Rear View Mirror
Rear View Mirror
Backward glances at racing history

By Don Capps, U.S.A.
Atlas F1 Columnist

In every endeavor, there seems to be the need for a captain, someone to guide the effort, lead the team. In some cases there are several who step forward to lead the way. In some situations this is not a bad thing. In many other situations, this is not necessarily a good thing. In American racing, however, it seems to be a commonplace occurrence. This series looks at the leaders and captains of American racing.

The American Automobile Association, Part I

Today, the American Automobile Association (AAA) - the "Three-A" or "Triple-A" - seems an unlikely candidate for the role it once played in the American sporting scene: the organization that ran auto racing in the United States.

After the Automobile Club of America (ACA) dropped from the racing scene after the Great War, the AAA replaced the ACA as the Automobile Club Nationale, or ACN, of Association Internationale des Automobile Clubs Reconnu - or AIACR. When the AIACR created the Commission Sportive Internationale (CSI) in 1922, the AAA also served in the capacity of America's delegate (the United States Commission Sportive de l'ACN, or Autorité Sportive Nationale - ASN or National Sporting Authority) to this august body.

The AAA was formed as the result of a meeting held in Chicago on 4 March 1902. As the automobile began to spread from being a curiosity, a toy of the well-to-do, to the expanding middle class, there were obviously more and more motor cars on the streets and roads of America. There was also a collision between those with an interest in the emerging automotive industry - not necessarily manufacturing, but providing various services to owners of the new machines, and those with vested interests in the heretofore essential livery industry.

The Chicago meeting brought together the representatives from seven of the independent automobile clubs. The clubs were battling the livery industry independently and it was proving to be a tough fight since the livery lobby was well established in both the State legislatures and the Congress. The seven clubs decided to pool their resources and better organize their lobbying efforts.

The major goals or purposes of the AAA were hammered out during the meeting. These have not changed much from their original formulation a century ago:

  1. To secure rational legislation;
  2. To formulate proper rules governing the use of the automobile;
  3. To protect the interest of automobilists against unjust discrimination;
  4. To maintain their lawful rights and privileges;
  5. To encourage the use of the automobile and its development; and
  6. To promote the "Good Roads" movement.

It was also a move made with an eye to the future. As the possession of the motor car trickled downward into the middle class and then into the working class, there would be a market for services that the clubs could provide. The clubs not only had an eye peeled at the livery industry, but the railroads as well. While the main focus would be to lobby against the livery interests, the railroads were not ignored. The expansion of the use of motor cars would mean the establishment of a road network very similar to the web that the railroads had built.

The AAA was anchored in the middle - or business - class, the class that was emerging as a true power just as the automobile was emerging. The AAA was to offer then many of the same services that it offers today - roadside service, travel planning, lobbying, and one which was to be the biggest source of the AAA for decade after decade: insurance. The AAA was a business run by men of business and for men of business.

Naturally, the Automobile Club of America (ACA) became the primary rival in this arena. By 1905, the ACA had expanded from its New York base and had established affiliates in Chicago, Hartford, Dallas, Long Island, and Buffalo. These auto clubs did not have the same number of members as the AAA affiliates, but the two organizations often butted heads within specific markets. The ACA was also an organization that was more concerned with the international aspects of the automobile and the newly emerging automotive industry. The AAA had its eyes set squarely on the domestic market and the domestic issues.

The ACA served as the ACN for the United States to the AIACR when that organization was formed in 1904 and as such was involved in racing on the international level, although it was not pursued very aggressively by the club. The club's involvement in racing even within the United States was relatively low key as well.

The AAA had a Racing Board and a Technical Board right from the beginning. Although the AAA was involved in racing almost from the beginning, this was not an activity that the organization focused much attention upon in the early months of its existence. That is until William Kissam "Willie K" Vanderbilt, Jr. entered the scene with his idea of running something similar to the "Gordon Bennett Cup" - the Coupe Internationale - in the United States.

When "Willie K" decided to run his race on Long Island - called, in an apparent absence of originality, the "William K. Vanderbilt, Jr. Cup" - he turned not to the ACA as virtually everyone expected, especially the ACA, but to the AAA. This was akin to betrayal in the eyes of the ACA and its membership. The bickering between the two organizations, which had been essentially that of two businesses competing in the same market, now boiled into something a bit more involved. Whereas before they had merely been competitors, they were now bitter rivals.

The Vanderbilt Cup events were run by a group called the "Vanderbilt Cup Commission" and had a membership composed of both AAA and ACA representatives. However, it was run under an AAA sanction and that ate at the ACA. The Vanderbilt Cup events were run on Long Island for three years - 1904 through 1906 - before a combination of factors (primarily safety) led to the cancellation of the 1907 event.

With the site of the next Vanderbilt Cup being considered by the Vanderbilt Cup Commission, the Savannah Automobile Club tossed its hat into the ring to host the next Vanderbilt Cup. The necessary members of the AAA Racing and Technical Boards arrived in Savannah to be wined and dined and look at the possibilities of the Vanderbilt Cup being run in Savannah. Although the AAA Racing and Technical Boards did not choose Savannah for the next running of the Vanderbilt Cup, the city did attract the attention of the ACA Contest Board.

Using the work done by the AAA boards as a starting point, the ACA decided that Savannah would be the site of its first "Grand Prize" race for the "Gold Cup" - which was not twice as expensive than the Vanderbilt Cup by accident. The ACA was also fortunate that the AAA decided not to use the "Ostend Formula" that the Automobile Club de France and the AIACR had agreed upon for the club's Grand Prix. This meant the international entries drifted towards the Grand Prize and away from the Vanderbilt Cup.

In 1909, in the aftermath of the 1908 races, the AAA and the ACA came to an understanding in which a peace of sorts was achieved. The AAA and the ACA now established the Motor Cups Holding Company to organize both the Vanderbilt Cup and the Grand Prize races. The events were to be held on the same circuit several days apart. The Grand Prize race was not held in 1909, but from 1911 until 1916 the two races were run in tandem. Naturally, it was not that easy, but the AAA essentially became the lead sanctioning body in American racing. The ACA retained its seat on the AIACR in Paris, but the AAA retained its grip on domestic racing in America.

1909 was an important year in the racing history of the AAA. In late 1908, the AAA was approached by a group of automobile manufacturers to develop a better mechanism to police racing. Although the manufacturers had an organization in place, its abilities and impartiality was sorely tested by the end of 1908. After a series of discussions, there was the establishment of the Manufacturers Contest Association with the AAA creating the Contest Board to sanction and regulate American racing. The AAA established what was to be called "The National Championship Trail," with the small issue of there not being a championship at stake conveniently being overlooked in the short term. The Championship Trail was basically the events which the AAA's new Contest Board sanctioned as, well, "Championship" events.

The establishment of the Contest Board was the catalyst for a very neat solution to many of the disputes between the ACA and the AAA. As mentioned, the Motor Cups Holding Company was a part of it, but the Contest Board was perhaps an even bigger part. The AAA simply hired Samuel D. Butler, the secretary of the ACA, to be the Chairman of the Contest Board. The other two members of the Contest Board were Frank G. Webb and A. L. McMurtry. Butler's salary was a princely $5,000.

The AAA established the Contest Board to be a non-profit organization with its operations supported by the sanctioning fees it charged the race promoters. Here are the fees as established by the Contest Board in 1909:

  • $300 - Road races where stands are erected.
  • $100 - Track meetings.
  • $250 - 24-hour events with a track meeting.
  • $50 - Hill-climb.
  • $50 - Endurance contests.
  • $100 - Beach and road speed trials.

Over time these fees were to change, but the objective of having the Contest Board as a self-supporting entity within the AAA was a goal rarely obtained.

The Contest Board set up a classification system for the various forms of competition it was to sanction. I haven't been able to find exactly what the definition of Class A was, but an assumption that it was for touring cars would probably not be far off the target.

Class B was for stock chassis and stock engines. The class was broken into subclasses:

    1B - 160 cubic inches and under with a minimum weight of 1,100 pounds
    2B - 161 to 230 cubic inches with a minimum weight of 1,400 pounds
    3B - 230 to 300 cubic inches with a minimum weight of 1,700 pounds
    4B - 301 to 450 cubic inches with a minimum weight of 2,000 pounds
    5B - 451 to 600 cubic inches with a minimum weight of 2,300 pounds
    6B - 601 to 750 cubic inches with a minimum weight of 2,500 pounds

Class C was for Non-Stock vehicles which meant that a stock chassis could be stripped down to the minimum possible weight and that the only factor for classifying the cars was engine displacement, which paralleled the subclasses of Class B. Class D was where the "free-for-all" machines were placed. Class E was the "Open" class which was to become the class for pure racing cars.

As always, there was an early challenge to the AAA Contest Board. In June of 1909, Robert Guggenheim organized a race that was to start in New York and end in Seattle, a Transcontinental race across a part of the United States that was largely barren of roads or support facilities for automobiles. Guggenheim had made arrangements for President Taft to send a signal via telegraph to New York which would then be the signal for Mayor George McClellan to fire a special gold-plated pistol which would then be the signal for the cars to start the race. At a time when there were over 200 companies manufacturing automobiles in the United States, only 35 entries were received for the race. This soon dropped to 14. One reason for the scarcity of entries was that the Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers did not support the event and therefore neither did the AAA Contest Board.

The primary reason for the Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers (ALAM) not supporting the event had everything to do with the controversy surrounding what was known as the Selden Patent. When Henry Ford entered the event the members of the Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers withdrew since Ford was essentially a pariah among most of his fellow automobile makers.

In 1879, George B. Selden, a patent attorney, filed a patent which covered the use of an internal combustion engine as the means to propel a vehicle. It was a broadly worded patent which included all the various mechanical components that a vehicle would need: an engine; the clutching device; the reduction gear mechanism; and the propeller shaft system which carried the power to the wheels. Although originally filed in 1879, Selden exploited legal technicalities in the patent laws which allowed him to delay being issued until 1895. This delay meant that Selden then held the patent on the product which was to become the source of a major new industry.

After several years of legal skirmishing, in 1903 the ALAM was formed by the companies - initially 10 but 83 by 1909 - which were using the licensing arrangement that had been hammered out with Selden. Henry Ford refused to join the ALAM or pay a licensing fee and sued Selden. This bitter legal battle lasted until 1911, when the Federal District Court of Appeals ruled that although the Selden Patent was valid, Ford did not infringe upon the patent since the engine specified in the patent used the two-stroke cycle and not engines using the Otto or four-stroke cycle. By the time of the Court's decision, about 600,000 automobiles had been manufactured in the United States. And, the Selden Patent was due to expire in 1912.

At the time of the New York to Seattle Race, the decision on the Selden Patent was still years in the future and Ford's mere presence in the race was enough to cause the ALAM teams to withdraw. This also provided the ACA one last opportunity to show its flag. The ACA Technical Committee provided the officials for the event and served as the referee for any technical disputes.

When the day for the start arrived, only five of the six entries lined up: the two Ford entries - Model T's, an Acme, a Shawmut, and an Itala. On 23 June, 22 days after the start, the first Ford - driven by Bert Smith and Jimmy Smith - crossed the finish line, 17 hours ahead of the Shawmut.

As Chairman of the Contest Board, Butler hit hard and fast: the event was roundly discredited by the AAA and the ALAM to the newspapers and the fledgling automotive press. The Press accepted the AAA position on the race despite the protestations of Ford. In addition, the ACA never again broke ranks with the AAA. While Ford may have been the squire of Dearborn, Butler was now the kingpin of American racing.

One item of business to which Butler and the Contest Board set about accomplishing was the establishment of a National Championship Trail. By June the Contest Board had the basics in place when the first events of the new Championship Trail were held that month in Portland, Oregon. In some shape or form, with the exception of the years 1942 - 1945, the Championship Trail has continued until this time.

In 1910, the Vanderbilt Cup was run for the last time on Long Island and the Grand Prize returned to Savannah, where they were both run for the first time together the following year. However, the Contest Board announced its preference for track events rather than road races on the Championship Trail - or the "National Circuit" as Butler often referred to it, especially in light of the financial soaking that the Auto Club of Chicago, one of the major forces within the AAA, took when it promoted a road race at Elgin in 1909. Butler made clear his - and the Contest Board's - faint support of road racing.

At the December 1909 meeting of the newly expanded Contest Board, now four members and all appointed, Butler made it clear that disaster loomed in 1910 and beyond if the Contest Board did not shift the focus of racing on the National Circuit to purpose-built tracks. Butler's remarks are worth noting:

"Most of these races lose money due to the impossibility of collecting admissions over so large an arena. Of course, right now no one is complaining, but in time someone will have to subsidize the events. In as much as these courses usually run over public property that 'someone' will probably be municipalities. This means public money and that is the most positive way I know of to ask for trouble. Auto racing has enough public appeal to pay its own way and, therefore, I feel it is our duty to encourage such plants as being constructed in California, Indiana and Georgia where private capital is invested."

Those tracks Butler mentioned by name were: the new track built in Venice, California - Playa del Rey, the first of the large board tracks, a one mile circular track; the Atlanta Speedway, a two-mile dirt track built by the head of the Coca-Cola Company, Asa Chandler; and the newly renovated Indianapolis Speedway, which owner Carl Fisher had just had converted from a 2.5-mile dirt track to a paved track, the paving used being bricks rather than the concrete or macadam used at other paved circuits.

Despite the specific mention of Playa del Rey in his remarks, the track did not receive one of the events that composed the National Championship Trail for the 1910 season - nor any other season. In addition, road races were held at Elgin and Long Island as part of the Championship Trail.

1911 witnessed the first of the International Sweepstakes, run at the Indianapolis Speedway. The Speedway had held National Championship events from its very beginning in 1909, but the 500-mile race in 1911 was the event that changed the nature of how the Indianapolis track fit into the fabric of racing in America. A five hundred mile race on a paved track was quite a departure from the usual types of events which made up racing at that time. With a stint from relief driver Cyrus Patschke, Ray Harroun emerged as the victor in the race, which lasted nearly seven hours. 1911 was also the first year that saw a victory by an American in the Grand Prize race, David Bruce-Brown winning the Gold Cup. The Open - or Class E - category was for cars with engines of up to 600 cubic inches for the 1911 season.

After a successful season in 1911, the Contest Board - enlarged now to 11 members (all appointees), suffered a setback when Butler died in an automobile accident while riding in the "pilot" car for that 1911 edition of the Glidden Tour. The accident took place in Georgia as the car in which Butler was riding was scouting a path for the Tour which ran from New York to Jacksonville that year. Butler was killed when the car rolled into a ditch.

Although not a competitive event in the sense of a track event, the Glidden Tour was sanctioned by the AAA. The Tour was run from 1905 until 1913 - which was actually the 1912 event rescheduled - at which time it was discontinued. The Glidden Tour was a combination of a social event, media campaign, and pseudo rally. Before Charles J. Glidden donated the $2,000 trophy to the AAA as the prize for a touring car competition in 1905, the event was to be known as the AAA Reliability and Endurance Tour. It served its purpose as far as the AAA was concerned and was discontinued in 1913. It was revived in 1946 by the Veteran Motor Car Club of America and is still run today, being restricted to cars manufactured prior to 1935.


  • Allan Brown, History of America's Speedways Past & Present, Comstock, Michigan: Brown, 1994.
  • Russ Catlin, "The History of AAA National Championship Racing, Chapter 1: 1909, Robertson or Dingley?" Speed Age, December 1954.
  • Russ Catlin, "The History of AAA National Championship Racing, Chapter 2: 1910, Ray Harroun - 'The Bedouin'," Speed Age, January 1955.
  • Russ Catlin, "The History of AAA National Championship Racing, Chapter 3: 1911, A Popular Champ - Ralph Mulford," Speed Age, February 1955.
  • Russ Catlin, "The History of AAA National Championship Racing, Chapter 4: 1912, De Palma vs. Tetzlaff," Speed Age, March 1955.
  • Russ Catlin, "How to Save Racing in America," Speed Age, November 1955.
  • Tim Considine, American Grand Prix Racing - A Century of Drivers & Cars, Osceola, Wisconsin: Motorbooks International Publishers, 1997.
  • G. N. Georgano, Editor, The Encyclopedia of Motor Sport, New York: Viking Press, 1971.
  • Leo Levine, Ford: The Dust and the Glory - A Racing History, Toronto: Macmillan, 1968.
  • Doug Nye, The United States Grand Prix and Grand Prize Races 1908 - 1977, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1978.
  • Harold Osmer and Phil Harms, Real Road Racing: The Santa Monica Road Races, Chatsworth, California: Harold L. Osmer Publishing, 1999.
  • Julian K. Quattlebaum, The Great Savannah Races, Athens, Georgia: Brown Thrasher Books - University of Georgia Press, 1983.

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Volume 8, Issue 7
February 13th 2002


The FIA's Court of Appeal: Part III
by Thomas O'Keefe

Speed Limits
by Karl Ludvigsen


Rear View Mirror
by Don Capps

Bookworm Critique
by Mark Glendenning

The Weekly Grapevine
by The F1 Rumours Team

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