American Racing: A Diversity of Innovation

American Racing: A Diversity of Innovation

American automobile racing has a century-long history of grass-roots invention. Its history begins with the American-European rivalry that characterized early auto racing and progresses to uniquely American forms of racing. Some forms of racing are dominated by big budgets and sophisticated engineering. Others are enjoyed by people of modest means with little formal engineering education.

The Simplex Crew

The Simplex Crew

Lozier auto race

Lozier auto race

The business side of racing shows the changing role of marketing and consumerism and the rise of the sponsored professional racing team. Alternative competitions, such as those inspired by the energy shortages of the 1980s, highlight other kinds of engineering ingenuity. Finally, American racing includes the evolution of the racing athlete from the demanding skills of a bicyclist to the endurance tests of modern automobile racing.

Henry Ford racing Alexander Winton

Henry Ford racing Alexander Winton

Frank Duryea at the wheel of his racecar

Frank Duryea at the wheel of his racecar

Europe vs. America

Sporting European gentlemen, rather than profit-motivated US commercial enterprises, dominated the economics and rules of European sports-car and overseas Formula racing through the 1950s. Until the 1930s, closed tracks in Europe were rare, and many races were held on open roads between cities, or on twisting, multi-cornered courses on public roads or through city streets. City to city races were considered more fun and sporting.

Many racers paid for their own cars and mechanics, and so there was little need for sponsors who might make demands on wealthy car owners or racing teams organized directly by manufacturers. Public safety or noise concerns were afterthoughts. Most long-distance sports-car races could be watched for free, although viewers along the road could only see the cars for the instant they zoomed past. Paying spectators were few. The open-wheeled Formula cars raced more often on closed courses, but still on twisting courses several miles long, where viewing was usually difficult and most guests were upper class.

The First Auto Race in America

The First Auto Race in America

Charles E. Duryea sitting in the winning auto

Charles E. Duryea sitting in the winning auto

The first auto race in America was a city-to-city round trip race.

On Thanksgiving Day 1895, several intrepid motorists braved the snow to race from Chicago to Evanston, Illinois, and back

A Duryea motor “road wagon” won the race. The vehicle was powered by a 2-cylinder, opposed, water-cooled motor of 4 hp. It had a maximum speed of 20 mph, but it averaged only 7.5 mph during the race.

In the US oval tracks became more popular than open-road racing because the tracks allowed large paying crowds to watch all the action from a safer distance.

Oval tracks stemmed from bicycle racing, and later, from motorcycle racing on highly-banked, circular or oval velodromes. In the early days of the 20th century, velodromes made of wooden boards laid longitudinally were very popular because the resulting track was smooth and fast.

This race of Miller vehicles took place on August 19, 1928 in Altoona, Pennsylvania. Note the boards used on the race.
First auto race on a track in the United States.

First auto race on a track in the United States.

Line up of cars at Altoona

Line up of cars at Altoona. This race of Miller vehicles took place on August 19, 1928 in Altoona, Pennsylvania. Note the boards used on the race track.

The rules of racing

Each racing category has its distinctive competitive goal, each with its own design rules. The rules dictate vehicle specifications such as engine size, overall weight, body style, chassis arrangement, dimensional restrictions, and permitted technical add-ons. American racing has become codified in these rules, but the rules are always changing. The history of American racing and the wide diversity in forms of racing can be traced through the changing rules.

The rules sometimes changed for technical reasons, and sometimes for economic reasons. Some sets of rules are ordained by closely held governing bodies. Other sets of rules are established by elected governing boards or by larger, national or international organizing bodies (similar in structure to Olympic governance). In every case, however, the power to set rules comes from those who own the tracks or have the most money supporting the competitions.

Miller “91” Packard Cable Special Race Car

Miller “91” Packard Cable Special Race Car

Any set of codified rules creates a particular design envelope within which creative and well-funded players continually press limits, seek better design of component parts, and sometimes find a technical avenue not anticipated in the rules and thus prevail. By its nature, racing is out-and-out competition—technological as well as on the track.

Throughout racing history, changes in the rules—for engine size, supercharging (or banning thereof), chassis details, overall sizes and styles, fuel capacities—were frequent. Usually, when one participant or racing team started to dominate their races, those who collectively had more sponsorships at risk or who owned the tracks saw to it that the rules were changed to better equalize the chances of winning. Then the cycle began again.

An example of corporate sponsors forcing a rules change comes with our 1929 Miller “91” supercharged, front-wheel-drive car for the Indy 500.

The Miller was so fast that it began to dominate Indianapolis-type racing. The Detroit car makers threatened to pull out of the Indy 500, because it was too expensive to compete with the hand-crafted ‘high-tech’ of the exotic Harry Miller cars.

The track owner and Indy organizers changed the rules to “outlaw” superchargers and to change the size of the engines permitted in Indy cars. End of Miller dominance; welcome back, Detroit sponsors.

Drag racing

'Big Daddy' Don Garlits and his Swamp Rat XXX

'Big Daddy' Don Garlits and his Swamp Rat XXX. This top fuel drag racing car was the first to exceed 270 mph.

Drag racing—the straight dash over 1/4 of a mile from a standing start for the shortest elapsed time—is a form of racing unique to the US.

The form grew directly from illegal match racing on rural roads by high-schoolers in the postwar 1940s-early 1950s. Teenagers, “souping up” their rebuilt cars, wanted to show off their mechanical skills. The most objective way was the standing-start race of two cars over an identical short distance.

The arbitrary distance of 1/4-mile came, according to one version of the story from the fact that it was easily measured on a straight stretch of rural road and because a longer distance would be unnecessarily dangerous.

Many worked-over old cars could hit nearly 100 mph in “the quarter.”

Mass market novels such as Hot Rod made the hot-rodding phenomenon seem like a widespread form of youth rebellion. Its lurid cover glamorized speed and mobility even as the content warned of the terrible consequences of dangerous driving.

'Hot Rod,' by Henry Gregor Felson, 1950

'Hot Rod,' by Henry Gregor Felson, 1950

In the early 1950s promoters built legal drag-racing strips. With little investment, an organizer could lay just over 1/2-mile of asphalt in two wide lanes (the extra length for the prep and burn-in apron at the starting end together with an over-run beyond the finish line), add some bleachers, add timing apparatus, and go into business on sunny weekends. Local law enforcement authorities were pleased that such tracks gave the drivers a legal, and safer, place to race. Teenage mechanics and drivers proudly brought their cars to the “strips” to prove their mettle in fair competition. And if they failed to win, they worked on their cars some more and tried again the following week. The bulk of fans have always been those who have had experience working on their own cars

Rules served teenage enthusiasms and teenage views of fairness. The result was a form of racing with just a few basic classes to accommodate modified production cars raced by amateur owners and also to accommodate highly specialized, purpose-built dragsters mostly run (today) by professional teams.

Acceleration was and is the only value. Briefer and briefer elapsed times, the goal; shaving weight and boosting power any way possible, the means. Cars with comparable kinds of bodies ran in match races, with few restrictions on engine, chassis, and drive-train modifications that owners could try.

The motivating idea—and the quality that still attracts the die-hard enthusiasts for the form—is the “no holds barred” expression of sheer power deftly.

Rules have changed over the years to accommodate technical changes, such as fiberglass bodies, and additional safety improvements, such as roll cages and fire suppression to protect the driver.

Drag racing is not as widely popular with the public as Indy or NASCAR. It is, perhaps, more a mechanics’ form of racing rather than a drivers’ form—but any enthusiast will rightly point out the skills of the drivers of such high-powered cars, the fastest of which now exceed 300 mph in “the quarter”—a far cry indeed from the drag race depicted in Rebel Without a Cause.

Open-wheeled racing

Eliminating fenders on race cars started in order (1) to make it easier to cool the poor brakes on early race cars, (2) to reduce significantly the weight of the car by allowing a narrower body (lower weight allowing the fastest acceleration with a given engine size or power output), and (3) to facilitate quick changes of wheels/tires during stops during longer races. The latter two virtues are still true, and “no-fenders” is still part of the rules for Indy cars and for internationally organized Formula cars. Dirt-track “Sprint” cars and many other grass-roots forms unique to the US also frequently follow the no-fenders rule.

STP Hawk No. 2

STP Hawk No. 2

Closed car racing and the rise of NASCAR

Daytona Beach, Florida, has been a hallowed venue of American racing since the early 1900s. The problem with the beach (as seen by the race organizers) was that too many spectators could see the races without paying, albeit from a farther distance than those who paid. The problem with the beach (as seen by the racers) was that you sometimes ended up in the waves.
Alexander Winton in the

Alexander Winton in the "Bullet No. 1"

The 'Woggle Bug'

The 'Woggle Bug'"

'Black Hawk' in the surf

'Black Hawk' in the surf

Wreck of Frank Croker's 'Simplex Special'

Wreck of Frank Croker's 'Simplex Special'

Bill France, Sr. created NASCAR in 1948 when he set up sprints for closed cars at Daytona Beach, Florida. The cars kept their stock bodies intact (thus keeping costs down for owners and drivers). But “souping-up” of the engines and some chassis changes (such as stiffer springs) were permitted. France organized the races and enforced his rules. The popularity of closed-car, “jalopy” racing soared, particularly in the South, then spread to the Northeast and West. But if the best competitors across the country wanted to race at Daytona, they had to follow France’s rules.

The great appeal of closed-car racing was the stock appearance of the cars to the car-loving general American public. Money came from entry fees. Commercial sponsorships from auto-related companies both local and national of the participating race-car teams encouraged ever greater entry fees. The saying quickly arose among Detroit auto manufacturers whose cars the public saw racing: “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday.” Such fees allowed France to build a paved, oval “superspeedway” at Daytona, forsaking the beach. The track could handle many more cars in each race and more spectators in the stands.

Some years later, France took ownership of the then fastest oval track for stock cars, in Talledega, Alabama. With two premier stock-car tracks in hand, France and NASCAR held sway over rule-setting. Other track operators actually benefited from this “benevolent rule” because the standardized rules facilitated more and more racing on a national scale. The rules became detailed, ensuring that cars of different makes were fairly equal in performance. This produced close, exciting races sure to draw big crowds.

The France family still controls NASCAR, with a small board selected by the family. Car owners and drivers have little say. Rules are enforced with a thorough-going integrity, and there are few disputes about them: too much is at stake economically. NASCAR has the most intricate and extensive set of rules of any racing form. NASCAR finishes are probably the closest, with many different winners during a season.

Richard Petty's Stock Car

NASCAR cars are purpose-built, all-out racers; there are no longer ANY parts taken from production passenger cars, not even parts of the body. Even the headlights are just decals! Body shape, overall weight, engine details, fuel systems, suspension details, wheel design, fuel capacity and refueling technique, etc., are exhaustively codified. The purpose is overt: to equalize the competitors as much as possible.

In the 1970s, consumer-product companies began to realize the sales promotion opportunities with stock-cars running in front of millions of spectators, both those attending races and watching on television. Consumer-product sponsors of race teams entered the scene in droves. Money flowed at unprecedented levels and brought NASCAR to its present level, challenging to become the country’s second most popular spectator sport.

Sports-car racing

Sports-car racing crossed the pond to the US in the 1950s, as prosperous Americans bought European-made sports cars. In Europe, commercially built tracks proliferated—but with the multiple curves of the traditional road courses. Upper-middle-class and wealthier US sports-car racers wanted the same kind of twisting courses, and these men laid out many of the earliest on abandoned Air Force fields from World War II. In the US and Europe, many classes of sports-car racing developed, with most classes based on production European cars and.racing under rules codified for a given range of engine size and total car weight, and separate classes for street-legal production cars and for all-out, purpose-built race cars run by very wealthy owners only on tracks.

The regionalized and fairly democratic Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) regulates the sports-car racing of wealthy amateur racers in their own interest. Professional sports-car racing is dominated by manufacturers, through the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) and recently the “Le Mans Series,” owned by Don Panoz, the race-car builder and owner of the premier sports-car track, in Sebring, FL. Yet the codified rules, and classes, never stop changing. Some organizing bodies of professionally run, ‘prototype’ sports cars have failed during the last several decades, due to inability to generate enough ticket-buying fans to economically survive. Such bodies, if they have little money, have little power to set uniform rules, and so new bodies arise funded by such as Panoz which are free to set new rules.

Not just for speed

General Motors 'SunRaycer'

View object record

General Motors 'SunRaycer'

Because of their popularity, and because winning a race requires both technological expertise and athletic skill, manufacturers and others have used races to develop—and publisize—new technologies.

In response to the energy crisis of the 1970s and 1980s, several organizations sponsored races where the prize went not to the fastest, but to the most energy-efficient. Other races required reliance on solar power.