When the car was developed one of the first things people did was see how fast they could go. There’s something quite astonishing to people, and understandably so, about high speeds, especially considering that it wasn’t until the mid 1800s —after some 7000 years of human civilisation and history that humans invented a means of transportation that was the faster than any other manner of travel throughout the whole world (even though it wasn’t actually until the 1940s, roughly 70 years after the invention of the first car as we would know it, that production cars were able to travel at the speed of a cheetah).
Almost as long as there have been autos there have been auto races. The first race ever run was in the dead of night on 30 August 1867. This race, rather unsurprisingly, between Ashton-under-Lyne and Old Trafford in the England was actually illegal and thusly we don’t have reliable records of it, but the newspaper The Engineer recorded the more mechanical facets of the race. It was an eight-mile race.
The first auto race in America, just over a decade later, was held in July of 1878 and in those years the technology had developed to the point that facilitated that the race in Wisconsin could be 200 miles long, but it has to be said that only two cars actually competed the race.
Any quick glance at a newspaper today easily shows that the popularity of car races started in a strong position and only got stronger. And the amount of types of auto racing has skyrocketed—off-road racing, formula racing, stock car racing, rallying, production-car racing, and so forth and so forth—to the joy of fans everywhere.
The most famous formula race is probably the Monaco Grand Prix, first run in 1929 in the eponymous city. On the western side of the Atlantic, in America, formula one has traditionally been less popular—though it doesn’t live in obscurity—with fans instead having watched CART races, now called IndyCar. These races feature more restrictive rules than formula one races and have a greater emphasis on controlling the costs of producing the cars. (Though to be pedantic, the IndyCar series is actually still a form of formula racing.)
Beyond simply speed, there are many races that focus on endurance of both car and driver. The most famous is surely the Le Mans 24 in which the cars and drivers are on the track for 24-hours continuously in order to demonstrate the technical prowess of the vehicles. Another sort of endurance racing is the rally race, such as the well-known Paris, France to Dakar, Senegal rally, an annual event in the endurance racing calendar.
From modest origins with more in common with the Victorian freak-show than the sorts of races that we have today, car racing has been and continues to be a major part, of the entire auto industry.