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The American Grand Prize 1908-1916
by Dennis David
The Vanderbilt cup under the control of the American Automobile Association (AAA) turned their backs on the Grand Prix cars of Europe in a quest to have an American car take the Cup. The Europeans seeing their advantage disappear by the rule changes stayed away from the Vanderbilt Cup and chose to enter the new American Grand Prize instead. Organized by the Automobile Club of America (ACA) rivals of the AAA this group followed the rules stipulated by the Automobile Club of France (ACF).
The rights to hosting this event was put out to bid with the winning bid being supplied by the Savannah Automobile Club. The race would be held on November 26th, 1908, Thanksgiving Day. The club's 17-mile stock-car course was enlarged to 25.13 miles using convict labor. Local militias provided 16,000 crowd marshals while 30 doctors were placed at first-aid stations around the course. The field comprised of 14 European and 6 American entries. The greatest drivers in the world were amongst the entrants including Hemery, Hanriot, Wagner, Nazzaro, DePalma and Ferenc Szisz, winner of the first-ever Grand Prix. The American teams did not stand a chance. DePalma set a blistering pace for Fiat before mechanical problems would take their toll. Hanriot held the lead until a pitstop brought Wagner to the fore followed by Hemery and Nazzaro. Only 40 seconds covered the leading trio. Each of the leading drivers took turns in the lead. At the finish it was Hemery first across the line but because of the staggered start he had to wait until Wagner crossed the line to determine the actual victor. But what of Wagner? He had started his Fiat six minutes after the Benz of Hemery. It was now 4 1/2 minutes since Hemery had crossed the line, the Benz mechanics were ready to celebrate but just then a great roar erupted from within the crowd. Wagner's red Fiat was in sight streaking for the finish and then it was over and after 6hrs. 11 mins. 31 secs. Louis Wagner claimed first prize by 56 seconds. The first Grand Prize was over...
The poor showing by the American entrants led to an investigation. Henry Ford, who was a member of the ACA Technical Committee considered car production more important than building specialized racing cars, "If we get caught up on orders we might yet build a racing car". The rivalry between the AAA and ACA was also sited as a hindrance to American competitiveness so the two organizations established the Motor Cup Holding Company, to run both series at the Long Island Motor Parkway but only the Vanderbilt Cup was held. The following year after another chaotic Vanderbilt Cup the American Grand Prize was cancelled. The Savannah club upon hearing the news approached the ACA and the race was rescheduled for the 12th of November.
Two preliminary races were held on Friday, the day before the Grand Prize for light cars. The first race for the Savannah Challenge Trophy was won by Joe Dawson in an Indianapolis built Marmon while the second race was won by Billy Knipper in a Lancia, that race's prize being the George W. Tiedeman Trophy named after the local mayor.
When Saturday arrived the morning was clear and cool. Two strong European teams headed the entry list, that of Fiat and Benz. Fiat had top drivers Nazzaro, de Palma and Wagner while Benz countered with the legendary Hemery, Willie Haupt and David Bruce-Brown. The race started at nine o'clock in front of 60,000 spectators with the drivers departing at thirty second intervals. For the next six hours the race was a battle between Hemery in the Benz against the Fiats of Nazzaro, Wagner and de Palma. While the leaders battled, Bruce-Brown made steady progress and soon the race belonged to the two Benz teammates, Bruce-Brown and Hemery but who would it be. Bruce-Brown crossed the finish line first but based on time Hemery still had a chance to catch the young American. The veteran driver gave everything he had as he flashed across the line. The crowd waited for the official time keepers, and then it was announced that the young American had beaten the veteran Hemery by 1.42 seconds over a six hour race. Another American, Bob Burman came in third driving a Marquette-Buick.
The following year the Savannah organizers staged an even bigger event with the combination of the two supporting races and the Vanderbilt Cup on Monday, 27 November and the American Grand Prize on Thanksgiving Day, Thursday, 30 November. The Grand Prize was again won by Bruce-Brown, this time driving a red Fiat.
The American Grand Prize of 1912 went undefended after the tragic death of David Bruce-Brown during practice. Both series were now held in Milwaukee. The race was won by Caleb Brag but only after a last lap brush with death that saw de Palma's Mercedes catapult off the road, resulting in serious injuries to the Italian born American. Both series for 1913 went by the boards but next year would see them both move across the continent to Santa Monica. The Vanderbilt Cup was held on the 26th of February and the winner was Ralph de Palma driving the legendary "Grey Ghost". The race saw the legendary duel between de Palma and his American rival, Barney Oldfield. Third place was taken by William Carlson driving a Mason, the forerunner of the famous Duesenbergs. The American Grand Prize was held two days later and won by rising star Eddie Pullen.
From Santa Monica north to San Francisco the events were held in conjunction with the Pan-Pacific Exposition both won by Dario Resta in a Peugeot. The last year the events were run saw the races return to Santa Monica with Resta again winning the American Grand Prize while the last Vanderbilt Cup was split by co-drivers Howard Wilcox and Gil Anderson.
And then it was over, the great City to City races, The Gordon Bennett, the Vanderbilt Cup and the American Grand Prize. The World War ended racing in Europe, the main proponents of road racing. But only after the first generation of racing saw average speeds go from 15 mph to over 85 mph within 20 years. After the war the oval-tracks became the staple of American racing, a fact that continues to this day.