In the pantheon of motorsport and the automotive world as a whole, the so-called ‘Silver Arrow’ racing era must certainly go down as one of the most cutting edge of its day. Much like today’s F1 cars push the level of technology to a point almost alien to road cars today, so too were the Silver Arrows and especially the Ferdinand Porsche designed Auto Unions with their mid-engines and their impossible top speeds given aerodynamic and tire limitations at the time. Seeing the cars race must have assuredly been a spectacle, and for Americans the only chance to have witnessed such a show on home soil occurred exactly 75 years ago today.
Though perhaps better known for its years held on public stretches of Long Island Motor Parkway until 1912, the Vanderbilt Cup made a return to Long Island in 1936 and was held at the Roosevelt Raceway. By 1937, the Silver Arrows were firmly re-setting the competitive bar in the world of Formula 1 and it was decided that both teams would make the trans-Atlantic crossing and compete in the race.
Airfreight wasn’t an option in 1937. Racing in America meant packing the cars and the teams onboard the Bremen and making the trans-Atlantic crossing. Geo-political turmoil of the time was spreading from Europe to America and there is no doubt that nationalistic baggage was also packed in with the teams, their gear and their otherworldly cars as they set sail from Germany.
Both teams made the trek, each planning to field two drivers in America, and the roster included Auto Union star Bernd Rosemeyer and Mercedes-Benz top driver Rudolf Caracciola. Travelling with the Auto Union team were also Ferdinand Porsche and his son Ferry, while Rosemeyer’s wife and flying star Elly Beinhorn also joined.
When you look back on the people involved, it is hard to imagine both the significance of the players and the level of personal stress involved. No doubt the intensity of the situation was palpable as these visitors made their way from a Brooklyn pier to their temporary home at the Waldorf Astoria and then on to the race in Westbury, NY. There was a prize of $20,000 to consider, which was no insignificant sum in 1937… but there was also much more going on.
Rosemeyer was joined on the trip by his wife Ellie Beinhorn. Though super in Germany for his success on the track, Bernd’s wife was a celebrity in her own right as an adventurer and aviatrix. As Beinhorn prepared for this, her second trip to America, she was now pregnant and the pair had not yet announced the news publicly. Compounding this, the handsome couple were a major focus of the American press from the moment the stepped off of the Bremen and on to American soil.
Chief rival to the silver arrows and a good friend to Rosemeyer was Tazio Nuvolari. The Italian had won the race in 1936 so may have been a favorite to win, but he’d also just received a telegram that his 17-year old son had succumbed to illness back at home in Italy. Nuvolari would still contest the race in his Alfa Romeo 12C and even switch cars with a teammate mid-race when his own Alfa suffered a failure, but the weight of his son’s death must have been nearly unbearable.
Worth noting, Nuvolari’s Alfa wore the prancing horse of Scuderia Ferrari. At the time, Enzo Ferrari managed a team for Alfa and had not yet launched the car company that would bear his name. Even still, best accounts suggest Enzo Ferrari did not make the trip to America.
Tension in America at the time was also palpable. Wires in New York and around the globe went wild with news that Amelia Earhart had gone missing on July 2. Beinhorn had met Earhart in Hollywood during Elly’s first trip to the USA and she likely felt a strong kinship given the obvious parallels between the two. Elly wrote in a biography about Rosemeyer that she would read reports in the papers to her husband and his teammate on the commute each day from Manhattan out to the raceway.
Nevertheless, the show went on… though postponed two days due to rain. The German and Italian teams, accustomed to racing in worse conditions, were not happy with the delay but such was the case.
On race day, the competition turned into more of a battle between the superior Silver Arrows fielded by Auto Union and Mercedes. American driving ace Rex Mays, at the wheel of an Alfa Romeo purchased from the Italians, reportedly got the jump on the Germans from the standing start. Still, the faster Silver Arrows overtook him within about ten feet. The race eventually became a battle between Rosemeyer and Caracciola, one that turned into a clear-cut victory for Rosemeyer and his #4 Auto Union when the Mercedes succumbed to supercharger failure. British-born Mercedes driver Richard Seaman fought on for Mercedes, but the final win went to Auto Union.
The next day the teams loaded up for their trek back across the Atlantic. Little time was wasted on departure so there was no additional time for Beinhorn to properly show her husband and his fellow racers around Manhattan or other points in America. And while there was talk of Auto Union possibly competing in speed trials at Bonneville, the outbreak of war meant no runs on the Salt Flats of Utah or rematch at the Roosevelt Raceway. With war came the end of the Silver Arrow era, leaving the Auto Union victory at the Vanderbilt Cup the only race at which these German racing legends turned a wheel on American soil in the heat of competition.
Editor’s Note: Below is a video of a news clip from 1937 we’ve found on YouTube. We’re also including the 1936 video as well. This one includes Tazio Nuvolari’s win from the previous year and is particularly notable for how different newscasts were at the time – fake Italian accents, references to the track’s similarity with macaroni and more. Below these in our usual Photo Gallery link at the bottom of a feature story is a link to a collection of vintage photos provided by Audi Tradition to Fourtitude for use with this piece. Enjoy.
1937 Vanderbuilt Cup Newsreel:
1936 Vanderbuilt Cup Newsreel: