Ever since fuel-powered internal combustion engines were invented for cars, it didn’t take long for people to start organizing the first car races. The need to see which car was the fastest was real and racers wanted the bragging rights of being the fastest racer or owning the fastest car.
In this article, learn how the famous races we know now came to be and how racing evolved throughout the years.
The Origins of Automobile Racing
Paris-Rouen Race: The First-Ever Motor Race
The origins of automobile racing can be pinpointed to a pivotal event: the Paris-Rouen race of 1894, often hailed as the world’s first true motor race. Pierre Giffard, a journalist at Le Petit Journal, organized this very first motor race on July 22, 1894. The event was a clever marketing strategy and readership booster. He called it the “Competition for Horseless Carriages,” highlighting its safety, ease of use, and affordability. The competition was a mix of a reliability test and a race, with 102 entrants paying a 10-franc fee to participate.
This 126 km (78-mile) contest was more a test of feasibility and reliability than outright speed. Notably, it was open to all comers, setting the precedent for inclusive competition. The race started from Porte Maillot and passed through Bois de Boulogne.
Count Jules-Albert de Dion reached Rouen first after 6 hours and 48 minutes with an average speed of 19 km/h. However, he was not declared the winner because he used a stoker for his steam car, as he violated the rules. Instead, Albert Lemaître won with a Peugot car.
Pioneering Races Around the World
Automobile racing in the United States kicked off with an 87-km race from Chicago to Evanston, Illinois, and back on Thanksgiving Day in 1895, sponsored by newspapers for promotional reasons. This Chicago Times-Herald race on November 28, 1895, is often considered the first American automobile race. It sparked significant interest in automobiles in the U.S. Frank Duryea won this 54.36-mile race in just under 8 hours, outpacing five other competitors.
In France, the first regular auto racing event began in March 1897, dubbed “Speed Week.” This event saw the birth of various racing formats, including the first hill climb and a precursor to drag racing.
European racing often involved town-to-town races, especially in France, until 1903, when a Paris-to-Madrid race was halted due to many accidents.
The first closed-circuit road race was the 1898 Course de Périgueux, covering 145 km in France. Although road racing was popular in Europe, it declined due to safety concerns for spectators, racers, and animals, with the Mille Miglia in Italy being a notable, long-lasting race until 1957.
The first international race was initiated by James Gordon Bennett, owner of The New York Herald. He was the first to offer trophies to be competed annually by national automobile clubs. Participants must race with cars built in their respective countries. The first Bennet Trophy races were organized by the Automobile Club de France from 1901 to 1903, followed by races in Ireland, Germany, and France.
As French manufacturers were unwilling to be limited to three cars, they boycotted the Bennet Trophy Race in 1906 and established the first French Grand Prix Race instead: the Le Mans race. Later, in 1923, the Le Mans 24 Hours race in France was established, quickly becoming a cornerstone of automotive endurance racing. Its unique format, requiring cars to run for 24 hours, tested not just speed but reliability, fuel efficiency, and the endurance of drivers. The race also became a testing ground for new automotive technologies.
The Targa Florio in Sicily also started in 1906 and continued intermittently.
In the U.S., William K. Vanderbilt established the Vanderbilt Cup, held in various locations from 1904 to 1916 and briefly revived in the 1930s on Long Island, New York.
Motorsport’s reach extended globally, with the first race in India taking place in 1905, covering a daunting 810 miles from Delhi to Mumbai. This event significantly introduced the automobile to India and tested its adaptability to local conditions.
First City-to-City Races
City-to-city races were thrilling in early motorsport history, with France leading the way. The French automobile club, ACF, organized several exciting international races that started or ended in Paris, linking it to other major cities across France and Europe.
However, these high-speed adventures came to a somber end in 1903 following a tragic accident in the Paris-Madrid race, which claimed the life of Marcel Renault and eight others near Angoulême. This led the French government to halt the race in Bordeaux and put a ban on open-road racing.
Despite this, the spirit of long-distance racing continued. In 1907, the challenging Peking to Paris race spanned a staggering 9,317 miles across some of the world’s toughest terrains. Of the five cars that braved this journey, it was the Italian Prince Scipione Borghese who triumphed in his powerful 7,433 cc Itala.
The record for the longest automobile race ever went to the 1908 New York to Paris Race, finishing in Paris after a grueling 22,000 miles. Competitors from France, Italy, Germany, and the United States faced numerous challenges over the 169-day race, with the American Thomas Flyer, driven by George Schuster, ultimately taking the victory. This remarkable race not only tested the limits of the cars but the endurance and ingenuity of the drivers.
The First Circuits Built for Racing
During the early days of motorsport, races were held on open roads, which were often unpaved and fraught with hazards. There were no dedicated race tracks, safety measures were nonexistent, and the rules were rudimentary at best. Due to safety issues, racing organizers started to build racing circuits designed specifically for racing.
In 1906, the Aspendale Racecourse in Australia was opened, becoming the world’s first motor racing circuit specifically built for the sport. This pear-shaped track, almost a mile long, featured slightly banked curves and a gravel surface made of crushed cement.
Then came Brooklands in Surrey, England, a landmark in racing history as the first ‘banked’ motor racing venue. Opening in June 1907, it boasted a 2.75-mile concrete track famous for its high-speed corners. Brooklands wasn’t just about racing; it also played a key role in the aviation industry, especially during World War I. Unfortunately, the track never reopened for racing post-World War II due to damage.
Meanwhile, the Milwaukee Mile in the United States, originally a horse-racing track from the 19th century, has been hosting races since 1903, making it one of the world’s oldest motor racing tracks still in use. However, the first closed-circuit automobile race actually took place in 1896 at the Narragansett Trotting Park in Rhode Island.
Knoxville Raceway in Iowa, another former horse-racing track, has a rich history dating back to the late 1800s. While it didn’t host official races until 1914, an automobile race took place there as early as 1901. Today, it’s a revered venue known for the prestigious Knoxville Nationals.
In the early 1900s, Brunots Island near Pittsburgh was home to a one-mile dirt oval track where notable drivers like Louis Chevrolet competed. The track was also the site of Rex Reinersten’s tragic accident in 1907.
Among the oldest and most iconic racing circuits in the United States is the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indiana. Constructed in 1909, this 2.5-mile track is renowned for hosting the Indianapolis 500 and is the world’s largest sports venue in terms of seating capacity. Another historic track is the Thompson Speedway Motorsports Park in Connecticut, known for its asphalt-paved oval track.
The famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway, originally an unpaved track in 1909, became legendary for its brick-paved surface, introduced for the first Indianapolis 500 in 1911. The popularity of oval, banked board tracks surged in the United States in the 1920s, with both dirt and paved tracks being widely used before and after that decade.
History of Grand Prix Racing
The first French Grand Prix took place in 1906 at Le Mans, which later became famous for the 24 Hours of Le Mans race starting in 1923. The French Grand Prix occurred again in 1907 and 1908 but then paused until 1912.
The first Italian Grand Prix was in 1908. After World War I, racing picked up again with the French and Italian Grand Prix in 1921, followed by the Belgian Grand Prix in 1925, the German Grand Prix in 1926, and Monaco in 1929. The Monaco Grand Prix was the race that epitomized the glamour and prestige of motorsport. Held on the narrow, winding streets of Monte Carlo, the race presented a formidable challenge to drivers and became famous for its demanding circuit.
In 1904, the national clubs formed the Association Internationale des Automobiles Clubs Reconnus, which was renamed to Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) in 1946.
Each country’s cars were painted in a distinct color for identification: blue for France, red for Italy, white for Germany, and green for Britain. The races typically featured entries from manufacturers, with two or three professional drivers per team. The circuits were closed tracks, 5 to 6 km per lap, covering total distances from 250 to 650 km. Until 1934, French and Italian manufacturers mostly won, but in the late 1930s, German manufacturers took the lead.
Racing restarted in 1947, with British-made cars becoming dominant in the late 1950s. In 1950, a world championship for drivers began, counting points across about fifteen Grand Prix races, including those in Monaco, Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Britain, Germany, Italy, Mexico, South Africa, Canada, and the United States. A championship for Formula I car manufacturers started in 1955.
History of Rally Racing
Rally driving, which involves racing over designated routes with a navigator guiding the driver between checkpoints, started with the 1907 Peking-to-Paris race, covering about 12,000 km. The Monte-Carlo Rally, beginning in various locations, started in 1911 and continued, except during wartime.
Post-World War II, rallies gained immense popularity in Europe and globally, leading to the establishment of European and international championships by the FIA. Weekend rallies became widespread, ranging from local club events to larger organization-sponsored rallies.
In nearly all racing forms, speed has been a key focus, although safety concerns have moderated the increase in speeds. However, in Grand Prix racing, where tracks and curves vary, speeds are generally lower.
In the 1920s, land-speed record attempts moved from traditional tracks to specialized desert or beach areas. Vehicles were specifically designed for breaking records, including the use of jet engines. At one point, a three-wheeled vehicle aiming for a record had to be certified by the Fédération Internationale Motorcycliste, as the FIA refused certification.
The Targa Florio, which began in 1906 in Sicily, was the oldest sports car racing event and part of the World Sportscar Championship from 1955 to 1973. The 1930s marked a shift from high-priced road cars to dedicated racers. Brands like Alfa Romeo, Auto Union, Bugatti, Delage, Delahaye, and Mercedes-Benz developed streamlined cars with powerful engines, sometimes aided by supercharging.
On February 21, 1948, Bill France Sr. founded NASCAR and held its first “Strictly Stock” race on June 19, 1949, in Daytona Beach, Florida. The Strictly Stock division was temporarily paused due to a post-World War II surge in demand for family sedans, which manufacturers struggled to meet.
American, European, and International Racing in the 1930s to 1950s
Automobile racing took different paths in Europe and North America until the 1950s, when Grand Prix racing became a global phenomenon. In the US, racing primarily involved speedway track racing, with tracks ranging from half-mile dirt tracks to the 2.5-mile Indianapolis 500 track.
Stock-car racing, which began in the 1930s in Daytona Beach, Florida, later transitioned to tracks. NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) became the major governing body when it was established in 1947.
Drag racing, a form of hot-rod racing focusing on rapid acceleration over a quarter-mile strip, originated in the 1930s in Southern California. Initially based on modified stock cars, these vehicles evolved into highly specialized machines. The sport, which spread rapidly post-World War II, led to the founding of the National Hot Rod Association in 1951. It gained international recognition from the FIA in 1965 and spread to countries like Australia, New Zealand, Canada, England, Germany, Italy, Japan, and Sweden.
Midget car racing started in the US in the 1940s, followed by kart racing in the 1950s. Kart racing expanded internationally, with competitions beginning in the 1960s. Sports car racing, both amateur and professional, gained popularity in the US in the late 1930s, initially with European cars. The Sports Car Club of America, founded in 1944, and the Canadian Automobile Sports Committee, founded in 1951, oversee these activities. While amateur members mainly participate in local events, professional races attract more public interest.
Off-road racing, starting in the 1960s in the western US deserts and in Baja California, Mexico, includes notable races like the Baja 500 and the Mexican 1000-mile race.
Unlike many countries, the US does not have a single body governing automobile racing. Various racing types have their own governing bodies, which are part of the Automobile Competition Committee for the United States-FIA, an advisory and liaison group.
Perhaps the most significant development in post-war motorsport was the Formula One World Championship in 1950. This marked the beginning of a globally recognized, standardized single-seater racing format. The first championship race took place at Silverstone in the UK, laying the foundation for what would become the pinnacle of motorsport.
Early F1 saw the dominance of teams like Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, and later Mercedes-Benz and Maserati. Cars like the Alfa Romeo 158 and the Mercedes-Benz W196 were among the era’s technological marvels, equipped with supercharged engines and sleek designs.
Sports Car Racing, GT Racing, and Hybrid Car Racing
After World War II, sports car racing became a distinct category with classic races and its own World Championship from 1953. NASCAR’s Strictly Stock Division was renamed to “Grand National” in 1950, evolving over a decade into purpose-built race cars with a stock appearance.
In the 1960s, GT cars overshadowed sports cars, leading the FIA to focus on the International Championship for GT Manufacturers. The same decade saw a reduction in dirt races due to the construction of superspeedways and the paving of old tracks.
The 1950s and 1960s also saw the rise of powerful hybrid cars, combining European chassis with large American engines. This era birthed the Can-Am series in North America, featuring lightweight sports cars with potent engines, and the Clubman’s races provided entertainment at the club-racing level.
Modern Era: Winston Cup and Other Championship Races
From 1976, Group 4 Grand Touring Cars and Group 5 Special Production Cars became the leading sports car racing categories. NASCAR’s last dirt track race occurred on September 30, 1970. In 1972, the Winston Cup Series began, marking the start of NASCAR’s “modern era.”
In Europe, the FIA adopted the ACO GTP rules for the Group C World Endurance Championship, featuring high-tech prototypes. The IMSA Camel GTP series in the US mirrored the Group C cars but with varied regulations. In the early 1990s, the FIA tried to align Group C with Formula 1 formats.
The IMSA GT Championship, focusing on prototypes since 1983, contrasted with the Australian Production Car Championship, which started in 1987. The same year saw the first World Touring Car Championship. The 1990s witnessed a surge in the popularity of the Winston Cup Series, alongside a decline in American Championship Car Racing.
Group B rally cars, introduced in 1982, became a major category alongside Group N and Group A. The IMSA GT Series evolved into the American Le Mans Series in 1999, paralleled by the European Le Mans Series. The SCCA World Challenge combined multiple classes in hour-long races.
NASCAR’s dominance grew, and the split of the IndyCar Series from CART in 1996 emphasized oval tracks in domestic open-wheel racing.
The history of racing is a fascinating journey through innovation, courage, and the relentless pursuit of speed. From the dangerous and rudimentary road races of the early 20th century to today’s highly sophisticated and technologically advanced motorsport events of today – racing has continuously evolved. It has not only pushed the boundaries of automotive engineering but has also captured the imagination of millions around the world.