Philadelphia former auto racing hot spot

    During the historic 1876 Centennial Expo Philadelphia was the pinnacle of the auto racing world.

    The area of Fairmount Park outlined by the Zoo, the Mann Center, and the Please Touch Museum is called the Centennial District to highlight the historic 1876 Centennial Expo. But what goes mostly forgotten is the hundreds of thousands of people who came to the park a century ago for the smell of burning oil and the roar of engines. For this brief moment Philadelphia was the pinnacle of the auto racing world.
    Caption: Start of the 1910 Vanderbilt Cup.
    Credit: wikimedia commons.

    [audio: 090727pcmotor.mp3]

    To an antique car buff this is the sweetest sound in the world. That is a 1913 Mercer. It was built in Trenton, New Jersey and stripped of deadweight like doors, windshield, fenders, lights – it’s not built for comfort. It’s built for speed.

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    Simeone: It has weak suspension, it has bad shocks, it’s noisy, it’s rough, but that’s the beauty of this. That’s why you do it.

    That’s Fred Simeone, founder of a race car museum near the Philadelphia airport. The Mercer looks like a packing crate on wheels, and its 70 miles-per-hour top speed isn’t exciting by today’s standards. But in its day Simeone says it was a favorite for road racing.

    Simeone: One of the main racing venues was Fairmount Park, which was not only nationally but internationally famous. After WWI road racing disappeared entirely from US. It’s bizarre and misunderstood phenomenon.

    Fairmount Park Auto Race Course, click on the image to enlarge
    Fairmount Park Auto Race Course, click on the image to enlarge

    Every year between 1908 and 1911, as many as a half-million people crowded the streets of West Fairmount Park to watch the motorcars run. It was one of the largest racing events of its day, the only one in a major American city, and now almost completely forgotten.

    Now this (thud) is the sound of a 2009 Acura TSX.

    It’s being driven by historian Michael Seneca. We are retracing the race course starting at Memorial hall, scooting down Landsdowne Drive and opening it up on West River Drive beside the Schuylkill at a breakneck 25 miles an hour. He says the most popular race in 1908 was the Vanderbilt Cup on Long Island. Philadelphia wanted to show the world that they could put together an event just as good, but with no fatalities.

    Seneca: The Vanderbilt cup had a terrible reputation for accidents and deaths. So Philadelphia really did things right. There were accidents, people did get injured, but there were never life-threatening injuries. [now, we just passed Falls Bridge, and were heading west back into the park] That was actually the most dangerous turn, that we just went through, off West River Drive onto Neil Drive. The railroad bridge is there with an enormous wall on the right hand side. So if you missed the turn, you hit the wall.

    From here we drive up to City Line Avenue and turns back on Belmont.

    Although popular with race enthusiasts, it was frowned upon by many city leaders. One Fairmount Park Commissioner named J. William White was adamantly opposed, calling the drivers “mentally and morally irresponsible.” Seneca says it was a fight between Philadelphia old money and new money.

    Seneca: It was definitely the new industrialists who were selling cars and making cars who wanted to have a showcase to have the city nationally recognized, and there were other people who didn’t want attention, didn’t want visitors to the town, thought it would create interference.

    Old money won. Now there’s nothing in Fairmount Park to indicate there was once a major auto race here. But last spring the silver trophy that was awarded to the 1908 winner showed up at auction. It sold for almost 130,000 dollars.

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