With the invention of the automobile in 1891, Americans all over the country were changed for the better or worse. People nationwide had an original black Ford Model T parked out in the driveway, something out of a page in the blueprint for the "American Dream."
Then, as time progressed, cars became something on a personal level. The first 'race of cars' was in Illinois, with a total of sixty entrants. The race featured six "motocycles" or horseless vehicles. On November 28, 1895, the contestants left Chicago's Jackson Park at 8:55 AM heading towards Evanston, Illinois, and then would return. THrough the snow for fifty-four miles, with an average speed of 7.3 miles per hour, the winner was proclaimed after a whopping ten hours! Today, NASCAR drivers pummel around an oval track at speeds that would defy what early winner J. Frank Duryea could wrap his head around. Over the the years automobiles have affected every American, whether he or she races or not. One person that has been affected by the invention of the automobile in almost every possible way is Melroy Svenkerud, my own grandfather.
Melroy grew up in a small town, thirty-five miles from Fargo, North Dakota. This small town is where he recalls his first encounter with a car, at his family's farm. It was a little catastrophic. The experience was like a child first riding a bike. He recalls, "my folks had an old Model T Ford, and they went somewhere and I tried driving it when I was thirteen...and I had a little misfortune....cause I was too little to drive." From there, it created a lifelong fascination and phenomenon.
The phenomenon grew when he stopped working on the farm and moved to Fargo. He started by driving a truck for a company for several years. Nearby his home was a man who had racecars and sparked Melroy's interest. He soon started racing. For the level of racing he performed on, my grandfather was incredibly successful. He went on to win the Red River Valley Championship for two years and his third year was a runner-up in the race. "It was a pretty big thing up there," he slyly reminisces with a smile.
He was also a winner of the Governor's Cup. "Millie the Miler" was his name, and racing was definitely his game. For his mode of transport in the races, he started out with a Dodge and eventually ended with an Oldsmobile, all personally modified. While NASCAR is incredibly glamorous today with pit crews and teams, it is all something Mel never would have dreamed of in the fifties. "I personally did everything but the welding and machine work," he states. "I had a 'team.' There was three of us. We would work all winter long to build a new car."
This race car driver was practically unstoppable during his heyday. Years later he can proudly boast, "I never got hurt in a race, except for cutting my hand a little bit. Going down the straightaway once, I rolled about five times, I guess."
"Millie the Miler" would discontinue racing in August of 1961. He moved to Illinois after marrying my grandmother and after living there for a year he traveled back up North for a short visit and while there drove once as a racer for a friend. He won the trophy dash, second in feature after being out for a year, so he is still proud of that.
Although racing was not a significant part of his life anymore, cars continued to play a tremendous role. For a short while, he would drive a taxicab for his wife's uncle's taxi company. "There were lots of strange people to pick up from the tavern at night." He continued to drive the taxi for about three winters, while holding a separate full-time job as well.
At this time, Melroy's father-in-law offered him a job at the car dealership he owned. He would sell cars for an outstanding total of forty years. Mel still recalls the first vehicle he ever sold; an old pickup truck to one of his father-in-law's friends. He would work at four different dealerships in his life and would manage his own as well, for about fifteen years. He would retire from selling the first year of the new millenium.
"I've also been watching NASCAR for years," Melroy now chuckles, just another aspect of his life that cars have been a significant part of. "Actually I started watching it in 1959. It was on television but it was just a replay, it was never live when it first came on, wouldn't televise them all either, just the bigger ones." He also claims to be a huge fan of the four generations of the NASCAR family the Petty's. Lee, Richard, Kyle and Adam all left significant marks on the history of this sport, the first family of any to have four generations rise to the major leagues.
When asked if he thinks his kind of racing in the fifties and sixties was more exciting than what NASCAR does now, Melroy confidently states "yes, because we worked harder at it; there was no big money in it like there is now. Now NASCAR has turned into big money. It was kind of interesting when I started racing. We drove the cars and we worked on them. Now, NASCAR drivers just drive the cars, they have crews. They have engineers and stuff like that, we never even thought about anything like that."
Once he retired in 2001, my grandfather started a part-time job at none other than a car wash in his hometown. There, he is a manager and meets a lot of people. The business washes approximately 200 cars a day. Another job with unique people and automobiles, something that has never failed to interest him.
The invention of the automobile has affected millions in the world, and in so many different ways. This story is the true tale of an American, Melroy Svenkerud, who has been affected by the invention of the automobile in almost every respect. The automobile has left a mark on my grandfather as an individual, and gives "Millie the Miler" quite the story to share.
"The First American Automobile Race November 28, 1895." Paragraph two. 13 December 2007. http://americaslibrary.gov/
Sullivan, Robert. American Speed. New York: Amazon Remainders Acoount.
Svenkerud, Melroy. Peronal interview. 5 December 2007.