LOWELL -- Three years before winning the pole position at the first Indianapolis 500 in 1911, Lewis Strang made headlines driving his Italian-made Isotta race car to victory in the Lowell Automobile Road Race.
Strang reached a top speed of 53.6 miles per hour, as drivers repeated the course circuit from Pawtucket Boulevard to the Tyngsboro Bridge then back to Varnum Avenue for 250 miles.
The city hosted the first of its two grand races on Labor Day in 1908. The winning driver got to hoist the Butler Ames trophy, named for the congressman who at the time represented the city as part of the Massachusetts' 5th District in the U.S. House of Representatives.
It was part of Lowell's long history of racing cars and an attempt to attract auto manufacturing to the city.
"We never had anything like this before," Guy LeFebvre, owner of Lowell Gallery, a custom framing store, said about the 1908 race. LeFebvre owns a panoramic picture of the race, which is displayed in his downtown shop on Jackson Street. The photo shows men preparing to race down dirt roads as spectators dressed in fedoras and newsboy caps watched the race.
The Lowell Automobile Road Race ran for two years and then it vanished, moving on to another city, said LeFebvre.
On Saturday, June 21, the city will be put on the motor-racing map once again as the 31st annual Hemmings Motor News Great Race makes its first overnight stop in Lowell. The antique cars will be parked on Middle Street for two hours for spectators to admire.
Car culture has extended beyond officially sanctioned races. LeFebvre remembered racing his 1966 Chevrolet Chevelle in the late 1960s and early 1970s on the VFW Highway. He will feel nostalgic as the cars roll by, one every minute.
"It will bring back fond memories of being an illegal street racer," LeFebvre said. He recalled working a second job at a gas station to fund his race car.
All vehicles participating in the Great Race must be manufactured in 1972 or prior to that year. To truly emulate the old style of motoring, GPS and computers are prohibited during the race.
To add to the festivities, car enthusiasts from the area will get a chance to drive their prized classic wheels downtown. The Greater Merrimack Valley Convention & Visitors Bureau, which organized Lowell as the first Great Race stop, plans to display pictures of vintage cars at Majors Pub in preparation for the event.
The Great Race is based on the 1965 comedy film by the same title starring actors Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis and Natalie Wood. The movie depicts a car race from New York City to Paris.