The world took little note last Thanksgiving when American auto racing turned 100 years old. NASCAR, racing’s largest sanctioning body, didn’t even take a Post-it. In Chicago, where it all began, there wasn’t much more than a sparsely attended reenactment of the first race–no hype, no commemorative T-shirt marking the centennial. If fans did something special that day they did it in private, perhaps with a piece of cake or an extra lube job for the pickup.

Andrew Huckman was sitting a few miles away from the starting line of the first race, facing north to Evanston, when he learned about the anniversary in the New York Times. Though looking north, Huckman was thinking south. Auto racing, it had seemed to him, was a southern sport, a southern, mostly white male sport whose participants had “Junior” somewhere in their name. While it was the most popular spectator sport in America–300,000 people go to the Indy 500 every year–northern intellectuals hardly pay any attention, he thought. Well, he was a northerner and something of a goddamn intellectual himself. Maybe he could do something about that.

Huckman was disturbed by what he thought was the changed image of racing itself; where it had once seemed like an outlaw sport with drivers schooled on moonshine runs on the backroads of the Carolinas, the sport was now veering a little too close to the middle of the road. Where were the great rebels of yesteryear, he wondered? Today corporate sponsors are sanitizing the sport’s image. The Family Channel sponsors a car, for Christ’s sake. Then again, so does Hooters.

Huckman decided to organize “Grand National USA,” an art exhibit examining the sport of car racing. Too late for the birthday, he figured he could throw the event together in time to commemorate the 1895-’96 racing season.

Huckman found and studied a map detailing the route of the first race, which was sponsored by the Chicago Times-Herald. It took six cars ten hours to complete the course from Jackson Park to Evanston and back through the snow-covered streets of Chicago. Frank Duryea was the winner, driving a car that he’d built with his brother. There was one accident, when R.H. Macy’s Benz hit a trolley and a sleigh. Huckman estimates that the race passed within “a block and a half” of Kafein, an espresso bar in Evanston. Kafein’s proximity to the original racecourse made it Huckman’s first choice for the exhibit. “I believe it’s near the only point at which two of the cars were neck and neck, as they raced along at ten miles per hour.”

Huckman got on the phone to friends and acquaintances, some of them artists, some not, and talked up the idea of displaying works of art about stock cars. Stock cars, as opposed to race cars, don’t really have much of a special look, since all the power is supposed to stay under the hood. Except for their colors and decals with the names of sponsors, they look like regular cars. What would they use for models, the artists and would-be artists wanted to know? Models, Huckman answered.

“Each artist was given a Matchbox-style replica,” Huckman says, “which will be displayed next to the finished artwork.” If people were confused as to what he was looking for, he cleared that right up. “If I get these works of art back and I can spot the car, I’ll be disappointed,” he told a couple of people.

Twelve artists from around the country–including Huckman, who claims that the painting he did is his first since kindergarten–have work in “Grand National USA,” which opens 5 PM Saturday at Kafein, 1621 Chicago Ave. in Evanston, “the home of stock-car racing.” Call 847-491-1621 for more information.

–Jeffrey Felshman

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.