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Just over 75 years ago, on January 28 1938, the racing world lost one of the most legendary drivers in the history of the sport. Star of the Auto Union Silver Arrow Squad, Bernd Rosemeyer had won the titles of European Champion, German Champion and German Bergmeister by 1936 at the age of 26.
Two years later the young racing phenom would be thrown from his car and killed during a high speed record run on a closed off section of the Autobahn near Darmstadt. Rosemeyer was attempting a run of 440 km/h (273 mph) when the trajectory of his Auto Union Streamliner was altered by a gust of wind. In an era before seat belts, Nomex fire suits or even helmets, Rosemeyer was thrown from his car and killed instantly when the streamliner rolled several times as it left the roadway.
Rosemeyer celebrated his greatest successes during the 1936 season, when he locked the titles of European champion, German Champion and German Bergmeister at the wheel of an Auto Union Type C. That V16 mid-engine racer, designed by Ferdinand Porsche, offered technology far ahead of its time. Still, with thin tires and rubber technology at the time, the car was a handle to drive and it was his driving prowess that truly set Rosemeyer ahead of his peers and even his teammates.
That same season, it was Rosemeyer’s performance at the legendary Eifel Rennen where he earned his nickname of Nebelmeister (translated to “Mist Master” or “Fog Master”) when he showed off an almost paranormal skill or perhaps intuition as he maintained his speed through dense fog. While other competitors lap times dropped off, Rosemeyer charged on through the dense mist. His dominance continued at the German Grand Prix held at the Nurburgring Nordschleife where he showed complete dominance over chief rivals from Mercedes-Benz and Alfa Romeo.
This was only Rosemeyer’s second year racing for Auto Union. One year earlier in 1935 he’d left his seat as a motorcycle racer for DKW and took the wheel of an Auto Union at the now gone Avus track in Berlin. He built a strong following amongst fans throughout those seasons.
Bernd Rosemeyer’s racing victories brought him a tremendous level of celebrity. That he dated and then married the young aviatrix Ellie Beinhorn, a celebrity in her own right, only added to his popularity. When he was killed in 1938, his death was felt as a national loss in Germany and a great loss as well in the racing community.
If you’d like to read more about Bernd Rosemeyer, we’d suggest the rarely seen and out of print Rosemeyer! biography written by Ellie Beinhorn Rosemeyer. Another book that recounts Rosemeyer’s life and vividly attempts to explain the experience of driving high speed record runs on the German Autobahn is Driving Forces by Peter Stevenson.
Below is an excerpt where Stevenson covers the high-speed run by Mercedes-Benz driver Rudolf Caracciola performed just before Rosemeyer’s fatal run.
The warm-up runs went smoothly with no nose-lift at all. Now just concentrate on those awful, tiny black holes under the overpasses, and time his steering against the side-wind at the Morfelden clearing. It shook Rudi to realize that no matter how he forced it, he couldn’t make his mind keep up with the flow of events at that speed. Line up for the hole, Kaboom! in the stomach and we’re through. But then there’s another one coming. Better line… Kaboom! Next one. Better… Kaboom! He was getting farther and farther behind the game at each over pass. But now it was over. Just turn the car around and do the same again. He might as well shut his eyes, he was getting so far behind the aiming up for the holes. Pure, unconscious reactions were saving him. But these were holding true, at least.
Kaboom! Don’t try to think. Kaboom! Just go with your eyes wide open watching everything like a jungle animal hunting and being hunted. Kaboom! It was over. He let his beast (now his faithful beast) coast down to 200, 175, a mere 150. To touch the brakes too soon would have ripped those paper-thin treadless speed tires, and the results Rudi didn’t like to think about. Under a hundred it seemed like he could get out and run along side. 80, 70, brakes, stop. People running up laughing and yelling. The car had done magnificently. He knew it had more speed in it. With a higher ratio, they could go a lot faster.
If you’re interested in either of these books. Find them via the links below.
Driving Forces via Robert Bentley Publishers
Rosemeyer! (in English) via Amazon
See more photos of Bernd Rosemeyer and the cars he drove via our photo gallery linked to the right and at the bottom.