On this Thanksgiving Day in 1895, piloting a gas-powered “horseless carriage” of his and his brother’s own design, the mechanic, inventor and now racecar driver Frank Duryea wins the first motor-car race in the United States. The race, sponsored by the Chicago Times-Herald, was intended to drum up publicity for the nascent American car industry. It worked, especially for the Duryeas: In the year after the Times-Herald race, the brothers sold 13 of their eponymous Motor Wagons, more than any other carmaker in America.
The race course was originally supposed to loop from Chicago to Waukegan, Illinois, and back (a harrowing 92 miles) but, thanks to the sudden arrival of a spectacular blizzard, race organizers decided to abbreviate the route. (“With eight inches of snow,” one journalist wrote later, “Waukegan might as well have been Timbuktu.”) The racers would be driving just 50 miles, from Chicago to Evanston, Illinois, and back again. The other rules would remain the same: Vehicles had to have at least three wheels, all wrapped in twine to give traction in the snow, and they also had to be able to carry at least two people, the driver and a race-appointed umpire who would ride along to guard against cheating.
Because of the bad weather, only six of 89 racers made it to the starting line: the Duryea; three Benz cars, one sponsored by Macy’s in New York; and two electrics whose batteries died almost immediately after the race began.
About 10 hours after the race began, the Duryea chugged across the finish line. The only other finisher was one of the Benzes (not the one from Macy’s: that one collided with a streetcar on the way to Evanston and with a sleigh and then a hack on the return trip), which sloshed to a finish almost two hours later. The victorious Duryeas won $2,000 and enough publicity to establish themselves as the American motor-car company. From then on, for the Duryeas and all who followed, automobile manufacturing was a business—not just a hobby.