In a park located just south of downtown Chicago a historical marker is embedded in a boulder. The marker with its black background and bronze font denotes this to be the location of the first automobile race held in America. Referred to as “The Rock” by locals this is more than just a two by three foot stone in a grassy park. This is the birthplace of America’s love of automobile racing and where each year Chicago gear-heads assemble to give thanks.
I learned about the annual convocation on Thanksgiving Eve and knew I had to attend. I gently informed my wife of the leave of absence for the following morning. I was greeted with bewildered eyes as the temperatures were set to drop into the 20s. A displaced Texan such as myself is not accustomed to temperatures dipping below the freezing point and decided a light Carhartt jacket would suffice. A mistake on my part. The next day I make my journey down Lake Shore Drive watching the road twist and turn following the path of the land mass wrapping its embracing arms towards the lake. On my right, buildings of all ages look on, never obstructing the motorist views of waves crashing to shore. The holiday provides a lack of traffic as I begin to see the line of cars parked along the street and sidewalk.
I ramp the family road trip mobile onto the sidewalk joining the line of cars already in place. While the gathering is small this year the variety is apparent. A burgundy S550 mustang is paired near a green Jaguar E type while a menacingly admiral blue metallic C7 Z06 faces a sunfire yellow corvette drop top. A strikingly clean silver GTO and an Oldsmobile Gran Sport look on from the outer edge as do a few imports, a Mitsubishi Evo, Nissan R35 and imported R32. A small group of Morris Garages MGB’s begins to make their exit around the tree laden park. The exhaust note of one in particular rumbles courtesy of the v8 swap. I am told by the owner of the Z06 that Bill Wildt is the man to meet. He’s easily spotted as he’s surrounded by five or six gentleman reliving old racing stories and history.
Bill Wildt (left in photo below) is the founder of the television show Motorsports Unlimited and a historian of racing. His voice speaks confidently and in explanatory detail. His eyes consciously make sure that you are still paying attention. He has a heartfelt crusade type mentality on saving motorsports from its demise and you can hear it in his voice. He begins to explain what happened on this day in 1895 with the first automobile race in America. The start and finish line occurred only a few feet away from where my chilled body stands.
Bill goes into much more detail. The event was conceived by the Chicago Times-Herald after witnessing the world’s first auto race in France. A cash prize of $5000 ($151,000 in today’s money) was offered up gathering the attention of 83 entrants. It was scheduled to be hosted November 2nd, but with only two cars ready to race a change was made allowing an exhibition pass to be made. The actual race would be rescheduled for Thanksgiving Day. Originally a Chicago to Milwaukee course was designated, but due to impassable roads it was changed to a 54 mile loop. When race day arrived, the streets were blanketed in snow and mud, however 6 participants persevered. Two electric and four gas powered vehicles made their way to the start line. Only two cars managed to complete the race with the prevailing winner being the American Duryea car with a time of 7 hours and 53 minutes!
Thanksgiving Day is about setting aside time to give thanks for one’s blessings. In the town of Chicago the local automotive and motorcycle groups do just that by meeting at The Rock every Thanksgiving morning to commemorate the legends of the past. As avid automotive enthusiast we should all be giving thanks for what happened as this provided a surge of vehicle manufactures from the single digits into the hundreds and boosted American car culture into the mainstream.
Literature: James Elkins
Edited: Kate Callard
Photography James Elkins, Mario Macias