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A Day at the Races: 1918

A Day at the Races: 1918

June 1, 1918. Six of the eight contestants in the 100-mile Harkness Handicap on Sheepshead Bay Motor Speedway's two-mile wooden oval in Brooklyn, New York. 5x7 glass negative, George Grantham Bain Collection. View full size.


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Is that Buddy Hackett?

I was watching "The Love Bug" with my kids and the final race had two-man crews in the car. Somehow I don't see the need to weld the two halves of these cars together during the middle of the race.

Boards vertical because

You don't want a horizontal board working loose when you're approaching it at 100 plus. Especially with those brakes and those tires!

Riding mechanics

In his book "Eddie Rickenbacker," Walter David Lewis writes:

Riding mechanics, who sat beside the driver, had the most hazardous job of all. Unlike drivers, they could not brace themselves with the steering wheel if a car went out of control. Indeed, in some race cars a riding mechanic could not sit at all but merely clung to a strap behind the driver's seat, on the right-hand side of the vehicle, and braced his left foot on a projecting piece of metal. In Fryer's racer, Edd sat in a bucket scat, with handles on either side. Like other riding mechanics, however, he stood a good chance of being thrown into the air and killed in a serious accident.

Riding mechanics had arduous duties. Before a race they worked practically around the clock, oiling components and checking connections. At the starting line it was their responsibility to crank the engine. During the heat of a contest, because gravity-feed fuel supply and splash lubrication systems were highly unreliable, their principal duty was to keep gasoline and oil flowing to the engine. Closely monitoring gauges on the dashboard, they vigorously manned bicycle-type air pumps and plungers to maintain fuel and oil pressure when necessary. They also kept an eye out for excessive abrasion and wear on the tires, which were notoriously undependable in the early days of motor sport. Using hand signals, they constantly kept the driver aware of what was happening behind him, especially if another car was about to pass. They had to be ready in an instant for any emergency. If there were blowouts, riding mechanics helped drivers change tires. One of the few detailed accounts of their activities called them the "forgotten heroes of the speedways," saying that they "had to be fearless and possess the overwhelming passion to compete."

One riding mechanic noted in an interview in 2000 that it was his job "to read the blackboard when the cars roared by the pits to see their position, tell his driver whom to pass, look for tire wear and pump up the fuel pressure."

Lots of wood!

Especially when one considers the fact that the planks were laid vertically

Two man crews, yes!

In the early days of driving a 2-man crew was the rule. The second man was not a driver; he was a "riding mechanic." He was there mainly to change tires, which would go flat and/or blow out at the slightest provocation. However, the better riding mechanics could repair some fairly serious breakdowns on the track. This was, of course, much more important in endurance races (not sure if that term was used as early as 1918 but there certainly were such races in existence then). Later, better known endurance races were the Mille Miglia and Carrera Panamericana.

I'm not positive about this, but I believe in the WW I time frame it was not uncommon for well heeled owners to carry a riding mechanic even for "civilian" (non-racing) driving. This could get crowded, with chauffeur and riding mechanic up front and the family in the back seats.


The mechanic's duties included controlling engine temperature (with radiator shuttors) and maintaining oil level (with manual pump).

[The New York Times articles on this race also mention that among the duties of the "mechanician" is to serve as a rear-view lookout to see who's gaining. - Dave]

Wood Oval

The track surface had me wondering. So I looked up the history on this speedway and found out it was boards. That took a lot of trees for a two mile oval. The article I read was from a 1915 NYT story on a race coming up. They also mentioned that the cars were able to hit 120 which follows up on that point on another thread below. So probably even faster by 1918.

One question for the knowledgeable commentors, and you know who you are. Did a racing mechanic back then have any responsibilities during a race other than sitting next to the driver and waiting to do something, you know, mechanical?

The bike, the bike!

The cars are great but my eyes naturally go straight to the Indian in the foreground. When do we get to see some bike races? Vrooom!

Two-man crews?

Most (all?) of these racers appear to have two-man crews.

One assumes that the basic tasks of driving, even with these exotic machines, were within the capabilities of a single man, as they are today.

So what's the second dude there for? In case the primary driver needs a nap? But they're driving on a circuit. If there was a need for a relief driver, you could just swap 'em out in the pit stop.

Clearly I don't understand what's going on here.

Track Suits

One wonders if fans were expected to wear a white shirt, tie and straw hat to the race track today, would the stands be empty? But times change, as does our approach to fashion and entertainment; I can remember when my mother wore a hat to the grocery store in the 1950s - and she was no buttoned-up lady!

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