William K. Vanderbilt II (1878-1944), heir to a railroad fortune, was a pioneer American auto-racing champion. On Oct. 8, 1904, after competing for years in Europe, he inaugurated the first international road race in the United States – the Vanderbilt Cup.
This year, the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum, located on the Vanderbilt summer estate, Eagle’s Nest, notes the 115th anniversary of those famous races and of Vanderbilt’s world speed record.
On Jan. 27, 1904, he drove his Mercedes race car on a course in Daytona-Ormond Beach, Florida, and achieved a top speed of 92.3 miles per hour.
American History magazine reported in 2013: “Flush from his triumph, the 26-year-old Vanderbilt returned to New York and announced his intention to organize a major race on Long Island, where he owned an estate. It would be the first true international automobile road race in the United States. Vanderbilt had raced extensively in Europe, in French and German cars, but now he became focused on promoting the U.S. car industry.
“His motivation, he later explained, was that ‘foreign cars seemed to be always five years ahead of the American cars. If something could be done to induce foreign manufacturers to race in this country, our manufacturers would benefit.’
“Vanderbilt provided the inducement. His plan was for a grueling 300-mile race, and he commissioned Tiffany & Co. to make a 30-pound sterling-silver trophy adorned with a frieze of himself driving the Ormond Flier to a world’s record. The race, like the trophy, was called the Vanderbilt Cup.”
Vanderbilt donated the cup to the Smithsonian Institution in 1934.
The inaugural Vanderbilt Cup Race on Oct. 8, 1904, drew more than 25,000 spectators to watch 18 drivers from the U.S., France, Germany and Italy. The racecourse comprised 30 miles of public roads in central Long Island. The six Vanderbilt Cup races held on Long Island from 1904 to 1910 were some of the largest sporting events of the early 20th century. Some races drew crowds of more than 250,000.
The Vanderbilt Cup races prompted American carmakers to improve their technology, generated the idea of using race victories to market cars and pioneered road building. In 1908, Vanderbilt built the Vanderbilt Motor Parkway for his races. The parkway was the first road constructed specifically for automobiles – and a prototype for future highways.
The roadway still exists in Suffolk County as County Road 67.
To learn more about the Vanderbilt Cup, visit the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum’s Turntable Gallery in the mansion’s Memorial Wing, 180 Little Neck Road, Centerport. The museum is open Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. through Sept. 2. For more information, call 631-854-5579 or visit www.vanderbiltmuseum.org.