It only felt right that the first column I write should be centered around what newspapers deemed “the first motorsport scandal” in 1902.
I will admit, the scandal is a letdown. There is no good resolution but the man at the center of this scandal deserves to be discussed – even briefly.
The Automotive Hall of Fame calls Alexander Winton, “The Forgotten Forefather of the American Automobile.” And before we go any further, dear reader, I should admit that before I started out on my quest to find the first motorsport scandal, I had never heard of this man before.
Alexander Winton – or Alex as the newspapers referred to him and so will I – was born on June 20, 1860, in Scotland. He immigrated to the United States sometime before 1880, settling in Ohio where his sister and brother-in-law were.
He had an entrepreneurial spirit, Alex did. His first business that involved things on wheels was a bicycle company – the Winton Bicycle Company (a very clever name, I know) – and he opened that in 1891.
He also raced his bicycles, and from the newspaper articles, I can tell that he was quite good at racing bicycles. In 1892, the newspaper delights in telling of his feat on a triple tandem bicycle that he had designed – he and his two pals had completed a mile in two minutes and thirteen seconds and that was the record.
At some point during this time period, Alex becomes interested in self-propelling engines. Consuming every piece of information about them that he could get his hands on, Alex began to design his own. He designed a gasoline-powered bicycle but his sights were set much higher.
A motor wagon, a horseless carriage – Alex Winton somehow realized that this new-fangled contraption was the future. His own version of the motor wagon was debuted in 1896 and our dear friend, Alex, incorporated the Winton Motor Carriage Company the following year.
Now, you came here for a scandal, not for a biography on Alex Winton that you could Google so I will fast forward through the next few years but it’s important to know that about the time that Alex had a motor wagon that worked, he started racing them.
Because, after all, it is wholly true that for as long as there have been cars, people have been racing them.
Alex Winton was no exception.
And honestly, he was quite good at it, winning more than he lost.
But you see, dear reader, he had one loss, and that loss shaped automotive history forever.
The person he lost to?
A fellow named Henry Ford.
And that win against Alex Winton helped Henry Ford secure investors that led to him opening up Ford Motor Company.
That’s not the scandal though.
A year later, Alex arrived in Grosse Point with the Winton Bullet. Fully expecting to win, he had left his prized car under what was supposed to be the watchful eye of the track’s watchman. Alex had woken up under the weather so he had been late to the race track and hadn’t had time to check his machine over.
On the track, he quickly realized that there was something wrong with his car and as a result, he did not win as he – and everybody else – had expected him to. Acting on a gut feeling, Alex had the Bullet looked over by mechanics.
And what they found confirmed Alex’s gut feeling.
His car had been tampered with.
It was the bushing on the sparker can that had been changed so that it would not work properly at the high speeds that Alex Winton would need it to go during the race.
And I wish, dear reader, that the first motorsport scandal had a good resolution but like I warned you in the beginning, there is none. If the culprit of this tampering was located, nobody deemed it necessary to alert the press.
What a shame, isn’t it?
Alex Winton had numerous achievements, however. His car was the first car to cross the United States from coast to coast. He is credited with creating the first semi-truck and he also built the first diesel engine. Later in life, Winton created a company to build marine and diesel engines that he sold to General Motors.
Alexander Winton died in 1932 and afterward, faded into obscurity.
So that’s the story of the first motorsport scandal.
I leave you with this question to prepare you for the next column – what does Lewis Hamilton have in common with the first pole sitter of the first Indianapolis 500? I’m not talking about the obvious answer, either.
Until next time,