Racecars in Fairmount Park?!?! Monday, September 12, 2011
It's hard to believe, but from 1908-1911, Fairmount Park hosted the Quaker City Motor Club 200-Mile Race, a short-lived race car event. In this contest, primitive automobiles repeatedly raced around an 8 mile loop of public roads for two-hundred miles, with the distinguished winner receiving the Founders' Week Cup.
In 1908, there was a massive struggle between the new-money industrialist Philadelphians and the old-money Philadelphians who inherited their fortunes. The old-money citizens were not terribly interested in change or growth in Philadelphia. Many of them believed that the city limits were the area between Washington/Rittenhouse Squares and between Market and Pine Sts., and that the then-7-year-old City Hall should be demolished because it was too garish. They thought that the city shouldn't try to attract too many visitors and that the city's green spaces were sacred.
The new-money citizens were obsessed with growth and industry. They wanted Philadelphia to be the most advanced and important city in the world. To make that happen, not only would the city have to be beautiful, but it would also need to attract outsiders to spur commerce. One of these attractions, they believed, would be a race through Fairmount Park during the new Founders Week.
The Quaker City Motor Club sponsored the event and was able to enlist the help of Mayor John Reyburn, a new-money citizen hated by the old guard, and Senator James P. McNichol, an old-money citizen who was hated by his own social class because he was in the lowly profession of politics. This race would attract car companies and race car stars from all over the country.
The race was considered controversial from the start. The Fairmount Park Commission was largely composed of old-money Philadelphians who saw green space as a holy living artifact of the wilderness that Philadelphia was built over. At the time, automobiles were not even allowed to enter the park at all.
The political machine in the city, however, was almost completely made up of new-money Philadelphians. With a dose of good, old-fashioned city government corruption, they forced the Commission approve the race (with some conditions laid out by the old-heads). By the time it was all settled, the event was only about a month away and there were a lot of preparations to be made.
The roads were not paved, and sixteen old-timey cars running along the route would throw gravel and dirt everywhere if something wasn't done about it. The entire 8-mile loop had to be treated with oil. The river trail (now MLK Drive) was paved with cinders and compacted with water and machinery. Telephones and directional signs had to be installed at every turn in the track. The entire roadway was roped off for safety and bleachers for 1,000 spectators were built near the finish line. With the city's help, the track was completed just in time.
When thousands of people showed up just for the car's practice runs, the Quaker City Motor Club knew they would be successful. On October 10th, 1908, the event opened to much fanfare. The Mayor made a speech, going on and on about his plans to bring Philadelphia's status up in the world. Part of the speech was the announcement of plans for a road that would, in a slightly different form, become the Ben Franklin Parkway.
The race was a huge success. Over the following three years, thousands would come to see cars go as fast as 60 miles per hour, which at the time was a ridiculous speed to behold. Famous Philadelphians who had become car collectors entered the race. John F. Betz Jr, brewer and real estate mogul, actually entered the contest one year and drove the car himself.
Though this was a nationally-recognized event of the period, it was all but forgotten within a generation. Nevertheless, relics from the races are still in existence. The original sterling silver Founder's Week Cup went up for auction in Detroit in 2009. Considering that it was worth $2000 in 1908, it's clear that it's extremely valuable now. A ton of photographs survive from the events, a great collection of which can be found here. The scoreboard from the races is on display in the Simeone Foundation Automotive Museum, located in the no-mans-land behind car dealership row along Essington Ave.