Over the years the Vanderbilt Cup has become the grail of American road racing—if not holy, at least blessed in retrospect. When the race was revived a fortnight ago on Long Island after it had been in limbo for 23 years, a number of orthodox traditionalists went into mourning for the oldtime rites of racing. Nevertheless, the mixed marriage between those militant amateurs, the Sports Car Club of America, and those skillful professionals, Roosevelt Raceway, Inc., produced a 1960 version of the Vanderbilt Cup, and 33 drivers lined up in tiny Formula Junior cars to make a run for it.
The race was won by Harry Carter, a 37-year-old amateur who "maintains racing cars," as he puts it, in Litchfield, Conn. Although Carter has a solid reputation around New England as a sports car chauffeur, his achievement should seem almost blinding when one considers that he beat such driving celebrities as Jim Rathmann, this year's Indianapolis winner; Rodger Ward, last year's Indy winner; the young Rodriguez brothers from Mexico; Carroll Shelby, who won at Le Mans last year; and Walt Hansgen and George Constantine, the foremost of the SCCA amateurs in 1959. Unfortunately, Carter's victory was not what it might have been. All these superb drivers ran into misfortune, and only the talented Rodriguez act figured in the contest past the middle stages.
One after another
One of the major objections of the purists to running this race for the Vanderbilt Cup was that neither the cars nor the course was of championship dimensions. Formula Junior is a recent international classification for a wee mite of a road-racing car, slightly larger than a soapbox coaster. The Junior was originally designed as an inexpensive vehicle for safely training novice drivers in the dangerous art of speed. Its engine is limited to 1,100 cc, which is roughly the size installed in the Fiats, Volkswagens, Renaults and other very small European cars now darting around our suburbs. But the rest of the Formula Junior car looks like something out of Indianapolis or N√ºrburgring. You put a good mechanic on a machine this size and before long he'll have it going like gangbusters.
The best proof of this was the winning performance of Harry Carter. He was driving a Stanguellini, one of the most popular of the Italian Formula Junior makes, and under the hood was a Fiat engine. Yet his average speed over the 75 miles of the race was 75.95 mph. In another race the day before, Walt Hansgen in a bird-cage Maserati, one of the fastest sports cars now in competition, had averaged only 73.6 for 30 miles.
Nonetheless, it must be admitted that a Formula Junior race is a far cry from the glory days of Vanderbilt Cup racing—and not just in years. Back in 1904, when the late William K. Vanderbilt Jr. donated the first Vanderbilt Cup, the race attracted the world's leading cars and drivers to Long Island. In 1908 there were 200,000 people lining the course for the all-day event. The crowd, in fact, eventually became so large and obstreperous that the race was moved to the far ends of the country before it was finally abandoned after 1916.
In 1936 and 1937 there was a brief revival of the Vanderbilt Cup—this time with young George Vanderbilt as donor, the original trophy having been retired to the Smithsonian Institution as a relic of early-day motoring. Once again the event ranked among the classic road races of the world and brought an appropriate field of cars and drivers from abroad. Fittingly, the first renewal was won by the late Tazio Nuvolari, the Italian driver who dominated the era. But American interest in road racing never revived sufficiently to make it worthwhile to keep the race going.
In fact, the whole thing was pretty well forgotten until last year. By that time Roosevelt Raceway, the site of the second Vanderbilt Cup races, had been converted into a bright-as-brass trotting track with a couple of months of open summer dates while the trotters trotted elsewhere. The thought occurred to the raceway people that maybe the time had come to bring road racing back to its manger.
This year, when Roosevelt and the SCCA jointly announced they had agreed to revive the race, a howl went up that sounded like an Eisenhower reception in Tokyo. The traditionalists were outraged that a strictly amateur outfit like the SCCA should smirch the Vanderbilt name by putting up the cup for a strictly minor clambake. It was argued that the premier drivers like Stirling Moss, Phil Hill and Jack Brabham would be engaged on the European circuit, so who but the local bumpkins would show for an amateur race on the outskirts of New York City?
The critics did not figure on the professional competence of the Raceway management. The trotting people first persuaded the Avery Brundages of SCCA to permit an "open" race—with professionals competing against amateurs. Since SCCA is adamant against prize money and other debasing emoluments, Roosevelt lured the five professional name drivers—Rathmann, Ward, the Rodriguez brothers and Shelby—with generous expense accounts. Even so, the purists were not mollified. They feared that all the high-powered publicity—and the New York press really turned it on—would jockey the public into a high state of anticipation and that the anticipation would turn into disenchantment after the public was exposed to these autos slightly out of the kiddy car class.
The returns are not in from the 37,371 New Yorkers who turned up at Roosevelt Raceway. Certainly it wasn't Indianapolis or N√ºrburgring that they saw, but a spectator had the feeling he might have been watching one of those classics—through the wrong end of a telescope.