It happened today - November 28, 2015

On November 28, 1895, Frank Duryea did something unprecedented in American history. He entered a car race. What’s more, he won it.

Not many people even entered. The Chicago Times-Herald had sponsored the race to drum up the fledgling U.S. car industry. And fledgling is the right word; Duryea’s victory bagged him $2000 back when that was real money and sufficient publicity to make his and his brother’s Motor Wagons company the leading auto manufacturer in America, with a breathtaking 13 sales in the following year. Talk about volume.

As for the race itself, it was meant to go 92 miles, from Chicago to Waukean, Illinois and back (and you had to carry an umpire to make sure you didn’t take a sneaky short cut). But a snowstorm forced organizers to shorten it to 50 miles, to Evanston and back. One journalist wrote that with eight inches of snow “Waukegan might as well have been Timbuktu.” To be honest, for my money it might still be. But that’s not the point.

The point is that Duryea made the trip in 10 hours. So he set a blistering 5 mph pace. Which is easy to ridicule until you hear that thanks to the weather only six cars out of the registered 89 even got to the start line, including two electric cars that promptly died and three Benz cars of which exactly one finished at all.

I love the rules of the race, including that you had to have at least three wheels. I presume they meant at the beginning and the end; the way those cars were built you never knew what might fall off next. Think pre-Wright brothers airplanes on tires wrapped in string. (Seriously, to give something politely referred to as traction in the snow). But here’s the thing.

Much as we admire the skill and courage of modern race-car drivers who achieve genuinely spectacular speeds, and the incredible machines in which they race, Duryea’s feat was actually more difficult and remarkable because the technology was less advanced.

Do not mistake technical progress for the real thing. And remember Frank Duryea, who dared to enter and somehow win a “car race” that almost no one else could even start that had never been seen in the land before.

It happened todayJohn Robson