Joe Tracy & “Old 16”
In the practice days leading up to the 1906 Vanderbilt Cup newspaper coverage was plentiful as reporters looked for angles to localize event news relevant to their communities. A good example was when Indiana-born eye physician, Dr. J. Ray Newcomb took a demonstration ride with the great American hope entry, the Locomobile of driver Joe Tracy. The item was covered in the Indianapolis News, the Hoosier capital’s evening newspaper.
Locomobile was a Connecticut-based manufacturer of significance in these early days. Tracy was an Irish immigrant who Ray Harroun fans might relate to. He was at least as much of an engineer as a driver. His driving abilities enabled him to process data through a seat-of-the-pants input.
Tracy’s claim to fame centered on his success at the Vanderbilt Cup. American car companies were clearly behind the tech curve compared to the quality of product coming out of Europe. Tracy with Locomobile emerged as the only plausible American challenger when the boys from France, Germany and Italy came calling. The single best performance of his career was the 1905 Vanderbilt Cup when he finished third behind winner Victor Hemery of Darracq and American expat George Heath for Panhard, both French entries.
The expanse of the Atlantic was daunting and that hurdle at least marginally reduced the European impact. If Tracy and the Locomobile had ventured in the opposite direction it’s impossible to know how they would have fared. When they came to his house, though, he was ready for a brawl.
That’s not to say old Joe was a wild man. Not at all. Like Harroun, he was a calculating engineer and you can imagine his brain working like a digital processor assessing all the inputs like fuel burn, tire wear and changing track conditions. A lot of his work was in grooming the Locomobile so he knew how hard to push it — and not beyond its limits.
The Locomobile was capable of snaring a third against literally the world’s best racing machines. The next year, 1906, Tracy picked off victory in the American Elimination race — the qualifier for representing the United States in this Olympic-style international competition. Obviously restricted to American cars the competition was third rate and not a real test. Still, Tracy and the team could be proud of their status as the great American power.
In 1906 the high expectations for Locomobile were unfulfilled. Joe stumbled to tenth place, the victim of inferior American rubber in the form of Diamond Tires. The dirt and macadam Long Island public roads course was muddy after days of rain. The bright spot was that Tracy busted off the race’s fastest lap. It was one of those now never-talked-about, what-could-have-been stories of the Heroic Age. Locomobile wasn’t even the top-placing American entry as that distinction went to Thomas of Buffalo, New York with a seventh.
The 1906 Vanderbilt Cup was a tragic race when the inevitable finally happened and a spectator, Curt Gruner, was killed when struck by the French Hotchkiss racer of another American expat, Elliott Shepard Jr. The unguarded roads had been swamped with onlookers strolling onto the running surface even during the heat of competition. The tragedy forced Founder William K. Vanderbilt Jr. and the American Automobile Association (AAA) to reassess everything.
They hatched a plan to build a private, paved road course. That project not only failed to meet milestone deadlines in time to host a race in 1907, but morphed into a relatively narrow point-to-point concrete highway. It was destined to at best provide but a few miles of the race course from 1908 through the last Long Island production in 1910. There was no race in 1907.
In the interim Joe Tracy retired. When the Vanderbilt Cup was renewed in 1908 Tracy was still consulting Locomobile but a young lead-foot with a penchant for excessive exuberance — George Robertson — had taken his place in the driver’s seat. Robertson was to become known as the first American driver in an American car to prevail in the face of international competition.
The truth falls somewhat short of that lofty assertion. In a complicated story of egos clashing across sanctioning bodies, a civil war between the AAA and its rival Automobile Club of America (ACA) changed the game -and not for the better. The dispute centered on which group was recognized by the world governing body, the FIA in France, as the true American steward of international contests.
A compromise was struck as the ACA took responsibility for U.S.-based races deemed “international,” and the AAA handled domestic contests. This relegated the Vanderbilt Cup to national status and while marques from Europe were allowed to compete there was strict governance that none be factory-backed.
Vanderbilt and his cronies scrapped together a respectable field of entries, but also one that was something of a shadow of those in previous editions. Still, Robertson prevailed and there was cause for celebration. His name rose to prominence but the credit for developing the Locomobile — which still survives today as a museum piece known as “Old 16” — goes overwhelmingly to Joe Tracy.
Tracy’s engineering savvy provided him with a good, long life extending from 1873 to 1959. In 1906 he was at the peak of his powers as a driver and as a celebrity. That’s why giving a prominent physician a ride in his marvelous race car was newsworthy.
So, we’ve come full circle, haven’t we? Thanks for hanging in there as it was perhaps as circuitous as the 29.7-mile 1906 Vanderbilt Cup course. Hey, if you are up for it, this is just the starting line. This is the beginning of a journey that puts you at the steering wheel of First Super Speedway. The green flag just waved so stomp on it, click thru and keep on clicking!