The modern universe of motorsports holds most of its original core: The talent of the drivers mixed with the technology of the cars and the ancient human need to dare themselves and compete against each other. But there is one key ingredient that came along a little later: The sponsorship.
The money from the sponsorships brought the sport to far corners of the globe, made the financial life of teams a lot easier, and some driver millionaires.
But, as many other things in life, motorsport was a lot simpler, in the beginning, most of the money came from the manufactures and even from the drivers, as many of them were from wealthy families.
As a result, the cars were “clean” and the only graphics were the numerals and that created a problem, race cars were (as they also are nowadays) very similar in shape. Even if they were built by different automakers, without the sponsor’s liveries over the cars, it would be very hard for the people on the stands to identify them.
In the beginning, the rivalry between the automakers on the race tracks was immensely increased by national pride, so it was common sense to differentiate the teams by their nationality.
The auto clubs around the world came up to a color scheme to help to identify the nationality of the cars and it was applied for the first time during the “Gordon Bennet Cup”, a racing event held between 1900 and 1905 and was created by Gordon Bennett Jr, the millionaire owner of the newspaper “The New York Herald”.
This is how the collours were assigned for:
Germany: white, France: blue, USA: red, Belgium: yellow. It took two years for the Brits to join the competition and they didn’t have many choices for the color other than green.
The Rosso Corsa.
Perhaps the most traditional color in motorsports is the “Rosso Corsa” or the “Racing Red” that has become a trademark for the Italian high-performance cars, in and out of the race track, but how did they end up having the color that was intended for the Americans?
By early 1900, the automobile was considered more as a hobby than a necessity, and based on this principle, the aficionados were in constant pursuit of new challenges. The Parisian newspaper “Le Matin” on its January 31st, 1907 edition, published the following challenge: “What needs to be proved today is that as long as a man has a car, he can do anything and go anywhere. Is there anyone who will undertake to travel this summer from Peking to Paris by automobile?“
Around 40 contestants accepted the task but only 5 teams were actually able to ship their cars to Peking There were 3 French teams, one Dutch and one Italian.
The race started in front of the French embassy in Peking on June 10th, 1907. After covering 9,317 miles, the Italian car, driven by the Prince Scipione Borghese and Ettore Guizzardi, was the first one to arrive in Paris, on August 10th, 1907.
The Italian Prince was so confident he would be the winner, he even decided to take a detour from Moscow to St. Petersburg a dinner that was offered in honor of the team, and later headed back to Moscow and rejoined the race.
The car that gave the victory to the Italian team was a 1907 Itala, equipped with 4 cylinders, 7,433 cc (453.6 cu in) able to produce 45 HP and yes, the car was painted in red.
Prince Borghese and Ettore Guizzardi became national heroes and the red Itala was the symbol of the superior Italian engineering. After that victory, every Italian team competing around the world wanted to have their cars associated with the Borghese team.
The Rosso Corsa became the most traditional color in motorsports, actually not only on the track but on the streets as well. For us, gearheads, it hard to picture a classic Ferrari or Alfa Romeo in any other color.
No more red but white and blue.
After the Italians took over the red, another option was presented to the Americans, the white and blue. When we think about this combination only one name comes to mind: Shelby.
The racer/builder Carrol Shelby is, perhaps, the most iconic persona in the American motorsport scenario. He will be forever remembered for making the Ford GT 40 good enough to beat Ferrari 4 times in a roll in Le Mans but even before that, his cars had already defeated the Maranello boys in 1965, in the GT class.
Shelby himself said the biggest achievement in his career was the 1965 GT class Championship and that pretty much made the blue with the white stripes a trademark for his team.
And the colours, on the other way around, also became legendary.
But before Carrol Shelby, there was another racer/builder who proudly painted his cars in white and blue, his name was Briggs Cunningham.
Born into a very wealthy family, Cunningham started his passion for speed while racing boats and during this period, he also started to show some talent in the engineering field when he created the “Cunningham Downhaul” an aerodynamic innovation to increase the speed of his boat. By 1940s he was already modifying street cars for racing and 10 years later he brought two Cadillacs to compete in Le Mans.
One of them was a slightly modified 1950 Caddy Serie 61 coupe. But was the other Caddy that became a legend, not so much for its performance but for its looks.
Briggs Cunningham even had the help of the Grumman Aircraft Corp.to develop the new body for the Cadillac. The car certainly isn’t pretty but since the panels are aluminum it is a lot lighter than the original Serie 61 and obviously way more aerodynamic; all that paired with the new powerful small-block Cadillac V8, the first American V8 with overhead valves. But the Frenchs were unforgiving with the design and they nicknamed it “Le Monstre”.
On the second lap of the race, Mr. Briggs lost control of the car end got stuck on a sandbank, it took him 30 min to go back to the race.
At the end of the race, the coupe #3 finished in 10th and the le Monstre in 11th.
But his most popular creation is the C-4 Roadster, especially the “R” (racing) version. Between 1951 and 1954, Cunningham pursued the victory of an American car in Le Mans and the C-4 was the best bet, the elegant roadster was equipped with the hottest V8 of its time, the legendary Chrysler Hemi.
At the team’s peak performance, a C-4 won the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1953, and in the same year a C-5 won on class in Le Mans.
In one way or another, the white and blue tradition lives on. There are many small companies that produce replicas of the Shelby cars and this combination of colors is still very popular.
The renewed Shelby-Ford partnership in the early 2000s has brought us the modern interpretation of the Shelby GT Mustang and the old colors scheme is again a winner combination.
In the next post, I will talk about the colors of Germany, France, and Britain.