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Racecar driving: even 100 years ago, excitement outweighed the danger

Charles Leerhsen's new book "Blood and Smoke: A True Tale of Mystery, Mayhem and the Birth of the Indy 500" details the wild early days of the sport.

By Randy Dotinga / October 21, 2011

"The first thing to hit the ground was the driver's head," author Charles Leerhsen says of early racecar accidents.

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Speed is a crucial part of many sports, but car racing may be the only one where it's the both the key to victory and a serious threat to survival.

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Fans learned that once again last weekend, when two-time Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon died during a mammoth crash at a race track in Las Vegas.

The risk of death was much higher during the early years of auto racing, when cars traveled at high speeds but didn't have anything near the safety features they do now. Even the fans in the stands were in jeopardy.

But the excitement outweighed the danger during the wild early days of the sport, as author Charles Leerhsen reveals in his 2011 book Blood and Smoke: A True Tale of Mystery, Mayhem and the Birth of the Indy 500.

This week, I asked Leerhsen about the evolution of auto racing, the dangers it posed and the thrills sought by the drivers.

Q: How soon did auto racing begin after the invention of the car?

A: The joke goes that the first auto race started as soon as the second car was made. It began as soon as there was something to compete with: "Mine is better than yours."

Q: Were the races very impressive in the beginning?

A: There was a race in Wisconsin, I think in the 1850s, when they used steam-powered buckboards [a kind of wagon]. They raced at 6 miles an hour, and it was a 200-mile race.

It was totally lacking in spectacle. It was such a success that the second race didn't happen for 17 years.

Q: Auto racing picked up in the early 20th century as cars became more common. Did manufacturers make speed part of their sales pitch?

A: There was this idea of competing, and competition was part of marketing the cars. But it wasn't like "switch brands and buy my brand." It was like "sell your horse and buy a car" as people were grappling with this idea of what is a car and how will it work in their life.

The cars in the races were supposed to be the same cars you could buy in the showroom. You'd watch for the cars that went fastest and didn't break down.

Q: How did auto racing as we know it begin?

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