At the turn of the twentieth century, motor-racing was fraught with danger. Races took place on the long, straight, main roads between cities and were impossible to police. Hazards included spectators on the road, non-race traffic and poor quality roads. The particularly disastrous 1903 Paris to Madrid race almost ended the sport, when as many as ten casualties (among both participants and spectators) led to the race being terminated early at Bordeaux.
Given these events, the 4th Gordon Bennett Cup Race, held within six weeks of the Paris-Madrid race, gained a new significance. The sudden notoriety of motor racing meant that the papers were full of the race, with public opinion divided over as to whether it should go ahead. In fact, there had already been some difficulties over the staging of the race. First held in France in 1900, unlike other races, in which manufacturers competed against each other, the race was run by three drivers representing each competing country: France, the United States, Germany and Britain. The rules meant that the winning country had to stage the next race, and the race of the previous year had been won by Selwyn Francis Edge. Edge was representing Britain in a Napier car. It proved impossible to hold the race in Britain however. Establishment opposition to motoring was strong at this time, and infact the speed limit of 12mph meant that any race would have been a serious breach of the law. It was therefore decided to hold the race in Ireland, where it would form the centre-piece of a fortnight of motoring contests.
Selwyn Francis Edge, was a record-breaking automotive and marine racer. In 1907, he broke the 24-hour endurance speed record at Brooklands covering 1,581 miles at an average speed of 65.9mph. The record was set in a Napier car and stood for 17 years. He was friends with Montague Napier, both were keen cyclists, and in 1898 asked Napier to carry out some improvements to his Panhard et Levassor car. In 1899 he and Harvey du Cros formed the Motor Vehicle Company Ltd in order to sell cars made by Napier & Son of Lambeth. He started to use Napier’s as his racing cars and in 1901 entered the Gordon Bennett Cup but was disqualified for using foreign made tyres. He was disqualified from the Gordon Bennett twice, in 1901 for using foreign-made tyres and in 1903 for obtaining assistance from onlookers. He sold his company, SF Edge Ltd, to Napier in 1912 and included an agreement not to be involved in motor manufacturing for seven years. When this expired in 1919 he started to build up a shareholding in AC Cars gaining full control in 1922. He sold his interest in AC in 1929 and took no further business interest in the motor industry.
There were significant differences between the Paris-Madrid and Gordon Bennett races. The track chosen for the Gordon Bennett Cup Race was a closed circuit which could be effectively policed. It was closed to all non-race traffic from 6am on the morning of the race, and policemen and soldiers formed a barrier along the entire track. Each quarter-mile of track had two members of the Automobile Club of Great Britain and two members of the local district council to superintend it. £1500 had been spent preparing the track by removing gulley’s, sharp bridges and corners, and steam-rolling the surface.
The race was a success, and saw only one, non-fatal, accident. The race continued to be held annually but was soon overshadowed by the new French race, the Grand Prix. This was first held in 1906 and has proved a lasting and popular format for motor-racing. Gordon Bennett has lived on in popular culture as phrase used to express frustration; James Gordon Bennett acquired a vast fortune from his journalist father (founder of the New York Herald) and he proceeded to spend a fortune on air and road racing and stories abound of his excessive exploits, including being publically horsewhipped after breaking off an engagement. It was probably first used as an expletive in You’re in the Racket Too, 1937.