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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.