This post was written by Alison Barr, Manuscript Department volunteer
With the advent and popularity of NASCAR in America, long forgotten is New York’s road racing circuit in the tradition of the European Grand Prix. Between the two wars, in 1934, the Collier Brothers (Barron, Samuel and Miles) and Thomas Dewart founded The Automobile Racing Club of America (ARCA). Besides driving in these events, Thomas Dewart (who would go on to become the president and publisher of the New York Sun) also photographed many of them. The negatives are held within the William Thompson Dewart Collection of Frank A. Munsey and New York Sun Papers here at the New-York Historical Society. It is clear from the negatives that Thomas Dewart loved the cars which are photographed.
As the lore goes, Barron received a British MG from his fiancée and, with that car, began the young men’s racing careers in the driveway of the Collier’s sprawling home, Overlook, in Pocantico Hills, New York. They invited their friends, primarily from St. Paul’s School, Harvard, and Yale, to join their club of gentlemen racing drivers. Although there were social and avocational aspects to the club, these young men were quite serious about the cars and driving.
Miles and Sam Collier became the first American MG import agents so that they could supply cars and parts. Another ARCA founding member, George Rand, ran a garage in New York City where the MGs and other European imported cars could be serviced and parked. Member William L. Mitchell who designed the “ARCA” badge and sketched the cars during the races joined General Motors styling team and later became head of design at GM.
The rudimentary racing that began in the driveway of Overlook quickly flourished into a circuit that staged events in Sleepy Hollow, N.Y., Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., Roosevelt Raceway, N.Y., Montauk Point, N.Y., Alexandria Bay, N.Y., Wayland, MA., Marston’s Mills, MA., Mount Washington, N.H., and Memphis, TN. The courses varied from dirt or sand tracks to paved village roads. The races themselves were as charming as their names: the contests at Overlook were the Sleepy Hollow Ring, the event in Memphis was the Cotton Carnival Race, and the ones at Marston’s Mills were the Cape Challenge. The Race Around the Houses consisted of 50 laps of a 1.4 mile circuit around the picturesque village of Alexandria Bay where Thomas Dewart had a summer home. And, it was a race indeed with the cars reaching speeds of over 60 miles per hour.
The events staged at Mount Washington were dubbed the Climb to the Clouds. (In fact, Mount Washington was the site of the first American auto race in 1904, and the Climb to the Clouds is still held today.) This course ran from the bottom of the Mount Washington Carriage Road (later, the Mount Washington Auto Road) to the top, about an eight-mile climb from 1,500 feet to 6,000 feet above sea level. In the 1937 Climb to the Clouds, Barron and Sam Collier finished first and second, with their brother Miles coming in fifth, driving an Alfa Romeo, an Auburn V-12, and a Willys 77, respectively.
Although the MG was the predominant make, especially in the early years, the automobile makes varied from Bugatti to Austin to Willys to Ford to Alfa Romeo and Maserati. There were also many so-called “specials”, cars that combined the chassis of one make with the body of another.
Another aim of ARCA was to represent America in European racing. In 1939, Miles Collier and his team entered his rebuilt MG “Leonidis”, into the premier European road race – Le Mans – with Miles as the driver. While the Leonidis had been victorious at the 1938 Race Around the Houses, it did not finish at the Le Mans.
On the brink of World War II, ARCA staged its last event at the World’s Fair in New York on October 6, 1940, and ARCA dissolved officially on December 9, 1941. The Collier Brothers and most of the other young club members served in the war. In 1944, the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) formed with many of the former members of ARCA. Watkins Glen, N.Y. was the first race venue for SCCA in 1948 and happily Miles and Sam Collier joined the race. Sadly, two years later in 1950, Sam Collier would die on this same racecourse, as did a young spectator in 1952, putting an end to road racing on village roads in New York State.