Review: Saga of the Roaring Road

A Story of Early Auto Racing in America

Fred Wagner was “The Dean of Race Starters.” From the earliest days of American motorsport through the 1920s, Wagner supervised races at nearly every major track in the US. Rife with factual errors, its imperfections are precisely what makes this book special.

Originally published in 1937, I was fortunate enough to pick up a pristine 1949 reprint. With glorious pulp cover art, the book delivers similar non-fiction. Not always factually accurate, the value of this book lies in its communication of the excitement and fraternity of early American Motorsport.

Wagner persistently inserts himself deeply into stories which he was, most likely, only a peripheral character. But, this is what makes it a charming read. While I do not recommend this book for confirming facts, I highly suggest picking up a copy to learn about the excitement of speed and the feeling of being part of a great community of enthusiasts.

The Details:

Fred J. Wagner, The Saga of the Roaring Road: A story of Early Auto Racing in America

On the Origins of Motorsport

During the process of recreating GPevolved.com, I have been thinking quite a bit about my original choice of name.  More than ever, I believe that evolution serves as a near-perfect extended metaphor for the sport of racing.  Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species explains quite a bit about the world around us.  It also explains the history of motorsport.

High-Octane Darwinism

Bear with me, the idea is not completely ridiculous.  Charles Darwin argued that species must compete to survive, given an environment with limited resources.  In such a situation,  those most suited to their environment win.  A species, car, or team unsuited to its environment is unceremoniously killed off, not by its competitors necessarily, but by the total environment in which it exists.  To me, this explains who wins and who loses, over time, in dozens of categories of racing.

Like the machines, participants in motorsport (racers and teams) are subjected to profound pressures.  For example, there is the economic reality that teams are constantly in search in new sources of funding.  Also, there is another reality that only one person can stand atop a podium.  These environmental pressures, in many ways, are similar to the environmental forces acting upon species.

A famous scan from Charles Darwin’s notebook. These represent his initial conception of natural selection.

Once upon a time, drivers raced in numerous disciplines.  In the late sixties and early seventies, Mario Andretti was racing midwest dirt tracks intermingled with world championship grand prix races.  Slowly, the various disciplines of racing have drifted farther apart.  No longer is it easy for a driver to switch from circle tracks to sports cars to open-wheelers.  Progressive specialization is another similarity to Darwin’s theory on the origin of species.

Motorsport’s Common Ancestor

Taken to its farthest extreme, Darwin’s theory has been used to argue that most–if not all–evolution relates back to a single point.  Less controversially, motorsport certainly relates back to a single point.  In 1894, there was a “reliability trial” from Paris to Rouen.  Part race, part road rally, part car show, the event was the first organized attempt to figure out which car was best (but not necessarily fastest).  

A French newspaper put on the event to spur on development of the automobile, in part, by placing the invention in front of the public’s attention.  The environment has changed since then.  So to have the cars and types of racing.  I think the reaction to the environment is another hallmark similarity between the history of motorsport and the history of species.  

The Vehicles Without Horses.  Le Petit Journal.  1894.  

Pitting a car versus a car on a closed circuit–rather than a road–was the next evolution.  This happened fairly early.  Certainly, the 1903 Gordon Bennett Cup, conducted on a closed but lengthy course in Ireland, was partially conducted to increase safety toward both the driver’s and the spectators.  However, there was also an economic interest.

The Americans were the first to truly capitalize on a captive audience.  Stateside, racing often took place at horse tracks at county fairs.  Barney Oldfield, America’s original “King of Speed,” went from fair to fair barnstorming his way to fame and riches, (although this notoriety lasted longer than his money).  By the time first world war rolled around, Americans were building high-banked 1.25 mile tracks entirely out of wood.  These board tracks only lasted a few years.  But, the sheer profit enjoyed by a captive audience, to whom you could charge admission, quickly made these unique creations worth the effort.  

These wooden circle tracks would never have survived in Europe, where the Grand Prix became king, beginning with its inception in France in 1906. Continental Europe lent itself to wide open racing on temporarily closed public roads.  Eventually, as modernity progressed, these public road circuits became closed (Spa Francorchamps and Le Mans serve as two expedient examples).  Time and time again, racing has adapted to the environment around it.  

As a final example, injury and death were tolerated to a much greater degree in motorsport.  By the 1950s, that attitude was beginning to change.  This reflected changing attitudes in society.  By 1994, when Senna and Ratzenberger were both killed on the same weekend, it was clear that the environment had undergone a complete evolution.  And so, the era of science-based safety began.  Around 1994, the FIA (international motorsport’s governing body), introduced data-driven safety measures.  There are countless examples of this over time; situations in which motorsport has organically evolved in reaction to an ever-shifting sporting landscape. 

In Summary

I think that motorsport is united by both the pursuit of speed, but also a common heritage.  Looking forward, I think that new evolutions in motorsport, such as Formula E and the turbo-hybrid era of Formula 1 should be embraced.  They should be readily accepted because these changes are essential to the longterm survival of racing.

Project Grand Prix Evolved, therefore, is a celebration of racing’s complete heritage.  As part of this celebration, I hope to excavate great stories of success, excess, danger, and even failure.