The First ever US Grand Prize

Its F1 in the US of A week and here’s another good article I’ve found on my travels from (abridged)

A Grand Prize?

If asked (outside the USA) what is the world’s foremost racing car series, most people would answer Formula 1. In its present format the series series consists of a yearly Grand Prix (French for Grand Prize) in each participating country though occasionally a countru has had 2 with the second being called ‘the Grand Prix of Europe’ or ‘Asia’. The Formula 1 series as one organised under the governance of the Federation Internationala de l’Automobile (FIA) only began in 1950.

However, the first Grand Prix – being country’s premier motorsport event – began long before that. The first one was held in 1906 near the city of Le Mans in France while the first U.S. GP was in 1908. A number of cities proposed hosting the first event, among them Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Atlanta. Even though Indianapolis offered considerable up-front money, the beautiful and picturesque Savannah, Georgia was selected by the Automobile Club of America (ACA).

08 Sav Wagner Mulford 620x520 History of the United States Grand Prix

Louis Wagner in his Fiat leading Ralph Mulford in his Lozier

The first one in the US

The race was scheduled for Thanksgiving Day 1908. It was run by the Savannah Automobile Club which had previously staged a stock-car event and the club planned a version of the 17-mile stock-car course lengthened to 25.13 miles. Georgia Governor M. Hoke Smith had convict labor re-surface the road with oiled gravel. The governor sent state militia personnel to help the city police with crowd control. First-aid stations were set up all around the course manned by 30 doctors. Some sixteen hundred marshals kept things under control.

The course was laid out on city streets south of the historic downtown district. A large spectator stand covered two entire blocks on Estill Avenue. Now named Victory Drive, its four lanes of cross-town traffic are lined with Savannah oak trees showered in Spanish moss.

It is reported over 250,000 people showed up to watch cars race for 402 miles over 16 laps. Horace Dodge and Henry Ford came to watch as well as the president of Firestone Tires, who slept in the city jail because all other accommodations were filled to capacity. Merchants and hoteliers were ecstatic.

Twenty cars from the U.S., Italy, France and Germany vied for the first American Grand Prize Cup. Entries came from all over the world including factory teams from Renault, Fiat and Benz. All the premier drivers of the time were there included Ralph DePalma in a Fiat and winner of the first Grand Prize winner in Le Mans, Ferenc Szisz in a Renault.

08 Sav start 620x396 History of the United States Grand Prix

Entrants in the 1908 Grand Prize at Savannah started at 30-second intervals. Len Zengle in his Acme is lined up ready to go. He retired after seven laps when a spring in his suspension broke.

The cars were started alone every 30 seconds because staggered starts were common at the time particularly in long-distance open-road events. DePalma led from the beginning, setting the fastest lap at 21:36.0, but then slowed with mechanical problems and finished in ninth overall. Rene Hanriot in his Benz took the lead until a slow pit stop allowed Louis Wagner in a Fiat to pass. He was closely followed by Victor Hemery in another Benz and Felice Nazzaro in a second Fiat.

A fierce duel took place with all three less than a minute apart, each taking the lead at one time or another. At the finish, Hemery was first, but because of the staggered start, Wagner, who had started six minutes after Hemery, was the actual winner. He covered the 16 laps in 6 hours, 10 minutes and 31.4 seconds. Hemery crossed the line 56.4 seconds later with Nazzaro third. After the race when Rene Hanriot backed up on the course to return to his pit, his tires were shot out by a member of the militia. American-built cars didn’t fare well; none managing to finish.

08 Sav Wagner winner 620x322 History of the United States Grand Prix

The winner of the first American Grand Prize at Savannah, Georgia was Frenchman Louis Wagner (at the wheel) in his 120 bhp Fiat.

US Grand Prize continues

After the successful Savannah event, the ACA planned to run a second one the following year on Long Island. It failed to materialize however, so the next race in the series was held at Savannah on November 12, 1910. A shorter 17-mile course was laid out. Victor Hemery in a Benz led off followed by Arthur Chevrolet.

Then Felice Nazzaro passed Chevrolet setting a lap record. Next Louis Wagner took the lead, but ran into a tree on the 17th lap. Ralph DePalma inherited first with David Bruce-Brown close behind. On the last lap, DePalma’s engine suffered a cracked cylinder allowing Bruce-Brown to pass and win. This time, more than a half million spectators crowded into the small city.

The 1911 Grand Prize was held again at Savannah and Bruce-Brown won again. When Savannah failed to come up with enough prize money, the 1912, the race moved to Milwaukee. (Not on the famous Milwaukee Mile which opened in 1903, but on a 7.88-mile road course on the outskirts of the city.) Unfortunately Bruce-Brown was killed there in practice. There was no American Grand Prize event in 1913. In 1914, it went to Santa Monica, California, then to San Francisco as part of the 1915 Worlds Fair and finally, back to Santa Monica again in 1916. That year marked the end of what was known as the Grand Prize era in the USA.

10 Sav Bruce Brown winner 620x291 History of the United States Grand Prix

David Bruce-Brown won the 1910 American Grand Prize at Savannah in his Fiat on November 12, 1910.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.