The prospect of American open-wheel racing is a fractured endeavor at best, and has been for nearly the entirety of its history. How long is that history, and how do we differentiate between the massive gaps in execution, ideology and technology that has graced the dusty roads of North America for over 100 years?
We can at least agree that what we watch now can trace its history back a very long time. But how long depends on who you ask. The first race in the US was held in Chicago in 1895, and it was early events like this that directly led to the creation of the Automobile Club of America (ACA), in 1899, to arbitrate US racing and liaise with the newly created Automobile Club of France (ACF), the earliest vestige of the FIA.
The ACA continued uncontested for only three years before the first competing sanctioning body was created in opposition to the perceived bourgeois ideology of the ACA. The Automobile Association of America (AAA) was founded in 1902 along with the Racing Board, later to become the Contest Board in 1908.
The board sanctioned its first race, The Vanderbilt Cup, in 1904. It is unclear why William Vanderbilt chose AAA and its Contest Board instead of the more established and internationally aligned ACA to sanction his event. Had the roles been reversed, we could have been witnessing a totally different face of American open-wheel racing today.
1905 saw the Contest board sanction the first championship decided by points take place anywhere in the world; a season largely forgot by history and not even considered an “official” season by the current keeper-of-records INDYCAR due to its relegation to the sidebar and not included in history proper.
INDYCAR believes the championship to be “abandoned”, however, period sources state the championship did indeed run to completion with Barney Oldfield taking the crown. Oldfield was the only competitor to take the green flag regularly throughout the season. His lack of consistent, season long competition made him the de facto champion regardless of points awarded.
When the AAA Contest Board superseded the Racing Board in 1908/1909, it was assumed the new organization transferred and filed the old records, if any were even created, for reference. As time has moved on, and more questionable events that have transpired regarding the sports written history, it is clear these records most likely did not seen the light of day post 1908.
The other side of the days sanctioning war saw the ACA create the American Grand Prize in 1908. This event, along with AAA’s Vanderbilt cup, are the earliest traces of European-style Grand Prix racing in the US. And to make things even more difficult, the Manufacturers Contest Association (MCA) was created in 1909 by US auto manufacturers to pressure AAA into more favorable rules for automakers.
This ushered in an era of European Grand Prix car domination at Indianapolis and US manufacturers were unable to competently compete at the highest national stages, Indianapolis or otherwise. This focus on AAA by the MCA and the ACA’s relationship with the international racing world led to the two organizations to draw definitive lines regarding the “who and what” of US racing. AAA would handle national contests and the Vanderbilt Cup, while the ACA would handle international events, or basically just the American Grand Prize races.
1916 saw the power of the MCA fade and AAA was finally able to relax the rules to allow thoroughbred race machines to reenter into competition. The same year, they also inaugurated what would become to be known as the first true and recognized US championship season. Our history is finally starting to take shape.
The ACA sanctioned its final event in 1916 and quickly faded into memory along with the MCA, leaving AAA as the final say in American racing through the 1955 season, but that isn’t the end of the AAA story. The automobiling magazine Motor Age selected a “Driver of the Year” for the 1909-1915 and 1919 seasons. These picks were contemporary and printed each year in the publication.
It was pressure from motoring enthusiasts and Motor Age that forced AAA’s hand at inaugurating the national championship. For many years until the late 20’s when new, but still just as unofficial picks were created, these picks stood side by side official history. Beside the Motor Age picks, history is very much straight forward at this point. The general public understood the magazine picks were not official and AAA obliged Motor Age by creating a championship. We were well on our way to greatness, but it all went wrong very quickly. Next week we will look at how the decisions of a few men tainted history and forwarded misinformation that still persists to this day.