Electric Car Wins First American Auto Race - 9/7/1896

History |

On September 7th of 1896, the United States held its very first auto race. The competition took place on a one-mile oval dirt track called the Narragansett Trotting Park in Cranston, Rhode Island. The track had been designed for horses, but the newfangled, high tech horseless carriages were all the rage in those days. 

The winner of the race was an electric car built by the Riker Electric Motor Company in Elizabeth, New Jersey. An article appearing in an issue of Scientific American from September of 1896 lists Andrew Riker as the first place winner of a “horseless carriage race” in Providence, Rhode Island. The prize awarded was $900. The fastest mile Andrew's car drove was two minutes and thirteen seconds.

The other six competitors in the race included another battery powered motor vehicle (which was built by the Electric Carriage and Wagon Company and came in second), as well as various internal combustion cars, including one with a steam engine, and several gas powered vehicles or hybrid models. The gas powered Duryea finished in third place.

Andrew Lawrence Riker, who started experimenting with electric vehicles in 1884 at the age of 16, would eventually found a car company in 1888, for the purpose of producing his prototype.

The Rhode Island State Fair was not Andrew Riker's only racing victory. On April 14th of 1900, Riker won the Springfield Babylon Springfield race, again with his electric motor car. The Riker Electric Motor Company would eventually be bought up by the Electric Vehicle Company in 1901. Riker was also a co-founder of the Society of Automotive Engineers in 1905. After that, he was hired as a development engineer for Loco mobile.

The race of 1896 was sponsored by the burgeoning automobile companies of the United States. Roughly sixty thousand people attended the event, with many more reading about it in periodicals of the time.

“Get a horse!” heckled the spectators as the cars heaved forth from the starting position. But the Riker Electric soon took the lead and won the race easily, finishing five laps (that's five miles) in about 15 minutes (that's about one mile every three minutes, or 20 miles an hour). 

The Cranston track lured so many spectators that cities all over the United States started building dirt ovals of their own. The original (Cranston) raceway got so much business they had to close it down for renovations in 1914. On the park's reopening, the new track was a paved superspeedway where cars could travel faster and go a hundred miles in a race.

On September 18th of 1915, approximately 50,000 spectators came again to the Cranston raceway, to watch the races at the new park, where celebrity driver Eddie Rickenbacker reigned victorious over other famous professional race car drivers.

Unfortunately, Rhode Island's enthusiasm for car racing went out of fashion when people started getting their own vehicles, and other forms of public entertainment became common. The Narragansett speedway went out of business in 1923. 

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