The Age of the Auto

Sportsman William K. Vanderbilt II's cup race paves the way to the future

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As dawn began to break over the Hempstead Plains on a frosty October morning, the clustered crowds along Jericho Turnpike watched the great racing cars line up in their starting order.

The racecourse was ready. Street-sprinkling

carts had covered the roads with 90,000 gallons of petroleum to keep the dust down. William K. Vanderbilt II had arrived from the Garden City Hotel in his trademark white Mercedes, and a half-dozen men pushed the first car, a red Mercedes, to the starting line.

At 6 a.m., the starter yelled ``Go!'' and the red car lurched forward. The crowd roared. An overly imaginative newspaper reporter wrote of ``a crash of exploding oil'' and flames reaching out from the sides of the car. Two minutes later, the next car was off.

It was Oct. 8, 1904. The age of the automobile had arrived on Long Island.

The Long Island Rail Road had run full trains all night long to bring the curious to the Vanderbilt Cup Race, the first international auto race in the United States. ``Almost everyone who could afford a holiday took it,'' one newspaper reported, and some onlookers arrived on horses that ``chafed impatiently on the bit, as if longing for a test of speed with these new things that man had made to take their place.''

The first Vanderbilt Cup Race was not just a test of race cars, it was an event that would popularize the automobile like no other. Drivers from all over the world fighting for a silver Tiffany cup for nearly 300 miles excited the imaginations of the horse-and-wagon populace. And the races that followed would leave a legacy: the first concrete highway in the United States was built after the 1906 race left a spectator dead and Vanderbilt was forced to establish a private road. Called the Long Island Motor Parkway, it also was the first highway designed exclusively for automobiles and the first to use overpasses and bridges to eliminate intersections.

When a New York newspaper reporter asked Thomas Edison for his thoughts on the first Vanderbilt Cup Race, the inventor said he wouldn't be surprised if someone got killed. In that same interview, he had another, more prescient prediction that went beyond the race itself: ``In time the automobile will be the poor man's wagon,'' Edison said. ``He will use it to haul his wood, convey his farm freight, get to and from the post office and for the family for church.''

That might have seemed far-fetched in 1904, when automobiles were still the exotic playthings of the rich. But years later, the easy ownership of automobiles would create and define modern suburbia, a sprawling universe where it would be nearly impossible to live without one. Cars would bring newfound freedom, making life easier. At the same time, they would bring traffic jams, making life more difficult. Most of all, they would make this century very, very different from the last.

But as the 20th Century was dawning, the road ahead was uncertain. And the day of the first Vanderbilt Cup race had not come without obstacles.

When word got out that Vanderbilt and some of his wealthy friends planned to close off public roads to hold a race, there was a public outcry. ``In order that the speed-madness monomaniacs may drive their man-maiming engines at an excessive and illegal pace, the residents and taxpayers of the island are bidden to keep off the road,'' the New York World fumed. ``It is an extraordinary condition of affairs when a coterie of idlers, rich men's sons and gilded youth can take possession of public highways.''

The cup race would last for hours, as race cars covered 10 laps on a triangular route that included Jericho Turnpike, Bethpage Turnpike and Hempstead Turnpike -- all roads used by farmers to take their produce to market. Shortly after the Nassau Board of Supervisors approved the route, the farmers went to court to try to block the race, but failed to convince a judge that the supervisors' action was illegal.

Tensions mounted as the racing teams flocked to Long Island, and a chauffeur for the Pope Toledo Co. who was testing the course was thrown out of his car and killed when he nearly collided with a farm wagon near Hicksville. Residents were outraged when signs were posted saying, ``Chain your dogs and lock up your fowl'' on the day of the race. ``Farmers Will Carry Pistols to Auto Races,'' one headline warned.

On the day of the race, bent nails were scattered on parts of the course but no one brought a gun. The farmers ended up offering parking spots for $25 -- a huge amount of money -- and went through the crowds selling coffee and sandwiches. One fatality marred the race: Carl Muessel, a mechanic for a French team, was thrown from a race car near Franklin Square and fractured his skull.

When the race was over, George Heath, driving a French 90-hp Panhard, took the cup. He completed the course in 5 hours, 26 minutes, 45 seconds. His average speed was 52 mph.

The crowds were attracted by the exotic machines and the thrill of speed. Albert Clement of France described to a newspaper reporter what it felt like to go more than 60 mph: ``When you first start, the ground seems to be rising up in front of you, as if to hit you in the face ... You haven't time for anything but the thrill, and the watching of the long narrow road in front. You haven't time to see what's on one side or the other.''

The onlookers seemed a bit bloodthirsty. During the second race, in 1905, a huge crowd gathered at an S curve near Albertson, ``attracted by the possibility of witnessing something in the way of a death-defying accident,'' The New York Times reported. They were rewarded for their efforts, as ``two of the most sensational smash-ups of the day occurred at this point.''

The turning point came in 1906. This time, it wasn't a racer who was killed, but a spectator. Vanderbilt had hired men to keep order and spent thousands installing wire fencing to hold back the crowds, who would run out onto the road to get a better look at an approaching car. But some spectators brought wire-cutters, and at 9 a.m., the crowd broke through the fence at Krug's Corner in Mineola, the intersection of Willis Avenue and Jericho Turnpike, just as Elliott Shepard's 130-hp Hotchkiss was approaching. Shepard slammed into the knot of people, killing Kurt Gruner of Passaic, N.J., who left a wife and two children. Two small boys were also injured, and the newspapers proclaimed it a miracle that more were not killed.

``I am deeply distressed that the contest should have been marred by any fatalities, but I am sure it was unavoidable,'' Vanderbilt said after the race. At the Garden City Hotel that day, the young millionaire and his friends decided to build a toll road that could be used as a racecourse. Before long they had formed a corporation with stock of $2.5 million and a board of directors that included such notables as John Jacob Astor and Harry Payne Whitney.

``The Long Island Motor Parkway is a necessity,'' said the 1906 prospectus. ``The use of the much-frequented highways of the Island by motorists is becoming irksome.'' The new road was expected to greatly increase property values so much that property owners were asked to donate strips of their land for the right-of-way.

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