As humans, competition runs deep within our nature. We have raced horses, carriages, and invented a whole slew of weird ways to outdo one another. From big events such as NASCAR to the rather obscure lawnmower racing, vehicle competitions have excited us for ages. But how long exactly?

This November, at Thanksgiving, it would be 125 years since the first automotive race in US history. That’s right, people raced each other in cars all the way back in 1895. To put things in perspective, that is even before Ford Model T – the first mass-market car.

Join me in this post, as I dive into the history behind this first US race and see how it sparked a whole industry of competitions. Hold tight and enjoy the ride!

What was the first automotive race in the US?

With the development of the engine, people had the instant idea to check out just what their inventions were capable of. But don’t get your hopes up!

That first motor competition, called Chicago Times-Herald Race, was a course of 54 miles with just six cars. Interestingly enough, two of those ran on electricity (talk about EV racing!). Out of all six though, only two ever completed the race, with the winner, Frank Duryea, taking more than 10 hours to do so!

Of course, you cannot really expect much of vehicles with a top speed of 7.5 mph. Still, pause for a second. Just imagine what it feels like driving in an open car saloon for hours on a cold November day in the Midwest. At least Duryea won a $2,000 prize (which amounts to about $62,000 when adjusted for inflation) and a gold medal.

Nowadays, the finish marker for the race receives a lot of attention on its own. It is actually a rock that gathers around 100 vehicles each year on Thanksgiving day to remember that initial race. But things go even deeper.

automotive racing in the US
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How did the Chicago Times-Herald Race come to be?

Though we like to make up ways to compete, the idea for this race did not come out of thin air. It was meant to be the American answer to the world’s first competitive motor race – Paris-Rouen. That one actually took place around Paris in July 1894.

The event received a lot of media attention, with many who wanted to try their cars in it. Plus, there were car exhibitions during the days prior to the event. We can even say that the Paris-Rouen race set the ground for an entire culture around racing competitions.

After the European race, H.H. Kolsaat (the publisher of the Times-Herald) saw an opportunity to pioneer the same thing in the States. However, his plans were a bit too grand. Though he wanted the race to take place during the summer, preparations took a lot longer, pushing the date all the way to the 28th of November 1895. Yet that misfortune turned out to be a blessing in disguise!

Why the first US car race was a great achievement

Modern vehicle competitions require a lot of effort and usually have very complex logistics. For example, do you know how Formula 1 travels the world? They have to consider not just vehicles, but equipment, tools, and other essentials.

Nonetheless, people in 1895 had a whole different set of challenges to face. Mass production of cars had yet to be developed, and every single vehicle was hand-crafted. You could even make your own, provided you knew how and had the parts. In fact, such cars made up the whole roster of vehicles in that first US race.

We have to note that actually three of the gas-powered cars were not even American, but were built by Karl Benz. Only the winning vehicle had the American Duryea behind it. As for those two EVs I mentioned, they both failed in the cold weather and could not even finish the race.

However, this race proved two very important things. Firstly, that the US can actually compete on the world racing stage. Secondly, that races could be held during cold weather, although some more preparations had to be considered. And from then on, not only the US but the universal racing stage entered a new chapter in its development.

Would you like to visit “The Rock”?

If you want to commemorate that first automotive race in the US, you can do so at “The Rock”. You can find it at 60th and Cornell in Jackson Park. Granted, this year may be a bit tough, because of all the craziness, but even if not now, considered it as a “maybe” sometime in the future.

That being said, there are plenty of other vehicle competitions that also deserve your attention. If you want to scratch that itch and learn a bit more about one such, check out our article on Formula DRIFT!


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