November 2nd, 1895 – A False Start for the First US Car Race


November 2nd, 1895 sort of marked the start of the first gasoline-powered race in the United States, except the vehicles couldn’t get to the starting line; however, within the month, though, they were going to make some history and someone was going to win the first prize of $2,000.


The legend is that the first automobile race occurred the first time that a horseless carriage met another on the road. Early car races were “open road” racing from one city to another. The first organized car race was the Paris-to-Rouen “reliability test” held only a year before The Chicago Times-Herald came up with their idea to run a race from Chicago north to Milwaukee. Unfortunately, the roads between the two Midwest metropolises were in terrible condition, so the route was shortened to Chicago to Evanston and back. It would cover only 54 miles.

The original field featured 83 entries in the race, but 76 of them never made it to the race. The high dropout rate seemed largely due to most of the cars not being finished in time for the contest, so organizers postponed the event for a week.

chicago_raceIn addition to technical problems, some competitors had trouble dealing with the local authorities was even worse. Before Haynes and a Mercedes Benz driver could even get into town, they were stopped by police who claimed that they had no right to drive their vehicles on the city streets; the competitors had to requisition horses to pull the cars. The race had to be postponed once more as the editors of the Times-Herald had to convince the city leaders to pass a new ordinance allowing the newfangled vehicles to travel on the streets of Chicago. By this time, the race had slipped to November 28th, 1895, Thanksgiving Day, and the course was plagued by muddy roads and snowdrifts.

There were three Benzes in the final field, all of them three-wheelers. The only four-wheeled car to run was a “motorized wagon” from Charles Duryea. Two electric-powered cars got to the starting line. One of them couldn’t even start the race, and the other had to stop twice to replace the primitive batteries that were drained by the November weather. It turned back early, covering only 11 miles of the course. The only other entries were two “motorcycles,” but they lacked the power to climb one of the grades on the course, and had to drop out. That left only the three Benzes and the Duryea.


J. Frank Duryea (right) with Charles Duryea

Not only was this the first car race in America, but it also featured the first auto-racing accident. Shortly after the start, depending on whom you believe, either two of the cars argued over the same piece of road, or one of them, a Benz, ran into a horse cart or was forced off the road by the horses. The race was a harrowing one–it was held during one of Chicago’s great snowstorms, two of the contestants became comatose from exposure to the cold, and the contestants’ cars got stuck in snowdrifts, slid into other vehicles, and stalled repeatedly. 

Frank Duryea won the race, completing it in 10 hours and 23 minutes, traveling at an average speed of 5 1/4 miles per hour.

“Today in History” on The Pandora Society dot com is primarily focused on Victorian and Edwardian history and does not always have a direct connection to Steampunk, Dieselpunk, or whatever punk; in fact it rarely does, but it is our hope that in sharing these historical events they might serve as some inspiration to the writers in our community to create potential alternative history stories which we look forward to reading 🙂


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