In 1904 William Kissam Vanderbilt II introduced the world to the Vanderbilt Cup. It was an international racing event with an eye to motivate American car manufacturers into taking part in race culture. A large cash price was offered to the winners of the race and it drew in competitors from both America and Europe, some being previous competitors of Europe’s own Gordon Bennett Cup. The first race was held in New York’s Nassau County to much controversy, public hearings were held and legal actions were taken however Vanderbilt persevered and prevailed. The First Vanderbilt Cup race was held on October 8th 1904.
Vanderbilt himself was member of the prominent American family of the same name. The Vanderbilt family wealth was founded upon the fortunes of Cornelius Vanderbilt, an American business tycoon of the 19th Century who built his wealth in shipping and railroads. William was president on the New York Central Railroad, this teamed with a healthy trust fund and the inheritance of his father’s multimillion dollar fortune meant he was an extremely wealthy man. William’s life was filled with leisure activities, though none would peak his interest more than his love for automobile racing. He even set a land speed record in 1904 (clearly a very busy year for William) driving a Mercedes at the speed of 92.30 mph.
The first race travelled a course that measured just over thirty miles across public roads on Long Island. Ten laps of this course were run by a total of 18 different contestants from USA, France, Italy and Germany. The lower classes were generally not interested in the event, considering modern automobiles as a folly to entertain the wealthy, the upper classes however fully embraced the event and showed up to spectate in their masses. It’s estimated approximately 25,000 to 50,000 people lined the course, in fact they were so dangerously close that they were almost part of the event themselves.
The race was a success and became an annual event however it wasn’t long until these dangerously close crowds became an issue. In the 1906 race a member of the audience was killed in an incredibly unfortunate accident and the race was cancelled. Vanderbilt knew changes must be made in order to keep the race running at a safe level. To fix the problem he devised a way to not only solve the safety issue but allow more people to attend the races. He built the Long Island Motor Parkway, a road that would be used for the race but also as easy access to Long Island. Construction on the road began in 1907 and the following year saw the race take place there. Coincidentally that same year saw the first win for an American manufacturer since the race had began, much to the delight of the spectators.
After, the race ran intermittently until its final run in 1968. Today the Trophy is held at the Smithsonian Institution storage facility hidden away from the masses. Though it may be absent from the public eye it’s influence can be seen in every American sports car and race today and should never be forgotten.