The French pioneered those great intercity road races at the turn of the century, which were terminated by the fatal accidents in the 1903 Paris-Madrid contest, causing it to be stopped at Bordeaux, but which continued over closed public-road circuits thereafter. It should not be forgotten. however, that America was not all that far behind France in organising a great road race.
It took the form of the WK Vanderbilt Cup Race, first held at Long Island in 1904. Mr William Vanderbilt Junior was himself a keen automobilist, knowing his cars as he did his horses, who had been timed over a flying-start mile at 92.30 mph in 1904, beating Henry Ford’s record in his white Mercedes 90. He gave the Vanderbilt Cup, for whoever won this American road race, which was intended to encourage and publicise American cars. The rules specified that it must be held on a regularly-used highway, on no circumstances on a track, and be of between 250 and 300 miles. Like the European Gordon Bennett Cup Race, national entries were the norm, made by the recognised club of the country in which the competing car was made. The first Vanderbilt Cup race was held on October 4 1904. Entry fees were 300 dollars per car, refundable to the extent of half the stake if the car started. The 1905 race was also to take place on American soil but after that it could be held in the country of the holder of the Vanderbilt Cup, as with the Gordon Bennett race. When this happened the rules were to be those of the AAA and the AC de France. No more than 10 cars were to represent any one country.
Thus was the scene set for the inaugural contest. A 30.24-mile course had been found, to be covered 10 times, the cars being started at one-minute intervals, the first at 5.59am. Of these 302 miles, 18.4 were restricted-speed controls. Timing was in the hands of the Chronograph Club of Boston, Massachusetts “an association of gentlemen who for years have made the subject one of deep and wide experiment”. Telephones had been set up round the circuit and 90,000 gallons of petroleum had been used, at a cost of 5000 dollars, to lay the dust, the point being made that this would afterwards benefit ordinary users of the highway. The two controls were of three and six minutes, respectively. The three main corners on the course were at Queens, Jericho and just beyond a disused railway line, the start and finish at Mineola, Long Island. Right-handed corners had red warning banners before them, blue banners indicated left turns, white ones straight-on intersections, a green banner, a rail crossing, a yellow banner meant a sharp downhill section 100 yards ahead, and the controls were shown by black streamers across the road lettered in white with the word ‘neutral’.
Some 18 entries came in (number 13 not being displayed). There were five Mercedes, all 60 models, except for one 90, owned by the Paris-domiciled American Gray Dinsmore and driven by Wilhelm Werner. The “challenge” for these came from the German AC. These Teutonic entries were faced with Gabriel’s 80 hp De Dietrich, Heath’s 90 hp (170x170mm) Panhard-Levassor, Alfred Vanderbilt’s 90 hp Fiat, a 90 hp Renault, a 90 hp Clement-Bayard, another 90 hp Panhard for Henri Tart to drive, yet another in the care of George Teste, a 90 hp Fiat owned by William Wallace plus a number of American entries. Most of these cars had American owners, but represented the national clubs, though the Panhards had been shipped from Europe to compete, as had Dinsmore’s big Mercedes.
So what befell? George Heath’s Panhard-Levassor won, at 52.20 mph, his race time, exclusive of negotiating the controls, being 5h 36m 45sec. He took the lead after four laps, having left in seventh position, lost 50 minutes with tyre changes, but triumphed in the end. Albert Clement’s 90 hp Bayard was second. Heath overtaking him on the last lap, beating him by 88s. Clement entered a protest over alleged delay at the Hicksville control, but it was not upheld. None of the others finished within the time-limit. AL Campbell in Stevens’s Mercedes had trouble on three of the laps but was still going at the end. Gabriel’s De Dietrich led for three laps but retired with a broken water-pump connection. Arents’s Mercedes 60 overturned when a rear tyre left the rim, which then met a tram-line on the Jamaca road. He was badly injured, his mechanic Carl Menuel killed. Incidentally, mechanics had to sit beside their drivers, not on the step, and the cars had to weigh between 881 and 2204 lb. with each occupant scaling not less than 132 lb. Hawley, in Thomas’s Mercedes 60, went well, getting into third place, until both front springs broke above the axle. Werner, in the Mercedes 90, made a jumpy start (the scroll clutch?) but ruined his brakes when obliged to use them hard at the Oyster Bay rail crossing, where a train was approaching! Sartori was driving Vanderbilt’s big Fiat to the start but was delayed by traffic, near the Garden City. He joined the race when it was some three laps old! After a lap the starter flagged him in, ran after him, and dropped his starting-card in his box but the race committee chairman would have nothing of this flying start and the Fiat was held for about an hour, at Hicksville control. It went on but retired with a faulty clutch. Bernin’s Renault stalled at the start, then went out with a twisted propshaft on lap two. Tart made a splendid start in the Panhard but tyre trouble delayed him and he retired. Luttgen drove instead of lsidor Wormster, spinning the Mercedes 60’s wheels at the start, but was a lap in arrears at the end. Wallace in the 90 hp Fiat ran over his mechanic (uninjured) and took on another, but tyre and clutch trouble eliminated him. Teste retired his Panhard at the firm’s depot after four laps, with ignition troubles.
Of American cars, Tracy’s 35 hp Royal, advertised as standard except for a high gear, was watched by race-patron Vanderbilt at the start, but a sheared universal-joint pin took two hours to rwair at a wagon works and then on the second lap a cylinder and the crankcase cracked. Webb’s 6 hp Pope Toledo was pushed off due to its high gearing and after troubles broke a steering joint and rammed a tree. Lyttle drove a consistent race with the 24 hp Pope-Toledo, lost half-an-hour with trouble and was a lap down at the finish. The streamlined Packard Grey Wolf of Charles Schmidt was too slow, lost 20 minutes being looked over, and was flaggedoff. Croker’s 75 hp Simplex was even slower, doing only seven laps.
So that was it. Teste set fastest lap, at 70.8 mph. The Americans tried to make up for their defeat but pointing out that they had the greatest proportion of cars still running when the course was closed, and that of the two Mercedes 60s still running, one was defeated by a stripped touring 24 hp Pope-Toledo. That apart, the race was resumed in 1905, with GB-style eliminating trials, and it ran until 1916, the respective winners being Victor Hemery’s Darracq, Louis Wagner’s Darracq, Robertson’s Locomobile, Grant’s Alco in 1909 and 1910, Mulford’s LoPer, Ralph de Palma’s Mercedes in 1912 and the same driver, again for Mercedes, in 1914, no race having been run in 1913, and Dario Resta for Peugeot in 1915 and 1916. The event was revived in 1936 as the G Vanderbilt Cup race, the cup so large that after he won the new race for Alfa Romeo Nuvolari was able to be photographed actually sitting in it! By 1937 German might prevailed, Rosemeyer’s Auto Union winning the race, again at Roosevelt Field track, at 82.56 mph, from Seaman’s Mercedes-Benz, Rex Mays having to be content with third place in an Alfa Romeo. And that wrapped it up. W B