On September 7, 1896, the Riker Electric Motor Company’s electric car won at the mile-long dirt oval of Narragansett Park in the first closed-circuit automobile race in the United States.
On a blustery September day at the Rhode Island State Fair in Cranston (which is just outside the Rhode Island state capital of Providence), eight cars took their marks at the Narragansett Park, a racecourse designed for horses. After five loops around the one-mile oval, an electric car from the Riker Electric Motor Company scored victory in 15 minutes, 1 second for a 13-second margin over the second place entry from the Electric Carriage & Wagon Company.
It isn’t clear who drove the Riker car that specific day—it was either the company’s owner, Andrew L. Riker, or a C.H. Whiting, as both are reported to have manned the carriage. Because the rules of the race required each car to have an extra 165 pounds and all contestants chose an extra passenger to fulfill this quota, it’s possible that Riker sat behind the wheel with Whiting next to him.
As to how many people attended the race, my research again has me conflicted. According to a 2009 article on the History channel’s website, 60,000 people watched the initial race. However, a Scientific American article from 1896 notes that only 5,000 spectators took in the races. Because these numbers are drastically different, I assume one is either missing a zero or the other has one extra zero.
As this was the first heat ever run between motor vehicles, it is reasonable to assume that the contestants felt new and strange, and could not do themselves justice.
A Journal published in the interests of the mechanically-powered road carriage
Originally, four more heats over four days were planned. However, due to stormy weather, only two were run. The Riker car took first again in the next day’s race, while the Electric Carriage & Wagon Company’s car won the third day, eclipsing the Riker car by a single second with a time of 11 minutes, 27 seconds.
The other six cars on show all used gasoline power, but only one managed to break 12 minutes over five miles. According to reports, the gasoline cars were actually quieter than their electric counterparts.
After the completion of the State Fair’s motor car heats, Riker’s company collected a $900 prize for first place. Besides winning the initial heat, the Riker car also managed the fastest mile over all three days: 2 minutes, 13 seconds (roughly an average of 27 miles per hour).
Going further into the future, Cranston’s dirt oval became a popular place for auto races. In 1914, it closed for renovations and reopened a year later with banked asphalt pavement to become the US’s first “super speedway” racecourse designed for 100-mile races.
In the meantime, the motor vehicle has conclusively demonstrated that under favorable conditions an average speed of 15 miles an hour is perfectly practical for ordinary purposes of pleasure travel.
William H. Pickering
A Harvard professor and the Chairman of Judges for the State Fair’s races
Several images of moments surrounding the race exist. Here’s a shot of the cars at the starting line:
And then a second photo, which appears to also be of around the starting line, but from a different angle:
Get a horse!
A spectator in an attempt to heckle the race’s drivers
- In 1896, the Riker Electric Motor Company’s electric car drove five miles in 15 minutes and 1 second to win the first closed-circuit automobile race in the United States.
- The race between electric- and gas-powered cars took place in Cranston, Rhode Island’s Narragansett Park, a racecourse designed for horses.
- In two more races over two days, the Riker car won once more, while another electric car from a different company won the other.
- The Autocar: A Journal published in the interests of the mechanically-powered road carriage, Volume 1 via Google Books
- Scientific American, Volume 75, Number 13 (September 26, 1896) via The Internet Archive
- “Electric car wins the first auto race in the United States”, History via The Internet Archive