At one time, a motor-sport loving Chicagoan could catch a race at tracks on Addison Street, Mannheim Road, Fullerton Avenue, Peterson Avenue or in suburbs like Waukegan, Maywood, Cicero, Melrose Park, Blue Island, Hammond and Hinsdale. Not to mention regular events at Soldier Field and the International Amphitheatre.
While auto racing's appeal here has waned since its peak, and most tracks have closed or stopped hosting races, Chicago was the hub of the auto racing world for many years.
The nation's top drivers return to the area Sunday as Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet opens NASCAR's 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup. Tens of thousands of fans will be there to revel in the noise, enjoy the spectacle and feel the thrill.
No American city has a longer history with auto racing than Chicago. The nation's first "motocycle" race occurred here in 1895, on a cold Thanksgiving Day, when six cars started on a 54-mile course from Jackson Park to Evanston and back. Those early cars barreled through city streets and county lanes — clogged by a recent snow and slush — at speeds averaging just over 5 mph.
The winner, finishing in 10 hours, 17 minutes, was Frank Duryea, who with his brother, Charles, owned the Duryea Motor Wagon Co. Their gas-powered "horseless carriage" crossed the finish line first despite Duryea having to make two stops at smithies to forge replacement parts.
Only one other car finished, the Benz-Mueller machine driven by Oscar Mueller, and he, of course, claimed victory. Mueller said the Duryea vehicle was pushed up the hill to the finish. Mueller's "victory" wasn't without taint, though; he had to let a judge drive his car to the finish after he got too drunk to drive after fortifying himself against the cold.
The Duryea machine was awarded the $2,000 prize money; Mueller received $1,500.
But was it the first race ever? The event had been postponed from Nov. 2. On that date, only two competitors — Duryea and Mueller — were ready to race, which is what prompted the delay.
But an upset Mueller demanded satisfaction that day, and they ran a "scrub race" from Jackson Park to Grant Park via Waukegan. In that competition, run under the careful eye of judges and reporters, Mueller won and pocketed $500. Duryea didn't even see the finish line.
So in the end, Mueller wound up with the same amount of money, but the Duryeas got the publicity of winning the "official" first-ever auto race in the United States, even if it was the second that month.
The races were on.
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway opened in 1909 and held the first of its famous 500s in 1911. Chicago's answer to Indy was Speedway Park, which the Tribune called "the fastest, safest automobile racetrack in the world."
At the inaugural run June 26, 1915, on the two-mile, banked, wood-plank oval, Dario Resta shattered the speed record for a 500-mile race, averaging 97.6 mph. Speedway Park, near Maywood on Roosevelt Road where the Hines veterans hospital now stands, drew 80,000 people that first race.
The park's opening and Resta's record win merited a banner headline, six photos on Page One and more than three pages of coverage inside. It was a short-lived glory. Doomed by financial troubles, Speedway closed just three years later.
Throughout the 20th century, as one track closed, others opened. By the 1930s, numerous venues were hosting auto races, including Soldier Field and the International Amphitheatre.
Stock cars and midgets dominated the events. It was a time when midget-car racing was so popular, it wasn't uncommon to see the most recent Indianapolis 500 champion competing in one of the powerful minis.
Auto racing took a break during World War II but came back strong. In 1947, if you were willing to drive a bit, a gearhead could see a race nearly every night of the week: Grand Rapids, Mich., on Wednesday, Streator, Ill., on Thursday, Hanson Park on Friday, Raceway on Saturday and Soldier Field on Sunday.
While Chicago's place on the auto racing circuit hasn't kept up with the vision promised by Speedway Park, the region certainly has a long and rich history.
For past and present fans, headlines from that historic 1915 race sum up the experience nicely.
"Riot of color, beauty, noise, joy, thrills," read the main headline.
"Speed Mad Throng on Perfect Day Cheers Death Taunting Drivers," read the deck headline.
And the lead? "It was a thrilling spectacle."
Editor's note: Thanks to Steve Olson, of Glenview, Chris Carlson, of Vernon Hills, Bob Streepy, of Bartlett, and Richard Quartell, of Rockford, for suggesting different aspects of this Flashback.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times