A long way from home

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Rudolf Caracciola’s trophies are on display in Indianapolis. So how did his silverware end up so far from Germany?
By Eoin Young

About the last thing you’d expect to see in the Indianapolis Speedway museum is Rudolf Caracciola’s pre-war Grand Prix trophies, won when he raced for Mercedes in Europe. Yet they underline Caracciola’s quirky connection with Indy. In 1946 Caracciola entered a pre-war W165 1.5-litre V8 supercharged GP Mercedes for the 500 – but the car was banned from leaving war-torn Europe. Instead, Rudi accepted a drive from an American enthusiast, which landed the German ace in hospital after an accident which has never been explained.

If there had been a world title in the late 1930s, it would have belonged to Caracciola. You could say Adolf Hitler created the Caracciola success profile when he backed the Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union Grand Prix teams, but he also damned it when he went to war with the world in 1939. Caracciola watched the war clouds gather and moved to Switzerland for what turned out to be a seven-year forced vacation, but in 1946 he received an invitation from Pop Myers, vice-president of the Indianapolis Speedway, suggesting that he bring the baby Mercedes racer – the 1939 W165 – to run in the 500 on May 30.

Myers was rekindling Mercedes interest in the event. Before the war the company had shown a strong commitment to the race, planning works entries in the 1938 500. Four cars were assigned, for Caracciola, von Brauchitsch and Lang, plus a spare, and the team had been due to sail in May. Those plans were cancelled within weeks, following worries about oil consumption over the long race.

On November 18 that same year Mercedes made the decision to build 1.5-litre cars, as Italy had decided to run major races to the voiturette formula to give Alfa Romeo and Maserati a chance of success. It was a blatantly nationalistic move, but there was a definite suggestion that the world GP formula would reduce to 1.5 litres in 1940, so Mercedes embarked on a miniature GP car, a scaled-down W163 with a five-speed gearbox. It was the first Mercedes to be powered by a V8 engine – albeit a small supercharged one. Two cars were entered for the Tunisian Grand Prix, and Lang and Caracciola duly scored a totally dominant one-two.

In 1941 Rudi returned to his homeland to visit the Mercedes factory in Stuttgart to ask Dr Kissel, director general of Daimler-Benz, if he could have one of the jewel-like W165s. In his autobiography A Racing Driver’s World, Caracciola wrote: “Dr Kissel called me into his offices. ‘My dear Caracciola,’ he said. ‘Nowhere would the car be in better hands than with you. Both cars, in fact, since only one of them is in working shape. You would have to use the other for spares. I would like to give you these cars but they cannot be taken out of Germany. It would be considered illegal export. As soon as it can be done officially, I will have them brought over to you.’”

Caracciola’s Mercedes pension was blocked in 1942 because he had refused to take part in troop entertainments, and Dr Kissel then died. Nevertheless his successor, Dr Wilhelm Haspel, knew of the W165 arrangement, and in 1945, a few months before the war ended, the two racing cars appeared at the Swiss border. There was no documentation so Mercedes-Benz AG in Zurich handled the paperwork. When he heard that the cars had arrived Caracciola went to Zurich to claim his gift, but without documentation and involving a German residing in neutral Switzerland, it became a major international problem. Eventually Caracciola succeeded, and in time came agreement for ‘Release of one car for repair and participation in the 500-mile race.’ Spiriting his mechanic Walz from Germany to Switzerland was even more complicated, but they found blueprints and other parts for the car, rigged an extra oil tank for the long race and arranged a 5am street test run with Zurich police. Car and spares were trucked to a French port, but a dock strike stalled plans. It was now mid-April 1946, only six weeks from race date. US General Doolittle gave permission to airfreight the car to Indianapolis, but time ran out and the Foreign Office in London eventually vetoed the export.

Rudi and his wife Alice (‘Baby’) decided to make the trip anyway and flew to New York. On the crowded train to Indianapolis they were amazed to meet up with pre-war racing mates Achille Varzi and Gigi Villoresi. Track owner Anton Hulman Jr met the train, booking the Caracciolas into a downtown hotel where Rudi was handed a letter from Joe (Joel) Thorne offering him his car to race.

Speedway historian Donald Davidson describes Thorne as ‘an eccentric millionaire who was always broke.’ He had raced in four pre-war 500s, placing fifth in 1940. Now in a wheelchair after a recent motorcycle accident, Thorne signed Caracciola to drive in his place, puzzling the Indianapolis ‘railbirds’ since the German was relatively unknown in the US.

Thorne was a colourful personality described by Brock Yates in a 1961 Car & Driver profile: “Where men like Cunningham and Reventlow carefully metered their flow of funds in behalf of their sporting objectives, Joe used the fire hose technique, sloshing money around in appalling sums, gathering in its wake sports cars, whole racing teams, speedboats, airplanes and dazzling women. In 20 hectic years Joel Wolfe Thorne Jr probably spent more, outraged more, upset more and amused more than any other man in motor racing history.”

Caracciola described Thorne after his first meeting as ‘a very well-to-do, odd, lean young man’, but agreed to drive the Thorne Engineering Special, packing a non-supercharged 4½-litre six-cylinder Sparks engine with a carburettor on each cylinder. Caracciola was puzzled to find that the brakes were operated by a hand lever outside the cockpit! Having brought his pre-war racing kit with him on the off-chance of a drive, he presented himself for the medical and the doctor passed him, impressed at the trim of the 45-year-old.

Donald Davidson describes Caracciola’s first acquaintance with the Speedway: “With just a few days remaining before the race, Caracciola took the car out for practice but was soon flagged in because he was wearing only a cloth helmet. Hard helmets would not be required in Europe until 1952, and he did not own one.”

The officials insisted he wear a proper crash helmet. Then British-born Col Arthur Herrington, chairman of the AAA Contest Board, produced a British army tank driver’s helmet. Rudi said it was light with air vents, but solid – “It felt as if my head was in a bucket.” The Colonel’s ‘bucket’ almost certainly saved his life.

Caracciola discovered a familiar lesson – that the famous old Speedway wasn’t as simple as it looked: “The oval square was surprising – each corner had to be approached differently. The corners were only slightly elevated, the back stretch was wide and beautiful. The front stretch, before the stands, on the other hand, was uneven and bumpy because it was paved with bricks. After a few laps I had the car in hand. The pickup power was tremendous and the car hugged the road splendidly.”

The following day he took his driver’s test and then set out to qualify: “The car flew across the course… and that’s the last thing I knew.” He had crashed in turn 2. A track marshal said Caracciola’s hands had suddenly dropped from the steering wheel and the driver had suddenly collapsed. The car hit the barrier on the back straight and Rudi was thrown from the cockpit, hitting the road with the back of his head.

In Car & Driver, Yates wrote of the incident: “It was late in the afternoon as Caracciola gave the big Sparks full throttle on exit from the southeast turn. Suddenly the blue car lurched sideways and slammed into the retaining wall. It rode the barrier for a way, then flopped onto the track, spilling Rudi out on his head. The three-time European champion was rushed to hospital with grievous injuries. His doctors agreed that without the crude old tank helmet, Rudi’s gainer would have meant sure death.”

The cause of the crash is still a mystery. It was suggested that a bird hit Caracciola in the face, but such a bird strike is all but unheard of at the Speedway. Historian Davidson says: “I am not aware of another bird strike here… at least none hitting a driver. Birds have been hit by a car but never a driver.”

A newspaper raised a more fanciful idea – that someone, perhaps an ex-soldier with an anti-German grudge, took a pot shot. Inspecting his goggles afterwards Rudi noted “deep holes in the unbreakable glass and steel frame of the goggles”, but the theory was not widely entertained.

Caracciola was unable to remember anything, and assumed something had hit him on the temple: “This accident, like most accidents, has never really been explained satisfactorily. The dead don’t speak. And to those who are severely injured, nature mercifully robs the memory of the instant of terror…”

He was in a coma for a week and in the Methodist hospital for nearly a month before he went back to the hotel. Then track owner Hulman offered his lakeside lodge near Terre Haute for Rudi to convalesce at. It was this friendship which eventually resulted in Alice Caracciola gifting the trophies to the Speedway Museum on her death.

Chasing fate, Thorne’s other entry in the 1946 500 won the race. George Robson’s winning average was 114.820mph, so Caracciola’s car had obviously been competitive…

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