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Before Chicago, there was Elgin: The original Illinois street course

Street course racing may be new to NASCAR’s national series but it’s nothing new for the state of Illinois.

Enter Elgin, Ill., at the turn of the 20th century.

Photo of the Elgin race, courtesy of the Elgin History Museum

In 1899, two passerbys gave citizens their first look at a “horseless vehicle” that could do a blistering 15 mph. In 1903, seeing speeds progress, Elgin Automobile Association formed to set speed limits in town.

However, in 1907, two racers sped through, going from Chicago to Elgin in an hour and 20 minutes (that route now takes about 50 minutes to do in normal traffic) on their way to Rockford.

That taste of racing arguably inspired Elgin residents pushed for a race of their own in 1909.

A year later, on Aug. 26-27, 1910, the first three AAA races happened on the 8-mile Elgin Road Race Course.

A historical map of the course, courtesy of the Gail Borden Public Library

Dave Buck, Al Livingstone and two-time AAA champion Ralph Mulford were the first winners on the course. Ray Harroun was also among the competitors.

Just as Elgin giveth, however, Elgin taketh. In 1911, Buck and his mechanic died in a crash that left several people injured in a fallen grandstand.

The Elgin race was declared dead on July 3, 1912, until it was resurrected 18 days later with a top prize of $1,000 ($32,000 in today’s money).

Around 75,000 people in attendance saw Elgin return. Ralph DePalma won two of the five races held there that year on the now-8.47-mile course.

Photo of Ralph DePalma, courtesy of the Library of Congress

DePalma is considered to be one of the greatest auto racers of his era. His path to a greatness coincidentally follows auto racing history itself.

When DePalma emigrated from Italy in 1893, he was among the first to ever see an automobile in the U.S. When he began racing them in 1909, he competed in the first national driving championship, then sanctioned by AAA and now evolved into modern-day IndyCar.

From 1909-1936, DePalma won 2,557 of his 2,889 races.

Six of those wins came at Elgin, making him the winningest driver at the track.

The track hosted 17 races from 1910-15. After a three-year hiatus due to World War I, Tommy Milton, the first two-time Indy 500 winner, won the first race back at Elgin.

DePalma won the 1920 race, which was the final points race in Elgin. At that point, drivers and farmers began to dislike courses like Elgin. Plus, closed track racing was safer and more in fashion.

Racing returned to Elgin on August 26, 1933 for the Chicago World’s Fair. However, the drop of the checkered flag over winner Phil Shafer marked the last time any racing happened in Elgin.

90 years later, in a more confined, safer space, still with some challenges, NASCAR will resurrect street course racing in Illinois.

If you’re in the area, a historical marker for the Elgin course stands along its south leg.

The marker details the course and how you can put yourself in the shoes of early greats like DePalma, Milton, Chevrolet and others.

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