Rockville Auto Races, August 25, 1923
Interestingly, horses made the first automobile speed races possible. Harness racing was one of the main attractions at the Rockville Fair race track before the introduction of the automobile and the subsequent popularity of racing cars. The race track was a half-mile dirt racing oval with wide, sweeping curves and a grandstand for spectators, and was easily adapted for bicycles, harness racing, and the sport of car racing.
The use of horse tracks for racing brought another change – the switch from amateur drivers to professionals. Cars were getting bigger and faster, and racing was becoming too dangerous for “gentlemen.” What had begun as entertainment for wealthy car owners had become a professional sport.
From The Evening Star (Washington, DC) 24 August 1923
ROCKVILLE AUTO RACES LISTED FOR TOMORROW
Speed records will be placed in jeopardy at Rockville Fair tomorrow afternoon when a half score of professional drivers will compete in a seven-event program.
Featuring the program is the record trials in which Frank Ripple, Canadian speed star and dirt track champion will drive his 140 horsepower aeroplane motor in an effort to hang up some new marks. Every driver on the track will be eligible to enter the time events, but speed fans look to Ripple.
Two foreign machine and six American-built cars are listed to start.
Early action shots like the ones below are rare, however, Lewis Reed was there to capture six epic moments of race history through the lens of his camera that day.
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.
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.
ALONG WITH AUTO RACES, AUTO POLO DEBUTED AT THE ROCKVILLE FAIR
Note in the program above, that in addition to racing, there were two auto polo events.
WHAT ON EARTH IS 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.
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