A recent book paints a vivid picture of Grand Prix racing’s pioneering days in North America
Among many motor racing books that I admire, the great American enthusiast Joel Finn did a remarkable job of recalling for the centenary two years ago a major American event in The 1912 Milwaukee Races, published by Joe Freeman’s Racemaker Press (ISBN 13:978-0-9647769-6-8).
The Milwaukee meeting in question included both the American Grand Prize and the Vanderbilt Cup races run on a closed public-road circuit. The organisers were confronted by issues of public liability, and critically by unforeseen costs since capturing revenue from the attendant crowds proved near impossible. But Joel’s painstaking research concludes that most of the problems were way beyond the hapless organisers’ control. The races themselves were well run while the accidents – characterised by him as “both numerous and serious” – were caused by driver error or mechanical failure.
For a start, heavy local rains forced a two-week delay, and road repairs were an unforeseen cost. The delay diminished both entry quality and attendance. The circuit had a lap length of 7.89 miles on the boundary of Milwaukee and the township of Wauwatosa. Its surface had been widened to a minimum 30-40 feet, scarified then relaid with four inches of small rock topped by two inches of fine chippings, then a layer of asphalt/sand mix. Each lamination was rolled, then oiled and sanded repeatedly. This work alone swallowed about $25,000, with pits, grandstands and bridge work on top of that. The organisers fixed ticket prices at a dollar each, grandstand boxes $30-40. A profit of $50,000-plus was predicted.
The great American star drivers of the era included David Bruce-Brown, who had just finished second in the French GP for Fiat, Caleb Bragg, Teddy Tetzlaff and Ralph Mulford. Bruce-Brown – from New York society – was absolutely the most glamorous racing personality of the period. He and his wealthy friend Bragg arrived in Milwaukee on Monday, September 30, the day before practice began. No bizjets then, so they arrived instead in two private railcars from New York city, with managers and staff accommodated in a third railcar between theirs. These coaches were parked on a siding near the grandstands, their purpose absolutely the parallel of modern F1 teams’ paddock pavilions.
At around 11.30am next day, in early practice, official Fred Wagner noticed at a pitstop that the tyres on Bruce-Brown’s big chain-driven Fiat S74 were wearing badly. With only half an hour of the session remaining, the young New Yorker assured ‘Wag’ he’d take it easy, so the tyres would be fine.
He planned to spend the afternoon preparing for the planned banquet that evening while his mother was due to arrive at Milwaukee by train.
Back out on course, Bruce-Brown was passed by Teddy Tetzlaff’s Fiat S61.
His lap average was already 80.2mph. Tetzlaff then spotted Bruce-Brown closing up on him, before falling back.
It then seems that Bruce-Brown accelerated hard to close the gap along the South Fond du Lac Road. But on a stretch where coarse stone had been used to fill-in a major dip, the Fiat S76’s left-rear tyre blew out. The car veered sharply off the cambered road, thundered into a ditch then somersaulted to land facing backwards on the left side of the road. Both Bruce-Brown and his riding mechanic Tony Scudelari (or ‘Scudelar’, accounts differ) had been crushed under the inverted Fiat as it landed, and were punched deep into the soft rain-soaked bank of the roadside ditch. Nobody witnessed the accident. George Clark’s Mercedes was next along. He and his mechanic tried to assist the unconscious victims. Clark then ran to a nearby farmhouse to telephone race control. After some 30 minutes real help arrived but while both men were still breathing it required shovels to dig them out, before they were carried on timber planks to an ambulance. Bruce-Brown died within the hour, Scudelari on the following Tuesday, October 8.
The Milwaukee races went ahead, the 299-mile Vanderbilt Cup being run before some 50,000 spectators, of whom only 20,000 are thought to have bought a ticket. Ralph de Palma won for Mercedes at 68.97mph, taking the trophy and $3000 in prize money. Was it a spectacle? Yes – by the standards of the time it probably was – at least for a race with nine starters. Medium and Light Car races were then won by Mason Specials, driven by Mort Roberts and Harry Endicott – the first over 220 miles (with eight starters), the second 173 miles (and three starters).
The main event, the Grand Prize itself, was held on Saturday, October 5, 1912. The target was 52 laps, 409 miles (and 4616 feet). Bragg was intent upon winning. He led by four minutes from de Palma’s Mercedes with three laps left, and eased off to conserve his Fiat S74. Passing Wagner’s green flag into the last lap de Palma had closed the gap to 2min 36sec. Unaware of de Palma’s pace, upon reaching the roughest section of the now cut-up course Bragg eased back even more and de Palma’s Mercedes was suddenly upon him. The Italian-American misjudged the closing rate, and suddenly his left-front wheel struck Bragg’s right-rear, and the Mercedes was airborne.
Miraculously it did not roll, but instead speared into a deep ditch, impacting violently against its far bank and being stopped instantly. De Palma and riding mechanic Tom Alley were both thrown forward, out of the car, over a fence and into a harvested cornfield, landing on the corn stalks. Alley was knocked out, de Palma broke a leg and was speared by corn stalks.
Bragg, shocked by this sudden assault from behind, rumbled on to the finish. He crossed the line to secure his first major road-race win and $5000. He had averaged 68.45mph, then turned around and drove officials back to the scene of de Palma’s crash. The injured driver was not expected to survive. In the ambulance de Palma asked about his wallet. His clothes had been shredded. The wallet would never be found – although he survived he had not only lost his chance of a second place finish ($2500) or even the win, but also a thousand dollars in folding. Having lost a fine friend in Bruce-Brown, and fearing for another in de Palma, Bragg found himself having to defend his driving against lurid newspaper reporting – and, once he had recovered, de Palma would remain more angry at having his wallet pinched than by the inattention shown by Bragg and his riding mechanic, Capra. The Milwaukee organisers made a thumping loss, and cheques to contractors and participants bounced. Bragg’s prize money was paid independently by William K Vanderbilt Jr, and de Palma was only paid out in 1914, a Milwaukee deputation counting it out to him in person in gold coins.
By the early 1920s, road racing had withered away in the USA and would not re-emerge until the late 1940s, albeit – as Joel Finn states – in a far different form. I hugely recommend this fine book – photographically it is majestic.
A shortage of clocks in Italy
Sumptuous Alfa history throws fresh light on Mussolini’s nationalistic streak
Still on the subject of fine racing histories, it was a London High Court judge who observed that some motoring marques are particularly well served by their historians. Alfa Romeo has certainly been very well served indeed by the enduringly enthusiastic Simon Moore, and his latest two-volume tome is not only an absorbing and informative joy but also beautifully produced – which is very unusual amongst specialist books self-published by an enthusiast author.
You might notice I’m a fan. Well, that is unashamedly true, but something I particularly like about Simon’s treatise is his inclusion of the Alfa GP-engined racing powerboats set loose by a small coterie of speed-happy loonies over a 20-year period from 1934-54, and – more particularly – of an extraordinary letter which Simon reproduces. It’s from Il Duce himself, Italian leader Benito Mussolini, addressed to Nicola Romeo in Milan and from Il Capo del Governo, Rome, dated June 9, 1926.
Mussolini was quite a car enthusiast but he was also an extreme nationalist and developed a policy not just of Italy first, but also Italian language first. Accordingly, his letter to the head of Alfa Romeo read:
Dear engineer Romeo,
Yesterday, while returning from Firenze, I directed my attention to the instruments in my Alfa Romeo (which runs, I might add, very well) and I made the following observations:
a) the Magneto is German (Bosch)
b) the clock is Swiss
c) the horn (which does not work) is French!
I do not preclude the possibility that there are other ‘exoticisms’ in the interior.
Is this the way to support national products? Does this mean that there are no magnetos, clocks and horns in Italy?
Mussolini might have approved of the pre-war branding on a pre-war can of Castrol upper cylinder lubricant displayed today in the Cerda Targa Florio Museum – ‘Castrollo’ sounding decidedly Italianate. ‘Yeah but…’ as Jenks used to say – the rest of that label’s in French, and English-language ‘Castrollo’ cans also survive.
If you admire Alfa Romeo’s finest, and fancy Simon’s fabulous two-volume work The Magnificent Monopostos – Alfa Romeo Grand Prix Cars, 1923-1951 (Parkhouse Publications, Seattle, 2014 – ISBN 978-0-9820774-2-9) – start saving now. I promise it will not disappoint you.