Grand Prix auto racing may be the epitome of modern
motorsports, but if you trace its trail back to the
beginning, you discover that it all began because
the scion of New York newspapering couldn't keep
his pants zipped.
It was at his future in-laws' New Year's party in
1877 that James Gordon Bennett Jr. became so drunk
that when he heard the call of Nature, he simply
unzipped right there in front of friends and (future)
family and urinated into the fireplace.
"Gordon Bennett!" the British still exclaim
after they've seen something particularly shocking
Gordon Bennett Jr. was in his mid-20s when he took
over his father's newspaper, The New York Herald,
and in his mid-30s when his behavior became such
a scandal that he was banished from polite society
and sailed off to Europe (in his private yacht, the
301-foot Lysistrata). From Europe, he managed the
newspaper via trans-Atlantic cable (it was Gordon
Bennett Jr. who presumed to send reporter Henry M.
Stanley on a two-year quest to find the missing missionary
Dr. David Livingstone).
Gordon Bennett Jr. gave us the Sunday paper and
appreciated sports - and the publics' interest in
them - to the point of making athletics a major focus
of coverage. He also liked the newfangled motorcar.
As early as 1895, he and William K. Vanderbilt provided
funding for a race from Paris to Bordeaux. Gordon
Bennett Jr. promoted his new English-language Paris
Herald newspaper by offering the Coupe Internationale,
an international automobile race more commonly known
as the Gordon Bennett Cup because of the nearly 45-pound
silver trophy he commissioned as the winner's prize.
However, in a protest that would set a precedent
for the sport's future, displeasure with the rules
- which restricted entries to three vehicles per
nation -- led to the staging of the first Grand Prix,
at Le Mans in 1906, and thus set the wheels rolling
for what we know now as Formula One.
Gordon Bennett's cup was open to competitors
from any nation in which automobiles were produced.
The inaugural event took place in June 1900 on a
course from Paris to Lyons and drew entries from
several countries, including Germany and the United
Only five cars actually started and just two reached
the finish. Fernand Charron of France won, though
his Panhard struggled the final 10 miles after hitting
a dog. Leorce Girardot, also in a French Panhard,
was second, reportedly slowed by damage after his
car struck a horse.
France was host to the cup competition again in
1901, when the event was run as part of the Paris
to Bordeaux race and was won by Girardot. In 1902,
the Gordon Bennett Cup truly became international
with a course that crossed international borders
as it ran from Paris through Switzerland and on to
When a British car, a Napier driven by Selwyn Edge,
won, it was decided to allow England to host the
1903 event. Racing on roads already had been banded
in England, but Parliament passed an act allowing
the race to be held in a less populated area of Ireland,
where Belgian driver Camille Jenatzy posted the first
major international motorsports victory for Mercedes,
though many participants were not happy with the
way the German automaker circumvented the rules by
entering three cars under its own banner and three
more under the Austrian flag as Austro-Daimlers.
The 1904 event was held in Germany's Taunus Forest,
drew entries from eight countries and was considered
the single most important motorsports event on the
European continent that year. Frenchman Leon Thery,
driving a French Richard-Brasier, won in a stirring
duel over Jenatzy's Mercedes.
Thus, for 1905, the race - the final Gordon Bennett
Cup - would return home to France.
The Germans may have thought they were smart
by stacking the entry list in Ireland, but even
they could not have anticipated the sort of preparations
French firms would make for the 1905 finale.
Renault built a special, low-slung car to deal with
all the curves on the carefully selected route. Darracq
opted for a special lightweight car to cope with
the nuances of the circuit. Meanwhile, de Dietrich
went with horsepower - 130 horsepower! - for the
climb up the volcanic hills of the Auvergne region.
But even the French automakers' preparations paled
when compared to those by Michelin, the French rubber
company that was responsible for the race being based
in its hometown, Clermont-Ferrand.
Brothers Andre and Edouard Michelin had reaped a
harvest of publicity in 1895 when they were the first
to put pneumatic tires on a motorcar, their home-built
Éclair (Lightning), which they entered in
the Paris-Bordeaux race. The fledgling racers finished
ninth among 40 competitors. Afterward, the brothers
spread the word about driving on air by taking their
car - now bearing a sign proclaiming Michelin tires
to be le roi de la route (the king of the road) -
on a 2500-mile tour of the French road system.
By 1905 the brothers had become so convinced of
the potential of the motorcar that they convinced
French auto club officials to stage the Gordon Bennett
Cup event in their backyard. They even underwrote
preparations for the race to the tune of 200,000
francs, and offered to lay out the 85-mile route
around which the competitors would make three laps.
The route they selected, primarily on gravel roads,
included particularly tire-punishing twists and turns
through a region known for his volcanic hills and
mineral water spas. With 300 journalists in attendance,
the French spa business would benefit from the post-race
publicity. So would Michelin.
Michelin developed a new "antiskid" tire,
the Semelle, with a tread studded with steel rivets
to enhance grip and to extend tire life.
"Ordinary tires wouldn't have lasted 20 kilometers.
That's how impressive the Michelin tires are,"
Leon Thery said after his second consecutive Gordon
Bennett Cup victory. In fact, five of the first six
finishers rode on Michelin tires. One of five subheads
beneath the front-page banner proclaiming Thery's
victory "again" in the European edition
of the New York Herald proclaimed "Race Depended
More on Respective Excellence of Tires than on Any
Other Single Factor."
To further support the teams competing on their
tires, the Michelin brothers also created a new racing
tactic - the pit stop.
To celebrate the centenary of the last
Gordon Bennett Cup competition, some 150 vehicles,
ranging in age from an 1898 Leon-Bollee "tandem
seater" to a 1922 Amilcar CC, gather at Clermont-Ferrand
for one more lap around the original, and now paved,
About a third of the way around, the route enters
the village of Laqueuille, where each car, as it
passes a staging area, is surrounded by a dozen Michelin
technicians. Like many of the spectators in various
villages along the route, the technicians wear turn-of-the-20th-Century
style costumes. Four of them carry tires. With three
men at each corner of the vehicle, they simulate
the first pit stop, complete with hissing sounds
as though someone were actually deflating and removing
Until Michelin created the pit stop, changing a
tire could be a quarter-hour or longer ordeal for
racing teams. To make changing tires easier, the
Michelin brothers oversaw the paving special areas
along the route for the Gordon Bennett Cup race so
the service team's jacks would have a solid foundation.
Wheels still remained fixed to the chassis - it wasn't
until 1906 and the first Grand Prix at Le Mans that
Michelin created the removable rim, and it wasn't
until 1908 that the company produced the truly removable
wheel and thus the first spare tire -- but even in
1905 the choreographed Michelin pit stop could get
a car on its way in as little as three minutes.
The day after the race in 1905, the Herald reported
that Jenatzy, "with his customary skill, made
an impressive start, and tore away with a rush that
was positively startling. But it was only a rush.
Less than three minutes from the line he was "en
panne," (suffered a break down) and the minutes
slipped away ere he could get going again."
And once he did, the report continues, "he
punctured and ripped his tires several times."
In 2005, the Gordon Bennett Cup centenary was
a celebration, not a competition. The Schlumpf,
Beaulieu, Henri Malartre-Ville de Lyon and Peugeot
museums all brought cars, with Lord Montagu driving
the Beaulieu's 1914 Vauxhall Prince Henry and Thierry
Peugeot, part of the eighth generation to run the
car company that bears his family's name, in a 1901
Peugeot Type 26.
Robert Panhard drove a 1908 Panhard Biplace built
by his great-grandfather, who also built the Gordon
Bennett Cup winners in 1900 and 1901. Another great
grandson, Edouard Michelin, drove a 1907 Brasier
that the company's historical vehicle department
and French restoration specialist Jean Gallabrun
had just finished bringing back to life.
"We were very happy to find this car,"
said Michelin, calling the Brasier racer "a
little sister" to the car that Thery had driven
to victory 100 years earlier.
Three cars that participated in Gordon Bennett Cup
races in 1903 or 1905 were still around for the centennial
celebration - two Napiers and a 1903 Mercedes 60
Meanwhile, the 1902 Delaugere Type E and the 1903
Maxim 16HP that took part were the last remaining
vehicles of their type in existence. The 1913 Peugeot
139A was one of two remaining and the 1913 Alba 8
HPR 4063 was one of only three such cars still in
existence, organizers said.
Perhaps just as impressive, the 1907 Clement-Bayard
AC4J has been housed in the same garage in France
ever since it was purchased as a new car 98 years
The cars - representing more than 80 marques and
eight countries -- and their owners had assembled
in Clermont-Ferrand by Thursday. On Friday, they
drove an 80-mile route to the northeast of the city,
ending at Vulcania, parc Europeen du volcanisme,
which would be the departure point for the historic
route on Saturday.
Villages along the route staged festivals to celebrate
the old cars coming through, and crowds had gathered
at seemingly every intersection in the French countryside
between the towns to cheer and photograph the cars.
At one of the final stops, at Pontgibaud, Michelin
unveiled a replica of the merry-go-round it had constructed
more than 100 years ago to demonstrate the enhanced
ride quality provided by its air-filled tires. The
wooden structure carried two carts -- one with a
solid tire, one with a pneumatic - around a bumpy
circle so anyone could experience the difference.
After a banquet Saturday night, the cars spent Sunday
making laps around Charade, the five-mile, 33-turn
hilltop racetrack that four times between 1965 and
1972 was the site of the French Grand Prix, a race
begun, remember, because of displeasure over the
rules that governed the Gordon Bennett Cup, proving,
once again, what goes around comes around, even a
[Photography by Rick Dole]