American David Bruce-Brown had it all: Money, looks, talent — and, at just 22 years of age, time. But as Mark Hughes explains, his stellar career was cut tragically short
As he wrestled with his fate in the split seconds after a rear tyre had burst at 100mph, it may have occurred to him that his best hope was to be flung dear in the impending plunge into a Milwaukee ditch. If so, he got his hope. Both he and riding mechanic Tony Scudelari were pitched through the air as the huge red Fiat reared before hurling itself to destruction.
Most in the racing community believed David Bruce-Brown to be 25. But this was a six-year hangover from when he’d lied, as a 16 yearold, to assure the organisers of a small-time novices race at Empire City, near Yonkers, that he was 19. They probably believed, too, that the Oldsmobile he used was his, not his mother’s. He won the race.
In the gap between that underage rookie foray and this violent ejection from a works Fiat, he had become arguably the greatest driver of his era. Has any racer since scaled such heights at so tender an age?
He adapted instantly to the huge machines of the time, outpacing peers and team-mates of legendary status, all whilst competing as an amateur. He beat the combined cream of American and European racing at his first attempt — and his second. He had a natural feel for the pace of a race and his attack would come with an exquisite sense of timing. Yet his first and only race in Europe — the 1912 French Grand Prix — showed that when carrying an outclassed car, he could fight the odds from the front, transcending his circumstances to pull out something truly extraordinary.
Ralph de Palma, safe in his car dealership at Lafayette, Indiana, in the late 1930s, after a glittering racing career spanning three decades, said that of all those he’d raced against, Bruce-Brown had made the biggest impression. Even the notoriously edgy and sour Victor Hémery — the great pre-WWI star whom Bruce-Brown had beaten to win the 1910 American Grand Prize —was said to have been taken by the New Yorker’s panache, charm and extraordinary ability.
But unlike these stalwarts, Bruce-Brown never got to be an old man with time to reflect. Even as he was flying through the air that day at Milwaukee, during practice for the 1912 Vanderbilt Cup, he might still have believed his future was limitless. He’d probably never had cause to doubt before; he’d been born blessed — with money, looks, strength and talent. Little wonder he came across as supremely confident. Allied to a forceful competitive sporting spirit and the streak of mischievous independence that so often sparks racing careers, he had it all. While his broad-shouldered physique must have helped convince those Empire City officials that he was older than he was, it also played its part in his ability in the car. Brute strength was a prime requisite when hurling a bucking behemoth over the rough roads of the time. But it was about more than just that. These cars also responded to the feel and balance of a driver, in just the same way as every subsequent race car. They broadsided on loose surfaces to an extraordinary degree with their fat torque and thin tyres, and were only slightly less out of line on Tarmac. From the off, Bruce-Brown proved to be a natural at it.
In 1908, a couple of years after his first taste of the racetrack, he could stand the confinement of Harstrom’s prep school in Norfolk, Virginia, no longer. He did a runner and made his way to Florida for the Daytona Speed Trials. That confident charm did the trick again; he talked his way in on the pretence of his being a mechanic. Once inside, he befriended Fiat’s New York importer Emanuele Cedrino and told him (almost certainly wildly exaggerated) tales of his racing exploits. Cedrino allowed him to be his riding mechanic.
By this time, however, Bruce-Brown’s mother, alerted by the school to her son’s disappearance, was hot on his trail. She arrived at Daytona to discover that he’d been promoted from millionaire mechanic to millionaire driver and, encouraged by Cedrino, was due to make a competitive run in one of the Fiat racers. The lady threatened to sue the organisers if they let her son compete. But maybe his charm worked once again, because he not only ran, but broke William K Vanderbilt’s one-mile amateur record that had stood since 1904. Sitting alongside him was Scudelari, not long since arrived from Fiat to help Cedrino, and who was making a new life for himself in New York.
Mrs Bruce-Brown was reportedly caught up briefly in the excitement of her son’s achievement, before perhaps realising that he was now a man, immune from her protection and unlikely to take up the place at Yale that had been expected. His mother, a widow and clearly a lady of some spirit, features prominently in this story. As her son – one of two – took leave of his New York society life to contest his next race, so she would depart from the family townhouse at 18 East 70th Street, or the country retreat in Islip, Long Island, and follow him. Once there she would harangue him, threaten to disown him, make him promises of gifts if only he would give up on this crazy, lethal sport. And each time Bruce-Brown would climb into his car and win, and his mother would be flushed with pride and excitement. A psychologist would have found a wealth of material here.
Bruce-Brown followed his Daytona exploits with another amateur class win in the hill climb at Shingle Hill, ironically an event sponsored by Yale University. Emboldened by success and sufficiently wealthy and talented not to bother with lesser machinery, for 1909 he purchased the 1908 Grand Prix Benz with which Richard Hanriot had finished fourth in the American Grand Prize. With this 12.5-litre device he lowered his own record at Daytona and took a flurry of victories in national speed trials and hill climbs
The Benz team had clearly been impressed by the form of their customer because, for Long Island’s Vanderbilt Cup race of 1910, he was part of its factory line-up. Unfortunately, the team was in complete disarray following the career-ending accident of Bruce-Brown’s team-mate George Robertson during a demo run. So in his first big-time race, Bruce-Brown struggled to 13th after myriad problems. But the main event of 1910 was the American Grand Prize at Savannah, Georgia, a few weeks after the Vanderbilt. This was the most prestigious motor race in the world that year, given the cessation of grand prix racing in Europe at the time. Among the entry were the European factory teams of Fiat and Benz, and one of the 15-litre Benz was earmarked for Bruce-Brown. In this company, he was an unknown quantity, up against legends like Felice Nazzaro, Hémery and Louis Wagner, not to mention the young American superstar de Palma in one of the works Fiats. Alarmed even more than usual, on account of Robertson’s serious accident at Long Island, Bruce-Brown’s mother made the trip to Savannah to plead with her son once more.
It should have been de Palma’s race. His Fiat was in a commanding position with just two of the race’s 24 laps to go when a stone went through its radiator. That left Bruce-Brown in front, ahead of teammate Hérnery. This was the first time he had led the race, but his had been an approach of stealth. Rarely was he out of the top three and, unlike the others, he had got by on just one pitstop — when a fresh right-rear tyre was fitted. It was a spookily mature performance.
Beginning the last 11.5-mile lap, Bruce-Brown was 2min ahead. Hémery, a truly great and very experienced driver, pulled out all the stops and made a stunning last lap. He crossed the line first but everyone had to wait for his team-mate to find out who the victor was on elapsed time. It was Bruce-Brown — by 1.42sec. Hémery admitted that the result and the narrow margin was hard to take, but pronounced Bruce-Brown “a young master” and proceeded to empty a bottle of champagne over him.
Like Benz the year before, Fiat was happy to sell its works racers rather than take them all the way back home. Bruce-Brown duly bought one and entered it in the inaugural Indy 500 of 1911. From a starting position of 25th, he was leading within a dozen laps. He dominated most of the race’s first half building up a lead of 7min at one point, but ultimately was beaten by the superior pit strategy of Ray Harroun. Towards the end Bruce-Brown’s spark lever broke, allowing Ralph Mulford past, too.
Fiat recruited Bruce-Brown to their factory team for the 1911 Vanderbilt and Grand Prize races, both at Savannah. He retired from the Vanderbilt race with broken suspension, but was very much one of the favourites for the prestigious Grand Prize after his victorious 1910 performance. Again, he drove with a masterly balance of speed and tactics, always near the front but only occasionally leading. With two laps to go he pitted from the lead for new tyres. Joining him in the pits came the second- and third-placed cars of Eddie Hearne (Benz) and Ralph Mulford (Lozier). It created an electric piece of drama. Mulford, needing only fuel, was first away but broke a driveshaft after an overenthusiastic flight over a (not so) level crossing on the subsequent lap. Bruce-Brown recorded his third-fastest lap, almost 3min quicker than Heame, on his penultimate lap. This was the knockout blow and he duly took victory for a second successive year.
If Mulford had been too rash and Heame too cautious, Bruce-Brown had hit the middle ground perfectly, all the while having a turn of speed up his sleeve to shade either of them. When looking closely at his lap times and his steely delivery at the critical time, it was as if the apparent closeness of the race was a mirage, due to nothing more than his own calculating judgement. He had them tied to a tree all along. He truly was a winning machine, with an innate sense of when to reveal his blistering speed and when just to let it simmer.
“I am certainly proud of my boy,” declared Mrs Bruce-Brown at the post-race ceremony. Asked if she would let him race again, she replied: “I can’t say about that now. We have enough in the present to be joyful about without borrowing trouble from the future.”
Grand prix racing proper returned to Europe in 1912. For the French GP at Dieppe, Fiat was there — along with Bruce-Brown. He had as team-mates his countryman and friend de Palma and Wagner, a formidable line-up. But there was a half-scale fly in the ointment in the form of the new twin-cam Peugeot. This instantly rendered monsters like the Fiat out-of-date, something the brilliant Georges Boillot lost no time in demonstrating during practice.
Hanging back and playing the waiting game was unlikely to work for Bruce-Brown in these circumstances. With nothing to lose, he carried the fight to the opposition from the off— and was magnificent. After six hours of racing he ended the first day leading Boillot by 2min, he and Scudelari impressing the Europeans with their athletic and synchronised pit work, fine-honed after working together so long in America. The other Fiats were 27 and 48min behind.
On the second day it was raining, as if ordered by the more nimble Peugeot. Still, Bruce-Brown and Boillot fought tooth and nail until a dog crossed the path of the Fiat. Bruce-Brown was unable to avoid it and it ruptured the car’s fuel tank miles away from the pits. After repairs he had to take on fuel out on the course — which was illegal. As Boillot passed, Bruce-Brown indicated to him that the Fiat was out and that he had no need to overstress his car, an act of sportsmanship that made a big impression on the Frenchman who duly drove to victory.
That was the end of June. Bruce-Brown had three months to enjoy his socialite life before travelling to Milwaukee, venue of the Vanderbilt Cup and Grand Prize races. He missed Monday Vanderbilt practice and was late arriving on the Tuesday, in the company of fellow wealthy American Caleb Bragg — a team-mate and close friend. Their other team-mate ‘Terrible Teddy’ Tetzlaff had already shattered the record with a lap of 6min 15sec, and so Bruce-Brown needed to get straight down to business. After some exploratory laps he pitted for fuel, ready now to push. Asked if he wanted to change tyres, he declined. Tetzlaff was already out there and Bruce-Brown took off after him, using him as his target His first flying lap took 5min 53sec, an average of 83mph. Down the long straight leading to ‘graveyard turn’ Tetzlaff knew Bruce-Brown was gaining on him. But as he got to the corner, he noted his sparring partner was no longer there.
Bruce-Brown and Scudelari lay dying in an adjacent field. The Milwaukee Sentinel recorded the following harrowing scene: ‘The daring driver, after regaining consciousness for a brief spell, made a Herculean effort to raise himself. In a mumbled tone and yet audible to his anguished fellow drivers, who stood silently by, covered with dirt and grease, but plainly showing their emotions in tears, Brown asked for his mother. It was his last effort.’
He died at the nearby Trinity Hospital from a fractured skull and internal injuries. Scudelari passed away a week later.
Bragg, who went on to win the race, was the man who had to make the phone call to Mrs Bruce-Brown to give her the news she had feared most Yet motor racing’s loss was almost as acute as hers. It was arguably the first time in the sport’s history that it had lost its acceped standard-bearer.
The sport had been robbed, especially when you consider Bruce-Brown’s youth. Born in 1890, he was the same age as subsequent aces Pietro Bordino, Antonio Ascari and Tazio Nuvolari. In a perfect world the four of them would have been fighting it out for decades.
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