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MAY 20, 2003

The race of death


This week marks the 100th anniversary of the Paris-Madrid road race, the greatest of all the city-to-city races in the early days of the sport. It was also the most disastrous as the rapid development of the cars in the early years of the sport meant that speeds had increased to dangerous levels. In 1895 Emile Levassor averaged 15mph along the Paris-Bordeaux route but eight years later Fernand Gabriel, who was declared the winner after the race was stopped in Bordeaux, averaged over 65mph and sometimes reached speeds of around 100mph. The cars still had high centres of gravity and the road conditions were such that dust made visibility difficult and the problem had already caused some controversy. In April the French had actually banned road racing after the death of Count Eliot Zborowski during the Nice-La Turbie race but there was opposition to the new laws and a deal was worked out with the Spanish government to let the race take place. The government agreed that the 32nd Infantery Regiment would be used to control the crowds, in addition to the local police and gendarmes. The crowds were both enormous and reckless and many of the drivers were fearful as they set off from the Parc de Versailles in the early morning, led by Charles Jarrett in a De Dietrich.

In the open countryside the problem was simply one of speed as accidents when components broke were very violent. The biggest danger however was at the approach and exit of each town where spectators had gathered in large numbers. The road were dusty. In Chatellerault a child and a soldier who had chased after the infant were both hit and killed by a speeding car, which then swerved into the crowd beside the road. Englishman Lorraine Barrow hit a dog which broke his steering and he went into a tree at top speed. His mechanic was killed and he died later. Another Englishman called Stead was hit by another car at high speed and rolled. Marcel Renault missed a corner and went off at high speed and was killed, another car had gone off a bridge and hit several spectators and there were gruesome stories of another car which rolled and caught fire, with the driver pinned beneath the wreck.

The exact total number of accidents and casualties will probably never be known but there were at least a dozen crashes in which there were fatalities. The sport, which had had only a few bad crashes to that point, was suddenly on all the front pages of Europe. The French government ruled that the event must be stopped and the cars were impounded and sent back to Paris by train.

The British had refused to allow road racing even before the crash but thanks to the Light Locomotives (Ireland) Bill of March 1903 they were able to run the Gordon Bennett Trophy race six weeks later on a closed circuit of roads in County Kildare, around the town of Athy.

All racing thereafter took place on closed circuits of public road on which crowd control was much easier. They were still huge and fast but as time went on and more lessons were learned they gradually began to shrink in size and by the 1920s were down to around 10 miles. Purpose-built speedways were constructed, including the great ovals of Brooklands, Indianapolis, Montlhery and Monza and gradually the sport shifted to permanent racing facilities where safety could be controlled more easily.

That process continues to this day, 100 years after the terrible events of 1903...