1901 sweepstakes race

Henry Ford’s One and Only Race – The 1901 Sweepstakes

Henry Ford wins his one and only race versus the foremost driver of his day to secure investors for his car company.

In 1901 the automobile industry was in its infancy, with cars viewed as expensive novelties for the wealthy, not unlike the very high-end, luxury cars of today. The public imagination largely associated automobiles with the car races that had begun to appear, with their unique constellations of high-speed vehicles designed for amusement. Most people could not dream of purchasing an automobile and still relied on other forms of transportation in their daily lives.


Edsel B. Ford II

Racers on the Grosse Pointe Track in 1901. - test

Henry Ford wished to transform this situation by mass-producing practical, reliable, and affordable cars accessible to everyone. He felt that someone should move the fledgling yet quickly growing automotive industry in this direction and wanted to be the one to do it. Ford could not, however, attract investors to pursue his vision of the mass-market car. He was not yet well-known outside of Detroit, and his first venture in car manufacturing, the Detroit Automobile Company, had dissolved in 1900.

To remedy this situation, Ford turned to the world of automobile racing. Car races were hugely popular and generated positive press for the winners. Automotive companies and engineers often demonstrated the superiority of their ideas through the winning machines they entered into these race cars. Thus it was that despite having no experience in racing, Ford and his associates decided to enter a “sweepstakes” race at the 1-mile oval of the Grosse Pointe Race Track. As Ford himself put it, “I never thought anything of racing, but the public refused to consider the automobile in any light other than a fast toy. Therefore later [that is, some time after the founding of the Detroit Automobile Company] we had to race.”

Ford’s opponent in this race was none other than Henry Winton, the foremost automobile racer in the country and heavily favored to win. To beat Winton, Ford and associates began work on the what was to become known as the Ford 1901 “Sweepstakes” car, named for this particular style of race. The Sweepstakes was technologically advanced, featuring an early form of fuel injection, a two-cylinder engine, handmade porcelain insulated spark coils (a forerunner to the spark plug), and an estimated 26 horse power. The car was recorded at 72 miles per hour over a half mile, beating the existing world record of 65.79 miles per hour.

On October 10, 1901 the ten-lap race was held at the Grosse Pointe Race Track. The crowd was behind Ford since he was the hometown boy from Detroit and Winton was from nearby Cleveland. Ford himself operated the car with Ed “Spider” Huff as the mechanical assistant. After three laps, Winton had pulled ahead by nearly 300 meters. As Ford became more comfortable driving, he began to gain ground, especially on the straightaways to the crowds growing encouragement. By the sixth lap, he had significantly cut into Winton’s lead further stirring the home crowd. At this point, Winton’s car began to experience serious mechanical trouble with smoke visibly billowing from its exhausts. Ford’s unique use of porcelain insulators and his fuel injection system in the Sweepstakes engine, however, was designed precisely to prevent this difficulty.

As a result, in the eighth lap, Ford took the lead for good, defeating the favored Winton to an ecstatic home crowd. One fan threw his hat up and when it came down he stamped on it. Another stood up in her seat ... screamed "I'd bet $50 on Ford if I had it." Immediately after the race Ford retired from race-driving, stating “Once is enough.” Against all odds, the unknown engineer had nevertheless defeated the world’s greatest race car driver.

Ford’s victory demonstrated his ability as an engineer and made him famous enough to receive financial backing. In 1903, eighteen months after the race, Henry founded the Ford Motor Company and put his dream of making a mass-produced automobile into action – something made possible by his one and only race, the 1901 Sweepstakes.

If you want to learn more about the race, watch this video.