LeMans, Grand Prix, Bathurst, the Indy 500, car races are big business around the world, but there was a time when people believed these new horseless carriages were a novelty item, too flimsy for such an activity. In 1908, a race was organized to prove otherwise, in which six teams of drivers tried to be the first to get from New York to Paris. Considering the state of the automobile technology and the lack of road infrastructure at the time, that was no mean feat. Only three of the six competitors would even complete the course. The race was a 169-day ordeal, still the longest motorsport event ever held.
The starting line was set up in Times Square, on a gray morning, the 12th of February. The six driving teams competed under four flags, Germany, France, Italy and the United States. The French set off with the highest number of cars, as three distinct automobile manufacturers participated. The event brought almost 250,000 people on the streets of New York City to witness the start of the contest, considerably more crowd than the very first ball drop in New York at the New Year’s Eve celebration, welcoming 1908. The starter’s gun fired at 11:15 AM, 15 minutes late. Mayor George McClellan was supposed to fire the pistol, but he wasn’t there on time and apparently, an impatient bystander did the job and the racers took off. This was the first of many unexpected challenges.
The planned route would take the racers across the United States, north through Canada into Alaska, over the frozen Bering Strait to Siberia, across Russia to Europe and finally to Paris.
The decision to have the race rolling in the midst of winter-time added to the challenges of the racers. Drivers needed to stop often to repair their cars. They even used locomotive lines when it was impossible to find the road. Not the rails, though. The American car straddled the rails, bumping along on the ties for hundreds of miles. The Italian team complained that this was cheating. The car that would win had a 4 cylinder, 60 hp engine and a top speed of 60 mph. Cars of the day offered little in rider comfort or amenities, like a roof. They drove around the world, fifteen hours a day, in winter, in open-top cars without windshields. Antifreeze hadn’t been invented yet, so the radiators had to be drained each night.
While most teams were made of a driver and a mechanic, some teams included journalists, and even a poet, instead. The first car, a French Sizaire-Naudin, dropped out after only 96 miles, with a broken differential the could not repair. Another French team lost a man after they began stuck in the snow and the teammates began to fight. They were about to duel with pistols, when the mechanic fired his assistant, an Artic travel expert he would be sorely lacking later on. Not even in Iowa yet, the Italian car had mechanical troubles and the driver tried to cheat by loading the car onto a freight train. He abandoned the plan when a photographer caught him in the act. The car’s owner then sent him a telegram, received a cable from the owners of his car: “Quit race, sell car and come home.”
The American team, driving a Thomas Flyer, took the lead when crossing the United States. The team managed to arrive in San Francisco in 41 days, 8 hours, and 15 minutes, 9,000 miles ahead of the car in second place. This was actually the very first crossing of the US by an automobile in winter. The route then took the drivers to Valdez, Alaska, by ship. The American driver, George Schuster wasted no time investigating the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail in a single-horse sleigh, and concluded that the only way to cross Alaska in a car would be to dismantle it and ship the parts by dogsled. The Parisian race committee abandoned the idea of Alaska and the Bering Strait and ordered the Americans to return to Seattle. The new plan was for the cars to sail to Vladivostok and drive to Paris from there. While the Americans were still at sailing back to Seattle, their competitors arrived there and set sail for Russia. Then the Americans lost time getting their Russian visas in order. The Flyer had been the first to arrive on the Pacific coast but was now the last to leave, a weeks behind the competition. The race committee also decided that the American team was given an allowance of 15 days, meaning the remaining teams could beat them to Paris by two weeks and still lose, *and penalized the team that tried to use a train.
The driving resumed from Vladivostok, but by this point, there were only three competitors left: The German Protos, the Italian Züst, and the Flyer from America (not an American Flyer; a little red wagon wouldn’t fair well in these conditions). The drivers agreed to start again evenly matched. They had extreme difficulty finding petrol in Siberia, leading the French driver to try to bribe the other teams to let him ride on one of their cars, so he could still at least be *on a winning car. This prompted his sponsor to pull him from the race. The two two teams faced another set of major challenges as passing through the tundra realms of Siberia and Manchuria. The spring thaw turned the Asian plains into a seemingly endless swamp. Progress measured in *feet per hour, rather than miles. The driver had to push their cars as much as drive them and even resorted to hitch up teams of horses to pull them along. They also got lost, a lot. The racers couldn’t ask locals for directions as no one spoke Russian and a wrong turn could cost you 15 hours. Once they neared Europe, roads improved and the race sped up.
The Germans arrived in Paris on July 26, while the Americans were still in Berlin, but the 15 day allowance for the Americans and the 15 day penalty for the Germans meant that the Flyer had a month to drive to the next country. The American team arrived in Paris on July 30th, 1908, to win the race, having covered approx 16,700 km. Even though the victor had been declared, the Italians trove on and made it to Paris in September 1908. The victory meant huge recognition for Shuster, who in 2010 was also inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame. If you’re ever in Reno, NV, you can see the Flyer in the National Automobile Museum.
America’s first Olympics, held in 1904 in St. Louis as part of that year’s World’s Fair, stand unchallenged for the title of most bizarre. The Olympics’ signal event, the marathon, was conceived to honor the classical heritage of Greece and underscore the connection between the ancient and modern. The outcome was so scandalous that the event was nearly abolished for good. A few of the runners were recognized marathoners, rest could be described as “assorted.” There was a man who did all his training at night because he had a day job as a bricklayer, ten Greeks who had never run a marathon, two men of the Tsuana tribe of South Africa who were in St. Louis as part of the South African World’s Fair exhibit and who arrived at the starting line barefoot, and a Cuban mailman named Félix Carbajal, attired in a white, long-sleeved shirt, long, dark pants, a beret and a pair of street shoes, who raised money to come to the States by demonstrating his running prowess by running the length of the island. Upon his arrival in New Orleans, he lost all his money on a dice game and had to walk and hitchhike to St. Louis.
The race was run on August 30, starting at 3:03 p.m. If you know anything about daytime temperatures, that’s what we call hot time. Heat and humidity soared into the 90s. The course 24.85-mile course involved roads inches deep in dust, seven hills, varying from 100-to-300 feet high, some with brutally long ascents, cracked stone strewn across the roadway, the roadway that was still open to traffic, trains, trolley cars and people walking their dogs. There were only *two places where athletes could secure fresh water, from a water tower at six miles and a roadside well at 12 miles. Cars carrying coaches and physicians drove alongside the runners, kicking the dust up and launching coughing spells.
William Garcia of California nearly became the first fatality of an Olympic marathon we he collapsed on the side of the road and was hospitalized with hemorrhaging; the dust had coated his esophagus and ripped his stomach lining. Len Tau, one of the South African participants, was chased a mile off course by wild dogs. Félix Carvajal trotted along in his cumbersome shoes and billowing shirt, making good time even though he paused to chat with spectators in broken English. A bit further along the course, he stopped at an orchard and snacked on some apples, which turned out to be rotten. Suffering from stomach cramps, he lay down and took a nap. At the nine-mile mark cramps plagued Fred Lorz, who decided to hitch a ride in one of the accompanying automobiles, waving at spectators and fellow runners as he passed.
Thomas Hicks, the bricklayer, one of the early American favorites, begged his two-man support crew for a drink at the 10-mile mark. They refused, instead sponging out his mouth with warm distilled water. (Purposeful dehydration was considered a positive 115 years ago.) Seven miles from the finish, his handlers fed him a concoction of strychnine and egg whites—the first recorded instance of drug use in the modern Olympics. Strychnine, in small doses, was commonly used a stimulant. Hicks’ team also carried a flask of French brandy but decided to withhold it until they could gauge his condition.
Meanwhile, Lorz, recovered from his cramps, emerged from his 11-mile ride in the automobile. One of Hicks’ handlers saw him and ordered him off the course, but Lorz kept running and finished with a time of just under three hours. The crowd roared and began chanting, “An American won!” Alice Roosevelt, the 20-year-old daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, placed a wreath upon Lorz’s head and was just about to lower the gold medal around his neck when, one witness reported, “someone called an indignant halt to the proceedings with the charge that Lorz was an impostor.” The cheers turned to boos. Lorz smiled and claimed that he had never intended to accept the honor; he finished only for the sake of a “joke.” You know, it was just a prank, bro.
Hicks, pumping with strychnine, had grown ashen and limp. When he heard that Lorz had been disqualified he perked up and forced his legs to keep going. His trainers gave him another dose of strychnine and egg whites, this time with some brandy to wash it down. They fetched warm water and soaked his body and head. He began hallucinating, believing that the finish line was still 20 miles away. In the last mile he begged for something to eat, then he begged to lie down. He was given more brandy and two more egg whites. Swinging into the stadium, he tried to run but was reduced to a graceless shuffle. His trainers carried him over the line, holding him aloft while his feet moved back and forth, and he was declared the winner.
It took four doctors and one hour for Hicks to feel well enough just to leave the grounds. He had lost eight pounds during the course of the race, and declared, “Never in my life have I run such a touch course. The terrific hills simply tear a man to pieces.” Hicks and Lorz would meet again at the Boston Marathon the following year, which Lorz won fair and square. Bonus fact: The 1904 Olympics also saw gymnast George Eyser earned six medals, including three gold, despite his wooden leg.
While it’s usually easy for humans on a race course to navigate, how then do homing pigeons figure out where they are? A researcher at the US Geological Survey, Jonathan Hagstrum, has come up with a novel suggestion. It involves, of all things, pigeon races. In Europe, and to a lesser extent in the US, pigeon racing has become a passionately-followed sport for which birds are carefully bred and trained. Birds from many lofts are taken to a common distant location, released together, and their return speeds timed. 90% of the birds usually return within a few days, and eventually almost all do.
On Sunday, June 29, 1997, a great race was held to celebrate the centenary of the Royal Pigeon Racing Association. More than 60,000 homing pigeons were released at 6:30 AM from a field in Nantes in southern France, flying to lofts all over southern England, 400-500mi/640-800km away. By 11:00 AM, the majority of the racing birds had made it out of France and were over the English Channel. The fastest birds should have arrived at their lofts by early afternoon. But they didn’t.
A few thousand of the birds straggled in over the next few days. Most were never seen again. The loss of so many birds was a disaster of previously unheard proportions in the pigeon racing world. One bird could get lost, maybe a hundred, but tens of thousands?
A theory would later emerge. At the very same time the racing pigeons were crossing the Channel, 11:00 AM, the Concorde supersonic airliner was flying along the Channel on its morning flight from Paris to New York. In flight, the Concorde generated a shock wave that pounded down toward the earth, a carpet of sound almost a hundred miles wide. The racing pigeons flying below the Concorde could not have escaped the intense wave of sound. The birds that did eventually arrive at their lofts were actually lucky to be more tortoise than hare. They were still south of the Channel when the SST passed over, ahead of them. Perhaps racing pigeons locate where they are using atmospheric infrasounds that the Concorde obliterated. Low frequency sounds can travel thousands of miles from their sources. That’s why you can hear distant thunder. Pigeons can hear these infrasounds very well as they use them for navigation.
What sort of infrasounds do pigeons use for guidance? All over the world, there is one infrasound, the very low frequency acoustic shock waves generated by ocean waves banging against one another! Like an acoustic beacon, a constant stream of these tiny seismic waves would always say where the ocean is. This same infrasound mapping sense may play an important part in the long distance navigation of other creatures. It could explain how Monarch butterflies in the US are able to find one small locality in Mexico, or how Brazilian sea turtles are able to find their way to their homes on tiny Ascension Island a thousand miles out in the Atlantic. Even more valuable to a racing pigeon looking for home, infrasounds reflect from cliffs, mountains, and other steep-sided features of the earth’s surface. Ocean wave infrasounds reflecting off of local terrain could provide a pigeon with a detailed sound picture of its surroundings, near and far. The enormous wave of infrasound generated by the Concorde’s sonic boom would have blotted out all of the normal oceanic infrasound information. Any bird flying in its path would lose its orientation. The incident is referred to as the Great Pigeon Race Disaster. The Concorde stopped flying six years later, for reason unrelated to the pigeons.
Not every race goes to the swiftest, one was meant to go to the friskiest. Charles Vance Millar practiced law in Ontario for 45 years until his death in 1926. He was also a shrewd investor, which meant there was a nice fat bank account before his fatal heart attack. A lifelong bachelor with no close relatives, Millar wrote up a will that was as mischievous as he had been. For example, Millar would amuse himself by dropping dollar bills on the sidewalk and then watching the expressions of the people who bent to furtively pocket the cash. In death, Millar outdid himself in roguishness. He wrote “This Will is necessarily uncommon and capricious because I have no dependents or near relations and no duty rests upon me to leave any property at my death and what I do leave is proof of my folly in gathering and retaining more than I required in my lifetime.” He left the shared tenancy of a Jamaican vacation spot to three men who could not stand the sight of each other. He tested the resolve of teetotallers by leaving them shares in companies involved in the alcohol business. The Ontario Jockey Club is an august body whose membership is drawn from society’s upper crust, so Millar left shares in the club to an unsavoury character who existing members would find repellent and to two opponents of racetrack gambling.
He parcelled out much of his estate to test his theory that every person had a price; the only mystery being at what level would greed trump principle. But, it was Clause 9 of the will that caused the most fuss; it was the legacy that triggered a race to conceive. Simply put, he directed the residue of his estate be given to the Toronto mother who gave birth to the most children in the ten years immediately following his death. The money involved wasn’t chump change. By the time the race came to an end, the total prize was worth $750,000; that would be a bit more than $12 million today. What came to be called the Stork Derby was on, especially at the three year mark, when the Stock Market Crash of 1929 ushered in the Great Depression. You might have heard of it. With so many people experiencing unemployment and poverty, the pot of gold offered by Charles Millar was enticing, even if the attempt meant creating a *lot for mouths to feed.
Newspapers followed the fortunes and fecundity of the contestants closely. It was a welcome distraction from grim reality. Five women leading the pack, mostly lower income and already with a slew of children, became household names. Those five of most fruitful loins had delivered 56 kids between them, 32 of which had born by 1933. From Time Magazine from Christmas Eve 1934: “Last week in Toronto each of the two leading contenders for the prize money bore a child. Mrs. Frances Lillian Kenny, 31, gave birth to a girl, her eleventh child since the race began. Mrs. Grace Bagnato, 41, gave birth to a boy, her ninth …”
While citizens followed the race keenly, the Ontario provincial government was not amused. It called the maternal marathon “the most revolting and disgusting exhibition ever put on in a civilized country.”
Midnight on Halloween 1936 was the deadline for baby-birthing. On October 19, The Daily Journal-World of Lawrence, Kansas carried a story that started, “A hesitant stork circled uncertainly today over 1097 West Dundas Street with what looked like a $750,000 baby in his well-worn bill.” However, the productive resident of that address Grace Bagnato was soon disqualified from the derby; her husband turned out to be an illegal Italian immigrant and that didn’t sit well with the authorities. Everything old is new again, eh? Lillian Kenny, who had ten births to her credit, was also tossed out of the event because she had the misfortune to deliver two stillbirths and that was declared not to count. Pauline Clarke also gave birth ten times during the competition period but several of her babies were conceived out of wedlock; an activity deeply frowned upon at the time, so they were out.
As the final whistle blew, four women were tied at nine babies each. Annie Smith, Alice Timleck, Kathleen Nagle, and Isobel MacLean each received $125,000,or about $2mil today. Lillian Kenny and Pauline Clarke were handed consolation prizes of $12,500 apiece, or $20K. Mrs. Bagnato, got nothing.
When Millar’s law partner found the will he thought it was a joke rather than a legal document. Others thought its purpose was to tie the legal system into knots. According to The Canadian Encyclopedia, “The question of whether Millar intended his will to take effect or merely to amuse his lawyer friends remains in doubt.” The Ontario government, which had earlier huffed and puffed about the unseemly nature of the Stork Derby, tried several times to have Charles Millar’s will declared null and void. The premier, Mitchell Hepburn, had said it was “the duty of the government to stop this fiasco.”
A few of Millar’s *distant relatives popped up to challenge the will; hoping to score the jackpot. But, the will, and its Stork Derby clause, held up and, eventually, the Supreme Court of Canada said it was valid.
It’s pleasing to report that the winners handled their legacies sensibly and were able to buy homes and provide an education for their children. The winners, that is. Nobody knows how many women started the Stork Derby and then dropped out. However, by the end, at least two dozen mothers had produced at least eight babies. This placed an enormous burden on the families who were suffering through the Great Depression with 25% of Toronto families receiving government support in 1935.
The prize money was a direct result of Millar’s capricious nature. He once missed the ferry between Windsor, Canada and Detroit. This angered him so he bought the property that would eventually be used to construct the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel, which put the ferries out of business. It was money from this investment that largely funded the Stork Derby.
And that’s where we run out of ideas, at least for today. Some races go off the rails, but there are plenty that were made to be weird. Every year, young women line the streets of Moscow to run for a higher purpose – shopping. Glamour magazine hosts an annual stiletto race. Young women strap on their tallest heels (3.5”/9cm minimum), and run a 164ft/50 meter course in hopes of winning a $3,000 gift card. Most of the women taped their shoes to their feet, but that did not stop all the trips, slips, and falls. Thanks for spending part of your day with me.