Days of Thunder: LI’s Vanderbilt Cup Races

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Before Robert Moses built Long Island’s vast suburban parkway infrastructure, the Long Island Motor Parkway already had the distinction of being the first built exclusively for the automobile. 

The road was constructed in response to the overwhelming popularity of the Vanderbilt Cup Races, held on Long Island from 1904 to 1910, which at the time was the most prestigious racing event in the world.

PRESERVING LONG ISLAND HISTORY

The Vanderbilt Cup Races and its rich history still excite racing enthusiasts and historians today. Its legacy has been painstakingly researched, recorded and preserved by Howard Kroplick, the world’s leading authority on the history of the Vanderbilt Cup Races and Long Island Motor Parkway.

Kroplick, a native Long Islander who resides in East Hills, is a historian, author and car collector. He serves as the Town of North Hempstead’s historian, and is also the author of three books:     “Images of Sports: Vanderbilt Cup Races of Long Island,” “Images of America: The Long Island Motor Parkway” (co-authored with Al Velocci), and “Images of America: North Hempstead.” 

Kroplick’s passion for preserving the past has led him to volunteer on numerous boards and committees dedicated to designating and preserving Long Island’s history.

As a result of Kroplick’s research, he amassed more than 75,000 images, 2,500 reference sources, and more than 150 pieces of memorabilia, giving the public a fascinating look into early automobile racing and the history of Long Island.

Yet it is Kroplick’s prized possession, the 1909 Alco Black Beast, which has forever cemented a spot in racing history as the only racecar to ever win two Vanderbilt Cup Races on Long Island.

THE ALCO BLACK BEAST

In 1968, the rusted remains of an old car were found in a barn in Cleveland, Ohio. Its eventually uncovered provenance was rife with all the ingredients of an epic adventure.

The fabled car’s story begins in 1909, when the American Locomotive Company (Alco)—the nation’s second-largest producer of steam-powered railroad engines—was searching for an effective marketing tool to promote its 3-year-old automobile division.

Their answer was to build a racecar adapted from a French design, officially naming the creation Bête Noire, “The Black Beast.”

According to Kroplick, when workers were painting its name on  the chassis, the speedometer cable got in the way, resulting in the omission of the “e” in Noire—making the  error a conversation starter.

The Black Beast boasted a wheelbase of 134 inches and weighed 3,306 pounds. It was powered by a six-cylinder “T-head” engine, one of the first such racecars ever produced, with a four-speed transmission and double-chain drive. With a top speed of 121 miles per hour, The Black Beast was fast.

Over the years, the racecar changed owners many times, and when Kroplick finally acquired it in 2008, it was nearly 100 years old.

“I bought this car from a vintage car dealer in Belgium,” he says. “I didn’t even know if it would start.  When I got it to my Roslyn garage, it started quickly and it was spitting fire.”

 

WILLIE K: THE RESTLESS HEIR

Referee Willie K. Vanderbilt (left)

Referee Willie K. Vanderbilt (Left)

A resident of Lake Success, Vanderbilt was affectionately know as “Willie K.” He was an avid sportsman who was a speed enthusiast on land and water, and spent much of his time in Europe racing cars.The Vanderbilt Cup Races were engineered by William K. Vanderbilt, Jr. (right), the great-grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt and heir to the Vanderbilt railroad fortune.

Willie K. believed that European races could be replicated on Long Island, and that at the same time, the race would encourage American automobile manufacturers to make better products. Vanderbilt proposed using about 28 miles of public Long Island roads to accomplish this goal.

Once the race was announced and the word spread, The Vanderbilt Cup Races became the first major international automobile race ever held in the United States.

1904: THE INAUGURAL VANDERBILT CUP RACE

According to Kroplick, the Vanderbilt Cup Races were the Super Bowl of that era. This race was the first international road race in America, and provided a forum for drivers to test their daredevil skills as spectators flocked to watch the battle between France, Germany, Italy and the United States to see who had the fastest car and the most skilled driver.

The idea was first met with considerable resistance. There were a number of lawsuits, and farmers objected, arguing they needed the roads to transport their goods to market, and by closing the road for the race, they would lose money.

Crowds peer down the road on the 1904 Vanderbilt Cup Race Course

Crowds peer down the road on the
1904 Vanderbilt Cup Race Course

Only a few days before the race, Nassau County supervisors and judges approved the use of public roads, such as Jericho Turnpike and Hempstead Turnpike.

The competition was fierce, and limited to five entries from each country—with the cars required to be manufactured within the nations they represented.

Kroplick estimates that in 1904, the population of Nassau County was about 55,000, and that an astonishing 50,000 spectators flocked to Long Island to watch these races.  Many came by train from New York City, some arriving the night before, celebrating the event with dancing, singing and gambling. 

Willie K. loved to compete, but as a rule he never drove in his own races, thinking it was inappropriate to win a trophy he’d donated. Instead, he served as a referee.

The Start/Finish line for the race was on Jericho Turnpike in Westbury, and as the anticipation rose throughout the crowd, Willie K. waved the first car off on Saturday, October 8, 1904, at 6 a.m.

The spectators lined the course, with many venturing onto the road to watch for the next car to appear.  Some of the racecars approached at speeds of 100 mph, making the road extremely dangerous for the spectators and drivers.

Along the course, the cars had to stop to be inspected in Hicksville and Hempstead, and were led by bike-riding officials through some towns and over railroad tracks.

The first race was raucous, and was described as “pandemonium” by the press. Kroplick says the race always made the front page of Tne New York Times.

Racecar drivers were accompanied by what were called “mechanicians,” —  a cross between a mechanic and technician, according to Kroplick.

The mechanician was the navigator, and would look over his shoulder to see what was happening during the race, as there were no rearview mirrors on the cars. He was also responsible for pressurizing the fuel pump, using a hand pump. It was a dangerous job, and a few mechanicians were injured or perished while racing.

The Vanderbilt Cup, an elaborate, 30-pound, silver cup designed by Tiffany’s was the winning prize. The coveted cup attracted racers from all over the world who wanted to possess it.

1905: CHICKEN ALÁ KEENE 

Foxhall Keene driving his Mercedes in the 1908 Vanderbilt Cup Race

Foxhall Keene driving his Mercedes in the 1908 Vanderbilt Cup Race

Millionaire sportsman and Wall Street wizard, Foxhall Keene of Old Westbury, was considered the greatest Long Island racecar driver for the Vanderbilt Cup Races, Kroplick says. He raced twice, in 1905 and 1908.

Keene had a huge fan base. They cheered him on at the start of the 1905 race, which was on Jericho Turnpike in Mineola. Keene was running third when he hit a telegraph pole at IU Willets Road and Willis Avenue in Albertson. He and his mechanician were not seriously injured, but they were out of the race. In 1908, he had car trouble, and again could not complete the race.

According to food historians, the Chicken ala King (originally Keene) dish was created by chef Charles Ranhofer when Keene was dining at Delmonico’s Restaurant in New York, naming the now-famous dish of chicken in a rich, creamy sauce after the famous driver.

1906: PAVING THE WAY FOR THE FUTURE OF RACING

Long Island Motor Parkway

Map of the Long Island Motor Parkway

Year after year the racing event grew, and in 1906 the crowd was estimated to be more than 250,000, exceeding even Willie K.’s expectations.

Because of the crowd swell, it became impossible to keep everyone off the course. As a result, one spectator was killed during the race.

Things had to change, and Willie K. knew that building a paved private road would not only be safer to race on, but would benefit Long Island’s economy by enabling more people to drive safely further east.

According to Kroplick, Willie K. met with his business associates at the Garden City Hotel to discuss the need for a private toll road from Queens to Riverhead, with sections to be used for the Vanderbilt Cup Races.

1908: A LONG ISLANDER WINS THE CUP

Long Islander George Robertson wins the race

Long Islander George Robertson
wins the race

By the time the 1908 race came around, nine miles of Motor Parkway were completed. Public roads still had to be used to finish the course, which eventually ran 44 miles, from Fresh Meadows, Queens to Lake Ronkonkoma. 

The crowd that year was estimated to surpass 200,000. Kroplick says the heart of the race was from Merrick Avenue to Massapequa/Hicksville Road.  The grandstands, which seated about 5,000 people, were located in Hempstead Plains (now the heart of Levittown), and filled to capacity.

The winner was Long Island’s George Robertson, driving an American-built Locomobile that was manufactured in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

1909: THE END IS NEARING

There were 15 entrants that year, including The Black Beast. The weather for this race was much colder than usual, and the race started later in the morning than the usual daybreak. The later time and the colder temperatures thinned the crowd to nearly 75,000. The Black Beast was driven to victory by Harry Grant, with an average speed of 62.8 mph.

Harry Grant, the only driver of the Alco Black Beast

Harry Grant, the only driver of the Alco Black Beast

1910: THE LAST VANDERBILT CUP RACE ON LI

The 1910 race had an earlier start time, which drew an estimated 300,000 spectators, who engaged in the all-night revelry that previous races were known for. 

Thirty cars started that year, the largest number ever for a Vanderbilt Cup Race.

It proved to be deadly, however, with a major accident claiming the life of Louis Chevrolet’s mechanician. Another mechanician perished, and several spectators suffered injuries, in a series of accidents. 

For the second time, The Black Beast, driven by Harry Grant, won the race, with an average speed of 65.1 mph, the fastest time ever for the Vanderbilt Cup Races.

The press turned against the race, declaring it too dangerous, and it was the last time a Vanderbilt Cup Race was held on Long Island before travelling the country from 1911 to 1916.

NEXT STOP: INDY 500

The following year, on May 30, 1911, the world of motor sports was changed forever. 

Forty vehicles, mostly passenger cars that were stripped down, began a treacherous, 500-mile race from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, now called “The Greatest Spectacle of Racing.”

One of the favorites to win was The Black Beast, driven by Harry Grant—the only man ever to race the car. The Black Beast came in 33rd out of 40 contestants, and left the race due to a bearing failure.

For more than 100 years, the Indy 500 Race has been held at the same venue. At its 100th anniversary in 2011, Kroplick was invited, along with The Black Beast, to participate in a parade lap at the Indy 500. Two-time Indy winner Emerson Fittipaldi drove The Black Beast, with Kroplick acting as the mechanician.

During the parade lap, the race’s 1911 winner, The Marmon Wasp, broke down. As a result, Fittipaldi and Kroplick guided The Black Beast first across the finish line.

“We were waiting 100 years for that finish at the ‘Brickyard,’” says Kroplick.

THE VISIBLE LINKS TO THE VANDERBILT CUP RACES

Although the Vanderbilt Cup Races were moved off Long Island, there is still visible evidence of that era in many places.

In 2011, a group that included Kroplick created the Long Island Motor Parkway Preservation Society, dedicated to keeping the memory of the historic road alive. Today, the group has more than 350 members.

There are still 13 miles of the original Long Island Motor Parkway—also known as Route 67 in Suffolk—that is used as a main thoroughfare.

The original parkway was 44 miles long, and Kroplick says, there are remnants of the road throughout Long Island, from Queens to Lake Ronkonkoma. Some toll lodges were made into homes, and one was restored and is used by the Garden City Chamber of Commerce.

Today, 13 Alco-built cars and trucks are known to exist. The Black Beast is the only known Alco racecar in existence. As for the Vanderbilt Cup, Kroplick has traced its whereabouts to the Maryland storage facilities of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

After repeated attempts to see the cup for himself, Kroplick was finally permitted to view it in 2009. He and Stephanie Gress, curator of the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum, were led to a small storage room, where they were surprised by what they encountered.

“It was like the movie ‘Raiders of the Lost Arc,’” Kroplick says. “When we opened the door, there was a stuffed bear showing his teeth, and relics everywhere.” 

Emerson Fittapaldi (left) with Howard Kroplick driving the Black Beast at the 2011 Indy 500 Race (parade lap)

Emerson Fittapaldi (left) with Howard Kroplick driving the Black Beast at the 2011 Indy 500 Race (parade lap)

Kroplick reports that the cup is in excellent shape and was told it would be available for a Smithsonian exhibition sometime soon.

Kroplick shares his passion for his car and the Vanderbilt Cup Races by displaying The Black Beast at many car shows and events. It was named “Most Outstanding Vintage Car Pre-1910” at the prestigious Greenwich Concours d’Elegance.

As Willie K. had hoped, all who participated in The Vanderbilt Cup Races significantly influenced the automotive industry while in its infancy.

American automakers were nearly forced to produce a better product than their European counterparts, due in part to the competitive nature of the races.

“The Vanderbilt Cup Races had a far-reaching impact on the development of the American automobile and parkways,” Kroplick says. “They are a testament to the early racing spirit and drama that originated right here on Long Island.”

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