Almost a third of a century has passed since two of the most interesting automobile races ever held in the United States were run. On Oct. 12, 1936 and July 5, 1937 the George Vanderbilt Cup Races took place at the then-unique Roosevelt Raceway at Westbury, Long Island. For the organizers to stage European style events on a simulated road course in the very insular America of the 1930s was ambitious and, as events were to prove, premature. Since WWI European and American racing practice had diverged sharply. On the Continent, Grand Prix racing was enjoying a fantastic boom as the powerfully supercharged German and Italian cars achieved sensational speeds on difficult, twisting circuits; in the United States, oval track racing had placed more emphasis on car preparation and individual driver courage than on chassis and engine design. The George Vanderbilt events brought this divergence into sharp contrast.
Contrary to current opinion, the races were not revivals of the illustrious Vanderbilt Cup Races held under the auspices of William K. Vanderbilt, Jr., from 1904 through 1910 on Long Island and from 1911 through 1916 at Savannah; Milwaukee, Santa Monica and San Francisco. Upon retiring his famous cup in 1916, VanderbiIt retained the trophy and in 1934 presented it to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., where the Tiffany creation can today be seen on exhibition.
Therefore, when Roosevelt Raceway was constructed in 1936 expressly for the running of road races in the central Long Island area, the sponsors found it necessary to obtain the blessing of another Vanderbilt (a distant relative, as it turned out) whose name could be used to give to the proposed events the required degree of respectability and reverence. Thus, the slightly different name and, a new cup created by Cartier of New York. In addition, $20,000 awaited the winner, $10,000 the second man, $5000 the third, descending to $1400 for 10th place, and $100 for the leader on certain specified laps. ,
At Westbury there arrived from Europe an assortment of drivers and racing cars unlike anything seen in the USA since the days of the earliest Vanderbilt, Grand Prize and Indianapolis 500-ml events. These men and machines were to compete against local drivers of considerable talent who knew almost nothing about road racing. The American machines, although ideal for dirt tracks or the bricks of Indianapolis, were completely unsuited for a simulated road course such as the one constructed at Westbury. The principal reasons were inadequate brakes and an almost complete lack of multi-speed gearboxes. The 4-ml circuit contained approximately a dozen straight stretches of varying lengths and 16 different curves and turns, requiring much severe braking and shifting of gears during the 75-lap, 300-ml event. In contrast, the enormous, well-cooled brakes and multi-speed gearboxes of the European cars were ideally suited to the ordeal.
Heading the contingent of foreign drivers was Tazio Nuvolari, making the first of his two visits to this country. A great deal was expected of the maestro, who was the most famous and popular driver in Europe and who had earlier in the year won Grands Prix at Montjuich, Buqapest, Milano, Livorno and Modena. Team mates of "the man who had a contract with the devil," as the papers referred to him, were Antonio Brivio, winner of the 1936 Mille Miglia, and the young Giuseppe Farina, destined to become the first postwar World Champion, in 1950. The three drove the magnificent supercharged Alfa Romeos (two 4.1-liter V-12s apd a 3.8-liter straight-8) of the world-renowned Scuderia Ferrari, a name that became one to reckon with in all postwar racing.
From France came Raymond Sommer and Jean Pierre Wimille. They also had supercharged cars, the former driving a not-so-new straight-8 Alfa Romeo Monoposto Tipo B, the latter a straight-8 Bugatti Type 59. These two had earlier that year won the French Grand Prix at Montlhery, teamed together in a sports Bugatti. Eight more drivers from France, England and Australia, including Philippe Etancelin, Earl Howe, Pat Fairfield and Maj. Goldie Gardner, completed the list of those invading America with foreign cars.
And who were the American defenders? Prominent among them were Wilbur Shaw, subsequently 3-time winner of Indianapolis, Mauri Rose, also to become a 3-time winner of the 500-ml classic, 1934 Indy winner Bill Cummings, Shorty Cantlon, Rex Mays, George Connor, Chet Miller, Henry Banks, Billy Winn, Ted Horn, Babe Stapp and Bob Swanson. These were all famous names in American racing.
In qualifying for the race, Nuvolari turned in the fastest average for the five laps as well as the fastest individual lap. These were 69.9 and 70.1 mph, respectively. The next fastest times were by his teammates, Farina (in the 8-cyl car) and Brivio, with best laps at 68.9 and 67 mph. Curiously, the next fastest European qualifier was Wimille at 65 mph, slower than Americans Winn, Shaw, Connor, Swanson, Cantlon, Chuck Tabor and Chet Gardner. Of these, Billy Winn, using a little high-bodied 4-cyl Miller fitted with 4-wheel brakes was the fastest qualifier at 66.6 mph, his speed exceeded only by the three Alfas of Scuderi a Ferrari. This was no mean feat in itself but it was his performance in the actual race that was the highlight of the event.
When the starting flag was dropped at 11A.M. on Columbus Day by Gar Wood, the honorary starter, Billy Winn was first across the starting line, with Brivio on his left and Shaw on his right, only inches behind him. This was just the beginning of the game fight that was to be put up by Winn until his Miller finally gave up on the 64th lap because of a broken differential gear, or so it was announced. That a locked rear end was not used, considering the style of Winn's driving and the type of car, is not now understood. Perhaps such was used and the announced cause of breakdown was inaccurate, the word "differential" being in error.
In any event, that Winn was in third place at the end of the standing-start first lap was miraculous, but that he was second at the end of the fifth lap, having passed Brivio, and with only Nuvolari ahead of him, was truly fantastic. Brivio soon repassed him, but he held third place for more than 30 laps, despite a minute-and-a-half stop for fuel in the 24th. When finally caught for the first time by Wimille in the vastly superior Bugatti, Winn dropped back to fourth place, a position he held until the rear-end failure.
In the meantime, Nuvolari had led the race from the start except for one lap, the 25th, when a pit stop for water and a change of plugs allowed Brivio to lead momentarily. The ultimate order of the finish was Nuvolari, WimiIle, Brivio, Sommer, Fairfield (l.5-liter ERA R4A) and Freddy McEvoy (Maserati), with the highest American car being Mauri Rose's Miller-Offy in 7th place. Rose, incidentally, drove a steady if not spectacular race with only two routine pit stops of one minute each. Nuvolari's speed for the 300 miles was a disappointing 65.998 mph, a speed that left the crowd wondering why there had been so much talk about the fabulous speeds of the great European cars. They could do better than that on the highway with their family cars, and most of them did, going to and from the race. Little thought obviously was given to the severity of the course, with its many twists and turns. The race management gave thought to it, however, for 1937.
But to return to the one driver who really stole the show Billy Winn, who had almost obtained a third-or a fourth place against superior cars and drivers of great skill and road racing experience. He had driven his utmost, as if each turn were one of the many he had negotiated so well in the past on the dirt tracks with which he was familiar. Time and again, when one of the faster foreign cars just ahead of him would be slowed down for a sticky turn, Winn would go broadsliding by, making up precious seconds. It was a weird sensation to watch the game little fighter put up such a performance, one that animated what otherwise could have been a monotonous race. There is no question that Billy Winn was the star of the day and that he would have had a more-than-even chance to win if he had had a mount equal in performance to those of Scuderia Ferrari., Nuvolari was clearly the best of the foreign drivers at Roosevelt Raceway in 1936 but one wonders even at this late date if he actually drove better than America's BiIly Winn that day.
Because of the relatively low average speed of the 1936 race, the management wisely decided to alter the course before the next event, scheduled for July 3, 1937. Accordingly, the majority of the twists and turns were removed and two short in-line straight aways were joined, thus creating a second straightaway that was parallel to and almost as long as the main one of some 4000-ft length directly in front of the main grandstand. In addition, the final turn leading into the main straightaway was steeply banked so the now 3.33.:mi course was considerably faster than the original version. As before, the race was to be for 300 miles, although for 90 shorter laps this time. Prize money was the same as the previous year, but an additional $10,000 was to be distributed to the first three American cars and the first three American drivers to finish.
Four cars possessing vastly superior performance to that of the previous year's Alfa Romeos were invited. These were two each of the highly developed Mercedes-Benz Vi 125 and Auto Union Type C machines from Germany whose design and construction had been subsidized by the Nazi regime. The Mercedes-Benz, to be driven by Rudolf Caracciola and Richard Seaman, had supercharged 5.6-liter straight-S engines (despite the fact that the official race program listed them as V-12s), while the Auto Unions, to be driven by Bernd Rosemeyer and Ernst von Delius, had rear-mounted supercharged 6-liter V -16 engines. The engines of each of these cars developed about 600 horsepower, a fantastic output at that time.
The only other European entrants were Nuvolari and Farina, both driving V-12 Alfa Romeos, and the Norwegian, Eugen Bjornstad, driving an antiquated straight-S Alfa. Other than,Seaman, no English drivers were present and no British made cars participated; Fairfield, 5th in 1936, had died two weeks before after crashing at Le Mans. French cars and drivers were also conspicuously absent. American drivers in:" cludeq Winn, Horn, Cummings, Shaw, Kelly Petillo, Russ Snow15erger and Herb Ardinger. A few old Alfas and Maseratis were entered by American drivers, the most promising of which was Rex Mays' supercharged straight-S ,Alfa, used by Scuderi a Ferrari the year before as a practice car and sold to California racing sportsman Bill White before the team had returned to Italy. This car had been reworked during the winter months under Mays's guidance, and fitted with a centrifugal supercharger. It turned in an astounding performance during the 1937 practice at Westbury, being faster than the latest improved factory V-12s. This same Alfa Romeo ran in seven subsequent Indianapolis 500s, the last one in 1947; it was 5th there in 1939. At Roosevelt Raceway none of the Alfas could compare in performance to the German cars and it was obvious that one of the silver machines would win Caracciola had had the fastest qualifying time at 85 mph.
July 3 dawned with an unfavorable weather prediction and " rain began to fall even as the cars were being arranged on the starting grid. Perhaps wisely, but in contrast to European practice, the race management postponed the race until two days later. July 5th turned out to be ideal and it was claimed that a crowd of 80,000 turned out to see the race, although contemporary photos of the grandstands hardly support this estimate. After each foreign driver was introduced over the loud speaker along with the national anthem of his homeland, the race started 45 minutes ahead of schedule. Rex Mays was first across the starting line, as Billy Winn had been the year before, when the flag dropped. This was not to be the only similarity between these two Ameican drivers, for Mays literally stole the show with the performance he exacted from his elderly Italian mount.
Throughout the race Mays was almost permanently in third place, while the first two positions were alternately held by a varying combination of German cars, the leaders being, from time to time, Rosemeyer, Caracciola and Seaman. Caracciola had the misfortune of shearing his supercharger drive on the 22nd lap and was out of the fray for good. Nuvolari, doing his utmost to overhaul Seaman, blew up his engine early in the race, retiring his car.
But what of Mays and of Winn? Both drivers were using dirt-track tactics of broad sliding on the turns, making up valuable time that they were unable to gain on the straightaways from their more powerful and considerably faster German rivals, which often reached 160 mph. Winn, in the same No.7 Miller that he had driven the year before, led the field of American-built cars most of the time, and during the early part of the race was actually ahead of Delius and Farina. Unfortunately, his Miller gave up when the race was about half over, ending another gallant attempt; he had been sixth most of the time. In the meantime, Mays was still in the fight with his well placed Alfa:- The rear-engined Auto Unions, despite their excellent overall performance, were noticeably difficult to handle on the turns.
The final tabulation of the second, and last, event held at Westbury on the full course saw victory go to Rosemeyer with a speed of 82.5 mph; Seaman took 2nd (delayed by almost running out of fuel but still less than 1 minute behind), followed by Mays, Delius, Farina, and Joel Thorne, this young American driving an early straight-8 Alfa now thought to have been the car driven to fourth place the year before by Sommer. In seventh place was the first American-built car to finish, a Miller driven by Russ Snowberger. Eighth through tenth were, Snow, Cummings and Ardinger. As an example of another handicap Mays had to contend with, his pit stop for fuel and tires took 1 min 18 sec. compared with 35 see for Rosemeyer.
It is difficult to compare the abilities of racing drivers from their performances in just one or two races, but from the accomplishments of Billy Winn and Rex Mays it is easy to imagine what they could have achieved if they had had better equipment. The Vanderbilt races did not continue because the basically conservative American public had not seen enough of this type of racing to appreciate it. It was 10 years after WWII before a thorough exposure to European cars and circuits brought forth a new school of American drivers competitive in road racing, and a new breed of American machinery to carry them to the heights in internertional competition.