April / May 1999 Feature
1908 Briarcliff-to-Yorktown Stock Car Race

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Kear Family's MaxwellThis April 24th will be the 91st anniversary of the "First American International Road Race", held in northern Westchester, an event not unlike our modern day commuter race which occurs every weekday from Yorktown and neighboring communities (reminiscent of the running of the bulls!). April 24th this year falls on a Saturday, and the throng of cars will be travelling to local building and garden centers as the crunch of motorists shop to spruce up their homes for spring! However in 1908, this particular road race was the first of its kind and thousands came to watch.

Prior to 1900, racing was limited to horses in northern Westchester, a tradition continued today with OTB (how we've digressed!). According to "Westchester County: The Past Hundred Years 1883 –1983," published by the Westchester County Historical Society:

"In 1901, when the first New York auto show was held in Madison Square Garden, there were very few cars and no paved highways, although many city and village streets were macadamized."

Detail of Maxwell-Briscoe PlantThat fact was certainly true in northern Westchester. Cars were being manufactured, however, as close by as North Tarrytown at the Walker Locomobile plant, which opened in 1900. This later became a Maxwell-Briscoe plant, which furnished numerous Maxwell automobiles for prosperous Yorktown residents such as the Kear, Conklin, Lee and Forman families.

By 1908, auto races held worldwide, including the Vanderbilt Cup on Long Island heightened the auto fever. Most of the races were completed on tracks specially built for the many foreign and domestic automobiles being developed by fledgling manufacturers. The Briarcliff Trophy Stock Car Race was the first of its kind in this country to be run on average town and country roads, thereby testing what kind of performance the automobile owner could expect from his own vehicle in everyday driving. While the winner came away with a Trophy, contributed by Walter W. Law, a wealthy Briarcliff businessman, the real prize was the lead in automobile sales that such a race could promote. When we think of early auto makers, the name Ford comes to mind, but there was not a single Ford in the race. Henry was busy manufacturing cheap cars that the average man could own.

In the Yorktown Town Board minutes of December 14, 1907, a resolution was passed to suspend road speed limits for four weeks prior to the First American International Road Race, from sunrise to 7 AM, in order that the race cars could practice on the route itself.

Headlines from the New York Times on Sunday, April 19, 1908 read:

Lee Family
New Fords
Conklin Family

"Briarcliff Race Next Friday Concentrates the Interest of Automobilists"; "TWENTY-TWO CARS TO GO FOR LAW CUP"; "Course Abounds in Difficulties Which Promise Many Mishaps to Drivers"; "THOUSANDS TO SEE CONTEST"; and "Slow Time Sure to be Made in View of the Great Danger of the Many Curves-Skill Will Win Trophy."

There are some interesting statistics that I found surprising when researching this material. Fourteen different automobile makers were represented in the race of 1908. Does that fact alone surprise anyone? Can anyone name even half of the carmakers? (Remember, Ford was not there.) Following is a list of the 22 cars that raced that day, country of origin, horsepower, and its driver:

Bianchi (Italian) 40hp - Felix Prossen
Fiat (Italian) 60hp - Emanuel Cedrino
Apperson (American) 50hp - Herbert Lytle
Isotta (Italian) 50hp - Lewis Strang
Stearns (American) 30hp - Frank Leland
Fiat (Italian) 60 hp - F.H. Parker
Lozier (American) ?hp - Harry Michener
Stearns (American) 30hp - Guy Vaughn
Lozier (American) ?hp - Ralph Mulford
Maja (Spanish?) 35hp - Daniel Murphy
Isotta (Italian) 50hp - Al Poole
Thomas (American) 60hp - Montague Roberts
Stearns (American) 30hp - Barney Oldfield
Renault (French) 40hp - M.G. Bernin
Panhard (French?) 50hp - George Robertson
Hol-Tan (American) 40hp - W.H. Hilliard
Allen-Kingston (American) 40hp - A. Campbell
Renault (French) 40hp - Julien Bloch
Isotta (Italian) 50hp - H.M. Harding
Benz (German?) 60hp - L.J. Bergdoll
Simplex (American) 50hp - J. Seymour
Simplex (American) 50hp - W. Watson

Car 15 rounds the curveAnother surprise for me was the maximum speed the cars reached on bumpy, windy, narrow roads. There were places that the top speed recorded was 75 mph and the average winning pace was 46 mph!

The race was intended to cover 300 miles, but after only 240 miles and just under seven hours, the race was cancelled. Only four cars were not running at the conclusion of the race. According to the New York Times, which covered the race extensively:

"The race was called off twenty minutes after noon, when the immense crowd that lined the course had crowded on the track too densely for safety. The crowding on the road was due to the beginning of the crowd's move to leave the course and the natural restlessness following the decision as to the leading positions."

The route, covering 30 miles, began in Briarcliff Manor where the official Grandstand was situated. From there, the cars traveled north on (now) route 100 to Kitchawan, a hamlet of Yorktown located south of the Croton Reservoir, passing Echo Lake and Merritt Corners. At Pines Bridge they followed Croton Lake Road east to Pines Bridge Road, then southeast to (old) Croton Lake Road, south to (old) Kisco Avenue to Main Street in Mt. Kisco. There, a speed check was placed and all the cars had to take a full 10 minutes going through the village. Next they followed (old) Route 22 south to the Kensico Dam, across the dam, then north on West Lake Drive to Lakeview Avenue (old Tarrytown Road). They proceeded north on Route 9A/100 to Route 100 back to Briarcliff for one complete lap. This was supposed to be repeated ten times, for a total distance of 300 miles. Map of Race Route

Route DetailAll along the route, parking spaces were sold for spectators' automobiles. They settled themselves on hillsides overlooking the course, arriving there the evening before. They built campfires in the open, around which they cooked meals and shared fellowship as they awaited the anticipated 4:45 AM start of the race. The Times reported the following:

"Picturesque Night Scene. The lines of cars made a most picturesque spectacle, with glaring headlights staring out into the misty night, each housing a party of autoists so keen to see the race that they were ready to stand any discomfort to gratify their desire. Interspersed with these headlights were numerous campfires blazing in fields and meadows, while seated around them Indian fashion, groups sang and frolicked as though care was unknown to them. A stranger dropped unprepared in the midst of the scene would have thought the spectacle a gathering of gypsy clans from all over the world, regaling the night, after their state conclave, with jest and song."

Those who didn't drive to the race came by train, trolley, foot and horse. Extra trains were added for the occasion by The New York Central Railroad on all three of its divisions. Those who came by railroad, however, were not satisfied by the service. The first train to leave Grand Central Station took three hours to make the usual one-hour run, thus delaying all following trains. The first group of spectators arrived just before the appointed start of the race, causing havoc in the street near the Grand Stand and delaying the start until after 5:00 AM.

"A hurry call was sent out for marshals, and 200 of the citizen soldiery, armed with canes and official insignia, answered the call. The clearing of the crowd was begun in no light-handed manner, and several brawls ensued." reported the Times.

At least 1,000 National Guardsmen at ten makeshift headquarters were used to patrol the course and several hundred paid policemen were hired to insure there were no fatalities, such as occurred at the Vanderbilt Race. The State Engineer, Frederick Skene, required a $6,000 deposit which could be used for repair of the roads following the race, and the Village of Greenburgh demanded a $100,000 deposit against accident in the village. Skene's demand was met, but the race organizers had already secured insurance from Lloyds, which satisfied the Village officials.

Grandstand DetailOn the Sunday preceding the race, a dozen of the racers were out practicing on the course. The large number of visitors who came to watch cut up the muddy roads and left them in terrible shape. These were repaired immediately after the practice and work continued on the roads all week. There were two accidents involving racecars during that week: James B. Ryall and Edward Murray in their Matheson and Arthur Campbell and his "machanician" Ralph De Palma in their Allen-Kingston. Campbell managed to make the race after the car was repaired.

AND THE WINNER IS...Louis (or Lewis) Strang, driving a 50 hp Isotta-Frascini car, owned by J.H.Tyson. Tyson spent $25,000 to win the trophy, and Strang received $1,000 plus a bonus of $3,000 from Tyson. Louis Strang was born in Amsterdam, NY and probably not directly related to the large Strang clan of Yorktown. According to the Times:

"Strang spent five weeks at Briarcliff preparing for the race. He used Mr. Tyson's six-cylinder Ford in the preliminary practice, most of which was put in the early morning hours, while the other drivers were sleeping. The Isotta, which Strang drove in the race, was taken over the course only twice before the contest. After the tuning-up spin it was locked in Mr. Tyson's garage at White Plains, and an employee stood guard over it night and day."

In second place was Emanuel Cedrino, driving a 60 hp Fiat, owned by the Fiat Company, and third place was won by Guy Vaughan driving a 30-60 hp Stearns car, owned by Wyckoff, Church & Partridge. Strang, who started fourth, assumed lead half way into the first circuit and remained there throughout the race. Obviously, knowledge of the course made the difference. Cedrino was the favorite to win.

No one was seriously hurt...The first accident in the race occurred in a Simplex driven by Watson, who hit a post near East View and he and his "machanician" were thrown out of the car. They were able to continue the race, but four others involved in accidents weren't so lucky: the Maja driven by Murphy had a wheel collapse under it near Valhalla, smashing the car; a cylinder cracked in the Fiat driven by Parker; Mulford, while cranking his Lozier, let the crank slip and it flew around and struck him on the foot, breaking his toe; and the Allen-Kingston driven by Campbell, which had "turned turtle" during practice, broke an axle and went into a ditch.

Extensive and immediate coverage of the race by the New York Times newspaper was made possible by the use of the Marconi Wireless Telegraph, which sent constant updates and bulletins to the tower of The Times Building in New York City. The bulletins were sent courtesy of The Lozier Company, which had a wireless station in its headquarters at Briarcliff Manor, as well as Pines Bridge, Mt. Kisco, Newcastle, Valhalla and East View. These stations were connected to other locations by telephone. Employees of the Lozier Company and officials of the course gathered the news and took it to the nearest station.

The Times reported: "All night long wireless telegraph experts had been busy arranging the apparatus and getting in tune with the Lozier station at Briarcliff Manor, with wireless and telephone connections to various other points on the course."

The system worked well, with the exception of an occasional signal from other areas, from as far south as Cape Henry, Virginia. However, once the program included music. The Brooklyn Navy Yard school of electricity had been conducting experiments in "wireless telephony" and when the Times' machine got in tune with the navy yard's apparatus, band tunes playing on a phonograph could be heard!

The worst injury reported was that of an eight-year-old boy who was hit by an "autoist" returning from the race. The man blew his "siren" at a group of children playing in the street, but one child failed to move and was hit. The Times reported that "30 people were arrested in the Bronx on their way to the race by bicycle and motorcycle police, including one speeder at "pistol's point". Many were well-known people of the time.

Car Crossing the Croton Dam Bridge Top Down at the Beach "Dad" Enjoys A Drive
"Autoist" Posing with Car Kear Family Automobile Ladies Enjoy the Ride

Written by Linda L. Kiederer
Photos courtesy of Town Clerk's Office, The Westchester County Historical Society and the North Castle Historical Society.

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