I was greatly interested in reading Mr. Gerald Rose’s letter in your March issue on the subject of Lancia, with its analysis of the temperament of the old impetuous F.I.A.T. maestro. I believe his findings to be basically correct, though some mention of Lancia’s spectacular victory at Brescia in 1904 might well have been considered. The Italian’s sensational 72 m.p.h. average was more or less world-shaking news in the racing world at that time when lettering mile-a-minute averages was not a common-place happening on the open road. If further evidence of faulty judgment does not appear too disparaging to the career of the mighty Italian ace, I cite the 1905 Vanderbilt Cup Race on Long Island, N.Y. After a tempestuous run of 200 miles at above 70 and with an 18-mile lead over his nearest rival (Heath’s Panhard) Lancia’s impetuosity not only cost him victory, but very nearly dispatched two paticipants into kingdom-come. As I recall it, Lancia had stopped for supplies at a F.I.A.T. camp along the circuit, and on completing this enforced pause and with a display of supreme recklessness, had plunged back on to the course disregarding entirely the restraining hands and frantic voices raised against him.
At that instant Walter Christie’s front-drive contender was hovering in the distance and moving fast. The inevitable transpired, and in the tangle Christie’s mechanic was thrown 30 feet, though the driver contrived to remain in the badly battered car, one of his own design and building. Motor Age describes the ensuing moments, which appear to have been pregnant with grim uncertainty. “The crowd evidently supposed Lancia had done this thing deliberately. They made a rush for Lancia, who did not seem to know what they were about. He stood calmly watching them, but when it was explained that they deemed him almost a murderer, he grew excited and explained volubly that he had not known that Christie was there, and that, if he had tried it, he was just as likely to have been killed as the occupants of the other car. The logic of this thing translated to the crowd seemed to abate its fury, for it faded away from Lancia’s locality and spent its time looking at the wrecked American car. After lengthy repairs Lancia resumed his meteoric pace to finish a sullen and dejected fourth place winner.
Gerald Rose, holding his delightful loyalties to the past, has written, ” The finest driver of 1949 cannot slide his corners any more skilfully than Jenatzy or Lancia or Hemery used to do . . .” Here again I find myself supporting the authors contention. Because about a month after witnessing the Watkins Glen G.P. in upstate N.Y., last year, I viewed a few hundred feet of film taken at the first French G.P., 1906. There were most of the “old school” practitioners at their best, and Nazzaro’s rock-steady, purposeful handling of the unwieldy F.I.A.T. at the sharp left turn at Saint-Mars-le-Briere surpassed anything I had seen at W.G., or anywhere else for that matter. Considering the half-century of racing experience and engineering science to which present-day participation has been subjected, Mr. Rose’s prejudice’s seem totally justified.
This grows painfully long, I fear, but out of respect for the old regime of racing men and cars I feel I should mention the Vanderbilt Cup night we held last week at the Veteran Motor Car Club, N.Y. The speakers were participants and winners in these early cup contests and they included Joe Tracy and Al Poole, crew of the Locomobile in the 1905 and 1906 events and winners of the 1906 American Trials, George Robertson and Glenn Ethridge, the crew of the Cup-winning Locomobile in 1908, and Ralph Mulford, whose Lozier triumphed at Savannah in 1911. These men entertained us with graphic recollections and impressions of those days of which Gerald Rose speaks so feelingly.
I am, Yours, etc.,
New York, PETER HELCK.