Ford racing, indeed Ford Motor Co. itself, began life one Thursday afternoon in the fall of 1901 at a one-mile dirt oval on Detroits east side.
It was that 13-minute race that secured for Henry Ford what he needed most at that moment: publicity, believers and money.
The 38-year-old Ford was attempting a comeback after his first venture, Detroit Automobile Co., had failed. He knew that a win on the racetrack was a sure-fire way to show his worth.
Fords opportunity to shine on the track arose when he heard there was going to be a race at the Detroit Driving Clubs Grosse Pointe racetrack, a one-mile, dirt oval.
The event was of great interest to Ford, especially since the list of participants included Alexander Winton, a Cleveland man who already was building and selling cars, and who had a reputation as a racer. Winton was set to race a car that pumped out an estimated 40 hp.
Ford decided to enter the race with a two-passenger car named Sweepstakes. The two-cylinder car, which cranked out an estimated 28 hp, was a one-off he had built with a team that included mechanics Oliver Otto Barthel and Ed Spider Huff.
Sweepstakes engine had a 7-inch bore and a 7-inch stroke, huge dimensions by todays standards. And thanks to the design of a Detroit dentist, Sweepstakes also was one of the first vehicles to have a porcelain spark plug case. The porcelain insulation helped engine performance.
The Oct. 10 event, initially scheduled for 25 miles, was cut to 10 miles. The number of participating vehicles was slashed from 25 to two Winton and Ford.
The event drew about 8,000 people. Oldsmobile even closed its factory on race day so its workers could attend.
Winton was favored to win, and he led for the first six laps of the race.
His car looked strong as it glided through the curves; Fords didnt.
But on the seventh lap, Winton lost the lead when his car started to smoke. Wintons riding mechanic is reported to have poured oil into the engine at that point, but that didnt solve the problem.
Ford powers on
Ford powered on, passed Winton and took the lead right in front of the grandstand. The crowd went wild as the hometown driver won the race with a time of 13 minutes, 23 4/5 seconds.
Fords win that day earned him a cut-glass punch bowl as well as the respect and funding of wealthy Detroit businessmen. The budding auto baron used those funds to start his second company, Henry Ford Co., on Nov. 30, 1901. Again, failure. Ford left that company, which became Cadillac. His next big venture, Ford Motor Co., was born June 16, 1903.
Fords wife, Clara, in a letter to her brother, Milton Bryant, wrote of the race:
That race has advertised him
(Henry) far and wide. And the next thing will be to make some money out of it. I am afraid it will be a hard struggle.