The George Vanderbilt Cup 1936-1937
by Dennis David
The 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 Brivio, Nino 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 Nuvolaris 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.
That 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.
Interestingly 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.
The 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 Caracciolas 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 Seamans 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.
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 Americas 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.