The First And Last Time Henry Ford Ever Raced

The month of October can mean many things to many people. It’s enjoyed by numerous folks who celebrate a specific day of the month as their “birthday.” While it may not be listed with an official date of birth anywhere, you could call it the month that Ford Motor Company, as we know it, was conceived— if not born.

It always amazes us how during the emergence of the American automobile industry, the paths of charismatic individuals inter-weave with the societal mindset of the day to create the fabric with which the American automobile industry was built from. A case in point is Henry Ford and the company that would bear his name for over 100 years.

It can be said that inventors and innovative types are compelled to create. Looking for avenues to vent their creative urging and driven by their passions, they solidify thoughts from their mind’s eye so the rest of the world can catch up. For Henry Ford, and many others during the dawn of the last century, the blooming automobile market was a ripe, open plain for new ways of thinking.

There could be no better name for the car that would participate in the “winner take all” battle that played out over a century ago. “Sweepstakes” would carry Henry and Spider into the history books and open the checkbooks of many investors going forward.

The world was changing from horse-drawn carriages to horse-LESS carriages, which would become known as the automobile. Henry Ford was no stranger to this emerging technology, as he had grown up during the horse-propelled era and was watching the petrol-based future forming before his eyes. He had already built and sold his first “Quadracycle” prototype and had used that money to create his first automobile manufacturing company, the Detroit Automobile Company. After renaming it The Henry Ford Automobile Company, disputes arose between Henry and investors. Upon Henry Ford leaving the company, it was then changed to the Cadillac Motor Car Company, which is now part of General Motors.

Henry was again, looking for a sheet to hang his shingle, and in one of the greatest examples of the saying, “What wins on Sunday sells on Monday,” Henry took one of the biggest risks of his life- literally. The horseless carriage was red-hot in and around Detroit and the gospel of gas-driven autos expanded through huge congregations of onlookers coming to watch these contraptions out-do each other on improvised race tracks.

Some highly-celebrated names in racing were just starting to work their way to the front of the pack and Henry knew that if he could work his way up through the crowd with them, he could capture the hearts and minds of both buyers, and investors. That’s what he set out to do!

Building A Sweepstakes Winner

The Detroit Driving Club planned a grand event on October 10th, 1901 at the Grosse Point, Blue Ribbon horse-racing track. It was hoped the event would draw some of the famed names highlighted in the emerging auto industry. One of those was a flamboyant Alexander Winton. Already an established entrepreneur and accomplished race car driver, it was hoped by event promoters Mr. Winton’s appearance would draw in the crowd. It did, and luckily for Henry Ford, it drew in investors and enthusiasts alike.

Henry’s contender against Mr. Winton was a group effort between the car’s designer Oliver Barthel, Ed “Spider” Huff (who did all the electrical work on the car); a pair of machinists to make the necessary parts, Ed Verlinden and George Wettrick, and metal bender Charlie Mitchell.

Henry and “Spider” Huff pose for a publicity shot after winning the race against Alexander Winton.

Henry Ford and his small team began to build an automobile to take on the likes of Alexander Winton and in a few, short months, they had an automobile to do it. Described as a mix between a baby carriage and a grand piano, the car, named “Sweepstakes,” was an all-or-nothing bet for Henry Ford.

Focusing on function over form, Henry powered his ugly contender with a twin-cylinder, 538 cubic-inch, two-cylinder engine which was conservatively rated at 26 horsepower. Imagine, Ford’s first race car’s engine was larger than a Dodge Viper’s! But in racing, size doesn’t ALWAYS matter. Rather than rely on flamboyance to capture the eyes of the crowd, Henry correctly chose reliability. In the end, this would make all the difference.

When A Sprint Becomes An Endurance Race

The event promoters envisioned a grand affair for the event, which would culminate into the “big race,” a 25-lap endurance race, which would reveal the winner of the event. Endurance proved to the Achilles heel of the event since, after a full day of racing, only three cars were still in well enough condition to drive to the starting line under their own power! The decision was made to convert the 25-lap endurance trial into a 10-lap sprint race.

As many modern racers can attest, you can focus on the sprint, but you STILL have to deal with the endurance! That fact was never highlighted more clearly, than in the case of an ugly car called Sweepstakes. At the start of the race, it was obvious that Alexander’s car had more power. A quick pull into the lead by the heavier, higher-horsepower car was only short-lived when after a few laps, Winton’s car began sputtering and belching smoke.

Henry and his mechanic rider, “Spider” Huff, were soon catching Alexander and on the eighth lap, they passed the race’s “sure bet” with Sweepstakes. Horses didn’t have ignitions, and without any prior experience, those early designers were trying all sorts of things to help ensure the best spark possible. On Sweepstakes, Henry utilized dental porcelain to isolate the spark coils, an early precursor to our spark plugs.

Henry Ford only raced one time, that at the wheel of a little, ugly car he called “Sweepstakes” against the renowned race car driver, and almost sure-bet-to-win, Alexander Winton.

It was reported that Sweepstakes could obtain speeds of over seventy miles an hour on public roads around Detroit. Coming from a horse-drawn era, those speeds were astronomically higher than anyone had ever experienced before, especially a carriage-turned-auto-maker such as Henry Ford. Once the race was finished, his driving duties complete, Henry confided that his time in the heat of battle scared him so much he immediately retired from race-driving, stating “Once is enough.” He held onto his word, refraining from ever driving one of his cars in angst again, although the company continued to understand the benefit of racing – especially winning!

In the end, there may be no better story that combines the colorful characters of early American auto history, entrepreneurship, and the American dream. The win by Henry Ford endeared his dream to the investors, and in two short years, the Ford Motor Company was founded, with Henry as its leader. It all started on a race track, back at the dawn of the last century, when the head of the corporation made some of the most influential decisions directing his company while at the helm of a twin-cylinder, 26-horsepower machine.

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About the author

Andy Bolig

Andy has been intrigued by mechanical things all of his life and enjoys tinkering with cars of all makes and ages. Finding value in style points, he can appreciate cars of all power and performance levels. Andy is an avid railfan and gets his “high” by flying radio-controlled model airplanes when time permits. He keeps his feet firmly grounded by working on his two street rods and his supercharged C4 Corvette. Whether planes, trains, motorcycles, or automobiles, Andy has immersed himself in a world driven by internal combustion.
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