Greatest Races – The Vanderbilt Cup

Chain your Dogs and lock up your fowl.

Racing History – Long Island Vanderbilt Cup Races

The Initial Races

So was heralded the Long Island Vanderbilt Cup races. Many races have been held under the Vanderbilt Cup banner but the initial races from 1904-1910 on the streets of Long Island marked the high point of this series.

Born from the imagination of William “Willie K” Vanderbilt, Jr., great grandson of millionaire Cornelius Vanderbilt and a racer in his own right, these races were held despite numerous court orders, public hearings and threats of injunction. The initial course measured 30.24 miles winding for the most part through Nassau County, New York. The rules were simple; each car must be completely manufactured in the country represented, weighing no less than 881 lbs. and no more than 2,204 lbs. The drivers and mechanics themselves had to weigh a minimum of 132 lbs. The American Automobile Association (AAA) a new organization compared to the Automobile Club of America (ACA) sanctioned the events, which would cause problems in the future.

Vanderbilt CupThe first race was held on October 8, 1904 and started at 6:00 in the morning. Eighteen entrants were accepted with seventeen making the start. Six cars retired by the second lap. William Wallace’s Fiat left the pits after some emergency repairs resumed the race without his mechanic was, slowing; his mechanic was able to jump in only to fall out and promptly was run over. Seeing that the man’s dignity had suffered more than his body Wallace enlisted another mechanic from the bystanders. Eventually the race boiled down to two drivers, George Heath in a Panhard and Albert Clement in a Clement-Baynard. On the 9th of the scheduled 10-lap race Heath was able to open a gap of 1-½ minutes which he was able to maintain to the end. When Clement crossed the finish line the crowd of 50,000 began to leave. There soon was a large back-up along the roads leaving the finish line. This of course is a common fact of life for race goers. The only problem was that these very roads formed the circuit and there were still racecars out there competing! Luckily word reached the drivers that the race had been called off without any major incidents.

The following year, 1905 saw the race held on a slightly different course of 28.3 miles. Having gained some international publicity the entrants included several famous European drivers including Camile Jenatzy and Vincenzo Lancia. After the race leader, Lancia clouted a backmarker, thus requiring extensive repairs, the race was won by Victor Hemery in a Darracq.

Walter Christie and mechanic at the start of the 1905 race.1906 saw a wealth of marques including a 7.7 liter 50 hp Christie touring car. The driver, Mr. Christie had wrecked his regular racer and rather than having to go home he decided to race his personal car! 250,000 spectators witnessed this race. As with the city to city races in Europe the threat of maimed spectators hung in the air as their favored vantage point seemed to be the middle of the road. One driver the popular Joe Tracy warned the organizers of the problem but others like Lawell (Frayer-Miller) believed the only thing to be done was to “run straight at the people”. Inevitably a man was killed when he walked out in front of the Hotchkiss of Elliot Shepard. A Darracq again found its way to the winner’s circle, this time driven by Louis Wagner. The quality of the field was of the first order as Lancia, Duray, Clement and Jenatzy followed him in turn.

Duray taking curve while mechanic holds on to loose tire.The race was cancelled in 1907 due to the growing danger to man and beast but in 1908 with extra security and the building of the Long Island Motor Parkway, the race returned. The event was becoming more of an American affair as the two continents racing endeavors went in different directions. The AAA chose to ignore the new international regulations of the Automobile Club de France (ACF). The European teams felt that this would handicap their special built Grand Prix cars and signed up for the rival American Grand Prize.

Luttgen in 120 hp MercedesStarting in a drizzle the six leading cars were separated by three minutes. By lap sixth it was down to two, George Robertson in a Locomobile and Herb Lytle in an Isotta. After a late race of course excursion Robertson stormed back to win by 1 min 48 sec. Becoming the first American driver and car to do so. 1909 saw the introduction of production cars (the first stock car racing?) and few international drivers. The circuit was reduced to 12.64 miles and after a peak of 250,000 spectators in 1906 the current crowd numbered approximately 20,000. Billy Knipper was the winner but few cared. The reasons for the poor attendance were many and the organizers set out not to repeat the same mistakes next year.

Vanderbilt CupThe crowds were back larger than ever in 1910 and the field was dominated by American entries. Louis Chevrolet at over 70 mph dominated the opening laps. On lap seven his teammate Bob Burman took over the lead. Chevrolet returned to the lead but later lost his steering and crashed killing his mechanic. Joe Dawson was now in the lead but the race would go to the steady Harry F. Grant in an ALCO. Again crowd control was woefully inadequate and the plug was finally pulled on the Long Island races. The Vanderbilt Cup would continue to be held but the focus was now on the American Grand Prize with its recognition of ACF rules and corresponding international field. Both races were now held in conjunction with the Vanderbilt Cup very much the junior member.

The George Vanderbilt Cup 1936-1937

Vanderbilt CupThe first 300-mile George Vanderbilt Cup race at the new Roosevelt Raceway would be held on October 12, 1936, Columbus Day. Enticed by the massive prize money, Scuderia Ferrari sent three Alfa Romeo 12C-36 Grand Prix cars as well as an older 8C-35 for practice. The American contingent was made of two seater Indianapolis cars as well as various dirt-track specials. Drivers for the Italian team included Antonio BrivioNino Farina and the legendary Tazio Nuvolari. The top American driver that day was Billy Winn who would cause a sensation during practice and the early part of the race.

The race held to form with the Italians surging into the lead but behind them was Billy Winn in a one-speed dirt track Miller. Closely trailing the mercurial Farina until the Italian crashed, thus allowing the upstart American into third place before he succumbed to a tire failure and later a collapsed rear suspension. Other American drivers such as Bob Swanson who manhandled his 100hp midget into 5th place before running out of fuel made impressive showings but it was the superiority of the Alfa Romeos and Nuvolari’s driving that made the difference as he easily won the inaugural race.

The relatively small crowds and modest winning speed caused the management to embark on a major revision of the circuit. Gone were 9 corners and added was a 67 degree banked corner entering the main straight. The track was resurfaced and the date of the race was moved to the 3rd of July but the lack of competitive American cars would continue to dampen interests.

Billy Winn in a dirt-track MillerThat lack of competitive cars would be hammered home the next year when the mighty Auto Union and Mercedes teams would cross the Atlantic and contest the Cup. Each team sent two cars with Ernst Von Delius and the sensational Bernd Rosemeyer driving for Auto Union. Not to be out done Mercedes countered with Dick Seaman and the greatest German driver in history Rudolf Caracciola. Both teams, support personnel and various Nazi officials made the Atlantic crossing on the German liner the Bremen. For Caracciola and his new wife Alice as with the other members of the German teams the voyage took on the aspect of an unexpected vacation. A brief respite from the political pressure back home.

Caracciola in a Mercedes W125Interestingly the Americans had a not so secret weapon up their sleeves, a heavily modified Alfa Romeo 8C-35. The very same car brought as a spare by the Scuderia Ferrari was purchased by “Hollywood” Bill White and was to be driven by famed American driver Rex Mays. This car due to a little American ingenuity was now faster than the factory cars driven by Nuvolari and Farina! Rumor had it that they were helped by disaffected Alfa Romeo mechanic Attilio Marinoni. This convergence of European technology and American ingenuity would have a direct impact on the Indianapolis 500. Wilbur Shaw was brought in as a last minute substitute for amateur Enzo Fiermonte in his V8Ri Maserati. Tough he would finish no higher than ninth due to various mechanical maladies, he was struck by the handling and power of the European Grand Prix cars. Convinced that these cars could form the basis of a winning car at Indy partnered with Chicago labor leader and car-owner “Umbrella Mike” Boyle to purchase a 3-liter 8CTF Maserati. With this car he would win the 1939 and 1940 Indianapolis 500s while just missing a hat trick in 1941 when a wheel collapsed.

Nuvolari was not at all happy with the pace of his car and was still suffering from tragic death of his 17-year-old son, of which he was informed just before he arrived in the United States. He would soon leave the Alfa Rome team and never drive for them again. The changes to the track had their desired effect as the Auto Union of Rosemeyer was clocked at 159 mph through the speed trap. Though this speed was quite a bit slower than what could be expected on the circuits of Europe where speeds in access of 190 mph was not uncommon it was a vast improvement over the previous year. Rosemeyer made quite an impression on the New Yorkers with his Tyrolian clothes and his easygoing manner.

Ralph DePalma waves off the field at the 1937 George Vanderbilt CupThe race originally scheduled for Saturday, July 3 was canceled due to rain much to the consternation of the European teams who were use to driving in far worse conditions. Re-scheduled for Monday the 5th the race finally got under way with Ralph DePalma the honorary starter. Rex Mays got the jump but was passed by both Caracciola and Rosemeyer before traveling 10 feet off the line. The two German drivers would swap the lead before Caracciola’s car suffered supercharger problems. Rosemeyer would not be challenged again and cruised to a well-deserved victory. Behind him Billy Winn once again gave the home crowd something to talk about when after qualifying seventh he passed Dick Seaman’s Mercedes in a full-lock power slide for fourth place. They continued to battle before Winn succumbed to a broken crankshaft. Seaman would briefly take the lead but would eventually finish second followed by Rex Mays and Von Delius in the other Auto Union. The Alfa Romeo team was so impressed by the performance of Rex Mays that they later offered him a position with the team, which he declined, not wanting to adjust to the European racing scene.

The start of the 1937 race (Another view)

Rosemeyer returned to Germany as a conquering hero and this most apolitical of men was promoted by Reichsfuhrer Himmler to the rank of Hauptsturmfuhrer in the SS! Seventy thousand spectators watched the last Vanderbilt Cup race but America’s attention was elsewhere with the recent disappearance of Amelia Earhart while on her around-the-world flight. Less than three years later the circuit was turned into a horse race track. International road racing would not return to the United State until 1959.