In the early 1900s, the automobile was in its infancy. Autos were expensive, temperamental machines, liable to break down and decent roads were rare; but automobile enthusiasts were pushing the envelope of the possible by holding races all over the world. The most audacious road race in history would have to be the 1908 automobile race from New York City to Paris.
It was sponsored by two newspapers: the New York Times and the Paris Le Matin. The planned course for the race was to start in New York, proceed west to Chicago, then on to San Francisco. From there, the cars would be ferried to Valdez, Alaska and they would drive across the frozen Bering Strait. Then they would drive down the Pacific coast to Vladivostok and then across Asia and Europe ultimately reaching Paris. In effect, it would be an attempt to drive around the world by automobile, or at least as close as geography would allow.
Six cars entered the race, representing manufacturers from three different countries:
- De Dion-Bouton (France)
- Motobloc (France)
- Protos (Germany)
- Sizaire-Naudin (France)
- Thomas Flyer (USA)
- Züst (Italy)
The race started at Times Square in New York on February 12, 1908. The first leg of the race took the contestants across the snow belt of the Great Lakes region in the dead of winter. A major blizzard hit upstate New York and two of the French cars, the Dion and the Sizaire-Naudin, didn't even make it to Buffalo, New York. The Motobloc made it to Iowa before it too broke down and had to drop out of the race.
Few paved roads existed in the United States at that time and often the cars were forced to drive on railroad tracks. The Thomas Flyer was designated an official "locomotive" by the Union Pacific Railroad. Partway across the continent, the Protos team decided to ship their car the rest of the way to San Francisco by rail.
The Thomas was the first car to reach the Pacific coast; but when ferried to Valdez, they discovered that the roads in Alaska were impassable and that driving across the Bering Sea would be impossible. The race officials adjusted the route, allowing the cars to be shipped by steamer to Japan and then to Vladivostok. By the time the Thomas returned from its Alaskan detour it was behind the other two cars.
The Thomas quickly caught up with the Züst, but could never quite overtake the Protos. The Siberian tundra, melting in the spring thaw, created a quagmire of mud that impeded all three cars. Once they crossed over into Europe, however, the roads improved and the teams could make better time.
The Protos crossed the finish line in Paris on July 26, but the racing officials had penalized its team 30 days; partially for traveling part of the way across America by train, and partially to compensate the Thomas for its detour to Alaska. The Thomas arrived four days later, on July 30. The Züst, which had persevered despite abysmal luck, made it to Paris about a month and a half later.
The fact that any of the cars had completed the grueling 22,000 mile race at all was remarkable, let alone three.
Game and Story Use
- In a historical or time travel campaign, the PCs might become involved with the race, perhaps even competing in it themselves.
- The New York to Paris race was just one of many cross-country races run during this period, and could be used as a model for a similar automotive endurance race.
- The Tunguska event occurred about a month before the race ended, or roughly when the cars would have been crossing Siberia. Coincidence?