By Art Evans
What is the foremost racing series in the world? If you said Formula One, you are in the company of most other enthusiasts. The series consists of a yearly Grand Prix in each participating country (although in a few instances, there was more than one). Even though the Formula One series was started in 1950, the concept of having a country’s premier event began long before that. The first one was held in 1906 near the city of Le Mans in France. The first in the U.S. took place in 1908.
Before that, the premier series in the U.S. was the Vanderbilt Cup. The Cup events were run according to the internationally-recognized regulations of the Association Internationale des Automobiles Clubs Reconnus (AIACR). The 1907 Vanderbilt on Long Island however, was cancelled due to spectator deaths and injuries there the previous year. It came back in 1908, but the American Automobile Association (AAA) adopted different regulations than those of the AIACR. Whereupon, the competing Automobile Club of America (ACA) decided to sponsor a new series, the American Grand Prize, using AIACR rules.
A number of cities proposed hosting the first event, among them Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Atlanta. Even though Indianapolis offered considerable up-front money, beautiful and picturesque Savannah, Georgia was selected by the ACA. The race was scheduled for Thanksgiving Day, November 26, 1908. It was run by the Savannah Automobile Club which had previously staged a stock-car event and the club planned a version of the 17-mile stock-car course lengthened to 25.13 miles. Georgia Governor M. Hoke Smith had convict labor re-surface the road with oiled gravel. The result was so first-rate that President Taft brought leaders from all over the country to view it as a model. In addition, the governor sent state militia personnel to help the city police with crowd control. First-aid stations were set up all around the course manned by 30 doctors. Some sixteen hundred marshals kept things under control.
The course was laid out on city streets south of the historic downtown district. A large spectator stand covered two entire blocks on Estill Avenue. Now named Victory Drive, its four lanes of cross-town traffic are lined with Savannah oak trees showered in Spanish moss. Somewhat over 250,000 showed up to watch cars race for 402 miles over 16 laps. Horace Dodge and Henry Ford came to watch as well as the president of Firestone Tires, who slept in the city jail because all other accommodations were filled to capacity. Merchants and hoteliers were ecstatic.
Twenty cars from the U.S., Italy, France and Germany vied for the first American Grand Prize Cup. Entries came from all over the world including factory teams from Renault, Fiat and Benz. Top pilots of the day included Ralph DePalma in a Fiat and the first Grand Prix winner, Ferenc Szisz, in a Renault.
Rather than go off all together, each car was started every 30 seconds. (Staggered starts were common in those days of long-distance open-road events.) DePalma led from the beginning, setting the fastest lap at 21:36.0, but then slowed with mechanical problems and finished in ninth overall. Rene Hanriot in his Benz took the lead until a slow pit stop allowed Louis Wagner in a Fiat to pass. He was closely followed by Victor Hemery in another Benz and Felice Nazzaro in a second Fiat. A fierce duel took place with all three less than a minute apart, each taking the lead at one time or another. At the finish, Hemery was first, but because of the staggered start, Wagner, who had started six minutes after Hemery, was the actual winner. He covered the 16 laps in 6 hours, 10 minutes and 31.4 seconds. Hemery crossed the line 56.4 seconds later with Nazzaro third. After the race when Rene Hanriot backed up on the course to return to his pit, his tires were shot out by a member of the militia. American-built cars didn’t fare well; none managing to finish.
After the successful Savannah event, the ACA planned to run a second one the following year on Long Island in conjunction with the Vanderbilt Cup. It failed to materialize however, so the next race in the series was held at Savannah on November 12, 1910. A shorter 17-mile course was laid out. Victor Hemery in a Benz led off followed by Arthur Chevrolet. Then Felice Nazzaro passed Chevrolet setting a lap record. Next Louis Wagner took the lead, but ran into a tree on the 17th lap. Ralph DePalma inherited first with David Bruce-Brown close behind. On the last lap, DePalma’s engine suffered a cracked cylinder allowing Bruce-Brown to pass and win. This time, more than a half million spectators crowded into the small city.
The 1911 Grand Prize was held at Savannah and Bruce-Brown won again. When Savannah failed to come up with enough prize money, the 1912, the race moved to Milwaukee. (Not on the famous Milwaukee Mile which opened in 1903, but on a 7.88-mile road course on the outskirts of the city.) Unfortunately Bruce-Brown was killed there in practice. There was no American Grand Prize event in 1913. In 1914, it went to Santa Monica, California, then to San Francisco as part of the 1915 Worlds Fair and finally, back to Santa Monica again in 1916. That year marked the end of what was known as the Grand Prize era.