Bill Green, historian at the International Motor Racing Research Center in Watkins Glen, NY, opened the Center's 2014 "Conversation" series on Saturday, January 18, with the first talk of the season. Green's talk was about the history of the George Vanderbilt races of 1936 and 1937.
An audience of about 40 came out to the auditorium on a snowy day in mid-January to listen and learn about an era in American motorsport history not long before racing would decrease for a time during World War II. The era is significant to Watkins Glen because the Glen race of 1948 was the first road race in the country run after the war, and some of the cars raced at Vanderbilt have appeared at the Glen since then.
The first Vanderbilt Cup race was held in 1904 as a street race on Long Island and was organized by William K. Vanderbilt II. Those races took place for a few years, then stopped. However, in 1936 and 1937, William's nephew, George Washington Vanderbilt III, organized races at the newly constructed Roosevelt Raceway.
Mr. Green shared some historical facts and anecdotes about the races. Roosevelt Raceway, for example, was built on the former airfield site where Charles Lindbergh had taken off on his transatlantic flight in the "Spirit of St. Louis."
The entry fee per car for the George Vanderbilt Cups was $125 for a $7000 prize. About 30-40 cars took part; many if not most of them came from Europe.
Ticket prices went from $3 to $10, and a program cost 25 cents.
The race was started by President Roosevelt wiring the signal from Hyde Park.
In 1936, despite the setting of qualifying times, the race was gridded by a random drawing from a hat. In 1937, the qualifying times were used to set the grid.
The 1936 race was won by Tazio Nuvolari with Alfa Romeo, going just under 70 mph. Nuvolari was so excited by his victory that he sat in the enormous Vanderbilt Cup trophy.
In 1937, Bernd Rosemeyer of the Auto Union won the race. It was thought that Vanderbilt did not attend that race, said Green, and went on a safari instead because he did not approve of the growing Nazi presence in motor racing.
After 1937, the Vanderbilt Cup races stopped for many years, and the Roosevelt Raceway was turned over to horse racing. The next Vanderbilt Cup was held in 1960 for Formula Junior race cars and was won by an American, Harry Carter.
Green concluded his talk by showing black and white archival footage of both the '36 and '37 races. Large, heavy-looking race cars by today's standards, roared down the track, kicking out fumes and dust as they slid with exuberance around the corners.
Following the talk, the International Motor Racing Research Center hosted more conversation with refreshments including four different kinds of chili. Most members of the audience lingered to talk more about this time in racing history.
The next talk in the IMRRC "Conversation" series will be on February 8 and will be about the Holland International Speedway. On March 22nd, George Webster will speak about land speed records in post-war America.
All conversations are free and open to the public and are held at the IMRRC in Watkins Glen at 1 p.m.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Connie Ann Kirk, Ph.D. has been credentialed by the FIA to write about Formula 1 and by NASCAR and various historic/vintage racing events. With a historic racer from upstate New York, she is working on a new book about racers and racing. Check out Connie's blog at "Motor Sport Muse."