THE END OF THE CENTURY (1898)

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In 1898, the first official Land Speed Record was established by Gaston Chasseloup-Laubat, some French guy going a little over 30 miles per hour in an electric car named, loosely translated, Never Satisfied; to be blunt anything under 200 mph is of only marginal interest to me and will be acknowledged here in a pell mell, cursory fashion. With that being said, here’s what I know about what happened at the end of the 19th century, when this whole Land Speed Record affair began:

In 1902, France’s Leon Serpollet leapfrogged over Count Gaston in a steam-engined La Balleine (“The Whale”) at 75 mph. Later, the US made its presence felt via Henry Ford. In a successful attempt to crank up the profile of the fledgling Ford Motor Company, Ford slid his black Arrow across a frozen lake outside of Detroit at 91 mph in 1904. It was an absolute white knuckler of a ride and Ford admitted that even the memory of this adventure filled his heart and soul with terror. He was later succeeded by Louis Emile Rigolly, a Frenchman who clocked a speed of 103.55 mph and therefore broke the 100-mph barrier.

Electric cars. Steam power. On some level, this turn of the century stuff is all just esoterica for the land speed fetishist. Besides Henry Ford, most folks can’t remember (or pronounce) any of these guys names, nor can anybody but the land speed fetishist recite the speeds those guys recorded.

What is worth filing in one’s gray matter is the following: It was around this moment when the discrepancy in what “officially” constituted a speed record began to take shape. In order to establish some semblance of credibility as per the timing systems and as to whether these attempts were aided with a tailwind, the Federation International de l’Automobile (FIA) intervened and attempted to establish order and protocol (within an hour, two runs in opposite directions, with the speed tabulated as an average of the two runs). To daredevil-hellcat Yanks such as Barney Oldfield and Ralph de Palma, guys who won early editions of the Indianapolis 500 as well as establishing ultimate speed records, this French bureaucracy and this two-run jazz was about as popular as UN helicopters in Montana; Oldfield and de Palma maintained that one banzai, balls out record run had as much validity as back-to-back runs sanctioned by some foo-foo timekeepers from across the pond.

History dictates otherwise.

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