When the 1933 Ford V-8 Roadster owned by Wisconsin car collector Dana Mecum comes to Elgin on Saturday, Aug. 26, it will be that vintage auto's fifth visit to the city. And on its first visit, 84 years ago, it won the stock-car half of that year's Elgin National Road Race.
The roadster will be guest of honor at the 45th annual Elgin Road Race and Car Show, from noon to 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Sherman West Court, 1950 Larkin Ave. The Fox Valley Chapter of Model T Ford Clubs holds the event yearly to commemorate the nationally famous annual races that sped by the Sherman West Court site nine times between 1910 and the year that Mecum's roadster won, in 1933.
If you goWhat: 45th annual Elgin Road Race and Car Show
When: Noon to 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 26. Early registration and setup for autos 11 a.m.to noon, raffle at 2:30 p.m. Parade lap begins about 3:30 p.m.
Where: Sherman West Court, 1950 Larkin Ave., Elgin. Parade will follow 8.5-mile course along Larkin Avenue, Route 20, Coombs Road, Highland Avenue and McLean Boulevard.
Admission: Free; refreshments for sale.
Ken Barnhart of Elgin, one of the Model T Ford Club's directors, said 50 to 75 other vintage cars also are expected to be on hand this Saturday. At the free event, visitors can examine the cars and speak with their owners, buy food and beverages, and participate in a raffle. The day will hit a peak at about 3:30 p.m. with the cars lining up and driving parade-style along the original race's 8.5 miles.
But they will be driving with two differences, Barnhart notes: Instead of speeding at 60 to 80 mph, under conditions that led to several fatal crashes, this year's antique vehicles will be traveling at a safe, leisurely parade speed. And they will take that course -- along Larkin Avenue, Route 20, Coombs Road, Highland Avenue and McLean Boulevard -- in the opposite direction that the racers of 1910-1933 took it, "so they won't have to make any right turns and we don't have to block off oncoming traffic," Barnhart said.
"The Elgin Road Races started a year before the Indianapolis 500," said Daily Herald columnist and local historian Jerry Turnquist, who in 2010 led the effort to put up a state historical marker commemorating the races. It stands on the grounds of what is now Triumph National Bank.
"They were one of four Elgin claims to fame in that era," Turnquist said, along with the Elgin National Watch Co., the Illinois Watch Case Co. and the dairy industry centered around Borden Milk Co.
When the races began in 1910-1915, the roads their brave drivers used had none of today's asphalt pavement. They were just gravel country roads.
Wearing leather helmets and goggles, riding alongside a mechanic, nationally famous drivers like Eddie Rickenbacker (who would later become America's top World War I flying ace), "Smilin' Ralph" Mulford, Ralph DePalma and Barney Oldfield came to Elgin to compete. Mulford won the first race with an average speed of 62 and came back every year.
The races were held annually from 1910 through 1915, were suspended for three years during World War I, then resumed in 1919 and 1920. The 1910 and 1911 races allowed stock cars only, to make the race a demonstration of what the ordinary driver could purchase. After that, Indy-style cars designed just for racing also were allowed.
In a 2010 lecture about the races, Model T Ford Club director Maurice Dyer said each race included 36 laps, or 306 miles. They began on Larkin Avenue between where today's Jewel-Osco store and Larkin High School now stand. The side street named Grandstand Place is named because the judges' grandstand stood near that spot.
Dyer said the early races drew 75,000 to 100,00 spectators from all over the country. Most arrived in Elgin by train.
The second race, in 1911, seemed to be cursed. A few minutes after it began, the main grandstand collapsed. About 100 people were injured, four of them seriously. Then three racers were killed in crashes.
Two more racers were killed in 1914 when two cars bumped hubcaps. That sent one of the cars flying through the air over a line of spectators. It slammed into a tree, killing both its driver and its mechanic.
The racers started 15 seconds apart, with the winner based on total time elapsed. The ride-along mechanic was required to warn his driver if a faster car was approaching from the rear. If so, the driver was required to pull over and let the faster car pass.
In 1933, with the Great Depression paralyzing business, but hundreds of thousands of tourists crowding into Chicago for the Century of Progress World's Fair, Elgin leaders decided to try reviving the races. Separate races were held for stock cars and Indy-style cars, but the number of laps was reduced to make each just 203 miles long.
Barnhart said Henry Ford sent 10 different cars to that 1933 race, including the V-8 Roadster now owned by Mecum that won the stock car race with Fred Frame at the wheel. Frame averaged 80.22 mph. The Indy-style race that year was won by a Buick Special averaging 88 mph.
But historian E.C. "Mike" Alft wrote that the 1933 race was "a financial disaster" for the city. And speeds had risen to such levels -- one car was clocked going by the grandstand at 115 mph -- that city fathers began to imagine what would happen if one of those flew off the gravel road into the crowd. Racing had outgrown country roads and moved on to off-road paved tracks, like the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the later-to-come Meadowdale Raceway in Carpentersville.
Barnhart said that when the Model T Ford Club started holding the race re-creations and car shows 45 years ago, it used a variety of sites along the original course, including Larkin High School and Kimball Middle School, before settling on the Sherman West Court parking lot. Sherman West Court is not far from where the thousands of fans once jammed onto grandstands to watch the cars zoom past.
Barnhart said Mecum brought his 1933 Roadster to two previous Elgin Road Race car shows, including the 100th anniversary celebration in 2010, and brought it to the Elgin area for another event once. Mecum said in 2010 that he had restored the Roadster to its original condition and it "maintains the same livery as when Fred Frame crossed the finish line."