Closed road special stage rallying and a nineteenth century New York businessman seen an unlikely connection but…

The name James Gordon Bennet may not mean a lot to followers of modern Irish motor sport but we have in fact a lot to be thankful to the man for. James Gordon Bennet was the millionaire proprietor of the New York Herald at the turn of the of the 19th century .In an effort to boost sales of his of his popular newspaper Bennet used to sponsor and organise outlandish events. Some of his best known achievements include the funding of Henry Morton Stanley in to the African jungle in 1869, which culminated in one of the most famous introductions of all time “Dr.Livingstone I presume”. Bennet also organised Trans Atlantic yacht races and was one of the founders of the commercial cable company, which for many years operated a Trans Atlantic Cable Station in Waterville Co. Kerry. He was also the founder of the world famous Americas Cup Yacht Race.


      By the turn of the nineteenth century the car was proving to be an ever more popular form of transport and of course competition. Motor races were being organised all over Europe and indeed the first event in Ireland took place in 1900 with a motor tour between Dublin and Killaloe Co. Tipperary. With this in mind Gordon Bennet set up a series of International Motor Races. The difference between The Gordon Bennet Cup and other motor races was that the race was between National Automobile Club teams with every part of the car manufactured in the country it represented. For example, the French team taking part in the first Gordon Bennet Race consisted of Frenchman Rene De Knyff driving the French manufactured Panhard on Michelin tyres. The second difference was that the winning club of Nationality would host the event the following year.


     The British team of Selwyn Edge driving a Napier happened to win the 1902 Gordon Bennet trophy and this result meant the Automobile Club of Great Britain and Ireland were to host the International Trophy meeting in 1903. At the time Ireland was still under rule from Britain and with the British not very keen to hold such an event the golden opportunity fell to Ireland .All that was need was a vote in the house of commons and with various people like previous winner Selwyn Edge and the then editor of the Irish Motor News (Richard Mecredy M.P.) in favour of an Irish event the vote was a forgone conclusion. It was also said at the time that the Irish were so keen to hold such an event that it would have gone ahead regardless of official approval or not.

       Now an an act of Parliament was needed to give the organisers permission to close public roads to facilitate the running of the motor race. This act was passed in the House of Parliament in Westminster in early 1903 and was to be known as the “Light Locomotive Act Of Ireland 1903” and it is indeed a superceded version of this act that now allows us to compete on closed roads in this present day. The very first line of the act read”1{1} The Council of any administrative County may on, the application of persons or club, by order declare that Any public road within the county may be used for races with light locomotives during the whole or part of any days specified, not exceeding three days in the year”


       The history making race day was Thursday July 12th 1903 and twelve driver lined up at the start. The cars were decked out in the national colours, which were blue for France, white for Germany, and red for America. The British team was decked out in the colour green as a gesture of good will towards the host country and even up to very recently British cars such as Bentley and Jaguar was seen to be racing in Le Mans and other famous circuits under the British Racing Green banner. The British Napier team took on three Merced from Germany , two Panhards and a Mors from France and two Wintons and a Peerless from America. The race consisted of seven laps of a circuit between Killcullen in Co.Kildare, Carlow town and Monasterevin. The total race distance was 327 miles, the winner was Jenatzy in a Mercedes averaging a speed of 49.2 mile per hour. He was followed home by Knyff and Firman both driving Panhards. 


      In the weeks immediately following the Gordon Bennet Trophy races in Ireland a series of other motorsporting events were organised by enthusiasts throughout the country. These events included the first motor sport event in the Phoenix Park and speed trials on the Carrigrohane straight in Cork. One such was a hillclimb that took place outside Tralee near the villiage of Ballyfinnane . The event took place on July 15th 1903 and was the very first motorsport event in the county. The event was one by Charles Rolls, watched by over 1000 people the future Rolls-Royce cofounder set a time of 1m 5secs for the 1200 yard climb. The Kerry Vintage and Veteran Car Club erected a commemoration plaque on the top of the climb in 1993.

This year Kerry Motor Club, Killarney and District Motor Club and The Kerry Vintage and Veteran car club will join forces to run a hill climb for historic cars to mark this very important milestone in Kerry motorsport. The event is scheduled to take place on Sunday July 13th 2003.