The Original Savannah Races

On May 16-18, 1997 after an 86 year hiatus, racing returns to Savannah, Georgia. And, just like the first foyer into the sport, it starts out with what many believe to be a trial run.

The PPG-Firestone Indy Lights Championship along with the Super Touring Championship, the Barber Dodge Pro Series and the U.S. Formula Ford 2000 Championship make a stop at a new street circuit on Hutchinson Island in Savannah, Georgia. There will also be a 10-car CART Indy car demo exhibition run that weekend.

If all goes well, there is talk of bringing a round of the PPG CART World Series in 1998. If so, this will bring big time auto racing back to this Southern town which once hosted the two biggest events in the country at the time--The U.S. Grand Prize and Vanderbilt Cup races.

How It Started

The premiere international event on this side of the Atlantic in the early part of the century was the Vanderbilt Cup. Set up by Willie K. Vanderbilt to help the American manufacturers build a better car than the Europeans, it was held on Long Island since 1904 and invited the top manufacturers of the world.

It was a grand success. Crowd estimates of around a quarter of a million people poured out to watch. Crowd control, however, was difficult at best, and in the 1906 race, one death and many injuries to spectators put the race in a precarious position.

The American Automobile Association (AAA) sanctioned the events, and they withheld it for 1907 until a suitable plan for crowd control could be produced. Bids came in from New Jersey, St. Louis, and Southern California. The AAA, not liking any of the proposals, decided to cancel the race outright.

Savannah chose to take a more practical approach and organized a smaller event to prove they could one day be a bonified host. They staged a series of three races on March 18- 19, 1908 with Willie K. Vanderbilt acting as honorary referee. Even though it attracted some of the top manufacturers and best drivers, some of the fields were very slim. One started just 3 cars with only two finishing. Another only had one car complete the distance.

However, thanks to the feature event it was considered to be a success and quite popular with the fans, drivers, and AAA officials.

Louis Strang, winner of the feature event, called it, "the best course I have ever raced. The only thing that equals it is the kind treatment I have received on every hand since I have been in Savannah."

The AAA wanted to bring the race back, but there were still doubts concerning crowd control. Savannah put in a bid for the race promising the use of the militia for crowd control. The AAA wanted the race in New York, but Savannah would have first dibs if this was not suitable.

Long Island was once again chosen for the Vanderbilt Cup, but Savannah ended up "settling" for another big event. During this time, a rival group, the Automobile Club of America (ACA), had an uneasy relationship with the newer AAA. It soon boiled over to a bitter divisiveness over the direction of the sport. The ACA decided to try to stage an international event that would surpass the Vanderbilt Cup in prestige--the United States Grand Prize--by offering another sterling silver cup worth twice as much as the Vanderbilt Cup. They awarded the inaugural event to Savannah. It was to take place on Thanksgiving, November 26, 1908 with the International Light Car Race as a preliminary.

Using convict labor, Savannah prepared the best race course of the time taking painstaking care to build banks at every corner. The Governor issued the order to use the State Militia to police the course preventing anyone to even step foot on it during the races. The Savannah Automobile Club promised that not one complaint will be heard.

The event attracted the best drivers and cars from around the world including 2 of the 4 previous Vanderbilt Cup winners (Victor Hemery and Louis Wagner) that year's French Grand Prix champion (Felice Nazzaro), and the debut of Ralph DePalma in major league racing.

It started out poorly when during early week practice, driver John Juhasz, while avoiding a dog in the middle of the road, crashed into a tree. Juhasz survived, but his riding mechanic, M. DeRosa, was instantly killed.

However, the races themselves were run in complete safety for both the competitors and fans. In fact, the only injury to a spectator was when a man received a bayonet wound for refusing to heed to orders. Even the competitors were not spared the harsh patrol of the militia as fourth place finisher, Rene Hanriot, had his tires and gas tank shot out when he refused to stop going backwards on the front straightaway after the race was over.

(Despite this, Hanriot apologized for his misbehavior, and in an appreciation for a job well done by the militia in patrolling the course, he sent his gloves and goggles as a gift to Captain Davant, the man who shot at his car!)

The Grand Prize race was a dandy with the closest top 3 finish in the history of racing up to that point. Louis Wagner in a FIAT beat Victor Hemery in a Benz by just 56 seconds with Felice Nazzaro in another FIAT coming in third. Never had so many cars finished a race of this distance as only two accidents occurred on this immaculate course.

The race, course, organization, and everything else, was highly praised by the worldwide press, manufacturers, drivers, and racing officials. Not a single bad word or complaint was ever mentioned. Savannah wanted to hold the race again and still had hopes of attracting the Vanderbilt Cup.

However, the unexpected happened. The AAA and the ACA made peace. They agreed to hold both the Grand Prize and the Vanderbilt Cup at the same site two weeks apart from each other. They selected Long Island.

Long Island's Failure Is Savannah's Gain

As it turns out, not all was well with the AAA/ACA accord, and only the Vanderbilt Cup race was run in 1909. The Grand Prize event was never held. Savannah considered organizing their own races, but without the proper sanctioning, this would prove to be impossible. They did not hold any races that year.

The following year, the tenuous AAA/ACA alliance decided to hold both races, and again Long Island was chosen. The Vanderbilt Cup race was first, and it was an utter disaster. The authorities were completely unable to control the crowds, numerous accidents occurred, one driver was killed and many spectators were injured.

Criticism came from all directions--the press, the drivers, and the politicians. Drivers threatened to withdraw from the race. Benz criticized the course so vocally that Vanderbilt himself threw out their entries for the Grand Prize race, and the Nassau County Supervisor wanted the road permit revoked. Last gasp efforts were made to save the Grand Prize race, but without any assurances that the course could be patrolled, Long Island lost the event.

Immediately, Savannah sent a delegation to New York to plead their case. The L.A. Motordrome and Indianapolis Motor Speedway also bid for it, the latter offering a $10,000 purse for the race to be held there, with Philadelphia and Atlanta considering applications. It wasn't a difficult choice as everyone remembered how well things ran in 1908. Savannah was awarded the rescheduled U.S. Grand Prize for November 12.

It would have been very difficult to top the race of 1908, but the 1910 affair did just that. Despite the change of schedule and some of the Europeans needing to go back home, a formidable field was still assembled which included Harry Grant, winner of the previous two Vanderbilt Cups, Wagner, Hemery, Nazzaro, DePalma, Ray Harroun, Ralph Mulford, and a young racer by the name of David Bruce-Brown.

The finish was breathtaking, made all the more nerve wracking by the format used in those days. Cars were started in intervals similar to today's Rally events. Thus, when a competitor finished, he often had to wait for the actual time of another car even if it finished behind him.

Hemery led the first 8 laps until he had to pit whereupon Wagner took over. Soon, Wagner crashed, and Willie Haupt was in the lead. Nazzaro took the lead, but soon had mechanical difficulties moving DePalma into first followed by Bruce-Brown and Hemery.

DePalma cracked a cylinder on the next to last lap, and the race came down to the two Benz teammates. Hemery crossed the line first, but he had a 6 minute head start on Bruce-Brown. Just like in 1908, he had to wait to see if his time could be beaten.

In that first Grand Prize, Hemery's time was beaten by 56 seconds. This time it would be even closer. His time would be beaten by an excruciating 1.42 seconds! Hemery was the bridesmaid again, and said, "I wouldn't have minded one minute, but one second is hard luck."

Once again, the race was a great success. Once again, Savannah put in a bid to host the Vanderbilt Cup. This time, they would get it.

The Vanderbilt Cup Heads South

The awarding of the 1911 Grand Prize to Savannah was a mere formality. And with the obvious inability for Long Island to police its course for the Vanderbilt Cup, and the reputation Savannah had for hosting events, they were also given the race that originally sparked the Savannah Automobile Club to get into the racing business. The races would be held 3 days apart. Savannah had become the center of American auto racing.

Not resting on their laurels, the course was widened, oiled, repeatedly rolled, curves were lengthened and broadened, and bad stretches were rebuilt to provide a surface like none before it. The grandstands were repaired and enlarged, and new ones were built. Special trains and steamships were scheduled and many nearby clubs organized motorcades.

The greatest field ever assembled showed up. Bruce-Brown was lured away from the Benz camp by FIAT to join Wagner. Benz still had Hemery and Eddie Hearne. The American manufacturer, Lozier, brought along Ralph Mulford who finished second in that year's inaugural Indianapolis 500 and Harry Grant. Mercedes was making their debut, and had Ralph DePalma and Steve Wishart as their drivers. Marmon, fresh off their Indy 500 win, had Cyrus Patchke and Joe Dawson, the latter of whom was replaced by Bob Burman when Dawson was hurt in a practice accident.

The car was becoming more popular and the ability to close the roads for all of the practice days was not possible. This proved to be tragic, as Jay McNay was forced to take evasive actions to avoid a wagon, and was killed when his car hit a tree. Two other non-fatal accidents took place leading up to the race days, and suddenly Savannah saw for the first time the problems Long Island suffered--a larger population of common cars and spectators made it difficult to control.

The two preliminary events, run just before the Vanderbilt Cup, went off without a hitch. The feature event on that Monday before Thanksgiving Day saw DePalma take the early lead. Mulford took over first on the fifth lap as DePalma slipped to third with Burman taking over the second slot.

Bruce-Brown was forced to exit with a broken wheel and Burman ran out of fuel when a puncture in his gas tank causing all of it to leak out before he realized what happened. Grant, who had fallen to tenth place, was slowly working his way back up and was in third by the eleventh lap.

Mulford never relinquished the lead and won by over 2 minutes much to the delight of the crowd as the American was driving an American car. DePalma moved back up one position to finish second, Wishart came in third, and Grant fell to fourth.

Once again, another Savannah race was held to great acclaim and safety. Next up, three days later, was the U.S. Grand Prize.

Many of the same competitors in the Vanderbilt Cup also competed in the Grand Prize including the locals' favorite Bruce- Brown and their new hero, Ralph Mulford.

The race could not possibly produce a closer finish than the previous year, but it did produce more all around excitement as there were 7 lead changes, and with 2 laps to go, any one of four different cars were able to win.

First Caleb Bragg in a FIAT took the initial lead, but was soon surpassed by DePalma on the fourth lap. That lasted just one lap as a leaking fuel line dropped DePalma four positions and Hearne took over command. Two laps later, Patchke took the lead. Two laps after that, it was Hearne again, as Patchke rolled his Marmon.

Hearne held the lead all the way until the 20th lap when Bruce-Brown passed him. On the 21st lap, Hearne re-passed Bruce- Brown, and on the 23rd lap, it was Bruce-Brown back in the lead. The other contenders started to fall by the wayside. Mulford broke a drive shaft and Hearne, suffering from fatigue, was forced to slowdown and accept second place.

Bruce-Brown went on to win his second consecutive Grand Prize race. DePalma finished third. Once again, it was another immensely popular victory.

Fred Wagner, world renowned starter for the AAA at the time, wrote in his weekly column in the Sunday New York Times, "Davy's splendid physique, combined with driving brains, helps him to win where other lighter drivers cannot stand the punishment of the bumps."

Racing Leaves Savannah

1911 proved to be the last races held in Savannah. Despite the accolades once again coming in from all around, there was, for the first time, a smoldering of complaints and discontent.

Fred Wagner wrote that the locals ripped visitors off despite the attempts of the promoters to alleviate the problem, and the special trains were late and poorly run. Wagner also felt it was a great mistake to hold both big races at the same location so close together. This hurt the manufacturers getting cars ready as well as attendance. It also diminished the importance of the Vanderbilt Cup.

Once again there was an effort to return the races to Long Island. Instead of holding it at the site used in prior years, they would hold it further out in Riverhead where the crowds would not be so great. This didn't materialize.

Meanwhile, the Savannah Automobile Club was running into some opposition. With more and more people buying cars for themselves, it became difficult to justify closing the roads for such a long period of time. There was also a growing public protest to the use of convict labor to prepare the course and the militia to patrol the race.

The races were organized by a dedicated few, and they felt it was becoming too big a task to continue on without any help. They wanted assurances from the local government of assistance. Without the Savannah Auto Club taking the initiative to stage these events, a proper bid was never able to be put together.

Instead, Milwaukee and Dallas became the leading candidates with Los Angeles and Riverhead a long shot. Milwaukee would win the bid, and despite Wagner's concerns, both major races would be held there a week apart.

Savannah remained out of the racing picture for all this time. A closed circuit road course was built nearby called Roebling Road, but it never attracted any big time events, instead being used by local car clubs, marquee events, and the SCCA.

Now, racing will return to a place that held the distinction of offering the greatest course of its era. Proud of their heritage in this sport, the brochure advertising this event proclaims, "See Racing History Being Made. Again."

Winners Of The Original Savannah Races

Date      Race                     Laps Dist.
      Winner             Car               Time        Speed
03/18/08  Southern Runabout Cup     10  176
        Herbert Lytle      Apperson          3:35:41     48.96 mph
03/18/08  Southern High-powered Cup 10  176
        George Salsman     Thomas-Detroit    3:02:25     57.89 mph
03/19/08  Savannah Challenge Cup    20  352
        Louis Strange      Isotta-Fraschini  6:44:30     52.21 mph

11/25/08  International Light Car    8  196
        Hilliard           Lancia            3:43:33 	 52.59 mph
11/26/08  U.S. Grand Prize          16  402.08
        Louis Wagner       FIAT              6:10:31     65.11 mph

11/11/10 Tiedman Trophy 11 190.3 Billy Knipper Lancia 3:15:22.67 58.48 mph 11/11/10 Savannah Trophy 16 276.8 Joe Dawson Marmom 4:23:39.98 62.92 mph 11/12/10 U.S. Grand Prize 24 415.2 David Bruce-Brown Benz 5:53:05.35 70.55 mph 11/27/11 Tiedman Trophy 10 171.4 Frank Witt E.M.F. 2:56:23.34 58.10 mph 11/27/11 Savannah Trophy 13 222.82 Hughie Hughes Mercer 3:15:37 70.00 mph 11/27/11 Vanderbilt Cup 17 291.38 Ralph Mulford Lazier 3:56:00.67 74.07 mph 11/30/11 U.S. Grand Prize 24 411.36 David Bruce-Brown FIAT 5:31:29.13 74.45 mph


For more details concerning this subject, consult the following:

"Auto Driver McNay Killed." New York Times, 21 November 1911, p. 8, col. 7.

"Auto Mechanic Killed At Savannah." New York Times, 11 November 1910, p. 11, col. 1.

"Breakdowns Spoil Savannah Races." New York Times, 19 March 1908, p. 8, col. 5.

"Bruce-Brown Wins Grand Prize Race." New York Times, 13 November 1910, pt. 4, p. 5, col. 7.

"Drivers Rebel At Vanderbilt Track." New York Times, 3 October 1910, p.3, col. 1.

"Foreign Car Wins Savannah Race." New York Times, 20 March 1908, p. 8, col. 3.

Nye, Doug. The United States Grand Prix and Grand Prize Races 1908-1977. London: B.T. Batsford LTD, 1978.

Quattlebaum, Julian K., MD The Great Savannah Races. The University of Georgia Press, 1983.

"Ralph Mulford Wins Vanderbilt Race." New York Times, 28 November 1911, p. 8, col. 1.

"Savannah Abandons Classic Auto Races." New York Times, 9 March 1912.

"Savannah Gets Big Auto Races." New York Times, 30 May 1911, p. 8, col. 6.

"Savannah Races Astound Motorists Of World." Savannah Morning News, 26 November 1908, p. 1, cols. 1-8.

"Vanderbilt Throws Out Benz Entries." New York Times, 5 October 1910, p. 9, col. 3.

Wagner, Fred J. "Bruce-Brown Wins Grand Prize Race." New York Times, 1 December 1911, p. 8, col. 1.

Wagner, Fred J. "Race Promoters Fulfill Promises." New York Times, 10 December 1911, pt. 4, p. 4, col. 3.

"Wagner's FIAT Wins Gold Cup." New York Times, 27 November 1908, p. 8, col. 1.

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