September 7

This Day in History

Automotive

Sep 7, 1896:

Electric car wins the first auto race in the United States

On September 7, 1896, an electric car built by the Riker Electric Motor Company wins the first auto race in the United States, at the Narragansett Trotting Park--a mile-long dirt oval at the state fairgrounds that was normally used for horse racing--in Cranston, Rhode Island. Automobile companies sponsored the race to show off their newfangled electric-, steam-, and gas-powered vehicles to an awestruck audience. The carmakers' gimmick worked: About 60,000 fairgoers attended the event, and many more people read about it in newspapers and magazines.

Seven cars entered the race. Along with the Riker Electric, there were five internal-combustion cars and one other battery-powered machine, this one built by the Electric Carriage and Wagon Company. The race began slowly ("Get a horse!" the spectators shouted as the automobiles wheezed at the starting line), but the Riker soon pulled ahead and won the race easily, finishing its five laps in about 15 minutes. The other electric car came in second, and a gas-powered Duryea took third.

Rhode Island is probably not the first place most people think of when they think of American automobile racing, but car racing in the Ocean State actually has a rich history. That Narragansett race was only the beginning: The Cranston track drew so many spectators that cities all over the state soon built dirt ovals of their own. For its part, the original raceway got so much use that its owners had to close it in 1914 for renovations. When it reopened the next year, it was like nothing any car-racing fan had ever seen. The new track was a paved, banked "Super Speedway" designed for 100-mile races.

On September 18, 1915, 50,000 people came to the first contest at the new park, where they watched the celebrity racer Eddie Rickenbacker coast to victory over a field of famous drivers in spectacular cars. Unfortunately for the Narragansett track's investors, however, Rhode Islanders' enthusiasm for car-racing waned as other kinds of mass entertainments grew more popular. The Cranston raceway closed for good in 1923.

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