Hoosier Hysteria for Auto Races — 1907

A Premier Motor Manufacturing Company stock race car in 1907. Premier was based in Indianapolis.

Regionalism in the United States was evident in the early days of the automobile industry. There was the Euro-centric northeast and clusters of factories in “the west,” particularly in Detroit, Indianapolis and scattered around Ohio cities.

The influence of the advanced European manufacturers such as Mercedes and Benz (two separate companies until 1926) as well as Fiat and a host of French firms was most keenly felt in the huge market, metropolitan area of New York. This was reflected in the intentions of William K. Vanderbilt Jr. when he founded America’s first major auto race, the Vanderbilt Cup.

The race’s first three runnings were on improvised circuits of Long Island public roads, never identical but each in excess of 20 miles. Vanderbilt, who proudly owned a Mercedes racer, devised the contest to cast a light on the troublesome gap between European technology and that found in America. He quickly proved the point as the Europeans dominated.

George Heath stormed to victory for France’s Panhard in the inaugural run and then Darracq won handily the following two years. In the second race of 1905, Vincenzo Lancia had the field covered with his Fiat until needlessly putting himself in harm’s way and colliding with J. Walter Christie’s front-wheel drive “freak” racer.

The most patriotic would argue Bridgeport, Connecticut’s Locomobile factory put up a credible fight but the real story is that the car was the best among the also-rans: the Americans. Meanwhile, out west in Indianapolis and Detroit regional automotive cultures emerged that proved fateful for the destinies of the companies involved.

In Detroit far and away the most influential leader was the tough, impenetrable Henry Ford, a man who had, by 1907, built a very promising company clearly on the ascendancy. Ford had raced years earlier, even setting a world speed record for the measured mile with a January outing across frozen Lake St. Claire in the famous “999” purpose-built wood and iron race car of his design. He had also gotten the better of rival car maker Alexander Winton in a match race on the Grosse Pointe, Michigan dirt horse track in 1901.

Ford eventually developed the opinion that focusing on performance in racing was a distraction. While he did not abandon the sport entirely, he hired driver Frank Kulick to compete in events for low horsepower stock cars. Ford’s attention turned to high-volume economy of scale manufacture. He expanded the market for cars by making them relatively simple to use and the cheapest the average consumer could find.

Others in Detroit participated in motorsport — such as Buick and Lozier but also soon the real captains understood Ford’s formula of mass production and scale. An early player was the flamboyant William “Billy” Crapo Durant who assembled an awesome Buick race team in 1909. Durant’s ways were not embraced by his board who ousted him. While Billy rebounded after founding Chevrolet with its namesake Louis Chevrolet, he seemed to learn his lesson and gravitated to the Ford model.

Meanwhile the industry in Indianapolis held strong to the performance car approach. Major players there were Marmon, National, Premier, Marion and later Stutz. Further north in Kokomo were Apperson and Haynes. Some of the better known leaders of these companies were Walter and Howard Marmon, Elmer and Edgar Apperson, H.O. Smith (Premier) and Arthur Calvin Newby of the National Motor Vehicle Company.

In 1907 Newby, who later went on to found the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with three partners, and Smith led a push to establish a contest for Indiana-built stock cars as a support event for the Vanderbilt Cup. The big news out of Long Island was the intention of Vanderbilt and his circle to build America’s first modern highway — the Long Island Motor Parkway — and use the concrete-paved platform to stage the big race.

The parkway project was hampered by the inevitable unanticipated challenges of any new venture, such as haggling over rights-of-way through hundreds of acres of farmland. There was no Vanderbilt Cup in 1907 and consequently no support race.

Hoosier automotive leadership forged ahead. Soon Newby, Smith and Edgar Apperson led a charge to start an Indiana road race in 1908. Those logistics were complicated as well. When they heard promises that the obstacles to the Long Island Motor Parkway construction were ironed out, they pulled back.

There was a Vanderbilt Cup race in 1908 as well as a stock car support race for cars from anywhere in the world. That event was called the Long Island Motor Parkway Sweepstakes. Again, Europeans dominated with Isotta, Renault and Itala taking the top three finishing places overall.

Still, the Indiana auto industry leadership wanted more. This was part of the energy behind the development of the famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway the following year in 1909. There was also the Cobe Trophy with the Chicago Auto Club in and around Crown Point, Indiana in June 1909 — Indiana’s first major auto race.

The connecting thread to all these developments was that in this different age regional cultures fostered differing attitudes and approaches to advancing the emerging technology of the new century. Detroit auto makers soon followed Ford’s lead and focused on the economy of scale needed in production to become the low cost providers to the world. It became part of that region’s industry culture.

Meanwhile, the Indiana firms struggled and eventually were on the wrong end of the inevitable shakeout. As industries mature there is less and less room for marginal players. Some found niches or survived as brands within acquiring companies. For example, Marmon survives today as part of the Marmon-Herrington Group, makers of specialty parts such as durable axles for heavy trucks.

Vestiges of the Indiana auto industry remain with players like Honda, Toyota, Allison Transmission, Remy, Cummins and Firestone in the mix. Another example is the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as well as the drag race facility once known as Indianapolis Raceway Park. The Indiana State Fairgrounds dirt oval still hosts significant races and other short tracks are scattered across the state. All are evidence of the extensive history of Hoosier passion for motorsport.

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