The Vanderbilt Cup, America’s First International Series
By Art Evans
The first Vanderbilt Cup Race, held in 1904, amounted to pandemonium according to press reports. Newspaper and poster promotion drew a huge crowd. Estimated to be as numerous as 50,000 spectators were lined dangerously close to the entire course, some actually straying onto it. There were so many people that they became part of the spectacle.
The Vanderbilt Cup was the first contest of any real international stature held in the United States. Until then, major events took place in Europe and were dominated by cars made in Europe and driven mostly by Europeans. Because racing improves the breed, as they say, European cars were, with some exceptions, superior to those made in the United States.
William K. Vanderbilt Jr., or Willie K as his friends called him, created the Vanderbilt Cup series. Willie K. was the great-grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, the railroad and shipping magnate. Vanderbilt Jr., a railroad executive and accomplished yachtsman, had spent some years participating in the fledgling sport of automobile racing. In Europe he was third in the 1902 Circuit des Ardennes in Belgium, was in the Gordon Bennett series and ran in city-to-city races including the infamous 1903 Paris-Madrid-Paris. He was impressed with the quality of European-made cars as well as European roads in comparison with those in the U.S. In order to encourage the improvement of U.S. cars and roads, he got the idea of promoting a series in America somewhat similar to the Gordon Bennett.
Initially, Vanderbilt’s proposal of an open road race on Long Island met with considerable resistance and controversy. There were a number of lawsuits and public hearings. Farmers objected because they used the roads to transport produce to market. Others, looking at experiences in Europe, thought it would be too dangerous. Nevertheless Vanderbilt, who had posted a large amount of prize money, eventually prevailed.
The first race of the series took place over 30.24 miles of winding dirt roads in the center of Long Island. Like the Gordon Bennett, it was a competition among countries; entry was limited to five from each country. Cars had to be manufactured entirely within the country represented. A car had to weigh between 881 and 2,204 pounds. Everyone had to have a riding mechanic as well as the driver and each had to weigh at least 132 pounds.
The course was roughly triangular and the race ran clockwise for ten laps. The Start-Finish line was at Westbury. The cars had to stop at Hicksville and Hempstead where they were inspected and then led by officials on bicycles through the towns and over railroad tracks. The race consisted of a total of 284.4 miles. Cars were sent off at two-minute intervals. Eight members of the Chronograph Club were on hand as timekeepers. Vanderbilt Jr. waved the first car off at 6 a.m. on Saturday, October 8, 1904.
Eighteen entries had been accepted, but only seventeen made the start. They represented six cars made in France, five in Germany, two in Italy and five in the U.S. The French cars were three Panhards, a Renault, a De Dietrich and a Clement-Bayard, driven by Albert Clement Jr. himself. George Heath (born in the U.S, but a British citizen who lived in Paris) drove one of the Panhards. (It’s unclear why France was allowed six entries). The German cars were all Mercedes, all owned by Americans. Both Italian cars were Fiats. The five American entries were, with one exception, modified touring cars in contrast to the purpose-built European racers. The exception was the famous Packard Gray Wolf, an out-and-out racer. Other Americans included a Pope-Toledo, a Simplex, a White Steamer and a Royal, driven by Joe Tracy, the most famous American driver of the day.