstacles intervened. A car trip was leisurely, allowing heightened attention to regional variation and uniqueness.
Motorists take a leisurely drive through the countryside on the cover of this September 1924 American Motorist magazine. / THF202475
All told, the automobile liberated the individual who “hated alarm clocks” and “the faces of the conductor who twice daily punched his ticket on the suburban train.” In his 1928 book, Dallas Sharp even claimed that motoring was, in fact, more patriotic than railroad travel because it encouraged people to enjoy the country “quietly” and “sanely.” As a result, the slower tempo of automobile travel was thought to be restorative to frayed nerves brought on by the increasingly hectic pace of life in an urban, industrial society.
No automobile had more impact on the American public than the Model T, introduced in 1908. Envisioned by Henry Ford as a car for “the great multitude,” the Model T was indeed “everyman’s car”—sturdy, versatile, thrifty, and powerful. While Model Ts sold well from the beginning, the low price, extensive dealer network, and easy availability of replacement parts led to a leap in Model T sales after World War I.
Brochure for the 1924 Ford Model T, promoting its use as a vehicle for family pleasure trips. / THF107809
The need and demand for better roads corresponded with the unprecedented rise in Model T sales. The first and most widely publicized of the new, independently funded cross-country highways was the Lincoln Highway (1912), which ran (at least on paper) between New York City and San Francisco, California. In 1916—ironically, the same year that national railroad mileage reached a peak—the U.S. government passed the Federal Aid Road Act, providing grants-in-aid to several states to fund road improvement. The railroad companies watched helplessly as the government subsidized improved roads that extended to villages and hamlets the railroads could never hope to reach.
Effie Price Gladding recounts her cross-country trip on the Lincoln Highway in this 1915 book. The cover points out the states she passed through along the route of this highway. / THF204498
By the end of the 1920s, due in large part to the unprecedented popularity of the Model T, automobiles had gained a “vice-like grip on the American psyche.” Total car sales had leaped from 3.3 million in 1916 to 23 million by the late 1920s. Motorists were not only opting to take cars rather than trains for their regular travel routines, but they were also beginning to take longer-distance trips than they had ever attempted before. As the 1920s closed, Americans were traveling five times farther in cars than in trains. Enthusiasm for the automobile remained high throughout the Great Depression of the 1930s, when massive new road and highway construction projects were initiated to stimulate employment.
Black Americans embraced automobiles to avoid discrimination and humiliation on public transportation—at least until they had to stop to eat, sleep, and fill up with gas. Beginning in 1936, the Negro Motorist Green Book listed “safe places” for Black motorists to stop in towns and cities across the country. / THF99195
Conversely, the Depression was devastating for the railroad companies, who abandoned a record number of miles of existing track during this decade. By the late 1930s, railroad companies were optimistically attempting to revive business by embracing modern new streamlined designs, which claimed to reflect aerodynamic principles and promised a smooth ride incorporating the latest standards of comfort and convenience. A new emphasis on speed led to numerous record-breaking runs.
For its speed, as well as its beauty, comfort, and convenience, the Wabash Railroad’s “Blue Bird Streamliner” of 1950 was touted as “The Most Modern Train in America.” / THF99239
After World War II, the lifting of wartime rationing, the inclusion of two-week paid vacations in most labor union contracts, pent-up demand for consumer goods, and general postwar affluence ensured the automobile industry “banner sales,” which lasted into the 1950s.
Travel brochures like this one abounded after World War II, appealing to family vacationers. / THF202155
State-endorsed toll roads met the immediate postwar demand for motorists’ “right to speedy and accident-free travel over long distance.”
The Pennsylvania Turnpike, the first state-endorsed toll road, officially entered service on October 1, 1940. It currently stretches three times its original length. / THF202550
But the U.S. government’s long-time obsession with highway improvement truly reached a “dizzying crescendo” in 1956, with the passage of the Federal Aid Highway Act. This Act called for 46,000 miles of state-of-the-art, limited-access superhighways, to be funded by public taxes on fuel, tires, trucks, buses, and trailers. Although justified for military and national defense purposes, the interstate highway system made it possible for average citizens to reach their destinations faster in their cars than by taking trains.
Although the new urban expressways were promoted as modern advantages, as seen in this 1955 “Auto-Owners Expressway Map” for the Detroit area, in fact, these same expressways cut through and often devastated poor and historically marginalized communities. / THF205968
Ironically, as automobiles became the standard vehicle for long-distance transportation, and highways beckoned motorists with higher speed limits and improved surfaces, the slow, leisurely pace of motoring—so lauded 50 years earlier—had transformed into an outpacing of even the “blurring” speed of railroads.
The wonder of the fast and efficient new expressways is evident in the child’s expression in this 1959 promotional photograph, as he views a futuristic model highway envisioned by researchers at General Motors. / THF200901
For the most part, travelers rejoiced as four-lane divided highways replaced the older two-lane highways. With the new speed and comfort features of cars and improved highways, the impulse toward getting somewhere as rapidly and efficiently as possible, along the straightest path, became the new end goal.
Sources consulted include:
Belasco, Warren James. Americans on the Road: From Autocamp to Motel, 1910-1945. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1979.
Douglas, George H. All Aboard: The Railroad in American Life. New York: Paragon House, 1992.
Gordon, Sarah H. Passage to Union: How the Railroads Transformed American Life, 1829-1929. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1996.
Donna R. Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. This blog post is adapted from her M.A. Thesis, “American Dreams and Railroad Schemes: Cultural Values and Early-Twentieth-Century Promotional Strategies of the Wabash Railroad Company” (University of Michigan-Dearborn, 2013).
Basil "Jug" Menard Posing with a Modified Ford Coupe Race Car. Taunton, Massachusetts, circa 1946 / THF140176
Igniting a Lifelong Passion
Most of us are enchanted with competition. For those with gasoline in their veins, there’s only one way to scratch the itch—become a racer.
Things we do when we’re young often inspire a lifelong passion. Many adults involved in auto racing—as well as adult fans of auto racing—ignited their interest through early experiences. There are many avenues for kids to explore race cars and racing that can arouse a passion for the sport, and you can learn about some of them in the “Igniting the Passion” section of our new racing exhibit, Driven to Win: Racing in America presented by General Motors. There is an actual Quarter Midget race car, and kids can sit in the driver’s seat. You can see and hear stories from the people with a passion for racing about how they got started. And there are the toys (including slot cars), and a place where kids can build their own wooden kit car then race it against others on a sloped track.
Quarter Midget Racer
The Quarter Midget race car is one-quarter the size of an adult racer’s Midget Sprint Car and has much lower power output. Still, these are serious race cars, with protective systems designed to keep their young drivers as safe as possible. A Quarter Midget is powered by a single-cylinder, 7-cubic-inch engine, and they race on oval tracks that are one-twentieth of a mile around—264 feet. Speeds reach the 45-mph range, and kids learn the skills of car control, race tactics, and race strategy that are essential foundations for aspiring drivers. Many racing stars, past and present, began their careers in Quarter Midgets, including A.J. Foyt, Jeff Gordon, Joey Logano, Sarah Fisher, Jimmy Vasser, and many more.
The Soap Box Derby car, powered only by gravity, is home-built and raced by kids in downhill competitions that can be intense. Mason Colbert placed third with this car in the 1939 All-American Soap Box Derby national championship in Akron, Ohio.
A large display in Driven to Win features more than 50 gas-powered, scale-model tether cars (along with tools and parts), which were popular from the 1930s to the 1950s. Check out all of the spindizzies you’ll see on display here.
Bobby Unser Crossing the Finish Line, Winner of the 1956 Pikes Peak Auto Hill Climb Race / THF140569
King of the Mountain
What does it take to “race to the clouds”? Power, handling, endurance—and a spirit to conquer the summits of nature. Hill climbs were one of the very earliest forms of automobile competition. They test a car’s power and handling capabilities, and the car-control skills, focus, and endurance of the driver.
Today, there are many local amateur hill climbs, but the most famous one is the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb in Colorado, which has been running since 1916. Its tortuous 12.42-mile course has 156 turns and rises from an elevation of 9,390 feet at the start to 14,115 feet at the finish. For good reason, it’s known as the race to the clouds. Bobby Unser is probably the best-known racer to conquer Pikes Peak. He won the overall event a record ten times—in 1956, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1966, 1968, and 1986—which earned him the title “King of the Mountain.”
1958 Moore/Unser Pikes Peak Hill Climb Car
1958 Moore/Unser Pikes Peak Hill Climb Racing Car. On Loan from Bobby and Lisa Unser. / THF91311
Bobby Unser won seven of his ten Pikes Peak overall victories in this car, including five straight (1959–63), along with 1966 and 1968. In this section of our new racing exhibit, Driven to Win: Racing in America, presented by General Motors, you can "meet" Unser while he tells you what it took to win all those Pikes Peak races. Learn how he continually improved the car, making it lighter by modifying the frame and suspension and switching to an aluminum radiator, transmission case, and fuel tank.
The Henry Ford’s 1951 Studebaker Champion, a cousin to Fozzie Bear’s 1951 Commander. / THF90649
Cars and movies go together like peanut butter and jelly, or cake and ice cream. It’s only natural. The two industries appeared almost simultaneously around the turn of the 20th century. Southern California became a major center of American automobile culture and, of course, the center of the U.S. film industry. Over time, certain movies even came to define certain marques. Aston Martin had Goldfinger, DeLorean had Back to the Future, and Studebaker had… The Muppet Movie.
For those who haven’t seen The Muppet Movie, which brought Jim Henson’s creations to the big screen, for the first time, in 1979, stop reading and go watch it right now. Seriously. I’ll wait.
But if a summary has to suffice, then I’ll tell you that The Muppet Movie is in the tradition of the Bing Crosby-Bob Hope “Road” movies, where a simple trip turns into a series of misadventures. But instead of Bing and Bob, you get Kermit the Frog and Fozzie Bear. (Well, you get Bob too, but I digress.) The movie follows Kermit as he makes his way from the Florida swamps to the bright lights of Hollywood, chasing his dream to “make millions of people happy” in show business. Along the way he meets Fozzie, the Great Gonzo, Miss Piggy, and all the usual Muppet favorites.
Paul Williams, seen on a 1980 visit to The Henry Ford, co-wrote The Muppet Movie’s songs. He’d previously penned hits for Three Dog Night, the Carpenters, and Barbra Streisand. / THF128260
Kermit begins his journey on a bicycle, but, after meeting Fozzie Bear, the two continue the trip in Fozzie’s uncle’s 1951 Studebaker Commander. The Stude doesn’t make it all the way to Hollywood—they trade it in for a 1946 Ford station wagon partway through—but it features in two of the movie’s memorable musical numbers: “Movin’ Right Along” and “Can You Picture That?,” both co-written by Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher.
The Muppet Movie is more than great songs and story. The film set new standards in puppetry by convincingly putting its characters into “real world” settings. Prior to Henson’s work, puppets were largely stationary figures, stuck behind props that hid puppeteers from view. Even early Muppet projects, notably The Muppet Show, suffered from this limitation. But in The Muppet Movie, Kermit rides a bicycle, Gonzo floats through the sky below a bunch of balloons, and Fozzie, of course, drives his Commander.
The Studebaker’s “bullet nose” served a practical purpose for the filmmakers. / THF90652
In a way, these elaborate special effects were responsible for the Studebaker appearing in the film. The 1951 Commander’s most distinctive feature is the chrome “bullet nose” between its headlights. The special-effects Commander used in The Muppet Movie had its bullet removed and replaced with a small video camera. The car’s trunk was fitted with a TV screen connected to the camera, a steering wheel, throttle and brake controls, and a seat. With these modifications, a small person was able to operate the car, hidden from view and able to see the road ahead via the camera. With Fozzie placed in the driver’s seat; his puppeteer, Frank Oz, hidden under the dashboard; and the car’s operator concealed in the trunk, it appeared as though the comic bear himself was driving the Studebaker in several scenes. The trick worked so well that, more than 40 years later in the age of computer-generated special effects, Fozzie’s driving is still remarkably convincing. The crew used a second, unmodified Commander for shots where driving effects weren’t needed.
Practical concerns weren’t the only reasons a Commander was used in the movie. In comments published in Turning Wheels, the newsletter of the Studebaker Drivers Club, The Muppet Movie screenwriter Jerry Juhl described the ’51 Commander as perhaps the “goofiest” looking car ever put into production. Goofiness, Juhl added, was a highly-respected quality in the Henson organization, so it seemed only fitting that Fozzie should drive that particular car.
Studebaker’s bullet nose was part of a long, productive relationship between the automaker and industrial designer Raymond Loewy. / THF144005
That bullet nose is a story unto itself. Credit for the feature goes to designer Bob Bourke, working for Studebaker contractor Raymond Loewy Associates at the time. As Bourke later recalled, Loewy told him to model the car’s appearance after an airplane. Bourke responded with the bullet, more properly described as a propeller or a spinner, since it’s a direct reference to that crucial aviation device. And a divisive device it was. People either loved the Studebaker bullet nose or they hated it (and so it goes today).
It’s worth noting that the feature wasn’t without precedent. Ford had used a similar device on its groundbreaking 1949 models. (In fact, Bob Bourke later said that he had contributed informally to the design of the 1949 Ford. You can read Bourke’s reminiscences here.) Studebaker used the bullet nose for just two model years, 1950 and 1951, but it remains one of the company’s most memorable designs.
Studebaker emphasized the aviation influence on the bullet nose design in this 1950 advertisement. / THF100021
The Henry Ford’s collections include a Maui Blue 1951 Studebaker Champion coupe. The lower-priced Champion featured a six-cylinder engine, while the Commander came with a standard V-8. Other than their different badges, the look of the two models is nearly identical. But if you’d like to see the actual car that Fozzie and Kermit used in The Muppet Movie, then head over to South Bend, Indiana. The effects car survives in the collections of (where else) the Studebaker National Museum. It still wears the psychedelic paint scheme applied by Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem in a clever plot device—faded with age, but unmistakable.
Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.
Armani Williams. (Photo courtesy Team Armani Racing.)
Grosse Pointe, Michigan, native Armani Williams is at the start of a promising career in auto racing. He competes in multiple professional truck and car racing series, and is honing his skills with an eye toward joining NASCAR’s Camping World Truck Series—one of NASCAR’s three national series and among the highest professional racing series in the United States. This is an impressive goal for any young driver, but especially so for Mr. Williams, who is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.
Autism generally is characterized by difficulty in focusing on and processing multiple stimuli and tasks simultaneously. “Focusing on and processing multiple stimuli and tasks simultaneously” is also a pretty fair description of what a competitive driver does behind the wheel, which makes Williams’s achievements all the more impressive.
Helmet worn by Armani Williams, Scorpion EXO. / THF186734
Like most racing drivers, Armani Williams developed his love for motorsport as a young boy. That passion was fostered by toy cars, televised NASCAR races, and a memorable trip to see NASCAR’s Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2010. Eager to get behind the wheel himself, Williams began racing go-karts at age eight. He then advanced to Bandolero racing, a type of motorsport in which young drivers pilot scaled-down versions of stock cars capable of speeds better than 70 miles per hour.
Williams made his competition debut in Automobile Racing Club of America (ARCA) Pro Series pickup truck races in 2016. He set ARCA records by becoming the highest-finishing African American driver in a series race, and by posting the best finish for an African American driver in the ARCA Truck Pro Series championship.
Racing suit worn by Armani Williams, Alpinestars. / THF186736
NASCAR invited Armani Williams to compete in its Drive for Diversity combined tryouts in 2016 and 2017. Established in 2004, the Drive for Diversity program is intended to create a more inclusive culture in NASCAR on the track, in the pits, and in the stands. The program provides training and support to people of color and women pursuing careers as drivers, crew members, sponsors, or team owners.
In 2017, Williams made his debut in the Pinty’s Series, NASCAR’s Canadian stock car racing series. To date, he has earned eighteen wins and two championships in the Pinty’s Series. In 2018, Williams joined the K&N Pro Series East. This American NASCAR series serves as an important development pipeline, building and supplying new talent headed toward NASCAR’s upper levels. Williams earned his first K&N Pro Series top-ten finish at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where he finished ninth on September 22, 2018. Williams earned another top-ten finish—this time in ARCA’s Menards Series for stock cars—on August 9, 2020, at Michigan International Speedway, his “hometown” track. By competing in the Pinty’s and K&N Pro racing series, Armani Williams became the first driver in any NASCAR series with openly-diagnosed autism.
Race 4 Autism car driven by Armani Williams. (Photo courtesy Team Armani Racing.)
Throughout his growing career, Armani Williams has used his platform in racing to raise autism awareness. He established his Armani Williams Race 4 Autism Foundation in 2015. He also covered one of his race cars with a special Race 4 Autism paint scheme featuring the jigsaw puzzle motif that is widely used as a symbol for autism spectrum disorder.
Racing shoes worn by Armani Williams, Alpinestars. / THF186733
Mr. Williams recently donated pieces of his equipment to The Henry Ford. They include a helmet, a racing suit, and a pair of shoes used by him while racing in the ARCA Truck Pro Series. We are delighted to add these artifacts to the museum’s racing collections, and we look forward to incorporating some of them into our newest exhibit, Driven to Win: Racing in America Presented by General Motors. We also look forward to following Armani Williams’s competitive driving career. He’s already made history—and he’s just getting started.
Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.
The multisensory theater in Driven to Win at The Henry Ford.
American innovation knows no bounds, and racing, which combines technical excellence with the human endeavor, speaks to our constant need to push the limits of what’s possible. That’s why Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation has gathered one of the finest collections of innovative, powerful, record-busting race cars and automotive artifacts in the world.
Building on this unparalleled collection, The Henry Ford’s newest exhibition, Driven to Win: Racing in Americapresented by General Motors, gives guests a visceral sense of just how thrilling it is to “go faster and push the limits of racing.” BRC Imagination Arts partnered with The Henry Ford to help bring its incredible collection to life through emotional storytelling, and to get guests excited about “the lives of those who invented their way into the winner's circle and often changed the world in the process.”
The result: Fueled by Passion, the exhilarating, immersive experience at the heart of the new exhibition. The 15-minute sensory-filled experience shares the stories of five people who have empowered themselves to push their personal limits, and ignites the drive we all have to power our passions.
Dan Gurney and A. J. Foyt with Victory Champagne at the 24 Heures du Mans (24 Hours of Le Mans) Race, June 1967 / THF127983
Celebration of Success
Whatever the form of racing, every team wants to be in the Winner’s Circle. It’s where victors are crowned and reputations are made. The Winner’s Circle in our new auto racing exhibit, Driven to Win: Racing in America Presented by General Motors, puts five remarkable race cars on an honorary pedestal. They are connected to some of the greatest drivers, teams, and personalities in racing. They broke records, they broke traditions, and they broke new ground with innovative designs and ideas that influenced all who followed. The Winner’s Circle is a celebration of success.
This car, and especially its team, brought a fundamental change to NASCAR racing. The team owner, Carl Kiekhaefer (founder of Kiekhaefer Corporation, maker of Mercury outboard boat motors), brought a level of professionalism to his team’s operation that set a new standard in auto racing. His drivers and mechanics all wore matching uniforms, and his cars were immaculately prepared. He transported his cars in closed trucks rather than open trailers (providing more advertising space), and his teams were among the first to practice pit stops. That alone might not have influenced other teams to follow his example, but the clincher was his team’s domination of the series in 1955 and 1956. In 1955, driver Tim Flock scored 18 wins and 32 top-10 finishes on his way to the NASCAR championship. Then, in 1956, Kiekhaefer drivers Buck Baker and Speedy Thompson together won 22 of 41 races, including 16 in a row, with Baker taking the championship. After that season, Kiekhaefer dropped out of racing, but the professionalism he brought soon became the norm.
Racing legend A.J. Foyt made the most of this car’s dirt-track prowess. It was key to Foyt winning his first three Indy Car championships in 1960, 1961 and 1963. Race car builder Wally Meskowski engineered and built this car specifically for dirt-track racing, which comprised most of the USAC Championship (Indy Car) series in the early 1960s (the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was one of just three paved tracks in the series in 1960). From 1960 through 1963, Foyt drove this car in 26 races, and scored 13 of his 17 victories in it, all but three of them on dirt tracks. It was powered by the iconic Offenhauser four-cylinder racing engine that dominated Indy Car races from the late 1930s until well into the 1960s. Every Indianapolis 500 from 1947 to 1964 was won with an Offenhauser engine. The engine’s design, with the block and double-overhead-cam cylinder head cast as one unit, produced both the racing essentials: power and reliability.
Talk about a disruptor! This car could qualify as the greatest disruptor ever in American racing history. In 1965, Formula One champion Jim Clark drove this car to victory in the Indianapolis 500, marking that race’s first-ever win by a rear-engine car. A few years earlier, legendary road racer Dan Gurney had concluded that a car/engine combination designed using European Formula One technology could revolutionize the 500 and Indy Car racing. He brought Ford Motor Company together with Colin Chapman, the English builder of Lotus Formula One cars. That collaboration resulted in a lightweight Lotus chassis powered by a specially designed Ford V-8 engine. With its monocoque chassis, four-wheel independent suspension, and rear-mounted engine, the Lotus-Ford brought an abrupt end to the traditional Indy front-engine roadster’s long domination and established a new paradigm for American race cars.
In the 1960s, Ford Motor Company made the most massive sports car racing effort ever seen in America. The objective was to beat the dominant Ferrari team in the world’s most important sports car endurance race—the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The weapon was a family of cars best known as the Ford GT40. Ford’s first of four straight victories, in 1966, was won by the GT40’s Mark II variant, fielded by the Shelby American team and driven by New Zealanders Bruce McLaren and Denny Hulme. The next year, Shelby returned with this car—the more powerful Mark IV. Its chassis was built of an aluminum honeycomb material used in aircraft construction, and the body shape resulted from hours of wind tunnel testing. The big 427-cubic-inch V-8 engine was based on Ford’s stock car racing engine and proved highly reliable. Drivers Dan Gurney and A.J. Foyt beat the second-place Ferrari by 32 miles at a record-breaking average speed of 135.48 mph. That win was another first at Le Mans because, unlike the year before, the winning car was built in the United States. This was the first Le Mans win by an American car, built in the United States and driven by Americans.
1988 Chevy-Penske PC-17 Indy Car
1988 Rick Mears Winning Indy Car Replica, on loan courtesy General Motors Heritage Center. / THF185963
In 1988, Rick Mears qualified the original version of this car on the pole and won Penske Racing's seventh Indianapolis 500. The win marked Mears’ third victory at one of motorsports’ most renowned events, and contributed to him becoming one of the most respected drivers in Indy car racing history. That year, all three Penske team drivers—Mears, Danny Sullivan, and Al Unser, Sr.—piloted the new PC-17 chassis powered by redesigned Chevrolet engines. The Penske team swept the top three qualifying positions on pole day. Mears’ four-lap qualifying speed of 219.198 mph became the new Speedway standard, and the Penske team, led by Mears’ win, took two of the top three podium positions (Unser placed third).
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.
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.
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.
Jeanetta Holder with Her Indianapolis 500 Quilt Made for Bobby Unser, 1975-1980 / THF78732
On May 30, 1932, the day that Jeanetta Pearson Holder was born in Kentucky, race cars sped around the track at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway about 250 miles to the north. The timing of Jeanetta’s birth was certainly a hint of things to come: she would grow up with a passion for auto racing, and, as an adult, become that sport’s “Quilt Lady.”
For four decades, Jeanetta combined her love of auto racing and her sewing talents to create unique quilts for winners of the Indianapolis 500 and other auto races.
Dale Earnhardt is wrapped in pride and his quilt after the 1995 Brickyard 400 race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. / THF78819
A Love for Racing, A Talent for Sewing
As a little girl growing up on a Kentucky farm, Jeanetta made her own small race cars out of tobacco sticks and lard cans which she “raced everywhere [she] went.” Jeanetta’s childhood creative streak soon extended to sewing. She began to make clothes for her doll—and her pet cat. By the time she was 12, Jeanetta began sewing quilts, filling them with cotton batting from cotton she grew herself.
Jeanetta was clearly “driven.” When she didn’t have a car in which to take her driver’s license test, the teenager borrowed a taxicab. About this same time, Jeanetta started going to the race track. Soon 20-year-old Jeanetta was speeding around an oval dirt track at the wheel of a 1950 Hudson at Beech Bend Park in Warren County, Kentucky. In the early 1950s, women drivers were uncommon—and so was safety equipment. Jeanetta was dressed in a t-shirt and blue jeans for these regional races.