Cars as Entertainment: A Brief History of Racing

Automobiles have been around since 1886, and people have been racing them since 1887. As Speedhunters note in one of their blog posts, transportation has never only been about getting us from point A to point B.

Dating back to when we used horses and buggies for transportation, we found ways to use modes of transportation for more than just arriving at a destination. Horse and buggies led the way for horse racing, just as automobiles led the way for street racing. For nearly as long as transportation has existed, humans have found ways to make it entertaining.

Automobile racing began in the early 18th century, just one year after the construction of the first successful gasoline-fueled automobiles—though the first “races” were solo events.

The first organized competition occurred in 1894, though it wasn’t a race as we know them today. This race from Paris to Rouen, France, was a reliability test meant to check the reliability of the cars hitting the track.

The first true race was held one year later in 1895. This 1,178-km race involved competitors racing from Paris to Bordeaux, France, and back. Coincidentally, organized automobile racing also started in the United States in 1895! The first race in the States was an 87-km race from Chicago to Evanston, Illinois.

Road Racing

France was an early racing hub with town-to-town races in the country as well as races from France to other countries. Automobile racing was so dominated by France that the French automobile club ACF held a number of major international races. This went on until around 1903, when authorities were forced to stop the races due to the large number of accidents occurring.

Road racing wasn’t introduced in America until 1904. American newspaper publisher James Gordon Bennett wanted to compete with the French domination of racing, so he organized the Automobile Challenge Cup race and invited car clubs from every country to compete. The race, which would become better known as the Gordon Bennett Trophy Race, became the first great racing series in automotive history.

In 1904, William K. Vanderbilt Jr. inaugurated the first road racing series in America. The Vanderbilt Cup became extremely important in America’s automotive racing history, being called the “Classic of American Motordom,” “the King of Automobile Races,” and “the Premier Event in the World of Sport.” The race ran for 13 years—from 1904 to 1916—and was one of the most important in American racing history.

Meanwhile, in Italy, the Targa Florio was held. This was an open-road endurance race in the mountains of Sicily. Founded in 1906, it was the oldest sports car racing event (as opposed to stock cars that were being used in early American races), and it was part of the World Sportscar Championship between 1955 and 1973.

In early racing, competing cars were typically prototypes of the following year’s models—racing wasn’t yet specialized enough to require modified cars. However, after World War I, this began to change.

Speedway Racing

While the Indianapolis 500 is possibly the most recognized speedway, it isn’t the first track built with this purpose. The first speedway built for automobile racing was actually constructed in England in 1906—at Brooklands, to be exact. Sprint, relay, endurance, and handicap races were all run at Brooklands (and in 1932, long-distance runs were added as well). Ultimately, Brooklands would close in 1939.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway opened in 1909. It started as an unpaved track but was paved with bricks for the first Indianapolis 500 in 1911. That first International Sweepstakes in 1911 was billed as the world’s greatest motor racing event, with 44 cars entered and a grand prize of $33,800.

By 1915, all racing in Europe had stopped because of the war. By 1917, the same fate hit the States.

Stock-Car Racing

Stock-car racing became popular in the United States in the 1930s. It’s said to have originated in the U.S. Prohibition era when illegal still operators modified ordinary passenger vehicles to evade the law while transporting liquor.

Organized stock-car racing began in 1939 at Langhorne, Pennsylvania, but the sport had become popular in the early ‘30s. Most notably, the sport became popular on the beach at Daytona Beach. So popular, in fact, that the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) was founded there in 1947. The first organized race in Daytona took place in 1948.

Drag Racing

Drag racing originated in the United States, and though people typically associate the start of drag racing with the 1950s, the sport actually started around the same time as stock-car racing—in the 1930s.

Drag racing originally started on dry lake beds in Southern California. Though it paused during World War II, the years after the war saw the popularity of and interest in drag racing skyrocket.

The first commercial drag strip was opened in 1950 in California, and the following year, the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) was established. While the NHRA initially included street racing, by the ‘70s and ‘80s, the organization’s focus was almost entirely on professional drag racing rather than the street running hot rods that had initially put the style of racing on the map.

Drift Racing

Despite popular belief that drifting originated in Japan, this driving technique was first practiced in Europe before 1950. Enzo Ferrari credits Italian driver Tazio Nuvolari as being the inventor of the four-wheel drift.

However, it is safe to say that drift racing became popular thanks to Japan.

Kunimitsu Takahashi, a famous motorcyclist turned driver, was one of the pioneers of drifting techniques. His skills captivated Keiichi Tsuchiya, who would go on to use Takahashi’s techniques in his own racing career. Tsuchiya’s impressive displays on the racetrack and his habit of practicing his drifting on mountain roads inspired young drivers to practice drifting techniques themselves.

In 1988, the first official drifting event, called the Ikaten, was held.

Outside of Japan, the earliest recorded drift event took place in 1996 in Willow Springs, California, and was hosted by the Japanese drifting magazine and organization Option.

Drifting solidified its place in the automotive racing world in 2001 with the formation of the D1 Grand Prix by Tsuchiya and Option magazine founder Daijiro Inada.

From racing for the sake of reliability tests to racing on purpose-built tracks, automotive racing has long been a way for us to entertain ourselves. But even more than that, it has also been a way for us to push for innovation. Automotive racing involves pushing automobiles to their limits as much as it does break them (and creating new ones in the process).

This sort of history is exactly what we document at our car museum. And did you know? We have a small section dedicated to racing! Don’t miss out on your chance to visit Klairmont Kollections Automotive Museum! Take a step back in time and learn about the valuable history of automobiles.

  1. “Automobile Racing.” Encyclopædia Britannica, June 14, 2024.
  2. “Drag Racing.” Encyclopædia Britannica, March 25, 2024.
  3. “Drifting (Motorsport).” Wikipedia, June 5, 2024.
  4. “Drifting.” Motorsport UK, April 15, 2023.
  5. “History of Auto Racing.” Wikipedia, May 8, 2024.
  6. Milot, Claude. “Racing & Motor: The Early Years.” MOTOR, March 2003.
  7. “Stock-Car Racing.” Encyclopædia Britannica, February 24, 2024.
  8. TheSpeedhunters. “The Evolution of Drift & Drag Racing.” Speedhunters, May 17, 2024.