He was born in 1878, the great grandson of multimillionaire Cornelius Vanderbilt. Known by his friends as “Willie K” he was active in various speed sports including horse racing and motorboats at an early age and like his father, William K. Vanderbilt, Jr. was an accomplished sailor and yachtsman but it was automobile racing that was his true passion.
It was his driving that was enraging the locals. Fifty residents of Newport petitioned the police to impose speed limits, and in 1900, Newport police issued Vanderbilt a summons to appear in court to discuss his driving habits. City leaders established Newport’s first speed limits for automobiles and other self-propelled vehicles” — 6 mph in central areas and 10 mph elsewhere. “Arrest me every day if you want to” Vanderbilt was quoted as saying. `”It’s nothing to pay fines for such sport.” In 1901 he imported “The White Ghost,” the first racing automobile in the U.S. Turning his attention from Newport for Long Island he established the nation’s first international auto race, an event that would help popularize motorcars. He along with other wealthy enthusiasts formed the National Automobile Racing Association and in 1904 he founded the Vanderbilt Cup Race at Garden City, Long Island. Later, he helped build the nation’s first road designed exclusively for automobiles, the Long Island Motor Parkway. This reinforced concrete road also was the first highway to use bridges and overpasses to eliminate intersections. Called “Long Island’s Appian Way” in promotional material, it was a road ahead of its time.
In pursuit of his passion Vanderbilt went to Europe and set a couple of speed records for gas-powered cars. He returned in 1903 to compete in the Circuit des Ardennes and the infamous Paris-Madrid races. After racing in Europe without much success he returned to the United States determined to organize his own races under American sponsorship. The Vanderbilt Cup races were born in 1904 to be run over the roads of Long Island and Queens in New York. Vanderbilt continued to compete in various speed trials and was an avid supporter of motor sports until his death in 1944.