1908 - American Grand Prize

This is a collection of articles about the 1908 American Grand Prize from the Indianapolis Star (See articles on the preparation for this race elsewhere on First Super Speedway.) The race was part of a larger event that included a voiturrette race for light cars. A November 1, 1908 article (attachment Savannah110108) announces that 17 of the small cars were entered. One of these included a Chalmers-Detroit, the same model as the one that won the Long Island Motor Parkway Sweepstakes which supported the Vanderbilt Cup the previous month. The article highlights two European entries, an Isotta driven by American Herb Lytle and a Lancia.
Other brands listed in the small car race were: Buick, Oldsmobile, Cameron and American Aristocrat (which was eventually withdrawn). It also reports on the arrival of some of the drivers for the big car race: Alessandro Cagno and Giovanni Picacenza of Itala as well as Lucien Hautvast and Victor Rigal of Clement-Bayard who both arrived the previous Saturday aboard the ocean liner La Lorraine. Also on board that ship were Lorrainne-Dietrich's Arthur Duray and Ferenc Szisz, the winner of the first French Grand Prix, who drove for Renault.
Another article published November 1 (attachment Savannah110108i) is brief and focuses on the entry of Philadelphia millionaire sportsman and race driver Louis Bergdoll, whose family fortune was derived from a brewing company. Bergdoll entered one of the Chalmers-Detroit cars mentioned above for the voiturrette affair.
Published November 8, the article in attachment Savannah110808 praises the work the race organizers had done on the Savannah road course. Comparisons are made to the Vanderbilt Cup course, including its nine miles of concrete paved Long Island Motor Parkway, but still the article suggests Savannah was faster. An important point raised here is that the course had been significantly modified since the spring stock car race in which Lewis Strang emerged a vcitor with his Isotta. That course is reported to have been 17.1 miles long while the revised Grand Prize course is reported to be 27.73 miles. Much development work had been done on the portions of the spring course that were to be used again, including banking to sharper corners.
On November 15 the Star published images (attachment Savannah111508) supported by an informative cutline that discussed race preparations. A horse-drawn cart is shown oiling a portion of the course and a second image shows a car parked on tree-lined Waters Road. A third image is of the National Motor Vehicle Company entry with driver Hugh Harding.The information reports that the Gold Cup trophy was valued at $5,000 and there was $8,000 in cash ready for distribution to the "winners." Here the course is reported to be roughly 25 miles, not the 27.73 reported above. The race was scheduled for 16 laps totaling just over 400 miles. The description has a touch of romance with the imagery of roads lined with venerable oak trees bearded with Spanish moss creating an archway through which the speeding racers passed.
Also published the same day, attachment Savannah111508i contains two articles. The first provides a bit more detail into the preparations for the race. Six giant scoreboards with ladders had been erected with special thought given to their positioning to make them visible to the occupants of the 16,000-person, 2,000-foot long grandstand. An extensive telephone system was developed to communicate with all points on the course and gather the latest information. The scoreboards were to be manned by six people - one each. Most interesting perhaps was the use of armed milita for crowd control - including the issue of revolvers and Springfield rifles for the use of the soldiers.
A November 16 article (attachment Savannah111608) focuses on the international appeal of both the American Grand Prize and the small car race the name of which is revealed as "International Light Car Race." A couple of more details on the course preparation are provided such as that convict labor was used and that the running surface was covered with Augusta Gravel. Aside from those listed above, the article also mentions the drivers of the Benz team of Victor Hemery, Fritz Erle and Rene Hanriot; the Fiats of Louis Wagner, Ralph DePalma and Felice Nazarro along with American entries for Ralph Mulford (Lozier), Len Zengle (Acme), Willie Haupt (Chadwick) and Joe Seymour (Simplex). The international flavor was a direct derivative of the devestating battle between William K. Vanderbilt Jr. supported by the American Automobile Association (AAA) versus the Automobile Club of America (ACA). The ACA was the club in good standing with the Automobile Club of France - the dominate club of international rules - and stole the thunder of the Vanderbilt Cup by organing the American Grand Prize to earn the honor of hosting the European manufacturers formerly attracted to the Long Island race. By this time, however, an agreement of coexistence had been reached even if personal feelings were not fully resolved. The November 8 Indianapolis Star had carried a relevant article (attachment Vanderbilt110808) reporting that Robert L. Morrell, chairman of the ACA contest committee had extended both an olive branch and a official position to William K. Vanderbilt, Jr. This was most certainly a good faith gesture in response to the "peace treaty" the ACA and the AAA had recently reached. Vanderbilt, however, declined, citing doctor's orders due to a health issue. Whether he was ill or still emotional about the row they had experienced is speculation.
By November 22 (see article in attachment Savannah112208) the excitement reached fever pitch as fans, teams and leaders of the automobile industry converged on Savannah. They came by chartered boats and rail with speical private cars providing deluxe service. The Twentieth Century Automobile Club chartered an entire train for its 100 members and the Seabord Air Line provided two southbound trains with a complete hotel experience. Thousands more of the less priveliged arrived by all means of transportation, many staying in private homes that opened their doors to complement the lacking hotel capacity. Oldsmobile's much anticipated return to racing - in the voiturrette race - was dashed when the company announced they simply had run out of time to prepare.
The nature of the Georgia countryside produced an inconvenience as the temporary headquarters of 28 teams between the two races were spread so far flung the article estimated that officials would cover 200 miles visiting each of them. This precipitated discussion among race organizers for both the Grand Prize and the Vanderbilt Cup to erect more permanent facilities in a central location at start-finish - the vision of a more modern paddock - for everyone's convenience. A thoroughly interesting point is discussed concerning track safety specific to the era's malady of too frequent fires. The Tea Tray Company of Newark, New Jersey managed by Albert Marten was on hand to quickly extinguish flames. The article reports that this group had already established a strong reputation in the sport at least in the northeastern United States. The article in attachment Savannah112208i is the same as the one above but contains complementary images of Louis Wagner, Victor Hemery, Victor Demoget, Felice Nazzaro and Arthur Duray.
The article in attachment Savannah112308 conitnues the theme that Savannah and the surrounding area were swelling with visitors anticipating racing. There is not a lot new here except the intimation that there had been some number of accidents during practice. This apparently was significant enough that practice was haulted. My guess is those skirmishes involved street traffic and the report indicates that foot traffic and touring cars were crowding the streets that made up the course.
Attachment Savannah112408 contains an article that is essentially a practice report. There was much speculation about the abilty to sustain speeds. To that date Felice Nazarro's drive in the 1907 French Grand Prix at an average above 70 MPH was the gold standard. Chadwick driver Willie Haupt creatd excitement when he recorded a lap of 71 MPH but the car was reportedly bouncing around on the course, at times with all four wheels off the ground. Apparently, this resulted in the loss of a tire which rolled off into the trackside weeds never to be recovered. The American enthusiasm for this seems optimistic as the speed was competitive but the durability was clearly in quesiton. The article was curious in that the headline insinuated strength in the American contingent but only Haupt is mentioned as the other entries discussed - Renault and Benz - were foreign.
The article in attachment Savannah112508 was published November 25 for the morning of the light car or voiturrette race. It provides insights to practice accidents including the information that a mechanic by the name of De Rosa for the S.P.O. team had been killed and the car's driver, Jean Juhasz, had been injured enough that he had to be replaced by another man, Herbert Conners. The driver of greatest historical consequence in the race was Bob Burman who raced for Buick. The article refers to the light car course as far shorter than the Grand Prize track, calling it a 10-mile triangle. Other articles here also reference that it was shorter than the big car course, but in at least one instance called it a nine mile rectangle. Note that the ACA headquarters were at the De Soto Hotel, which still exists today as a Hilton property.
The small item in NationalAtSavannah112908 focuses on the performance of the National entry, which, despite the article's assertions otherwise, was pretty weak. There was a malfunction on the first lap and the car lost over a half hour getting sorted out. The article boasts that it finished second among the American entries but that amounted to 12th position, one spot back of the American Simplex. The American entries, which were essentially stock or certainly more equivalent to stock than their European counterparts, were simply not in the same class as their foreign rivals.
Bob Burman enjoyed success in the 196-mile light car race with a second place finish. The article in attachment SavannahBuick120608 reads more like ad copy than editorial as it gushes over the success of the lower list price Buick with scarce mention of the winning Isotta. An actual ad was published the same day - and is contained in the same attachment as the article - and likely encouraged the favorable editorial coverage.
The article in attachment FoundersAtSavannah120608 is particularly significant because it notes that at least three of the founders of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway attended the Savannah races. These were Arthur C. Newby (a National executive), Carl Fisher and Frank Wheeler. Newby was apparently interviewed for the article because all the information seems to come from him. Newby made three basic points: 1) the Savannah course preparation was excellent, the best he had ever seen (a dig at the Vanderbilt Cup crowd?), 2) the entire community of Savannah was most welcoming and 3) his National car would have done much better if not for an unforeseen clog in the the fuel line. Newby is quoted as saying, "We went into the race in the hope of cleaning up on the American bunch," which is interesting because it indicates that he realized even before the contest that they were outclassed by the Europeans and not competitive with them.
The significance of Newby's commentary about the course preparation may actually have historical implications. Could the crushed stone surface of Savannah have provided the evidence the Speedway founders needed to pursue the same paving material for the initial running surface of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway? We will probably never know.

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