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First Racecar

Human nature being what it is, the first racecar in history appeared very shortly after the first gasoline powered cars were invented. In 1885, Gottlieb Daimler invented the precursor of what was to be the modern car engine. He first used it in a two-wheeled vehicle and the following year built the first four-wheeled gas fueled vehicle in the world. In 1886, the first patent for a gasoline fueled car was granted to Karl Benz. Of course, once there were cars, there had to be a way to prove which was the best and what better way than to let the contenders fight it out in a race?

First Race Car the de Dion-Bouton

Thus it was, that in 1887, the editor in chief of a small Paris magazine, dedicated to human powered vehicles (in other words bicycles) announced a car race to be held over a distance of about a mile and a quarter, between the bridge at Neuilly-sur-Seine and the Bois de Boulogne. This race is usually given the much grander title of the Paris-Versailles race but that doesn't alter the fact that it was just a short walk from start to finish.

The first racecar in history turned up on the appointed day, April 28th 1887 that had been organized by Monsieur Fossier. The editor in chief of "Le Velocipede" had extended an open invitation to all comers to enter. A car manufactured by the partnership of engineer Georges Bouton (1847-1938) and enthusiast Count Jules-Albert de Dion (1856-1946) turned up at the appointed hour on the start line. Driven by Bouton, the de Dion-Bouton automobile company's car (pictured above) was the only entrant in the race, so, in horse-racing parlance, it was a walk-over. To Georges' credit, he crossed the finish line at a breakneck speed of just over 37 miles per hour.

Many consider that the first true race was the one that took place some seven years later, from Paris to Rouen - a distance of just under 80 miles. This race was organized by another editor in chief, M. Pierre Giffard of the newspaper "Le Petit Journal" - media sponsorship is clearly as old as motorsport itself. Safety and economy were uppermost in the minds of the organizers and out of a total of 102 original entries, 69 turned up to a qualifying event over 50 kilometers that slimmed the field down to 25 finalists.

Once again, first past the post was a De Dion vehicle, this time with the Count himself behind the wheel. Unfortunately, since he was driving a steam car that needed the services of a stoker, he was not declared the winner.

That honor went to Georges Lemaitre in a Peugeot (pictured). Quite how De Dion could get as far as crossing the finishing line in first place before being told the rules takes some understanding. The conversation must have been interesting.

Georges Lemaitre in a Peugeot

The first race in the United States was in 1895 and featured 83 entries but only 7 made it to the starting line. The race was 54 miles round trip between Chicago and Evanston, Illinois. One electric car couldn't start the race and the other electric car could only travel 11 miles. Three Benz vehicles started the race along with a car built by Charles Duryea.

Two motorcycles started the race but dropped out unable to climb some of the steep grades in the race. This left the gasoline-powered automobiles to compete. Two Benzes dropped out for various reasons which left one Benz and the Duryea to finish the race.

Duryea Car
The Duryea started out fast, then was passed by the Benz going to Evanston. The Duryea took the lead on the return trip and finished the race first winning the $2,000 prize money. The Duryea, then is acknowledged as the first winning race car in the United States.

So, even though the first racecar in history may not have had the glory that goes with winning a full-blown competitive race, it is, at least, remembered for its pioneering achievement. The spirit shown by the magazine's editor in chief, by the engineer and by the enthusiastic Count De Dion is the same as that seen today with all involved in NASCAR, Formula 1 and all other motorsport races. Long may that spirit live on.