IN light of recent events, circumstances beyond its control and governmental advice, this year’s Gordon Bennett Irish Classic Car Run has been cancelled.
The committee now hopes to stage the event next year.
The race was first run in 1900 as a promotional advertisement by James Gordon Bennett, who headed up the parish office of the New York Herald Tribune. He also organised other sporting events such as a balloon race, an airplane race and a yacht race.
In 1900 he sponsored the first-ever international motoring competition – The Gordon Bennett Cup Race. It was the first such event to be held on a closed circuit. He sponsored six races in total. The first three and the sixth were held in France, the fourth took place in Ireland and the fifth was in Germany.
The rules laid down for the races were that each country could enter three cars, which had to be made in the country they represented. The victorious country would keep the trophy for one year. The winning country would host the next race in the series. France won the 1900 and 1901 races. In 1902, in the race from Paris to Vienna, it was decided that the Gordon Bennett Cup Trophy would be won by the first car to reach Salzburg.
Englishman Selwyn Francis Edge was the only competitor to reach Salzburg. All pg the other cars broke down or failed to finish. The French now realised that the next race would not be on French soil, so they set about getting a team together to win that race and get the cup back to France. The English, German and Americans also organised teams for the 1903 race. Secretary of the Automobile Club of Great Britain and Ireland (ACGBI) Claude Johnson suggested Ireland as a suitable venue for the race. It was agreed that the 1903 event would take in the counties of Kildare, Carlow and Laois.
MPs canvassed for their support of the race included John Redmond, Tim Healy and Sir Edward Carson. One local nationalist MP was William Delaney, who was born in Roskeen, Laois in 1855. A large landowner in Laois and Offaly, he was known as the Lion of Ossory. He was a member of both county councils as well as being a justice of the peace. His estate is on the borders of Laois and Offaly near Killeigh. Although a landlord, he was a supporter of the Land League, eventually selling out to his tenants under the Ashbourne Act of 1885. He was a member of Mountmellick District Council and chairman of Mountmellick Board of Guardians.
Support was also sought from 300 newspapers, 30 county councils, 450 hotels, 13 parish priests and the then-bishop Dr Foley. Almost 2,500 policeman were selected to guard the race route, which covered 327½ miles.
The race through the three counties went ahead on Thursday 2 July 1903 on a course of two parts forming a figure eight over 104 miles through Kildare, Carlow and Laois and held over five stages from Ballyshannon to Carlow, Carlow to Athy, Athy to Kildare, Kildare to The Heath, and the final stage from The Heath to Athy.
All cars had to travel behind bicycles through the six towns designated as control centres to ensure compliance with speed limits. Four countries were represented in the race –Germany, England, France and the USA. The race was won by Camille Jenatzy driving a Mercedes car for Germany. He was known as the Red Devil because of his fearless, reckless driving. He met his death a few years later while hunting wild boar.
For its time in 1903 it was a great success, and Ireland, as usual, was fortunate in having the right people of influence to make this event happen. Today, this event is promoted as a tourist attraction, bringing visitors to the midland through vintage and classic car tours over the June bank holiday weekend by the Gordon Bennett Irish Classic Car Run committee.