Ford celebrates 110th year in racing

The race (above) and a restored Sweepstakes (below)

It was a 10-lap, 10-mile racing event at the Detroit Driving Club in Grosse Pointe, Mich., and billed at the time as “the largest affair of its kind" that attracted the top drivers of the day, generating national attention.

One hundred and ten years later, it has become known as “the race that changed the world."

Henry Ford’s stunning upset of the heavily-favored Alexander Winton was the catalyst that allowed Ford to attract investors and, less than two years later, launch the Ford Motor Company. The rest, as they say, is history.

Thanks to this race, Ford could take his vision of an automobile that could be a mass-produced, inexpensive, reliable mode of transportation that a majority of people could afford, and make it a reality.

On the 110th anniversary of Ford’s unlikely triumph in “Sweepstakes", a car he built himself, Ford Racing carries on the spirit of Henry Ford on the track and in showcasing the products of Ford Motor Company.

“When Edsel [Ford] recounts the story of Henry Ford and Sweepstakes, I find myself imagining that day at Grosse Pointe," said Jamie Allison, director, Ford Racing. “The context of Henry’s attempt as he gathered attention for what he was about to make, and used racing to prove out the products are the very same drivers for Ford continuing to race today. I truly feel that we continue to represent the spirit of what Henry did back then in our passion for racing and the benefits we get from racing as a company."

For his triumph, Ford won the $1,000 prize and the cut-glass punch bowl trophy that was earmarked for Winton’s home in Cleveland. More importantly, though, Ford won the attention of the financial backers who would help him start the Henry Ford Company and, ultimately, Ford Motor Company in June 1903.

“Every company, through its founder, has key moments, and our moment is back in 1901 which predates the formation of Ford as a business," said Allison. “When we say that racing is in the DNA of Ford Motor Company, it is true. For everyone at Ford Racing, for Ford employees, and for Ford race fans, it is very exciting and emotional to be able to make that direct link between our racing program and the moment that our founder Henry Ford created what we now know as the Ford Motor Company."

Over the ensuing 110 years, Ford cars and engines have won thousands of races around the world, and some of the greatest driving personalities to walk the planet have seen great success behind the wheel of a Ford.

In fact, Ford is the only car manufacturer that can claim victories in all the world’s greatest races, including the Daytona 500, the Indianapolis 500, the 24 Heures du Mans and 24 Hours of Daytona, the U.S. Nationals in NHRA, the Baja 1,000, Rally Great Britain, the Bathurst 1,000 and even the X Games Rallycross competition.

“What Ford has been able to accomplish in motorsports over the last 110 years is remarkable," said Allison. “We are a company with a very rich tradition and legacy in racing that has been evident throughout our history since Henry started what we all believe is the spirit of Ford Racing."

Even with success the program, like Ford Motor Company itself, has evolved. Over the years different forms of racing have stepped to the forefront of the Ford Racing program. Key programs like World Rally Championship, NASCAR, Drifting, RallyCross and NHRA Funny Car were decades away from existence when Henry recorded his historic win.

“There has been an evolution of the program in racing," said Allison, “but Bob Tasca Sr.’s old adage is unequivocally true –‘Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday.’ It all starts by going out and connecting with the fans and going out on the track and winning. There have been different forms of motorsports over the 110 years. If you look back over the last 40 to 50 years you see NASCAR, NHRA and rallying in the last few decades, but we at Ford Racing are taking that to the next frontier whether it is RallyCross or Drifting – all forms of exciting racing.

“All of our programs are still reinforced by the same principle: to go out and showcase our great products and technologies, and connect with fans who love to support winners. And when we win, that bright moment of light shines upon Ford and allows us to showcase those great products to our fans and customers, encouraging them to go out and buy from us."

After reflecting back on the triumphs of the past 110 years, Allison knows that the future is bright for Ford Motor Company and Ford Racing.

“What sets Ford apart from many companies is the direct link we attribute to a lot of the programs within the company," said Allison. “Specifically let’s talk about racing. We are here to support Ford Motor Company. As Ford Motor Company looks down the road 10, 20 and even 30 years from now, we see that a new technology like electrification is becoming more prominent. It affects the industry; it affects the environment, it affects the future of our company going forward.

“We, Ford Racing, are interlinked to that future. So, of course, we are talking about using motorsports to advance technologies and showcase advanced technology, whether it is electric power or any other kind of exciting innovation. As the industry and Ford itself advance, I can assure you that Ford Racing is literally linked to that progression – pushing the boundaries of technology in motorsports and at the same time using motorsports to make even better new products and showcase these to the multitude of loyal fans and enthusiasts around the world.

“We think Henry would be very proud."

The story of Henry Ford and his 1901 racer ‘Sweepstakes’

When Henry Ford began building "Sweepstakes" in 1901, he had a specific purpose in mind: publicity and recognition. In late 1900, Henry Ford’s fortunes were at a low ebb. His first venture in auto manufacturing, the Detroit Automobile Company, was going out of business after producing 19 or 20 vehicles in a year of operation. The cars had not sold well and Ford wanted to develop a better one, but his stockholders decided to dissolve the company.

The car Ford wanted to build would be mass-produced, uncomplicated, reliable, and sold at a price most people could afford. That was a revolutionary idea in 1901, when the automobile was still a novelty, and much too expensive for all but the very wealthy.

In fact, at that time Henry Ford was thought of in Detroit as being a bit of an eccentric. He was not well known, especially beyond Detroit. He had been a mechanical engineer at the Edison Illuminating Company when he produced his first working automobile, the Quadricycle of 1896. That car brought him some local recognition, but nothing like the sensations being created in the press by famous drivers and builders like Alexander Winton, Frank Duryea, Ransom E. Olds, and particularly such European racers as Henri Fournier and Fernand Charron.

Many years later when recalling that time, Ford said, "I never thought anything of racing, but the public refused to think about the automobile as anything but a fast toy. Therefore, we had to race."

Racing proved the worth of a builder’s engineering talent by demonstrating the speed and reliability of the product. There was a lot to prove, because the infant auto industry of 1901 was bursting at the seams with ideas, experiments and innovations. It was in a state of entrepreneurial ferment: Total U.S. auto production was about 4,000 units, from more than 50 companies, and the short lifespan of the Detroit Automobile Company was not unusual. No one knew what course the industry would take. At the turn of the last century, New England was the auto manufacturing hub, not Detroit, and the predominant sources of power for automobiles were steam and electricity, not gasoline.

Sweepstakes – A Gamble

Henry Ford was confident that somebody would succeed in producing the mass-market car he envisioned, and above all else he wanted to be the one to do it. But that would require significant financial investment. He needed to prove to potential backers that he had good, sound ideas, and that his automobiles could be a commercial success. Racing Sweepstakes would provide a high-profile way to promote his name and reputation.

Still, Sweepstakes was a gamble. Fame, as well as significant prize money, could be won, but only if the car proved to be a winner. And Ford was facing tough odds. There were plenty of successful builders and racers to provide fierce and experienced competition.

Construction of Sweepstakes started in May, 1901, in a shop at Cass Avenue and Amsterdam Street in Detroit. Working with Henry Ford were Oliver "Otto" Barthel, the overall project engineer, and Ed "Spider" Huff, who was responsible for the electrical and ignition systems, and also was Ford’s riding mechanic. They were assisted by Ed Verlinden, a lathe operator, Charlie Mitchell, a blacksmith, and George Wettrick, a lathe hand and engine assembler.

1901 Technology

The car’s frame is made of ash wood reinforced with steel plates, suspended on its front and rear axles by leaf springs. The axles are located by a Ford-patented "reach-rod" system. The wire-spoke wheels are 28 inches in diameter, fitted with four-inch-diameter tires from the Diamond Rubber Company, which eventually became part of BFGoodrich Tires. These were an early form of "tubeless" tire, in that the tire is a one-piece circular tube with bolts embedded in the rubber for attaching it to the wheel rim.

The engine is mounted in the middle of the car on the left-hand side, under the seat. It has two cylinders, horizontally opposed, with the crankshaft aligned transversely across the chassis. The cast-steel connecting rods reflect steam-power technology, with brass crank bearings as separate pieces bolted to the ends of the rods. The block and pistons are cast iron and, with a seven-inch bore and seven-inch stroke, the total displacement is 539 cubic inches.

The cooling system holds eight gallons of water, circulated by a pump located on the outboard side of the engine. The pump is driven by a chain from a gear on the outboard end of the crankshaft.

The fuel tank holds approximately five gallons of gasoline, fed to the engine by gravity.

The engine oiling system is simply a series of drip mechanisms that deliver oil to the desired locations. Since the crankshaft spins in the open, a lot of oil is thrown around when the engine is running, soon covering not only many external parts of the car, but also the driver and riding mechanic. This was called a "total-loss" oiling system, because none of the oil is recovered or recirculated.

The cast-iron flywheel, mounted on the inboard end of the crankshaft, measures 24 inches in diameter and weighs 300 pounds. A secondary wheel, which fits into a flange machined into the inside of the flywheel’s rim, acts as the high-gear clutch.

Next to the high-gear clutch is the two-speed planetary transmission, with a first-gear band and a reverse band. A sprocket, mounted at the center line of the car, carries the drive chain, which runs to another sprocket on the differential in the rear axle.

According to Oliver Barthel, the engine block and pistons were cast elsewhere, but all the machining and assembly was done at their Cass Avenue shop.

Several elements in the car were innovative and technologically advanced for the time.

The induction system, then called a "vaporizer," is a rudimentary form of mechanical fuel injection, throttled by varying the amount of intake valve opening, and the ignition system is a forerunner of today’s distributorless coil-on-plug systems. It is called a "wasted-spark" system, because the spark fires on both the compression and the exhaust strokes. Both the vaporizer and the spark coil system were patented by Ford.

The "Huff" ignition system was innovative because it has porcelain insulators on the spark plugs. Spark plug fouling was prevalent in those early engines, so Ford and his team engaged the services of a Detroit dentist, Dr. W. E. Sandborn, to make ceramic insulators for their plugs. The electrical insulation gives a hotter, more consistent spark. In fact, after the 1901 race Alexander Winton bought several of Ford’s spark coil systems for his cars.

Fifty-one years later, Barthel said he believed they were the first porcelain-insulator spark plugs made anywhere.

In the same reminiscences, recorded in 1952 for the Henry Ford Museum Archives, Barthel described their first test session: "The first trial run was made in July, 1901, on the north boulevard over a measured half mile. It was timed by an electric timing device that Huff and I had specially made for this test. This section of the boulevard was closed off by a special police guard for the duration of the test. The timer recorded the speed for this straightaway test run at the rate of 72 miles per hour."

While there are no records or descriptions about how Sweepstakes was operated, from the positions of the controls it is reasonable to assume that Henry Ford operated the steering, the throttle lever, the reverse gear pedal, the gearshift lever, and the brake lever. From his position crouched on the left running board, the principal job of Huff, the riding mechanic, was to counter-balance the car in the turns. He also would operate the controls for spark advance, the ignition on/off switch, and the oiling system if necessary.

First-Time Winner

Sweepstakes carried Henry Ford to victory in the first and only race he ever drove — the race against Alexander Winton on October 10, 1901, in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. Since Ford was the underdog, and the local favorite who defeated one of the best and most successful racers in the country, his victory was popular and widely publicized. In fact, Ford’s win changed everything for him, and ultimately for the history of the auto industry. Several people watching that day came forward with offers of financial support, which set him on the road to establishing Ford Motor Company in June, 1903. Ford went on to prove his belief in low-cost production with the Model T, the car that put the world on wheels.

The Sweepstakes Saga

Following Ford’s October, 1901, victory, he received several offers from people who wanted to buy his race car. "Ford’s machine caused a lot of talk among the visiting chauffeurs," reported the Detroit News on Oct. 11, "and one of the best of them is today dickering to buy the car or a new one made on the exact pattern."

However, Ford did not sell Sweepstakes until March of 1902. That was the same month he left the Henry Ford Company (which ultimately became Cadillac), his second manufacturing venture, launched after the October, 1901 race. Ford was dissatisfied with his situation there, and wanted to build better, faster race cars. The 999 and Arrow were the results, appearing later in 1902.

William C. Rands bought Sweepstakes for approximately $2,000. Rands, who owned a bicycle store on Woodward Ave., entered it in several races with a driver named Harry Cunningham, who also on occasion drove the Arrow for Henry Ford and Tom Cooper.

As the auto industry grew, Rands became a large aftermarket supplier of such parts as convertible tops and windshields, and he offered Sweepstakes back to Henry Ford sometime in the early 1930s.

By then it had been stored in a warehouse for many years, and the wooden body had been destroyed in a fire. Ford had new bodywork made to restore the car, and promotional photographs taken in the ’30s show that the result of this work was not an exact replica of the original.

After this point, the car was stored at Henry Ford Museum and, over time, all but forgotten. With no papers to verify it as the original Sweepstakes, museum personnel came to believe it was a replica built by Henry Ford in the ’30s.

It wasn’t until the approach of the 1901 race’s100th anniversary that steps were taken to verify the car’s authenticity. Conservation of the original Sweepstakes, along with the building of two working replicas, began in preparation for the Ford Racing 100th Anniversary celebrations.

The original Sweepstakes is now on display at Henry Ford Museum, and The Henry Ford acts as caretaker of one of the running replicas that was built in 2001.

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