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The Amazing Race!

Give ’em fuel, give ’em fire! Before there was NASCAR or Formula One, “moto cycle” enthusiasts clamored to Chicago for America’s first car race.

Frank Duryea, left, in Chicago in 1895 to take part in the world’s first organized auto race. His “moto cycle” traveled about 10 mph.

These days the words “car race” conjure up a mental picture of a stadium full of rabid fans cheering on a fleet of otherworldly machines doing laps faster than the human eyeball can track. But when the Chicago Times-Herald held America’s first car race in Chicago in 1895, it was truly a different world. A high-speed affair? Not particularly. On the plus side, when a driver crashed—in this case into a horse!—it was far from a life-threatening situation.

In 1895, H.H. Kohlsaat, the publisher of the now long-defunct Chicago Times-Herald newspaper who conceived the event, didn’t even want it called a race. In his view, it was a demonstration.

His science reporter, Frederick “Grizzly” Adams, informed him that two years earlier Congress had given the Department of Agriculture a $10,000 grant to document how horrific American roads were. Adams also apprised Kohlsaat of motorized vehicle exhibitions in France, which had far better roads. The publisher, smelling a gimmick to sell papers, responded by announcing “A Prize for Motors” on July 9—a whopping $5,000 purse, more than $100,000 today. “That the horseless carriage has ‘arrived’ is beyond question,” wrote Kohlsaat. “But its availability to American roads is looked upon with skepticism. The horseless carriage will confer an incalculable benefit upon mankind if it shall hasten their construction.”

The event, set for Nov. 2, had relatively simple rules: all vehicles were required to have at least three wheels and be able to carry at least two people, one of whom would be an umpire chosen by the judges to ride alongside the driver. Nearly 100 entries poured in, including some from would-be inventors hitting up Kohlsaat for money to build their dream machines.

Ah, optimism. It’s a beautiful thing. However, of all those prospective competitors only a half-dozen vehicles had arrived in Chicago by race day, and most were not ready to run. Reluctantly, Kohlsaat postponed the contest until Thanksgiving Day, which fell on Nov. 28 that year, and, to avoid any heckling from his rival newspapers, he proposed a consolation challenge—$500 to anyone who could drive to Waukegan and back. Only two entrants accepted the test: brothers Charles and Frank Duryea of Springfield, Mass., who, like the Wright brothers, were a pair of bicycle builders with a passion for invention; and Oscar B. Mueller, operating the vehicle owned by his father, Hieronymus, a brass goods manufacturer in Decatur. Mueller’s auto was a Benz imported from Germany, forerunner to the Mercedes.

The gas-powered buggies started off smartly, but, in an ironic confrontation of new vs. old, Frank Duryea plunged into a ditch to avoid a horse-drawn wagon and severely damaged their machine. Mueller’s Benz won in a breeze. It wasn’t exactly NASCAR at Chicagoland Speedway, but the Nov. 2 exhibition was, in a sense, the first organized motor car race in the country, a year before Henry Ford sold his first Quadricycle.

Still, most onlookers’ attention was focused on the big Nov. 28 event. On Thanksgiving Eve, nearly a foot of thick, wet snow blanketed the city. Didn’t matter. “Race is a Certainty,” the Times-Herald headline declared. “Moto cycle test to-morrow… unfavorable weather conditions will have no effect upon this determination.” The road to Waukegan, miserable under perfect conditions, was deemed impassible; the course was shortened from Jackson Park to Evanston and back, about 54 miles. Eleven competitors said the night before they would run, but at 8:55am only six showed up at the starting line: the Duryeas, who had taken their damaged ride back to Massachusetts for miraculously fast repairs; Mueller; two gasoline-powered, three-wheeled Benz vehicles, including a promotional auto for Macy’s brought in from New York; and two electric cars.

The electrics weren’t expected to last long. They didn’t. The chilly conditions drained their crude batteries before they reached Lincoln Park. One of the Benzes took on a snowdrift at Washington Park and lost. The Macy entry crashed into the back of an Adams Street horsecar but endured until the Evanston turnaround. Nine hours into the race, only Frank Duryea and Mueller remained. Two people were in the Mueller vehicle, Mueller and the umpire, Charles King; a third passenger had fallen victim to exposure and been taken by sled to a hospital.

An exhausted Duryea avenged his earlier defeat, crossing the finish line at 7:18pm to a small throng of frozen fans. His blazing top speed? Just under 10 mph. “The motor had at all times shown ample power,” Duryea wrote in his autobiography, “and at no time were we compelled to get out and push.” Mueller arrived at Jackson Park nearly two hours later—or rather, King did. Mueller, felled by hunger and fatigue, had passed out, forcing the umpire to take the wheel.

Needless to say, the Times-Herald embellished the event on its next day’s front page. “Against tremendous odds, which perhaps demonstrated conclusively the practicability of the horseless carriage… through deep snow and along ruts that would have tried horses to their utmost, the moto cycles raced.”