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Kildare > Heritage > Gordon Bennett Motor Race > Background to 'The Gordon Bennett Cup Race 1903

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Media / Press Release on behalf of
Athy Heritage Centre, Emily Square, Athy, Co. Kildare

Background to ‘The Gordon Bennett Cup Race 1903’

Named after James Gordon Bennett, proprietor of the New York Herald, the Gordon Bennett Cup Races are recognised as the true ancestor of all modern international motor racing. The first races were City races; Paris – Dijon (1900), Paris – Bordeaux (1901) and Paris – Innsbruck (1902).

Gordon Bennett also presented The Americas Cup for Yachting. He initiated The Gordon Bennett Balloon Race – still run on alternate years and among other things Kildare – The Thoroughbred County please note, introduced Polo to America.

The Athy circuit (1903) became the first international motor race run on a closed circuit and was also the first time that regulations allocated national colours to the competing cars thus creating ‘British Racing Green’. Bennett withdrew his sponsorship in 1905, but the idea of Grand Prix Racing had been born and the first ever Grand Prix was held in 1906.

In 1902, the race was won by an Englishman, Selwyn Edge and in accordance with the competition rules; England was to host the race in 1903. As racing was forbidden in England, the organisers looked to Ireland for a suitable racecourse and legislation was passed to allow the race to take place in Ireland.

The circuit chosen for the 1903 Gordon Bennett Cup Race was centred on Athy, County Kildare and passed through counties Kildare, Laois and Carlow. The race was held on the 2nd July 1903 with twelve competitors representing France, Germany, the USA and England. The race began at Ballyshannon, Co. Kildare, where a grandstand was provided to accommodate 1,000 spectators.

Leaving at seven-minute intervals to ensure maximum safety on the course, the cars passed through villages in the three counties along the route. The race consisted of an Eastern circuit of 40 miles, which the competitors tackled first, followed by a Western circuit of almost 52 miles. Each circuit was lapped three times with an extra lap of the Western circuit so that the racing cars passed through Athy seven times.

When passing through villages the cars were required to keep within the 12 m.p.h. speed limit, while they were preceded by cyclists acting as pilots. Of the twelve cars that started the race only five completed the course, with the German Jenatzy, driving a Mercedes, the winner in a time of 6 hours 39 minutes and an average speed of 49.2 m.p.h.

A crowd so large that it was not surpassed until the Eucharistic congress of 1932 in Dublin witnessed the event at a time when Ireland had a total car population of 250. A significant event, the Gordon Bennett Cup Race is commemorated each year by a vintage car rally in Athy.

Issued on behalf of the Gordon Bennett Company Limited
by Athy Training And Enterprise Centre

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