For their day, racecars like the Auto Union Type C represented a mix of today’s Formula 1 car and Le Mans LMP1. Like F1, they represented the highest level of motorsport competition worldwide at the time. Like Le Mans, cars such as the Auto Union with their revolutionary mid-engine V16 layout represented the most advanced experimental technology of the time – designed by Ferdinand Porsche no less. Challenging those leaps in performance were rudimentary pre-war tire, braking, aerodynamic and safety technologies that required massive drifting round every corner and the likes of canvas race suits or helmets as the sole protection for drivers.
As political unrest began to take place on the European continent, Auto Union and its chief rivals at Mercedes-Benz had been dominating circuits across Europe and in other far-flung locales. As of yet, the Silver Arrows hadn’t turned a wheel in the USA and both teams’ arrival at Long Island, New York’s Roosevelt Raceway in July of 1937 must have surely been a controversial spectacle for attendees.
In an age before trans-Atlantic air travel or shipping, the two teams made the crossing aboard the SS Bremen, including Auto Union’s star driver Bernd Rosemeyer, the team’s lead engineer Ferdinand Porsche, Porsche’s son Ferry and Rosemeyer’s wife Elly Beinhorn who was herself a famed aviatrix.
It is said the cars were unloaded at the port in Brooklyn, likely at the very spot and very likely near where Audi Sport will contest the first Formula E New York City ePrix later this month. The Auto Union and Mercedes racecars were trucked to the circuit in Westbury, while the Auto Union team moved into rooms at the posh Waldorf Astoria.
Legendary names from history (motorsport or otherwise) weren’t limited to the Auto Union paddock. Drivers squaring off against the four rings that summer included Mercedes’ Rudolf Caracciola, and returning victor Tazio Nuvolari driving for Alfa Romeo’s Scuderia Ferrari managed by Enzo Ferrari.
As if geopolitical tension on the newswire from Europe wasn’t enough, personal tension amongst the players on the ground in New York was also considerable. Rosemeyer and his wife knew they were pregnant with their first (and only) child, though they’d not yet made an announcement of their status. On the other end of the emotional spectrum, Nuvolari had just learned that his 17-year old son had died from an illness back at home in Italy.
News of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance had also broken on July 2. That news hit Elly Beinhorn especially hard. She’d met Earhart in Hollywood during an earlier trip to America and the two shared many parallels in the way they lead their lives. In the days leading up to the race, Beinhorn translated reports from the New York papers into German for Rosemeyer and his Auto Union teammates during the commute from Manhattan out to the raceway.
Even the weather raged on New York that summer. The race, with its dirt track, was postponed two days due to heavy rain. Though the Germans and the Italians were more accustomed to racing in such conditions, race organizers with the intent to put on a show for the public insisted on waiting for better weather.
Come race day, all eyes of some 80,000 spectators were on the glistening and otherworldly Silver Arrows. By comparison, the other racecars looked utterly pedestrian, and their performance reflected that. When the starting flag dropped, American Rex Mays piloting an Alfa Romeo got the jump on the German machines. Even still, it reportedly took all of about ten feet for the first of the Silver Arrows to edge past him. By turn 1, Rosemeyer led the race, with Caracciola just behind him. Mays followed in a distant third, with another Mercedes hot on his tail.
During the laps that followed, the race quickly became a test of dominance between Rosemeyer in his Auto Union versus Caracciola in his Mercedes. On lap 3 Caracciola took the lead from Rosemeyer, though the Auto Union driver took back the lead on lap 11. Unfortunately for Caracciola, the Mercedes suffered from a supercharger failure on lap 22, which left Rosemeyer and his #4 Auto Union alone with a substantial lead over the rest of the field. Though Mercedes’ British-born driver Richard Seaman would finish the race and even take the lead from Rosemeyer when the German pitted for fuel and tires, the British Mercedes driver was too far back for an all-out win and Auto Union who took home the mammoth Vanderbilt Cup and a $20,000 prize for their efforts.
One day later, the four German cars and their respective teams were back aboard ship and steaming out of New York harbor. No time was left for sightseeing. Talk of a return for the Auto Unions to the speed trials at Bonneville are rumored to have taken place, but the eventual outbreak of war between the United States and Germany ruled out any such effort. World War 2 would cause the end of the Silver Arrow era, establishing this lone win on a dirt track in Long Island the only American victory for those spectacular automobiles.