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The Steamer Trunk that Saved Racing History

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By Wayne Craig, Race Car Chair, Ironstone Concours d’Elegance
Photography by Ron Kimball Studios

Imagine driving as fast as you can down San Francisco’s Lombard Street during the 1906 earthquake in a heavy open-wheel race car with no seat belts and very small brakes, trying to dodge the hundreds of spectators crowding the course and avoiding other race cars that have crashed. Welcome to the early days of motorsports racing.

The era between the dawn of the automobile in 1885 to World War I is known as the Pre-War Era, when brave men and women–yes, there were several famous female drivers–would risk their lives to compete in skinny-tired behemoth race cars on dirt roads, up mountains or around banked-oval board tracks.

As exciting and important as this era was, it had almost been forgotten until Brian Blain of Visalia, California, inherited a steamer trunk from a deceased friend. What he found in that trunk started a journey that led to the creation of the Ragtime Racers, a group of owner/enthusiasts that collect, restore and race the original race cars from over 100 years ago, and, thankfully, preserve the automotive history of an era that started it all.

Coupled with his own passion for vintage racing and discovery of a major road race held in his town of Visalia in 1913, Blain searched until he found and restored a 1917 National Racer. He took it to vintage race events where it garnered the interest of spectators and racers alike. Nothing else in the paddock looked anything like the high-slung, two-man dark blue beast with wooden wheels. Most race cars from the pre-WWI era used huge-displacement engines that ran at low rpm and had tiny brakes mounted on the rear wheels, which have the least effect stopping; that was not a simple or reliable task. Fortunately, many of the early races were held on dirt, so the driver could “plow” the car into a turn to slow it. Drivers did not wear seat belts so they could exit the car in case of a rollover or impending crash. Of course, many did not survive and so race car drivers developed a respect and reputation for almost insane bravery.

These early cars formed the groundwork for racing in America, and you might be surprised to learn that the majority of pre-war races were held in California. Cities such as Santa Monica, Hollywood, Pasadena and San Diego, as well as San Francisco and even Central Valley towns such as Visalia, would bring huge crowds that had never seen such a spectacle. “When one of these races took place, it was like a spaceship landing. Thousands of people would turn out to see cars on a track, watching this new technology. They loved the noise and smoke, the thundering engines, the smell castor oil burning, and they apparently even enjoyed sharing the dust and dirt of these events. Car races had a lot more appeal than horse racing,” stated Brian Blain, founder of the Ragtime Racers group.

The Ragtime Racers travel around the country holding mock races on tracks such as Indianapolis, Sonoma and Laguna Seca; however, the Ironstone Concours d’Elegance, held in Murphys, California, each September, is the only dirt track on their schedule. That event is a realistic reenactment of the original race era, with hundreds of spectators lining the straightaway, on-track commentator and lots of dust and noise filling the air.

Were it not for a friend’s bequest of a trunk and the Ragtime Racers, this early racing history would likely have never reached the public in such a historically correct and interactive way.

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Editor’s Note: Ironstone Concours was awarded the International Initiative Award for the top 100 concours, worldwide, for creating the Ironstone Cup Race for the Ragtime Racers.