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Even the idea of Henry Ford as a race car driver seems absurd. Henry was not a racy guy. He was almost the exact opposite, a careful, thorough, consistent engineer. But in 1904, Henry realized that unless he could make a car of his own design go 100 mph, he would never be able to design a car capable of going 25 mph reliably.

Before the Ford Motor Company was established, there were several earlier companies organized to build Ford model automobiles, but Henry was convinced of the necessity of thorough planning and design before going into production. Despite heavy pressure from his financial backers, Ford refused to rush his cars out to the public.

Instead, he worked hard to create a race car with power and handling ability. His Arrow was tested on the ice of Lake St. Clair near Detroit. It was very cold on the lake, and the fuel line kept freezing up. So his chief engineer, Spider Huff, tied himself to the side of the engine and let his body heat keep the line from freezing as the car careened over the frozen lake. With nail-studded tires, Ford pushed his car up to 91.37 mph, setting a new speed record.

Ford's wife, Clara, was terrified watching Henry risk his life in this car. She made him promise not to do it again. So Henry went out and found a bicycle racer by the name of Barney Oldfield and hired him as his driver. Barney had never driven a car before, but he had an absolute addiction to speed. He pushed every ounce of speed out of Henry's machines, without regard for the mechanical costs or any danger to his own life.

Ford greatly admired the power of the legendary railroad engine called the 999, so he called one of his early cars the 999. Just starting the 999 was a two-man operation. First you opened the gas valve. Then you advanced the sparking device and blocked the wheels so the car wouldn't run over you when the engine started. Turning the starter crank in the front just a certain way caused the engine to leap into life, but it needed a long warm-up period or it would stall.

If he were honest about it, even Henry would admit that he wasn't a very good racer. He didn't have the killer instinct on the track, and he was too much of an engineer to really open her up full-bore. These early engines had single pistons as big as a piece of firewood. These early cars had no wind shield, no muffler, open oil pans, and, worst of all, no brakes.

To keep from being thrown out of the car while going around the corners, Oldfield had to develop a sense of how much to let up on the gas or the spark. When the race was over, he just turned the car off, and let it coast to a halt.

Henry's race cars were rough, but they were fast, and Henry learned a great deal about how to make a car work smoothly while racing them.

After several years of tinkering around with race cars and delaying his financial backers, Henry Ford was ready. The Model T that resulted from Henry's deliberate learning process has been described as one of the best automobiles ever made. It needed to be.

The year the first Model T hit the roads of America there were only about 50 miles of paved highway in the whole country. The T had to endure harsh conditions which wrecked many less well-built cars, but Henry's "Tin Lizzy" was a real champ. He had his career as a racer to thank for it.