The Gordon Bennett Cup takes place on July 2, 1903, becoming the first international motor race to be held in Ireland. The race is sponsored by James Gordon Bennett, Jr., owner of the New York Herald. Under the rules, the races are hosted in the country of the previous year’s winner. Selwyn Edge had won the 1902 event in the Paris–Vienna race driving a car manufactured by D. Napier & Son.
The Automobile Club of Great Britain and Ireland want the race to be hosted in the British Isles, and their secretary, Claude Johnson, suggests Ireland as the venue because racing is illegal on British public roads. The editor of the Dublin Motor News, Richard J. Mecredy, suggests an area in County Kildare, and letters are sent to 102 Irish MPs, 90 Irish peers, 300 newspapers, 34 chairmen of county and local councils, 34 County secretaries, 26 mayors, 41 railway companies, 460 hoteliers, 13 PPs, plus the Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin, Patrick Foley, who pronounces himself in favour.
Local laws have to be adjusted, ergo the ‘Light Locomotives (Ireland) Bill’ is passed on March 27, 1903. Kildare and other local councils draw attention to their areas, while Queen’s County (now County Laois) declares that every facility will be given and the roads placed at the disposal of motorists during the proposed race. Eventually Kildare is chosen, partly on the grounds that the straightness of the roads will be a safety benefit. As a compliment to Ireland the British team chooses to race in Shamrock green which thus becomes known as British racing green, although the winning Napier of 1902 had been painted Olive green.
There is considerable public concern about safety after the 1901 Paris-Bordeaux Rally, in which at least eight people had been killed, and severe crashes during the May 24, 1903 Paris-Madrid race where more than 200 cars competed over a distance of 800 miles but which had to be halted at Bordeaux because there had been so many fatalities. To allay these fears, the 1903 race is held over a closed course which is carefully prepared for the event, and is marshaled by 7,000 police officers assisted by troops and club stewards, with strict instructions to keep spectators off the roads and away from corners. The route consists of two loops that comprise a figure of eight, the first being a 52-mile loop that includes Kilcullen, the Curragh, Kildare, Monasterevin, Ballydavis (Port Laoise), Stradbally and Athy, followed by a 40-mile loop through Castledermot, Carlow, and Athy again. The race starts at the Ballyshannon cross-roads near Calverstown.
The official timekeeper of the race is T. H. Woolen of the Automobile Club of Great Britain and Ireland. Ninety one chronographs for timing the race are supplied by the Anglo-Swiss firm Stauffer Son & Co. of La Chaux-de-Fonds and London. Competitors are started at seven-minute intervals and have to follow bicycles through the “control zones” in each town. The 328-mile race is won by the famous Belgian Camille Jenatzy, driving a Mercedes in German colours.