The Vanderbilt Cup
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The Vanderbilt Cup
Royal Enfield

Vanderbilt Cup

 1904 - 1937

The Reverend Newell Dwight Hills

“As Foolish as a Bullfight; as vulgar as reddening-the sands in a gladiatorial contest; as revolting as bartering Christ's garments for a few pieces of silver!” Not our words, but those of the Reverend Newell Dwight Hills, when he learned that young William Kissem Vanderbilt was sponsoring a motor race on the hitherto peaceful rural roads of Long Island, New York State, in 1904. Not that Willie gave a damn for the Reverend Hills's opinion, he was both wealthy enough and enthusiastic enough to disregard such facile criticism.

William Kissem Vanderbilt

Great-grandson of the founder of the Vanderbilt dynasty, William Kissem had been a keen supporter of motoring as early as 1895, when he was an eighteen-year-old Harvard student, and had given 3000 francs to the prize fund for the Paris-Bordeaux race. Vanderbilt began to participate in automobile sport around 1900, and by 1902 had acquired a Mercedes on which he became the. first man officially to travel faster than 60 mph, on the Acheres Road near Paris.

Vanderbilt then acquired an 80 hp Mors with which he competed in the Paris-Vienna and Circuit des Ardennes in 1902 and in the Paris-Madrid in 1903. By 1904 he had acquired a 90 hp Mercedes with a speed potential in excess of 100 mph - and soon after Vanderbilt claimed to have achieved this speed.

This was before Rigolly's Gobron-Brillie became the first officially timed car to break the 100 mph barrier - and the donation of a 31-inch cup to the American Automobile Club, to be competed for by teams of the top international marques and drivers. There was more than a hint of the Gordon Bennett about the regulations for the Vanderbilt Cup Race - hardly surprising, as James Gordon Bennett was a close friend of Willie K Vanderbilt.

The First Vanderbilt Cup

Held on Saturday 8 October 1904, over a triangular course about thirty miles long, and based on public turnpike roads, the first Vanderbilt Cup race attracted an entry of eighteen cars in total - six French, five American, five German and two Italian. While the rules of the race specified that all parts of the competing cars had to be made in their country of origin, there was no stipulation that drivers had to be of the same nationality as their cars. So George Heath, an US resident in Paris, drove one of the French Panhards, and three of the five Mercedes competing were driven by Americans.

Local opposition to the race remained fierce until it was tempered by the realisation that the wealthy spectators who flocked to the event were willing to pay up to $25 for a good parking place near the circuit - and as an estimated 50,000 spectators turned up to watch the race, the locals quickly learned to temper their hostile feelings with cupidity. First away in the race was Al Campbell, driving a 60 hp Mercedes, followed at two-minute intervals by the rest of the entry.

George Heath in his Panhard during the 1906 Vanderbilt Cup
George Heath, who expatriate who lived in Paris, corners his French Pahnard during the 1906 Vanderbilt Cup at Long Island. Two years earlier, in the 1904 inaugural event, Heath drove his Panhard to victory.

Albert Clement re-fueling his Clement-Bayard during the 1906 Venderbilt Cup
Albert Clement re-fueling his Clement-Bayard during the 1906 Venderbilt Cup - he would go on to finish in 4th position.

Promotional Poster for the 1908 Vanderbilt Cup
Promotional Poster for the 1908 Vanderbilt Cup.

The start of the 1910 Vanderbilt Cup
The start of the 1910 Vanderbilt Cup.

Wilhelm Werner and Clarence Gray Dinsmore's 12-liter 90 hp Mercedes

The course, which mostly covered dirt roads treated with oil to lay the dust, was intersected by six level crossings, and proved a real car-breaker. Wilhelm Werner, driving Clarence Gray Dinsmore's 12-liter 90 hp Mercedes, damaged his brakes pulling up for a crossing, while Hawley's Mercedes 60 smashed its front springs taking a crossing too fast. Both Fiats fell out within a lap with transmission failure, while Frank Croker (son of the notorious Boss Croker who ran the Tammany Hall political racket in New York State) had drilled so much metal out of his 75 hp Simplex to lighten it, that the car gently began to fold in the middle as it pounded over the course. It was still running when the race ended, but its gearbox was trailing in the road!

Only One Fatality - No Thanks To The Spectators

Considering the total lack of crowd discipline - there were only 100 policemen to control the thirty-mile course - and the reported predilection of spectators for dropping broken glass and tin tacks into the road, it is surprising that only one fatality occurred. George Arents Jr, whose wild driving had given the lie to his avowed statement that he knew the course so well that he had no need to practice, lost a front tire from his 60 hp Mercedes on the second lap. The bare rim jammed in a tramline, flipping the car over on to its back and killing the mechanic, Mensel.

The battle for first place was closely fought between Heath's Panhard and Albert Clement's Clement-Bayard for most of the ten-lap race; Heath took the lead on the penultimate lap and finished well ahead of the young Clement. Once these two cars had crossed the finishing line, the spectators lost interest, and wandered on to the track, and the race had to be stopped. Lying third and fourth on elapsed time were the two smallest cars in the race, Herb Lytle's 24 hp Pope-Toledo and Charles Schmidt's 30 hp Packard, Grey Wolf.

Dingley's Pope-Toledo, Nutt's Haynes, Robert's Thomas, Jardine's Royal and Tracy's Locomobile

Heath's average for the race had been 52.2 mph, and he had covered the distance in five hours 26 minutes 45 seconds. The crowd problem was even worse the following year, when the course was altered to run north, not south, of the Jericho Turnpike, thus eliminating the speed controls through populated areas that had slowed the 1904 event. So many American entries were received that it was decided to hold Eliminating Trials to choose the home team. The trials were duly won by Dingley's Pope-Toledo, Nutt's Haynes, Robert's Thomas, Jardine's Royal and Tracy's Locomobile; but two day's later the decision was overturned, and the Royal, the Haynes and the Thomas were ousted by the Cup Race Commission, who thought that Lytle's Pope-Toledo, a 60 hp front-wheel-drive Christie and a 40 hp White Steamer would make a more spectacular showing in the race proper.

And so in one instance it proved. Vincenzo Lancia was firmly in the lead in the eighth lap when he pulled away from his pits just in front of the Christie, which was snaking down the road at top speed; the US car hit the rear wheels of Lancia's Fiat and crashed into a field, killing the mechanic. The crowd's adulation for Lancia turned to hostility, and the damage to his car cost him the race, which went to Hemery's 80 hp Darracq, followed by Heath's Panhard and Tracy's Locomobile. Lancia finished fourth and, once again, the crowd, which was four or five times greater than it had been the previous year, caused the race to be halted by swarming on to the track.

The 1906 Vanderbilt was run over virtually the same course as the previous year's race, although in contrast, the Eliminating Trials were fairly organised, the only substitution being that of Lawwell's 110 hp air-cooled Frayer-Miller for Lytle's 120 hp Pope-Toledo, disqualified because it had to be tow-started. So, the American line-up was: Lawwell, Tracy (Locomobile), Le Blon (Thomas), Harding (Haynes) and Christie (Christie). Against them were lined up Heath (Panhard), Clement (Clement), Duray (De Dietrich), Wagner (Darracq) and Shepard (Hotchkiss) representing France, Jenatzy and Luttgen on Mercedes for Germany, and Lancia, Nazzaro and Weilschott on FIATs and Cagno and Fabry on Italas for Italy.

A Spectator Death at the notorious Krug's Corner

Wagner's 100 hp, 12.7-liter Darracq led all the way but, once again, it was the crowd which dominated the race, blocking the road on the dangerous corners, and only parting as a car approached. Miraculously, only one spectator was killed, when Shepard (who was William Vanderbilt's cousin) smashed into a crowd estimated at 20,000 which was blocking the notorious Krug's Corner. In those circumstances, Wagner's winning speed of 61.4 mph is all the more remarkable; second and third were Lancia and Duray, who had fought neck-and-neck through the race, followed by Clement, Jenatzy and Nazzaro. And then, yet again, the crowd ended it by pushing on to the track.

This was the last of the true open-road Vanderbilts; there was no race in 1907, and in 1908 the partly completed Long Island Motor Parkway, a privately constructed toll road, which was to permit Vanderbilt and his rich friends to commute into New York without fear of being prosecuted for speeding, was used as the basis for the Cup course, with steeply banked corners, there were wire fences to keep the spectators at bay. However, they came armed with wire-cutters, and things were as bad as ever.

The First All-American Victory in an International Motor Race

Hoses had to be used to clear the crowd from the pits before the race could start. Hot favorite was George Robertson, driving a two-year-old Locomobile 90, with which Tracy had contested the 1906 Vanderbilt, while other leading contenders were Lytle (Isotta-Fraschini), Strang (Renault) and Chevrolet (Matheson). Willie Haupt's Chadwick was in with a chance too, and led the mid-section of the race before being eliminated by ignition troubles. It was Robertson who won, though, coming in two minutes ahead of Lytle to record the first all-American victory in an international motor race.

It is recorded that, during the race, Robertson, unable to pass a slower car whose mechanic was not looking to the rear, told his mechanic to hurl a hammer at the offender to make him move over! After the first two cars had crossed the line, the crowd, true to form, flooded on to the track and caused the race to be halted. The 1909 and 1910 Vanderbilts were held on the same course, but as they were restricted to stock cars, they were less interesting; both were won by the same car/driver combination, Harry Grant in an Alco, a French Berliet built under licence.

In 1911 the Vanderbilt was exiled to Savannah to escape the suicidal spectators of Long Island, and won by Ralph Mulford (Lozier); in 1912, the race found a home in Milwaukee, where Ralph dePalma won in a Mercedes. Nobody wanted the Vanderbilt in 1913, but in 1914 the race was held on the Santa Monica Circuit near Los Angeles, and again won by de Palma and his veteran Mercedes. Dario Resta and his Peugeot carried off the 1915 and 1916 Vanderbilts, which took place at San Francisco and Santa Monica.

George Vanderbilt and the Roosevelt Raceway

After that, William Kissem Vanderbilt took back his trophy and retired it, as he felt that the old spirit of the race had gone. However, when, in the mid 1930s an artificial road-racing circuit, the Roosevelt Raceway, was opened in New York State, another Vanderbilt, George this time, offered a cup for international competition. It was won in 1936 by Nuvolari and in 1937 by Rosemeyer. Once again, the Europeans were enticed by the substantial prize money and Scuderia Ferrari entered three Alfa Romeo racers. A lack of American competition and a less-than-exciting course layout saw the race run for only two years, both won by Europeans.

A third Vanderbilt Cup made its appearance in 1960 when Willie K's nephew, Cornelius, gave a cup for the revival of road-racing at the Roosevelt Raceway, which had become a horse-trotting track. The race was a fiasco, however, and from 1961 the Vanderbilt Cup was loaned to the Bridgehampton Road Race Circuit for presentation to the winner of the first sports-car race of the season.

The Vanderbilt Cup name disappeared for another 36 years until 1996. In recognition of William Kissam Vanderbilt's place in automotive racing history, a copy of the original cup was created as the trophy for the CART U.S. 500 race. In 2000, CART designated the Vanderbilt Cup as its series championship trophy. Names of U.S. 500 winners from 1996–99 and the CART series winners since 2000, are etched into the new Cup.

1904 USA George Heath
1905 France Victor Hémery
1906 France Louis Wagner Darracq
1908 USA George Robertson Locomobile
1909 USA Harry Grant ALCO
1910 USA Harry Grant ALCO
1911 USA Ralph Mulford Lozier
1912 USA Ralph DePalma Mercedes
1914 USA Ralph DePalma Schroeder-Mercedes
1915 UK Dario Resta Peugeot
1916 UK Dario Resta Peugeot
1936 Italy Tazio Nuvolari Alfa Romeo
1937 NAZI Germany Bernd Rosemeyer Auto Union
George Robertson poses at the wheel of his Locomobile prior to the start of the 1908 Vanderbilt Cup
George Robertson poses at the wheel of his Locomobile prior to the start of the 1908 Vanderbilt Cup. Robertson went on to win the race, thus becoming the first American driver in an American car ever to win an International motor sport event.
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