The Early History of Car Racing

The first ever automobile competition was organised in 1894 in France, following the invention of the internal-combustion engine, (a gasoline-fueled engine), in the 1880s, the most notable milestone that gave impetus to automobile racing. The race was a reliability test that covered about 80 kilometres, from Paris to Rouen. On average, the race was won at the speed of 16 kilometres per hour. The following year (1895) witnessed the first ever true race, which covered a distance of 1178 kilometres, from France’s capital to Bordeaux, then back. The average winning speed was 24.15 kilometres per hour.

In the United States, the first organised car racing competition took place on Thanksgiving Day of 1895. The race, which covered 87 kilometres, started from Chicago, all the way to Evanston, and back. The sponsors of these early races were mainly newspapers, for the purposes of promotion.

Back in the day, town-to-town or France-to-other-countries races were common in Europe. It was not until 1903 that the European authorities saw it appropriate to stop the run from Paris to Madrid at Bordeaux, as a result of multiple accidents that had marred the competition.

In 1898, the Course de Perigueux, the first ever closed-circuit race, which covered a distance of 145 kilometres was held. This form of racing would later become so prominent in many European countries, save for Wales, Scotland, and England.

By 1900, races could be won at average speeds of above 80 kilometres per hour. These high speeds meant that car racing would pose a real danger to livestock, spectators, and even the racers themselves, especially when using roads that were not explicitly designed for car racing. As a result, road races decreased significantly, with the Mille Miglia being the most notable exception. However, the Mille Miglia was also stopped, later on in 1957.

Modern international car racing began when James Gordon Bennett donated a trophy for annual competitions by automobile clubs from different countries, including France, Ireland, and Germany. The first Bennett Trophy was organised by the Automobile Club de France in 1900. The club would go on to arrange the competition in 1901, and also in 1902. The tournament was later held in Ireland in 1903, and then Germany in 1904. In 1906, the French car manufacturers boycotted the competition, a protest statement that showed their unwillingness to be restricted to just three cars. As a result, the French Grand Prix Race was established that year, at Le Mans.