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posted: 8/5/2010 12:01 AM

Historic Marker, Festivities to Commemorate Centennial of Elgin Road Races

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  • Frank Briscoe's Elgin Piston and Pin Special car goes airborne at nearly 95 mph on "The Hump" on Highland Avenue in the 1933 races.

      Frank Briscoe's Elgin Piston and Pin Special car goes airborne at nearly 95 mph on "The Hump" on Highland Avenue in the 1933 races.
    Photo courtesy Elgin Area Historical Society

 

Anyone a bit familiar with Elgin's history will tell you the city was home to the world's largest watch making complex for a century.

Still others are aware the area was a dairy capital for decades.

But, a shorter-lived reputation that is sometimes overlooked is that the city was also an automobile capital, attracting some of the world's best drivers and cars, for just over a decade.

That will change a bit this weekend as the city dedicates a state historical marker and has other activities planned to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the first Elgin Road Race.

Newspapers and other publications in the collection of the Elgin Area Historical Society report the Elgin races got their start following similar races in Crown Point, In. in 1909. Sponsored by the Chicago Motor Club, the contest had some very disappointing results and a new course was being considered.

Frank Wood, a local car owner and racing enthusiast, who had promoted various racing contests including an Elgin "hill climb," interested organizers in a course west of Elgin. The route touted by Wood had no steep hills, cross roads, railroad tracks, or towns to pass through.

Proposed was an 81/2-mile route that traveled west along Highland Avenue to Coombs Road south to Route 20, east to McLean Boulevard and north to Highland Avenue. The Illinois National Guard, which held summer encampments in Elgin, could be used for security, Wood added.

Wood's idea was positively received, but it wasn't until May 1910 that the Elgin Automobile Association was formed to officially carry forward the plans. The association sold corporate stock, canvassed local businesses for donations and bargained with the farmers along the course who would receive a portion of the profits for the use of their land.

The association offered cash prizes of $1,000, $300 and $200 to the fastest drivers. The first place winner also received a large silver traveling trophy donated by the Elgin National Watch Company costing over $4,000 and weighing over 40 pounds.

Anticipation increased in the weeks ahead as automobile manufacturers announced they would be sending their cars and some noted drivers including Ralph Mulford, Barney Oldfield and Eddie Rickenbacker.

Of the $20,000 raised by the promoters almost half was to be directed toward road improvements. This included extensive grating that was done with hand labor and horse drawn equipment. Coombs Road, in particular, which stretched from "Hairpin Turn" at Highland Avenue to "Graveyard Bend" at Route 20 required a great deal of attention.

As race day approached, drivers set up camps along the course. Most drove the route over and over again to familiarize themselves with the route. Some also had their wives as passengers.

History was made during the last week of August 1910 when an estimated 100,000 people arrived in the city. Some came from as far away as Texas and Canada.

The Elgin races were actually three events based on engine size. The Elgin National Road Race designed for the largest cars was a 305 mile race consisting of 36 laps around the track. The winner was "Smiling" Ralph Mulford who drove his Lozier an average of 62.5 mph.

The first Elgin Road Race was a huge success. Plans were made to make the race an annual affair. Races were held again in 1911, 1912, 1913, 1914 and 1915.

After being suspended during World War 1, the races resumed again in 1919 and 1920. The final two years of racing saw the race reduced to one day and the course reduced to 255 miles.

Objections by farmers and the increasing number of automobile owners brought an end to racing after 1920.

In 1933, a new city council and a group of promoters hoped to restore the races to their original grandeur. While newspapers touted the race as a success, the deepening Depression and the lack of interest led to an end of racing after this revival.

But, the legacy of the road races lives on. Grandstand Place on the city's west side reminds us of a portion of the course near that street. There is also an historical marker placed by the Elgin Area Historical Society in 1970 in front of the Larkin High School driver education building - a site not far from the race's start/finish line.

Elgin's racing heritage will also gain new recognition on Saturday, Aug. 7 when an Illinois State Historical Marker sponsored by the Elgin Area Historical Society will be erected along the "south leg" of the course.

The marker will be located in front of the THE National Bank located at the southeast corner of Route 20 and Nesler Road.

Funds raised by the Elgin Area Historical Society will also allow for the erection of a smaller interpretive marker, notes society treasurer Bill Briska.

A centennial commemoration will be held on Sunday, Aug. 8 at Sherman West Court by the Fox Valley Chapter of the Model T Club. This celebration will include various events including a portrayal of Eddie Rickenbacker and a viewing of the car that won the 1933 races.

The Model T Ford Club will conclude the day by driving the racecourse - something that members have done annually for nearly four decades.

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