'Driven to Win: Racing in America' explores need for speed

Greg Tasker
Special to The Detroit News

Almost as soon as the first gas-powered vehicles began sputtering down late 19th-century roads, Americans were pushing the pedal, eager for speed, and competing against one another in horseless carriages. 

 The first automobile race in the United States occurred on a snowy Thanksgiving Day in Chicago in 1895. The following decade, Barney Oldfield became the first big racing hero. As the 20th century unfolded, car-crazy Americans began racing up mountains — Pikes Peak — across Salt Flats — Bonneville — and around gravel and tar tracks in Indianapolis and beyond. 

Jim Clark won the 1965 Indianapolis 500 in this Lotus chassis powered by a rear-mounted Ford V-8. It was the first Indy 500 win for a rear-engine car, and it revolutionized the race. No front-engine car has won the Indianapolis 500 since.  The exhibition will open March 26th for members and March 27th for the general public inside Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.

 The history of auto racing in the United States, along with the personalities, cars, culture and innovations, is explored in a new, permanent exhibit, “Driven to Win: Racing in America” presented by General Motors, opening this month at the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in Dearborn. Believed to be the first comprehensive exhibit covering auto racing in America, “Driven to Win” explores popular forms of racing, including speed racing, hill climb racing, Indy Car racing, stock car and drag car racing. Automotive racing exhibits and museums can be found across the country, but they tend to focus on one aspect of motorsports. 

The 1906 Locomobile "Old 16" Race Car.  In 1908, George Robertson drove this car to victory in the Vanderbilt Cup, America's first great automobile race. It was the first time an American car won a major international road race in the United States.

“This is the first exhibition of its kind, giving our guests a front-row seat to the world of racing,” said Patricia Mooradian, president and CEO of The Henry Ford. “From the smell of the tires, the sound of the vehicles starting their engines, the innovative advancements that have been made over the years to the various tracks these vehicles have raced on, our staff and partners have certainly brought this exhilarating sport to life on our museum floor.” 

The 24,000-square-foot exhibit, which replaces a section of the museum’s extensive historic autos display, “Driven to Win” features 22 racing vehicles, some 225 artifacts and multiple interactive experiences, including driver simulators that place visitors behind the wheel on world-famous tracks. 

Race car drivers A.J. Foyt and Dan Gurney won the 2'4 Hours of Le Mans', the first Americans ever to do so, in this Ford GT40 Mk IV in 1967.  The two shared the driving, wrestling the burly Ford sports car around the tricky 8.36-mile course for a record 3,249.6 miles at an average speed of 135.48 mph.

 The foundation of the exhibit comes from The Henry Ford’s extensive collection of historic racing vehicles and artifacts. Historic and contemporary vehicles are part of the display. Highlights include: the 1901 Ford “Sweepstakes” Race Car, Henry Ford’s first race car; the 1906 Locomobile “Old 16” — the first American car to win the Vanderbilt Cup, in 1908; the 1967 Ford Mark IV Race Car, built to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans and did, in 1967, outpacing Ferrari by 32 miles; and the 2016 Ford GT Race Car, which won its class at the 2016 Le Mans. 

The 1901 Ford "Sweepstakes" that Henry Ford himself drove and won a 10-mile race against Alexander Winton.  This 24,000 square-foot exhibition provides visitors with an in-depth look at the people, the experiences, the culture, the spectacle, the risks and the innovations centered in the world of American auto sports.

“I think people will be surprised at how old the sport of racing is,” said Matt Anderson, the Henry Ford’s curator of transportation. “We like our races short and our speeds high. We like drag racing and land-speed racing. Bonneville (Salt Flats Race Track) is the world capital of land-speed racing. We like the pursuit of speed. Racing is definitely an American pastime.” 

Anderson said the exhibit presents a broader view of all forms of racing that are popular in the United States. While stock car racing is one of the most popular forms of racing, others boast legions of enthusiasts as well, including land-speed racing. The Bonneville Salt Flats International Speedway, where racing began in 1912, is a prime example of American affinity for land-speed racing. Speed records in various vehicle categories and classes have been achieved on the Bonneville speedway over the decades. 

An interactive display where you are part of the pit crew at a NASCAR race.  Due to Covid-19 restrictions, this display may not be open at the exhibit opening.

“Driven to Win” also offers more than 50 profiles of people involved in racing: race drivers, team owners, engineers and others. Profiles include racing legends such as Dan Gurney, A.J. Foyt, Bobby Unser and the Wood Brothers. The goal is to share the stories of their passion, and the inspiration and innovation that propels drivers, their cars and their teams to victory. 

“Drivers get most of the glory but racing is really a team effort,” Anderson said. 

A collection of gas powered Tether Cars, which are model racing cars powered by miniature internal combustion engines and tethered to a central post. Unlike radio control cars, the driver has no remote control over the model's speed or steering.

 Among the exhibit highlights: 

— Sports Car Performance Center, presented by Multimac with support from Ford Motor Co. and Brembo, allows visitors to see actual data used from race day that helps engineers problem solve and plan for next year’s race. Also showcased is the evolution of the design process from clay model to race day ready. Visitors will see how closely the Ford GT production car resembles the one on the track. 

A 1984 March 84C-Cosworth Indycar leads a 1935 Miller Ford Indycar around the display at the 'Driven to Win' exhibit.

— Fueled By Passion, a 15-minute film experience that offers an all-access look into the hopes and dreams, successes and failures of those who live and breathe racing every day. The film includes exclusive footage and interviews with drivers and crew members from the worlds of stock car, drag racing, Indy car, hill climb and land speed racing. Visitors will feel like they’re at the actual track and inside vehicles. 

— In the Driver’s Seat Simulators, visitors drive the world’s fastest cars on the planet’s most challenging tracks. It’s a 15-minute virtual ride on six interlinked full-motion racing simulators. 

A 1969 Slingshot dragster goes up against a 1933 Willys Gasser in a dragster duel for the ages at the 'Driven to Win: Racing in America' exhibition presented by General Motors, covering various forms of American auto racing, including stock car, sports car, drag racing, Indy car, hill climb and land-speed racing at the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in Dearborn, Michigan on February 22, 2021.

“Racing is the embodiment of American innovation in the world of sports, but its reach has long stretched beyond the track to our showrooms, our roads and our culture,” said Mark Reuss, president of General Motors. “Driven to Win documents and celebrates these contributions, with an exciting and comprehensive presentation of the past, present and future of motorsports.”

Danica Patrick, Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick and #88 Richard Petty's racing fire suits on display at 'Driven to Win' exhibition.

'Driven to Win: Racing in America' 

Opens March 27 

The Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation 

20900 Oakwood Blvd., Dearborn 

(313) 982-6001 


Admission: $25, adults; $22.50, senior citizens; $18.75, ages 5-11; children 4 and under are free. 

Additional charge for In the Driver’s Seat Simulators.

Also coming to The Henry Ford 

With the closing of the super-popular “Marvel: Universe of Superheroes” in January, the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation is set to welcome two other temporary exhibits:

Louis Comfort Tiffany: Treasures from the Driehaus Collection. This exhibit focuses on the renowned artist’s magnificent stained-glass windows, floral vases, lamps and accessories and includes some masterworks never before presented in a comprehensive exhibition. The collection includes some 60 objects representing more than 30 years of the work of Louis Comfort Tiffany. “When we think of Tiffany and jewelry, we think of Tiffany’s father, the founder of Tiffany and Co. Louis was an art director for the company for awhile but he took his art skills beyond jewelry into a wide variety of media,” says Kate Morland, the museum’s exhibit director. The media included ceramics, glass and metals works and he created a wide variety of objects for the home, including lamps, windows and vases. Organized by Chicago’s Driehaus Museum, the exhibit highlights include the stained-glass windows, each commissioned for a specific building. “Seeing all those Tiffany windows together is truly a sight to behold,” Morland says. A Tiffany kerosene floor lamp from the Henry Ford’s collection will be on display as well. The exhibit opens Saturday (March 6) and runs through April 25. Included in museum admission. 

The Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited. Some of Muppets creator Jim Henson’s best-loved characters are on display in this traveling exhibit organized by the Museum of Moving Image (MoMI) in New York City. The exhibition explores Henson’s groundbreaking work for film and television and his impact on popular culture. Included in the exhibit are more than 20 puppets, character sketches, storyboards, scripts, photographs, film and television clips, behind-the-scenes footage, and iconic costumes. Interactive experiences allow visitors to try their hand at puppeteering. “We have been hearing from previous venues that this exhibit appeals to family audiences but also different generations; a lot of his work was done in the 1970s and 1980s,” Morland says. “Unfortunately, he died fairly early in life — in 1990. It’s sad to think what else he could have created. Yet his work lives on in the Muppets and ‘Sesame Street.’” Morland says the puppets are especially popular “because they’re kind of like seeing a celebrity.” Look for Kermit the Frog, Bert and Ernie, the Count, and a host of others. The exhibit opens June 5 and runs through Sept. 6. Included in museum admission.