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One summer afternoon shortly after the turn of the century the residents of Newport, social center of America in that gilded age, were treated to a most extraordinary sight. Perched in the driver's seat of a 70-hp Mors (below right), his Panama set firmly on his head, was Foxhall Keene, the most noted amateur jockey, huntsman, steeplechaser and all-round sportsman of his time. Like the redoubtable Mr. Toad of Toad Hall in Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows, Foxhall Keene had found a new and fascinating sport, and it was not long before his exploits in the field of motor racing added new color and excitement to a legendary career.
That career had already made him one of the most frequently and most spectacularly injured sportsmen of all time. In 1936, when 66 years old, he totaled his hurts at one broken leg; one compound fracture of the ankle; nose broken twice; one ruptured kidney; one nearly fatal internal hemorrhage; brain concussion three times, lying senseless for periods of 17 minutes, 30 minutes, and 16 days; one broken neck, collarbone broken three times; one dislocated shoulder; three broken ribs; and six stitches in his eyelid after being hit by a polo ball.
The list also shows that the ancient and traditional sports of fox hunting, steeplechasing and polo inflicted a good part of the damage to Keene's wiry frame (140 pounds at racing weight). But he moved with his times, and he listened with approval to the new noise of the automobile. His first motor vehicle was a three-wheeler which he bought in Paris in 1895. Before venturing on a trial run to Versailles, Keene learned to drive by practicing in a large garret. Eventually he got the machine up to 30 miles an hour on the flat, and his first motor accident, a minor one, was recorded that year.
By 1901 Keene was driving a $14,000 Mors in the race from Paris to Berlin. He planned to make up for lack of road technique by pouring on the power, and by this method achieved second place as the racers stormed through Bastien. He hoped to catch Henri Fournier, also in a Mors, who was leading the pack with some two dozen others strung out behind. Bouncing across a culvert Keene went off the road and turned over. He and his mechanic were thrown clear and landed in a potato patch. It took them two hours and five minutes to get the car going again, and as they went roaring through Aix-la-Chapelle, Keene was in 16th place. Between Hanover and Frankfurt, however, the car broke down completely, and the race was over as far as Keene was concerned.
Nevertheless, this taste of road racing made Keene begin to give it close attention and hours of practice, as was his custom with any sport. He therefore bought a Mercedes and practiced so assiduously that the manufacturers invited him to join their team in the race for the Gordon Bennet Cup in Ireland in 1903. Staying in England at the time, Keene kept the powerful, blunt-snouted car at Dieppe and frequently crossed the Channel for a day or two of training over the moderately policed French roads. It was the sort of motoring which used to be described in the romances of Mr. Dornford Yates: an episode of the exact period flavor occurred when Miss Hildegarde Oelrichs, a New York society friend who was vacationing at Dieppe, asked Keene if he would run her up to Paris. He was delighted to do this, and they set out early, Keene capped and goggled, his passenger costumed for motoring in the fashion of the time. On a straight stretch over rolling country, Keene opened the throttle and the car surged forward.
"Oh, this is lovely!" the lady cried, "but what happens if there is something coming up one of those hills as we reach the crest?"
Miss Oelrichs found out as they topped the next rise. Coming out of the hollow was a heavy two-wheeled cart pulled by a pair of horses. The Frenchman in charge of this vehicle jumped off and seized the horses' heads, pulling them to one side and so causing the cart's long tail to swing progressively farther out over the road. Years later, although his memory was not accurate as to the speed, Keene still had the scene clearly in mind: "It was impossible for us to stop, so I instantly decided to make a run for it. I opened the throttle wide, and at a terrific pace we thundered down on the cart that was slowly blotting out the road. On our right the grass grew firmly, flush with the roadside, and I borrowed as much of that as I could. We just squeaked by, doing, I should think, 120 miles per hour. At the top of the next hill I stopped and examined the car. There, on the left rear hub, was a dent like the blow of a sledge hammer. It was as near a thing as I ever hope to see."
It is difficult now to imagine the wide-ranging freedom of motoring before the days of heavy traffic and organized police control. Under those" free conditions Keene once shot across Europe in time which would be hard to duplicate today. Entered in the Paris- Madrid race, he found that through an oversight his car was in Stuttgart when it should have been in the hands of Mercedes representatives in Paris for the weighing-in. Accompanied by his German mechanic, a man named Lutkin, Keene stepped off the night train in Stuttgart at 6 the following morning. They picked up their car and started back to Paris, 500 miles away over roads still largely unpaved. With Keene at the wheel for the entire journey, they drove into the Tuileries Gardens at 7 that evening, half an hour before the weighin deadline.
Foxhall had been abroad when American road racing had its thunderous start in 1904 with the race to which William K. Vanderbilt gave his name and the winner's award. But he had high hopes that he could win the second running for the Vanderbilt Cup, in 1905. Germany entered four cars, and four teams of five cars each represented France, Italy and the U.S., a bugle call heralding their approach to the straightaway in front of the grandstand. Alden Hatch wrote later how Keene's Mercedes came from beyond the curve of the narrow road with a tremendous roar, tearing the early-morning mists apart as orange flame shot from its flanks and smoke swirled in its wake. He saw "in the midst of that streak of fire and smoke a slim calm figure...plainly master of the occasion." And he could not resist yelling at the top of his voice, "Yea-a-ay Foxie!"—as did thousands of others who hoped an American driver, even if in a German car, would win the day.
But here again Foxhall Keene was up among the leaders only to lose his position almost at the price of his neck. The Albertson S turn was to end the hopes of another driver, Louis Chevrolet, and at this hazard Keene also came to grief. He went into it in good style, though perhaps a trifle too fast to be absolutely sure of coming out right side up at the other end. In the middle of the turn, his heavy car lurched from the course and slammed into a telegraph pole. Keene and his racing companion were dazed but not seriously hurt. As a further piece of luck, there was a course observer's station nearby with a field telephone through which Foxhall was able to get a message to his worried mother that he had not been killed.