On the Frankfurt-Darmstadt autobahn, just beyond the Langen-Morfelden crossing and set back amongst the trees stands a monument to the great Rosemeyer. Originally from Lingen, Lower Saxony. His career, like many other drivers of the period, began in motorcycles. He competed in various local races including hill-climbs riding BMWs and NSU’s. He gained a reputation for quickness as well as becoming a crowd favorite for his happy ebullient personality. He came to the attention of the DKW factory. DKW had recently joined a group of other manufacturers to form the Auto Union group. A revolutionary new Grand Prix car was being built at the Horch factory, at Zwickau, under the direction of Dr. Ferdinand Porsche. These new cars featured 16-cylinder engines installed at the rear with all independent suspension and aerodynamic bodies. Hearing of this new development Rosemeyer naturally felt that he should be the one to drive these new beasts. Auto Union’s star driver at the time was Austrian Hans Stuck who took the new car to victories at the German, Swiss and Czech Grand Prix. The Auto Union team manager, Willy Walb finally gave in to his young drivers pleading and offered him a trial in November.
On the morning of the test Rosemeyer showed up wearing a suit! Asked by Walb why he was not wearing overalls Rosemeyer answered that “Well this is a special occasion for me – my premiere in a racing car – so I thought I’d dress for it.” Walb did not know what to make of this impetuous driver but soon had an answer. The trial was at the daunting Nurburgring but luckily Rosemeyer was familiar with the course, having raced on motorcycles there on more than one occasion. Soon he was settling down to business. Even though he was now handling 10 times the horse power than he had experienced before, he was making some quick times. Almost as if the car had a mind of its own it sensed the young man’s growing confidence and set out to teach him a little humility. Rosemeyer applying the power a little too quickly, the back end swung around. After doing two complete revolutions and ending up in a meadow he returned to the pits. The cars was inspected for damage while Willy Walb was taking the measure of the young Rosemeyer. Would this driver be able to tame the beast he thought to himself. Rosemeyer returned to the track and was soon equaling the times of the vastly more experienced Stuck. Walb decided to sign Rosemeyer as a reserve driver. The car which terrified many who tried to drive it held no perils for him. Since his only previous experience was racing motorcycles he assumed that all cars drove like the Auto Union!
The 1935 season began but Rosemeyer had still not driven the car in battle. Walb considered him too inexperienced to drive at the Avus GP near Berlin. Rosemeyer began to leave notes for Walb where he couldn’t miss them asking “Why is Rosemeyer not driving” and “Where is the car for Rosemeyer.” Finally Walb relented, if Rosemeyer wanted to risk his life on the fast and dangerous Avus circuit, then at least he had warned him. He qualified third fastest but was done in by a broken motor. The next race was the Eifelrennen, raced on the Nurburgring. Rosemeyer was only the fourth man on the team but with the other drivers hobbled by various ailments it was left to Rosemeyer to attack the leading Mercedes. He was given the orders to go on the attack which he was more then glad to do having only until then been given the supporting role. Driving the Auto Union around the Nurburgring in great power slides, not seen since, he powered past Chiron and Fagioli. In front of him was Caracciola. To the amazement of all, not the least Caracciola, Rosemeyer had surged into first place. Caracciola, the greatest German driver in history, fought back to beat his new rival by 1.8 seconds. On the basis of this drive Rosemeyer was promoted to full time duty behind Stuck and Varzi.
His next major race saw him involved in a duel with the greatest of them all, Tazio Nuvolari. At Pescara in Italy, he attempted to pass the Mantuan on the second lap but skidded off-course and burst both rear tires. He limped back to the pit but rather than being humbled by this he returned to the race to continue the attack. On the eighth lap his brakes sized before entering a corner and the car slid of the road, jumped a ditch and passed between a telegraph pole and the parapet of a bridge before re-emerging onto the circuit and back into the race. Rosemeyer eventually finished second behind his teammate Varzi on this most eventful afternoon.
After the race, Dr. Porsche went to the scene of Rosemeyer’s drive through the woods and being the engineer measured the gap between the pole and the bridge. He found it to be only 2 1/2 cm. or 1 inch wider than the Auto Union at its widest point. Silently the mercurial Porsche shook hands with the young driver and patted his shoulder. Rosemeyer won his first race in the Masaryk G.P. in Czechoslovakia finishing six minutes ahead of Nuvolari and Chiron. The Grand Prix order had been broken and Rosemeyer in the words of Cyril Pothumas “…shot meteor-like across the motor racing firmament, driving three short but shattering seasons before his light went out…”
His first full season saw Rosemeyer blast his way to the top. His greatest victory, the Eifelrennen, occurred at his favorite circuit, the Nurburgring. Beating von Brauchitsch, Caracciola and Nuvolari on a mist-shrouded circuit, driving in conditions that at times approached near -invisibility he became the Nebelmeister-master of the mists. He would go on to win the German, Pescara, Swiss and Italian G.P.s, and was crowned the European Champion. A the Monaco Grand Prix that year he spun on a patch of oil and crashed into a bridge. An ornamental stone vase, loosened by the crash, fell to the ground. Five minutes later he appeared at the pits with the stone vase under his arm. “If I can’t win the real cup,” he said with a grin, “at least I’ll take this home with me.” The next year brought more victories including the Vanderbilt Cup where the friendly German made a lasting impression on his American hosts. At the German Grand Prix he stunned Mercedes, by taking pole position by six seconds. His races was marred by numerous off track excursions, but still he charged on in the ill-handling Auto-Union. After four hours he finished in third place behind the winner, Caracciola.
As they mounted the victors rostrum they were congratulated by the ranking Nazi, Adolf Huhnlein. Caracciola was presented with a large trophy depicting the Goddess of Speed. Showing his disdain for bureaucrats in general and National Socialism in particular he placed a lighted cigarette between the statues lips while Huhnlein’s back was turned. Alerted by the crowds burst of laughter Huhnlein turned back only to see Rosemeyer’s feigned innocence. The last race of the season was the Donington Grand Prix in front of 50,000 shocked British fans. Shocked because they had never seen the likes of the German cars that destroyed their local heroes.
Though he had scored several victories against the Mercedes juggernaut he looked forward to the prospect of his friend, Nuvolari joining the team for 1938. At the end of the season Mercedes feeling that their reputation was taking a beating by the upstart Auto Union team and its brash driver decided to undertake an attempt to regain the land speed record from Auto Union. The attempt would take place on the Frankfurt-Darmstadt-Heidelberg autobahn.
Rosemeyer in describing his record setting run stated that “.
.. at about 240 mph the joints in the concrete road surface are felt like blows, setting up a corresponding resonance through the car, but this disappears at a greater speed. Passing under bridges the driver receives a terrific blow to the chest, because the car is pushing air aside, which is trapped by the bridge. When you go under a bridge, for a split second the engine noise completely disappears and then returns like a thunderclap when you are through.
They set the date of their attempt for the end of January prior to the Berlin Automobile Show. Auto Union could not ignore the publicity that Mercedes would gain from this feat and decided to be prepared just in case.
On January 27, 1938 Alfred Neubauer checked with the weather bureau at the Frankfurt Airport and learned that the conditions would be ideal the next morning but that the wind would pick-up after 9:00 a.m. At eight Caracciola was off and the record at 268 mph belonged to the three pointed star. “I was unnerved,” Caracciola would say. “The road seemed like a narrow white band, the bridges like tiny black holes ahead. It was a matter of threading the car through them…” Rosemeyer was one of the first to congratulate Caracciola and said, “My turn now.” Caracciola, aware of the prediction for strong winds sought to warn his young rival but was assured by Rosemeyer that he was one of the “lucky ones.” Just before noon Rosemeyer entered the closed cockpit special and rocketed down the Autobahn. Traveling at over 270 mph a crosswind caught his car and caused the Auto Union to somersault flinging Rosemeyer to his death. Neubauer, Caracciola and von Brauchitsch, his Mercedes rivals, sat silently for a long time, “unmoving like statues,” in Caracciola’s words. Record breaking was over for now. “Bernd literally did not know fear”, Rudolf Caracciola said of his great rival, “and sometimes that is not good. We actually feared for him in every race. Somehow I never thought a long life was on the cards for him. He was bound to get it sooner or later…”
Bernd Rosemeyer was buried with full military honors. Hitler said to the German nation
“May the thought that he fell fighting for Germany’s reputation lessen your grief.”