The first Gordon Bennett Motor Race took place in France in 1900. For this and the next two years the starting point was Paris finishing in Bordeaux in 1901 and Vienna in 1902. James Gordon Bennett, proprietor of the New York Herald, had offered a Cup for a motor race in 1899 and thereafter the race organised by the Automobile Club de France bore his name.
When the British driver S.F. Edge won the 1902 Race the following year's Race had to be held in the British Isles. A speed limit of 12 m.p.h. applied in Britain and there was much opposition to cars which were seen as "slaughtering stinking engines of iniquity" driving men, women, children and animals off the road. The British Automobile Club looked to Ireland as a possible venue for the race and a number of members came across in 1902 to check out the roads. A second group led by S.F. Edge then followed and a course centred on Athy was finally chosen.
The total distance to be covered was 327.5 miles with four laps of a circuit taking in Ballyshannon, Kilcullen, Kildare, Monasterevan, Stradbally and Athy alternating with three laps of a smaller circuit taking in Kilcullen, Carlow and Athy.
The Race organisers immediately set about reassuring the public about road safety and highlighted the benefits of holding the Race in Ireland. Every Council and public figure in the country was canvassed for support and religious scruples were recognised by arranging to hold the Race on a weekday. It was necessary to change the law to permit the Race cars to exceed the 12 m.p.h. speed limit and to allow the Race organisers to carry out road repairs on the Athy circuit which would otherwise be the responsibility of the County Councils of Kildare, Carlow and Laois.
A number of sharp bends were improved, road gullies were removed, hedges cut and parts of the course were dust proofed at a cost of £1,200. All of this work was carried out under the guidance of the Automobile Club and many locals were gainfully employed for weeks before the Race getting the Athy Circuit ready for the big day.
The Race was to take place on Thursday, the 2nd of July, 1903 with twelve competitors representing Germany, France, England and U.S.A. The circuits were closed for the duration of the Race and upwards of 7,000 policemen were brought into the area to patrol the roads. The local hotels and many enterprising farmers who provided land for tents and viewing purposes were to benefit financially from the huge crowds which descended on South Kildare. The excitement generated by the international motor race can be imagined when it is realised that less than 12 months previously there were only two cars in Athy owned by Mr. Hurley, Engineer and Sir. Anthony Weldon.
The starting point was at Ballyshannon where a grandstand was provided to accommodate 1,000 spectators. Special trains were provided to bring thousands of spectators to Athy and other towns on the circuit but subsequent criticism of the railway company would seem to indicate dissatisfaction with it’s arrangements. A large campsite was located at Ardscull. There were race controls at seven locations on the circuit including Athy in which town the drivers were obliged to stop for 15 minutes or so. This was to ensure greater safety on that part of the course between Athy and Kilcullen which formed part of the two circuits.
The car drivers who were the 1903 equivalent of modern day pop stars were provided with accommodation in the Athy area. The British team of S.F. Edge, Charles Jarrott and J. W. Stocks stayed with the Large family in Rheban, supposedly because the Larges had the only bathroom with an indoor flush toilet in the area. The real reason was probably Harry Large's involvement in cycle racing in Ireland and England which had brought him in contact with Edge, the British car driver. The American team stayed in Timolin Rectory. The Leinster Arms Hotel played host to the German team of Jenatzy, De Caters and Keene who were to drive Mercedes cars. The French team were accommodated on a ship in Dublin Harbour.
Prior to the Race start each car was weighed in Naas to ensure compliance with the maximum weight conditions of the Automobile Club. Several of the competitors were required to strip non essential equipment from their cars to met the Race organisers requirements.
On Thursday, the 2nd of July the first car driven by Edge left the starting line at Ballyshannon at 7.00a.m. The other cars left at 7 minute intervals to ensure maximum safety on the course and to reduce the possibility of cars meeting up with each other on the narrow Irish roads.
When passing through towns and villages regarded as neutralised zones for safety reasons the cars were required to keep within the 12 m.p.h. speed limit while they were preceded by cyclists acting as pilots. In Athy, where each car passed through twice on each full circuit, cars were required to stop for up to 15 minutes on arrival.
Edge, the winner of the 1902 Race, had particular reason to remember Athy. During the Race he changed his car tyres on seven occasions and in Athy buckets of water were thrown over his tyres to cool them and help keep them on the wheel rims. He was later to be disqualified on account of this assistance.
Jarrott, driving a Napier car for Britain, crashed between Stradbally and Athy and rumours of his death and that of his mechanic soon reached Athy. The bystanders and race organisers were relieved to be later advised that neither party was seriously injured although they took no further part in the Race. Indeed, the only casualty was a young boy in Kildare town who was fatally injured by a car not involved in the Race.
Of the twelve cars which started the Race only five completed the course with the German Jenatzy driving a Mercedes the winner in a time of 6 hours 39 minutes and an average speed of 49.2. m.p.h. French drivers filled the next three places with Britains S.F. Edge in fifth place but later disqualified.
Even after 90 years reference is still made to the Gordon Bennett Race as if it was an occasion enjoyed within living memory. Next weekend sees the 90th anniversary celebration of Ireland's and Athy's greatest ever sporting event. Gordon Bennett is a name now synonymous in Irish minds with the Athy circuit and the 1903 Race. The proprietor of the New York Herald could hardly have envisaged how his motor racing Cup presented in 1899 would ensure Athy's place in the history of International motor racing.