Of all the places to be found…

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Having grown up in a small town along the southwestern coast of Oregon I never stopped dreaming about many of the same things as any other red blooded boy… girls, cars, girls, travel, girls, and cars. Funny as it is I was the son of a man who owned lumber mills and much of his lumber over the years was shipped to San Francisco. Later in life my travels led me to eventually make my home in San Francisco. As I could afford it and as opportunities made themselves available I became involved in the sport auto racing. When I was about 19 years old there was an old man in a wrecking yard that would tell me stories about his uncle who raced on board tracks in San Francisco but to tell the truth for many years I always believed he was tipping the bottle too much and whenever I asked anyone else about “board” tracks they all laughed at me.

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Many years later after having been racing and driving cars for race car owners I was still unable to find anyone who had heard of board tracks anywhere let alone in San Francisco so eventually I let it go as myth. It wasn’t until some 30 years later when I was visiting my parents in the same little town where I grew up in Oregon that I got the shock of my life. I was in a shop owned by my parent’s friends looking around when I saw a large box of black and white photos over in a corner and when I asked told me to help myself. There was old barns, houses, ladies dressed as if they were ready to dance the Charleston, logging scenes and so on. And then I could not believe my eyes… Right there in my hands was a large black and white photo with some very old cars on a board track and if that wasn’t mind blowing enough there was a small piece of paper inserted under the protective cover that said, PAN PACIFIC INTERNATIONAL EXPO 1915! (the first photo on this article.) Needless to say I could not believe what I had and of all the places, my own hometown. What are the odds that after so many years of looking around that some 550 miles away in of all places my very own hometown that I would find the photo that presented my first glimps of the proof I has sought many years ago?

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Over the years from time to time I found more and more photos which I compiled in a private collection many of which were from the Vanderbilt Cup races. I have also compiled lots of imformative information about the Vanderbilt including the following. The Vanderbilt Cup was not only held on Long Island but in fact Vanderbilt established the Vanderbilt Cup in 1904, he stipulated that the first two races would be held in the United States, with the winning country hosting the race thereafter. The idea, of course, was that American drivers and manufacturers would find it much easier to enter a race on home soil.

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The first Vanderbilt Cup race started at 6 a.m. October 8, 1904, over a triangular 28.4-mile stretch of Long Island roads that were closed to the public for the duration of the race, in line with what was happening in European auto racing at this time. A crowd of 30,000 to 50,000 spectators turned out.

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There were 18 entries, but only 17 actually started and six of those were out of the race by the second of the 10 laps around the circuit. An American driver, George Heath, was the winner, but he was in a French Panhard. Albert Clement of France finished second, about a minute and a half after Heath.

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After Clement’s car crossed the finish line, spectators crowded onto the track, many of them getting into their own autos to go home over the same roads on which other cars were still racing. The race was quickly ended to clear the way and only the first two places were officially recorded. However, American cars and drivers were running third and fourth at the time, which was encouraging to Vanderbilt.

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In 1905, several top European drivers entered the race, which was run over the same course. Vincenzo Lancia of Italy had a comfortable lead before crashing and Victor Hemery of France won, driving a French Darracq. George Heath, the 1904 winner, placed second, and Joe Tracy was third in a Locomobile, the best finish for an American car in a major international race up to that time.

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Hemery’s victory entitled France to host the 1906 race, but the Auto Club of France wasn’t interested, so the Vanderbilt Cup remained on Long Island that year. The course was lengthened a bit, to an even 29 miles, and some hills and difficult curves were added.

A crowd estimated at 250,000 lined the course and often strayed onto it. One spectator was killed, and it was a wonder that that was the only casualty of the day. Again, a Darracq won the race, driven by Louis Wagner, and all five top finishers were from Europe, four of them from France.

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Because of the crowd control problems exposed in 1906, there was no Vanderbilt Cup race in 1907. However, the series was revived in 1908, with a 9-mile portion of the newly-built Long Island Motor Parkway incorporated into the course to help improve crowd control.

Two groups were contending for control of American auto racing at this time: The Automobile Club of America (ACA) and the American Automobile Association (AAA). The ACA accepted the international rules laid down by the Automobile Club of France, while the AAA was determined to enforce its own rules.

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In 1908, the ACA conducted the first American Grand Prix at Savannah, Georgia, and most European drivers chose to enter that race and skip the Vanderbilt Cup competition. As a result, almost all of the cars and drivers in the Long Island race were from the United States, so it’s hardly surprising that it was won for the first time by an American driver in an American car – George Robertson, driving a Locomobile.

American cars and drivers again dominated the field in 1909, when the race course was cut way back to 12.64 miles. Billy Knipper of the U. S. won the race in an American-built Atco, but only about 20,000 people attended, the smallest crowd in history.

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The ACA and AAA got together in 1910 to form the Motor Cup Holding Company, which was to conduct both the American Grand Prix and the Vanderbilt Cup race on Long Island. However, the GP was cancelled and few Europeans entered the Vanderbilt race.

Four Americans, Louis Chevrolet, Bob Burman, Joe Dawson, and Harry F. Grant, were the leaders until Chevrolet crashed on the seventh lap, killing his riding mechanic. Grant, driving an Alco, was the eventual winner.

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That was the end of racing on Long Island. For five of the next six years, the Vanderbilt Cup race was held in combination with the American Grand Prix, which took top billing. The races were hosted by Savannah in 1911, Milwaukee in 1912, Santa Monica in 1914 and 1916, and San Francisco in 1915. There was no race in 1913.

The outbreak of World War I in August of 1914 had put to a halt to auto racing in Europe, and America’s entry into the war in April of 1917 also stopped racing in the United States.

When the sport was revived after the war, it took two very different courses – literally. Europe returned to Grand Prix-style road races, while in America the focus shifted to racing on short, oval tracks.

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Some interesting facts about some of these photos…

The inscription on the rather large Vanderbilt cup read: “CHALLENGE CUP – PRESENTED BY W. K. VANDERBILT Jr. AMERICAN AUTOMOTIVE ASSN. under deed of gift to be raced for yearly by cars under 3000 kilos. Won By -“………………….

The photo of the #17 car coming out of the corner is the amazing Eddie Rickenbacker.

The dignified gentleman with the top hat siting in the race car with the driver was the Mayor of San Francisco.

The two paintings are ones I love one being an original Crosby.

Last but not least is a simple photo of the Pan Pacific International Expo but to put all this into perspective it’s important to understand a little history about how and why this all took place. The Panama-Pacific International Exposition was a world’s fair held in San Francisco, California in 1915. Its ostensible purpose was to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal, but it was widely seen in the city as an opportunity to showcase its recovery from the 1906 earthquake.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panama-Pacific_International_Exposition_(1915)

And for me even more interesting is my personal involvement which may in fact may play a small role in bringing the San Francisco Gran Prix back to Treasure Island in the middle of San Francisco Bay but that’s another story. I hope you enjoy the photos. They are one of my love affairs.

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EDIT; I forgot two important photos. One shows the size of the track while the other shows how a horse racing track was incorporated within the center near the stands. As you can see there are no bridges in the bay and in the trees to the right is where the San Francisco Presidio is to this day. If you really squint in the background you can see the large dome of the San Francisco Palace of Fine Arts.

Comments

  1. says

    Jaimie,

    Since I was raised in the country and will always be a country boy at heart even though I live in the San Francisco Bay Area I would like to tell you I enjoy your blog very much. It gives a nice perspective of someone who uses his window in life as more than something that just allows light to come in… Instead, it appears you choose to look out and see all that is out there. Keep up the good job and the great outlook on life.

    Since I have always loved and respected birds of prey I had to laugh when I saw your photo of the falcon and pigeons. If you look closely it looks as if the pigeon on the end has a brick that he is about to toss. LOL.

    One year while I was in high school I was allowed to take a sabbatical so I could live at a lake near my parents home in Oregon to observe a family of Ospreys hatch their young and then observe them raise them.

    http://isleptinafrica.blogspot.com/

  2. says

    Gary
    Your photo and painting collection just blows me away. They are an amazing record of time that is less well publicized, and they are of an amazing quality of image.

    I’m currently helping in the design and esthetics of a recreation of an early 20’s American racer for a gentleman from Ontario. Some of the reference from your images is incredibly helpful.

    Thanks so much for sharing your story and these wonderful images.

    Cheers!
    Paul

  3. Gary Faules says

    I’m glad to see such enthusiasm regarding one of my favorite automotive topics. I have a lot more on the subject but what I find even more interesting is the history of the fierce battle for dominance not only by the teams which by the way where backed by the major automotive builders but even more so was the desire of each countries political leaders to claim dominance. Believe it or not the history here makes the involvement of big league racing like McLaren Mercedes, Ferrari and the rest and even Nascar seem like child’s play and men like Vanderbilt could have very well owned anyone of them on any given day.

  4. says

    @GF Thanks for the comments. I have some more of the falcon from today. He was right above people crossed at an intersection (sitting on the light). Of course no one even notices.

  5. unkamort says

    Wondeful photos! And great information too. As a resident of Sam Francisco and an (under-informed) car guy I have had opertunitys to talk to a Gentelman who actually raced on a board track in Oakland during the 30’s. I was unaware of a board track in the city itself. Also… I have been told that “The Cup” races were held in Golden Gate Park, which was still a new atraction at that time.

  6. says

    I agree…what a fantastic post! I love the photos and their quality…hard to imagine they are over 100 years old! Can you imagine how crude the cameras were back then? Exposure must have just been guesswork based on prior experience.

    When you get a chance, read the “History” portion on my website of the “Venus”…I think it’s interesting as well.

    Again, thank for posting the pictures and story!!

  7. Chuck Rhodes says

    The picture with Barney Oldfield and Lincoln Beachey was at the Tanforan race track prior to their famous race which Oldfield won.

  8. Gary Faules says

    Chuck,

    If you have some information regarding the the Barney Oldfield and Lincoln Beachey photo I woul welcome it. The photo in question is on display in the San Francisco Public Library and they say it was taken in San Francisco. But I have another photo that seems to confirm that and has a note on the front and the back which reads…

    Back: “Tribute to the late Lincoln Beachey who fell to his death March 14, 1915, while flying for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition.” Which was held in San Francisco.

    Front: “King of aviators; The late Lincoln Beachey”

    Please let me know.

  9. Nancy says

    Fascinating! Very informative. I can find very little detailed information on this race other than race stats. The reason for my interest is that my great uncle Joe Cleary was the riding mechanic for Bob Burman in the Exposition race. I have bronze participation medalions that were awarded to all entrants. Any images in your stock files of car #30 Bob Burman’s Case car? Thanks again, Nancy

  10. Gary Faules says

    Nancy,

    How exciting! I will search and see if I can come up with anything for you. Is there any possibility that I could talk you in to taking some photos of your medals and emailing them to me?

    Best regrads, Gary

  11. Gary Faules says

    PS;

    Nancy,

    Was you great uncle riding with Bob Burman when he was killed? Did you know that Burman’s death that resulted from a roll-over was the reason roll bars were invented? As a matter of fact it was a tribute to him from his fellow racers who built the first roll bars which were then put in all race cars.

    Do you know what years your great uncle was with him? There is a great photo of Burman and his riding mechanic on a high bank wooden track taken in 1915 at Sheepshead bay Speedway,

  12. Geri says

    I am in receipt of quite a few old racing photos from 1907 (the Sealed Bonnet 600 Mile Run in NY June 19-22) and Vanderbilt Race Track Photos along with ones from France. I don’t really know what I am looking at other than a Mora Car (they had a banner) So hard to find info. Can you link me up with some sources?

  13. Nancy says

    Hi Gary,
    I apologize for not getting back to you. I posted my comment in January regarding my uncle Joe Cleary being a riding mechanic for Bob Burman and then never really expected a response. Wow, great to hear from you.

    Most definately I can photograph the Expo medals and email them to you. You can contact me directly through my email address too. Very interesting on the roll bars being a result of Burman’s death…no I didn’t know that.

    My uncle had a varied driving career it seems and all I have to go on is his newspaper clippings, some of which have been cut out of the papers so no date is noted. He started out as a mechanic for the Simplex driving team early 1910’s ?, mechanic for Louis Disbrow in 1913, than was a driver at state fairgrounds while still being a riding mechanic for the top level drivers. Towards the end of his short racing career he owned his own race car the Scat #7 in the 1915’s – 1916’s. The 1916’s seemed to be the end of his racing career.

    Yes, I would love to see the 1915 photo of Burman & mechanic on Sheepshead Bay. I have an article possibly of that race dated Oct. 9, 1915. I don’t think my Uncle was Burman’s mechanic exclusively, he seemed to be a ‘free agent’ so to speak.

    Thanks so much for responding! nancy

  14. Tom Perkins says

    Can you please give me call re: Pan Pac. Expo. photos. I have a neat story about the aviator Art Smith and his “Baby
    Racers” which were fashioned after the Vanderbilt race cars.

  15. Lee O'Brien says

    hi Joe Cleary drove his race car at the Iowa State Fair, cASE TORNADO 120 sPECIAL. ON sEPT. 14, 1914. i SURE WOULD LIKE A PHOTO OR PHOTO COPY OFHIS RACE CAR. LEE

  16. Nancy says

    Hi Lee,
    I might be able to locate an image in newspaper clippings. I’ll go through them and get back to you on here or you can reach me through the website I’m sponsoring webmaster@bethadamsracing.com.

    Gary,
    Once again I disappeared from you regarding the scans of the 1915 PanAm Expo mediallions awarded the the participants of Vanderbuilt cup & the Grand Prix. This research is something I do in rare moments of ‘spare time’. I’m back at scouring the net for info so I will be emailing you shortly with those.

    Howard,
    Awesome site! I haven’t had the chance to really read to far into it but love the youtube clip of the ALCO and all the old race info. I will definately book mark it

  17. mark says

    there was also a midget wooden auto rase track .i have a news paper ad that says take thr number 25 bus to the san francisco statium for 100 lap race.my uncle told me last week it was located near the old clam house on bayshore and oakdale.he said you could hear tham on the weekend.it closed around when w w 2 started

  18. Kathleen Hayden says

    Gary, I have the same picture as the last one you added on. It was purchased at an antique shop in Healdsberg. About a hundred miles north of San Francisco. My son in law made the purchase as he just had to have it. Not too long ago I saw it in his picture collection and asked him if I could have it as I too love racing and San Francisco. I have been looking for information on this race for over a year now. I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw it in your article. These seem to be very rare pictures. Thank you so much for shareing your story. I used to live in Santa Rosa CA. and then moved to Grants Pass, OR. in 1997 I am now living in MO. in a little town called Ironton. If you know anyone who maybe interested in purchasing this picture please pass on my email address. Thanks again for the history on my picture.
    Sincerely, Kathleen

    • says

      Kathellen, Thank you for your kind post and like you I too share a love of racing especially from nothern Cal and the bay area. How funny you would mention Grants Pass today… Not only am I from Oregon orginialy but I recently found a post card which was a love letter of sorts my father sent my mother when they were first dating and it was sent from Grants pass when he was on his way to Santa Rosa to pick up some mill equipment. And if the world isnt small enough I was just back in Missouri visiting family as that's where my mother is from. (The Ozarks area) I will keep your info on hand should I run across an interested party.

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