Ford fires up replica of its pivotal 1901 race car

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Win on Sunday, sell on Monday. For years, auto manufacturers have raced cars in order to push innovation and draw customers into showrooms. In fact when Henry Ford stunned the auto world by winning his first race 115 years ago on Oct. 10, 1901, he might have inspired the phrase.

Except that was a Thursday.

Whatever. Ford’s stunning upset in his Ford “Sweepstakes” racer on the Grosse Pointe Sweepstakes’ one-mile dirt-oval track over racing superstar Alexander Winton would jumpstart the Detroit entrepreneur’s automotive dreams — and set the tone for a performance-oriented car company that is closely tied to autosports to this day.

“Many have called it ‘The Race that Changed Everything,’ ” said Henry Ford’s great-grandson, Edsel Ford, as he stood between a replica of the Sweepstakes car and the 2016 LeMans-winning Ford GT at the Henry Ford Museum. “His very unlikely victory attracted the investors he needed to start the Ford Motor Company 18 months later.”

He stepped aside as Roush Performance engineer Glenn Miller fired up the Sweepstakes’ two-cylinder, 8.2-liter engine to give Ford executives and members of the news media hot laps around the Henry Ford property.

Sitting atop the backfiring, black-smoke-belching, cabin-less Sweepstakes, it’s not immediately obvious that it has anything in common with the sleek, low-slung GT coupe. The Sweepstakes sits high like a modern SUV, its steering wheel on the right — which was the fashion of the day because drivers (like horse-carriage drivers before them) liked to be able to step out onto the curb. The “replicar” was built for the 100th anniversary of the win.

Though built over a century apart, both steeds embody the cutting-edge technology of their time. The 26-horsepower wood-frame Sweepstakes, built by Ford and three of his friends, innovated vaporized fuel delivery — an early form of fuel injection that fires the modern Ford GT. The carbon-fiber, 600-plus horsepower GT is at the forefront of “active” aerodynamic and turbocharging technologies. The race car was clocked at 212 mph on LeMans’ Mulsamme Straight this year, but the Sweepstakes was also a rabbit for its day with a top speed of 72 mph.

“I’ve had it up to 60 mph,” says Miller, who built the replica for the Henry Ford Museum. “It scared me to death.”

Ford’s competitiveness, technical skill and stunning victory over Winton in Grosse Pointe caught the attention of investors. Ford’s maiden company, Detroit Automotive, had recently dissolved, but with renewed investor interest he created the Henry Ford Company.

Ironically, Ford’s first taste of victory lane led to a racing obsession which created a rift with his backers. That, combined with his determination to build a car for the masses — his investors thought cars could only be afforded by the well-to-do — led to the collapse of the company (which carried on as Cadillac). But Ford was on the business world’s radar and in 1903, with the help of a partnership with the Dodge brothers, he would form the Ford Motor Co. that we know today.

“Racing is what makes Ford different, and this is the car that started it all,” says Dave Pericak, global director of Ford Performance, the Ford division that developed the GT as well as production cars like the ferocious Mustang GT350 R that won the Continental race series this year.

After its founder’s early success, the Ford’s racing ambitions were dormant for decades as it ramped up production of the affordable Model T, the car that would put the middle class on wheels. But by 1949 a Ford was winning in NASCAR, and by the early 1960s Ford developed its Total Performance division which would put the Blue Oval logo at the forefront of racing for years to come. From its Formula One Cosworth engines to its ground-thumping Trans Am Mustangs to Ford’s historic run of LeMans victories beginning in 1966, Ford would dominate 1960s racing.

The company now competes in a variety of motorsports from NASCAR to Red Bull rallycross

“There is no other company with our racing legacy,” says Pericak. “Today we race for the same reasons that Mr. Ford did in 1901— to prove our products on the track and then take that success and market it to consumers.”

The Ford GT, with an estimated sticker price of $400,000, will be delivered to customers this December. The original 1901 Ford Sweepstakes can be viewed at the Henry Ford Museum, But alas, rides in the replica are not available. You’ll find its descendants on race tracks everywhere.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at or Twitter @HenryEPayne.