Born in 1887 to wealthy merchant parents, he attended the Allen-Stephenson School in New York City, and then the Harstrom School in Norwalk, Connecticut, a prep school for Yale. This only served to prove that the young man was not cut out for academic pursuits.
He instead showed an interest in auto racing, wrecking his mother’s Oldsmobile in 1906. It is possible that he caught the bug from his half-brother, George McKesson Brown, who that year purchased a Benz racing car and engaged a German driver, Karl Klaus Luttgen, to drive it in the Vanderbilt Cup race on Long Island. The 21-year old schoolboy bluffed his way into the 1908 Speed Trials at Daytona first as a mechanic then as a driver who went out and won the event. Emanuele Cedrino – manager of Fiat’s New York operations took the young man under his wing where he was jokingly known as Cedrino’s millionaire mechanic.
His mother horrified that her son might actually drive a racing car threatened legal action against the organizers if they allowed her son to drive but drive he did. In a Fiat he promptly beat the 1904 record of 92.30 mph set by William “Willie K” Vanderbilt. When Bruce-Brown’s mother heard the news she momentarily got caught up in a wave of enthusiasm but the dread was always there that her son would die at the wheel of a racing car.
In 1908 he won the Shingle Hillclimb driving a 120hp Benz. In 1909 he beat Ralph DePalma’s Fiat in the Dewar Trophy and DePalma would later remark that Bruce-Brown was “one of the greatest drivers who ever-gripped a steering wheel” In 1910 two preliminary races were held on Friday, the day before the Grand Prize for light cars.
The first race for the Savannah Challenge Trophy was won by Joe Dawson in an Indianapolis built Marmon while the second race was won by Billy Knipper in a Lancia, that race’s prize being the George W. Tiedeman Trophy named after the local mayor. When Saturday arrived the morning was clear and cool. Two strong European teams headed the entry list, that of Fiat and Benz. Fiat had top drivers Nazzaro, de Palma and Wagner while Benz countered with the legendary Hemery, Willie Haupt and David Bruce-Brown. The race started at nine o’clock in front of 60,000 spectators with the drivers departing at thirty second intervals. For the next six hours the race was a battle between Hemery in the Benz against the Fiats of Nazzaro, Wagner and de Palma. While the leaders battled, Bruce-Brown made steady progress and soon the race belonged to the two Benz teammates, Bruce-Brown and Hemery but who would it be. Bruce-Brown crossed the finish line first but based on time Hemery still had a chance to catch the young American.
The veteran driver gave everything he had as he flashed across the line. The crowd waited for the official time keepers, and then it was announced that the young American had beaten the veteran Hemery by 1.42 seconds over a six hour race. Another American, Bob Burman came in third driving a Marquette-Buick.
Hemery was one of the best drivers in the world but even he was taken in by the charms of the young lad. He became the sensation of American motor sports, the rich kid taking on the best that the Europeans had to offer. In 1911 Bruce-Brown drove for FIAT in the inaugural Indianapolis 500 and finished 3rd. He added another American Grand Prize later that year.
He went to Europe in 1912 for the legendary A.C.F. Grand Prix at Dieppe. The French press called him the errant schoolboy in a man’s world. Driving a 14.1 liter Fiat with DePalma and Wagner. The Grand Prix was the most prestigious race in the world. Held over 2 days the race totaled 956 miles.
At the start Bruce-Brown leapt into the lead in front of a start-studded field. Setting the fastest lap he won the first day’s race by over 2 minutes. On the second day Bruce-Brown struck a dog and ruptured his fuel tank. After lengthy repairs he was able to continue but only after adding more fuel which unfortunately was against the rules.
He finished a disappointed though not classified third. Devastated by the loss he promptly challenged the eventual winner, Georges Boillot to a match race to be run in the United States. The Speedway Association who were building the Metropoliton Motor Speedway at Newark Meadows prompty offered a prize of 25,000 for only the winner, not of s match race but rather an invitational to the top drivers of the day. Legenday names like Lautenschlager, Szisz, Nazarro, Wagner, Hemery, and Haroun wiukd be invited but tradegy would soon strike.
A product of New York society Bruce-Brown was an amateur competing on equal terms with the best drivers in the world. On October 1, 1912 the fairy tale ended when David Bruce-Brown still only 25 died while practicing for his third American Grand Prize at Milwaukee. A tire on his Fiat had burst sending the car cart wheeling into a ditch and Bruce-Brown and his riding mechanic, Antonio Scudelari, were hurled into the air and landed in a field. They were rushed to the hospital, but died. David Bruce-Brown’s fellow drivers stood in the corridor outside his room and wept.
It all seemed so pointless as he was warned that his tires appeared worn and when out on the circuit he proceeded to race with his teammate, Terrible Teddy Tetzlaff in a display of youthful exuberance. What he might have accomplished during his lifetime can only be guessed. The racing world, especially the Americans were stunned.
In the New York Times, the race’s official starter, Fred Wagner, wrote, “Every one connected with racing and many of the public at large were inexpressibly shocked over the lamentable death of David Bruce-Brown. This young driver liked by all connected with automobiling… Mrs. Bruce-Brown will have at least one balm in her deep grief in the knowledge that her son was always a favorite and always was honest in his driving.” And a writer in England’s The Motor added, “Bruce-Brown was typically American in his style of driving… a driver determined to get the most of it from beginning to end. But coupled with this wild dash was a consummate skill in the handling of his car, which is given to few men to possess… the extraordinary combination of wild fury and calm reasoning shown in every movement of the American driver.”
The legendary Louis Wagner declared him to be the greatest road racer he had ever seen.