These days, auto racing is one of the world’s most glamorous sports and racecars often reach speeds over 200 mph. We’ve come a long way since the first sanctioned automobile race ever, won by Frank Duryea with an average speed around 5.4 mph in 1895.
Piloting a 2.0L two-cylinder engine mounted to a used horse carriage of his own creation – years before Ford revolutionized the industry – Duryea won the 54-mile race from Chicago to Evanston, IL and back to claim a $2,000 prize sponsored by the Chicago Times-Herald. After several flat tires and stops for repairs, Duryea defeated five other competitors to cross the finish line first in a blazing time of ten hours. It ended the first gasoline-powered automobile race in U.S. history.
Duryea and his brother, Charles, were early automobile innovators that took their passion for bicycle mechanics and applied them to the burgeoning world of automobiles. The Brothers Duryea actually claim credit for the first gasoline-fueled automobile ever test driven in America, with their 1.0L engine and three-speed transmission mounted to another used horse carriage that they tested in September 1893 in Springfield, MA. The following year, Frank developed the 2.0L version that would enter him into the motorsports record books.
The race began under an Illinois snowstorm, so only the Duryea, two electric cars and three gasoline Mercedes-Benzes made the starting grid. In his autobiography, Duryea would later write that a Benz sponsored by Macy’s led the race all the way to Evanston, but there Duryea regained the lead that he would not relinquish. (The Macy’s Benz hit a streetcar and didn’t finish.)
Today, even the slowest car on the market would have blown the Duryea out of the water, and no one alive in 1895 could have envisioned how motorsports has progressed (this year's Indianapolis 500 took just over 2.5 hours).
But the Duryea brothers certainly made their mark, winning that fateful race and then becoming the largest American auto company when they produced 13 cars in 1896.