First Auto Races at Rockville Fair Speedway

If only the grandstands at the Rockville Fairgrounds could talk. The stories it could tell – it would tell stories of great racing – first on horses, bicycles and motorcycles, and then in cars. This grandstand could talk about the rich history of racing that took place on the half mile-long dirt track which attracted high-power cars operated by some of the most noted speed kings of the country.

The most delightful way to reach the Fair from Washington, DC was by trolley. The trolley line passed through one of the most beautiful suburbs of Washington and the fertile farms of Montgomery County. The landscape would have been just beginning to give a little evidence of the autumn harvest time approaching. The immense cornfields, with their large well-developed ears; the many orchards, with bright-colored apples; the deep green of the ripening meadow grasses, the contrasting freshly plowed furrows, in preparation for wheat sowing, make a rural landscape charming to all travelers.

The fairgrounds underwent great change in the early 1900s. The grounds were enlarged by the addition of about five acres. A half-mile race course was constructed, a new and grandstand was erected, and various other improvements were made to the buildings and grounds, all of which made the Rockville fairgrounds up-to-date in every respect. Montgomery County could well boast of the nicest fairgrounds in the State.

Early action shots like the ones in this post are rare, however, the following photographs were taken by Lewis Reed at the Rockville Fairgrounds in 1923. The photographs were from the first incarnation of the Fair, held by the Montgomery County Agricultural Society (1846-1932) in Rockville, and often known simply as the “Rockville Fair.”

THE FIRST RACE

From The Baltimore Sun, August 27, 1923:

This is the first year that a Rockville Fair has continued through Saturday. The extra day was added this time as an experiment, the management believing that by substituting new features the additional day could be made a success. Automobile races, the first ever held at Rockville, were the day’s principal attraction and they attracted a good-sized crowd.

Rockville Fair Auto Race Aug 1923

Rockville drew huge crowds for auto races. Rockville Fair, August 25, 1923. Photo by Lewis Reed

August 1923. Auto race, Rockville Fair

Dusty Action – 1923 photo of the exciting auto races at Rockville Fair. Five racers are just coming around the bend on this dirt track with their tires spinning up dust in their wake. Photo by Lewis Reed

August 1923 Auto race, Rockville Fair

Race car drivers deep in dust round a turn at the Rockville Fair auto races. Print made from a Lewis Reed glass negative.

August 1923 Auto race, Rockville Fair

High-powered race cars rounding a wide, sweeping curve at the Rockville Fair auto races, August 25, 1923. Print made from a Lewis Reed glass negative

August 1923. Auto race, Rockville Fair

Two-man race car. Some early race cars included both a driver and a ‘riding mechanic’. One of the key jobs of the second man in a race car was to look backward and alert the driver to what was going on behind him. Photo by Lewis Reed

Early race car drivers were required to have a riding mechanic, otherwise it was voluntary. Riding mechanics, who in addition to being lookouts, kept an eye on tire wear and would even hop out of the car and run back through the infield to get fuel.

This photograph was featured as a part of the ‘London Array’ Series of Impossible Engineering that was broadcast on January 24, 2019 on Discovery’s Science Channel. The photograph was used on the program that featured a segment on the development of the race car.

August 1923. Auto race, Rockville Fair

More dirt track action. Skinny tires make for slippery turns. Photo by Lewis Reed.

ALONG WITH AUTO RACES, AUTO POLO DEBUTED AT THE ROCKVILLE FAIR

Rockville Fair auto race

From The Washington Post, August 25, 1923

Note in the program above, that in addition to racing, there were two auto polo events.

WHAT ON EARTH IS AUTO POLO?

1923 Auto Polo

Given that early automobiles were marketed as replacement horses, it was inevitable that the game of auto-polo would be invented. The idea of playing polo with cars had been tossed around starting in about 1900. It took 10 years, and the Ford Model T, to make it practical.

In 1912, some people thought it would be a good idea to strip the bodies off Model Ts, and put together some two-car teams to whack a ball around with mallets. On July 12, they did just that, playing with oversized croquet mallets and a two-pound, basketball-sized ball. Two cars took the field, and two more tended their respective goals.

From The Daily News, Frederick, Maryland, August 24, 1923:

Thousands of people attended the Fair on Thursday, which was the biggest day of the week, at least from the attendance standpoint. By two-o’clock the grandstand was so crowded that even standing room was at a premium. The racing events of the afternoon were unusually good. As special grandstand features there were auto polo and stunt riding.

Any form of safety was completely absent, unless you count the occasional presence of a hat. The cars were protected with roll bars in back and around the radiator, but the drivers, not so much. The game consisted of five 10-minute periods. It was hard on drivers, cars, and the field. There was no limit on car substitutions, and as many as a half-a-dozen per team might be demolished during the game, along with the stands, goalposts, referees (on foot on the field) and anything else that got in their way.

1920s auto polo

1922 auto polo match in Los Angeles. The referees job is very dangerous as the cars careen about the field and smash into each other. Google stock image.

All we hope is that this lunatic game will not spread.
Automobile Topics, Nov. 16, 1912

AUTO RACES MARK END OF 5-DAY ROCKVILLE FAIR

From The Sunday Star, Washington, DC, August 26, 1923:

Thrilling automobile races brought the annual Rockville Fair to a close this afternoon. The sport was as innovation so far as Rockville was concerned.

Seven high-powered cars, operated by some of the crack drivers of the country, participated. The events ranged from one to ten miles in distance, and some fast time was made. Excepting that of Thursday, the largest crowd of the five days was on hand.

Auto Polo Credit: May 2010 issue of Hemmings Motor News

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About Reed Brothers

I am a co-owner of the former Reed Brothers Dodge in Rockville, Maryland. Lewis Reed, the founder of Reed Brothers Dodge was my grandfather. We were a family-owned and operated car dealership in Rockville for almost a century. I served in the United States Air Force for 30 years before retiring in the top enlisted grade of Chief Master Sergeant in July 2006. In 2016, I received the Arthur M. Wagman Award for Historic Preservation Communication from Peerless Rockville for documenting the history of Reed Brothers Dodge in both blog and book format. This distinguished honor recognizes outstanding achievement by writers, educators, and historians whose work has heightened public awareness of Rockville’s architectural and cultural heritage, growth and development.

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