IN THE BEGINNING...
by Tony Sakkis
October 24, 1997
A few minutes after the driver of the first motorcar met the driver of the second, the urge to race flourished. So goes the story.
But if there was at least one fan to watch that first impromptu test between men and their machines, someone felt compelled to organize the way it was run. Since then sanctioning and racing have gone hand in hand -- the relationship has usually been a tenuous one.
In 1894 the editor of French newspaper Le Petite Journal advertised an endurance contest from Paris to Rouen. It would award 5,000 Francs to the driver of the car "...that best met the criteria... without danger, easily handled, and of low running cost." In other words a car both technically and ethically superior, according to the judges.
Over 100 cars were entered in this, the world's first publicized, organized, and essentially professional automobile race.
The organizers didn't expect such a response, and in order to thin out the field, a qualifying run was created -- likely the first qualification session ever. The test: the drivers were to cover a 50 kilometer distance within three hours. The time was subsequently increased to four hours, since the projected speed of 10 MPH was deemed too dangerous.
The breakneck pace was still too much for some of the untested iron steeds, and only 21 vehicles qualified. In the end just 19 of the 100 aspirants actually made it to the starting line.
The race, or actually the time trial, started with the entrants leaving at 30 second intervals. The event began at 8:00 AM; the first car crossed the finish line in Rouen at 5:40 PM.
The winner of that first race was a de Dion but the driver was eventually disqualified as his "car" was ruled to be a tractor rather than an automobile. As a result, the prize money was split between a Panhard et Levassor and a Peugeot.
Not exactly the Indy 500, but the event was a success.
Every rose has its thorns, and every story has its antagonist. The significance of the world's first auto race (besides the formation of qualifying and newly created rules of motoring) was also the formation of the first actual committee for motorsports -- a veritable conspiracy to commit disorganization.
Designed to legislate rules for the popular motoring contests, this committee was created to find a happy medium between competition and technology. Or perhaps it was created to provide some entertainment for fans off the track. It all depends on how you want to look at it.
The race for 1895 was held at the same time of the year. This time it was wheel-to-wheel competition in which the field left at the same time, and had to cross the same finish line.
The committee's first rule was that the cars should be able to carry at least four passengers, which promptly caused the first sanctioning body/driver altercation as Emile Levassor was disqualified for racing a car that did not carry four passengers comfortably.
The second rule required the occupants to weigh a minimum of 60 kilograms to race, and the third banned British three-wheeled cars, giving the French entries a sure victory. Also, the cars had to be entered with parts manufactured completely within the entrant's country. In other words, a car could be completely manufactured in one country but would be excluded because it used tires from a different country.
Levassor won the next race -- which was changed to run from Paris to Bordeaux -- in a terrifying 15 mile an hour run, with a total time of over 48 hours of racing. During this event, Levassor never stopped, and drove without relief the entire time. It was a confusing time at best... and the sanctioning of auto racing went downhill from there.
There are now several hundred sanctioning bodies on the planet, and several thousand different racing series.
Things might have been easier had those first two driver never met.