24-30 May: Motoring Milestones

Discover the most momentous motoring events that took place this week in history ……..


120 years ago this week, the 1901 Gordon Bennett Cup, formally titled the II Coupe Internationale, was a motor race held on public roads in France between Paris and Bordeaux, concurrently with an open-entry race over the same course [29 May 1901]. Initially, France were to defend the Cup against Great Britain, however prior to the start, the sole British entry was forced to fit tyres of foreign manufacture making it ineligible for the Cup. The race was therefore competed by three French entries, the maximum permitted from one country under the rules, guaranteeing that they would retain the Cup. Léonce Girardot driving a Panhard won the race and was the only competitor to finish, Fernand Charron driving a Panhard and Levegh driving a Mors retiring. Each country was limited to three entries under the race’s rules. The rules also stipulated that every part of the car must be manufactured in the country of the entrant. Initially, France, Germany and Britain showed interest in entering the race. The Automobilclub von Deutschland (AvD) planned to host an elimination trial on 12 May between three Mercedes cars, a Benz and a Canello-Durkopp to determine their three entries. Following Mercedes victory in the Nice-Salon-Nice race held in March however, they were automatically awarded two places by the AvD, with Benz and Canello-Durkopp to compete in the trials for the third entry. However, neither competitor showed up at the eliminating trial, and the Mercedes were withdrawn as both cars that had been built with the required all-German parts had been sold, and the manufacturer determined there was insufficient time to build any more. As such, there was no German entry in the Gordon Bennett Cup race.The British were to be represented in the event by Selwyn Edge driving a Napier. On the way to Britain to France, Edge had reservations about the Dunlop tires fitted to the car and elected to replace them with tires of foreign manufacture making the car ineligible for the Gordon Bennett race. As a result, Edge transferred his entry to the open Paris-Bordeaux event leaving only the French to compete in the Gordon Bennett Cup race. France entered their maximum three entries, but unlike the previous year there was no ballot for selection, instead the ACF simply announced they would be represented by Léonce Girardot and Fernand Charron driving Panhards and Alfred Velghe, who raced under the pseudonym Levagh, driving a Mors. Fernand Charron was the first of the cars to depart from the start line, but almost immediately came to a halt and made some adjustments to his car before continuing. Levagh, the second car to start had already overtaken Charron by the time they reached Versailles. Charron continued to stop along the route due to valve problems with his Panhard car before eventually retiring from the race at Vendome. Léonce Girardot and Levegh continued through the neutralised section at Tours. At Sainte Maure, Levegh collided with a gutter, which damaged his car to the extent that he could not continue the race, leaving Girardot as the sole remaining Gordon Bennett competitor. Girardot reached the finish at Bordeaux to claim the Gordon Bennett cup for France again, averaging 37 mph over the course. By contrast the winner of the open race held concurrently over the same route, Henri Fournier had averaged 53mph, and Girardot’s time saw him placed tenth in the open race……110 years ago today, Ray Harroun won the inaugural Indianapolis 500, averaging 74.6mph in the Marmon Wasp [30 May 1911]. The Indy 500 was the creation of Carl Fisher. In the fall of

1909, Fisher replaced the ruined, crushed-stone surface of his 2.5-mile oval with a brand-new brick one. It was the largest paved, banked oval in the United States. Fisher then made two decisions vital to the success of the Indy 500. First, he determined to hold only one race per year on his Indianapolis Motor Speedway; second, he elected to offer the richest purse in racing as a reward for competing in his annual 500-mile event. By the second year of the Indy 500, 1912, it was the highest-paying, single-day sporting event in the entire world. The purse alone guaranteed that Indy would attract the media’s undivided attention. Add to Fisher’s marketing tactics the fact that European racing suffered from an absence of major events due to the ban on public road racing, and you have the ingredients that made Indy instantly successful. The media attention, in turn, meant that the best drivers in the world would come to Indy to make their reputation. Manufacturers acknowledged that a car bearing their name would mean millions in free advertising. It’s a simple formula by today’s standards, but in Fisher’s time the risk of putting so much money down was rarely taken. In the very first race at Indy, Harroun’s Marmon became nationally recognized. The car was owned, built, and entered by the factory, and Harroun drove as a hired employee. Among the Marmon Wasp’s novel features, it is cited as the first car fitted with a rear-view mirror. But if the Indy 500 was responsible for attracting the industry to racing, it was even more responsible for creating racing as an industry. In 1911, the typical race car was built off the chassis of a big luxury car. They had huge four-cylinder engines. Instead of the heavy body of the luxury cars, the race cars were fitted with “doghouse” bodies that just covered the car’s engine and cockpit. The floorboards were wood boards, the wheels were made of ash wood, and the seats were metal buckets bolted firmly to the floorboards. The cars were equipped with rear-wheel drum brakes only. Bolster tanks, like tubular sofa bolsters, held the oil and gasoline. Due to the ill-fitting pistons, gaskets, and valves that comprised the cars’ innards, the best cars dropped nearly a dozen gallons of oil on the brick racetrack over the course of the 500-mile event. So these cars, equipped with no suspension, raced at speeds near 80mph on a brick track covered in oil. Only a decade later in 1922, nearly all the cars that started the Indy 500 were purpose-built race cars. All of them carried aerodynamic bodies, with narrow grills and teardrop-shaped tails. Knock-off wire wheels made for quick, efficient tire changes, and the new straight-sided tires lasted much longer than their early pneumatic counterparts. The best cars were equipped with four-wheel hydraulic brakes and inline 3.0-liter V-8 engines made of aluminum. The cars were smaller, lighter, more efficient, and far more expensive. They resembled nothing that could be purchased in a storeroom. Ray Harroun’s speed of 74.6mph would have finished him 10th at the 1922 Indy 500. It wasn’t the speeds that had changed so much as the driver’s control over the car. Racing, at least partly because of Indy, had become a sport rather than an exhibition. In the mid-1920s, the Miller and Duesenberg cars took racing to another level. Indy became what it is today, a high-paying event for the world’s most expensive cars….. 100 years ago this week, Indianapolis 500 was won by Tommy Milton [30 May 1921]. Ralph DePalma led 109 laps but his connecting rod broke and he rolled to a halt. DePalma never led another Indianapolis 500, retiring after the 1922 race. His final career total

was 612 laps led for 1 win. DePalma’s record number of circuits in front was finally topped by Al Unser 67 years later…..90 years ago this week, Indianapolis 500 1930 winner Billy Arnold was 5 laps ahead on lap 162 when his rear axle broke causing him to crash [30 May 1931]. His wheel flew over a fence and hit and killed 12 year old Wilbur Brink who was sitting in his garden on Georgetown Road. Arnold and his mechanic were injured. Louis Schneider led the remaining laps…….80 years ago this week, the ninth Gran Premio d’Italia was run to the 10-Hour international formula and was part of the 1931 European Championship [25 May 1931]. From 25 entries of the best European drivers, 14 took the start with eight classified after ten hours. Due to the length of the race, a second driver had to be nominated to each car. Nuvolari with the 12-cylinder Alfa-Romeo retired early, while in fourth place. The Varzi/Chiron Bugatti had been the early leader but expired due to rear axle failure. The Lehoux/Etancelin Bugatti, for three hours in third place, retired with a broken connecting rod. Campari with reassigned Nuvolari won for the factory with the new 2300 straight-8 Alfa Romeo. Minoia/Borzacchini in another works Alfa of the same type came second, Divo/Bouriat in a factory Bugatti third and independent Wimille/Gaupillat fourth, both in twin-cam Bugattis. Ivanowski/Stoffel finished in fifth place with a Mercedes-Benz SSK, next were 1500 cc class winners Pirola/Lurani (Alfa Romeo) fighting off Ruggeri/Balestrero (Talbot) and last finisher Klinger/Ghersi in a stricken Maserati. The race was overshadowed after the popular Arcangeli crashed fatally during practice the day before the race……..”Lucky” Casner and Masten Gregory drove the Camoradi Maserati Tipo 61 to victory in the 1000 kilometre sports car race on the Nuburgring in Germany using only one set of tyres [28 May 1961]…….70 years ago this week, Lee Wallard in a Kurtis Kraft-Offenhauser won the Indianapolis 500 [30 May 1951]…….60 years ago this week, A.J. Foyt, in his fourth 500, looked set for a win, leading

Eddie Sachs, until his crew signal that Foyt’s last pit stop didn’t get enough fuel in car [30 May 1961]. Foyt gave up the lead on lap 184 for a splash-and-go. Sachs led by 25 seconds until the warning tread showed through on his rear tyre and Sachs decided to play safe. Foyt returned to the lead when Sachs stopped on lap 197 for tyres and won (on the first of four occasions) by 8.28 seconds…….50 years ago this week, the Mercedes-Benz ESF-03, the first of five special cars to accent safety features, was unveiled to the public [26 May 1971]……. The first nine miles of the M3, from Popham to Black Dam, Basingstoke, England opened without fuss or ceremony, steering the Whitsun bank holiday traffic away from town [28 May 1971]. Today, the M3 runs for about 59 miles, starting in Sunbury-on- Thames, in Surrey, to the outskirts of Southampton – the last section being completed in 1995, controversially passing through Twyford Down, near Winchester….Al Unser became the first racer to win a single-day purse of over $200,000 at the Indianapolis 500 [29 May 1971]. The race was marred by a crash involving the pace car at the start. Eldon Palmer, a local Indianapolis-area Dodge dealer, lost control of the Dodge Challenger pace car at the south end of the pit area, and it crashed into a photographers’ stand, injuring 29 people, two seriously. Peter Revson started on the pole with a speed of over 178 miles per hour, more than a mile per hour faster than any other qualifier, with defending champ Al Unser in the middle of the second row. Mark Donohue, who qualified in the middle of the front row, took the lead at the start of the race and led the first 50 laps. A mechanical issue ended his day after just 66 laps, and Unser assumed the lead. He and Joe Leonard swapped the lead several times during the middle portion of the race, but Unser led for the final 83 laps, giving him a win for the second year in a row. Unser (born on May 29, 1939) became the first and only driver to date to win the race on his birthday. It was his second of an eventual four Indy victories. Unser also became the first winner to celebrate in the new victory lane. The new winner’s area, now featuring black and white checkered ramps, was moved from the south end of the pits to the “horseshoe” area immediately below the Master Control Tower, near the start/finish line. The 1971 Indy 500 was part of the newly re-organized USAC Marlboro Championship Trail, in which dirt tracks were separated from the paved ovals and road courses. From then on, the Gold Crown championship schedule would consist solely of paved tracks (both ovals and road courses), giving the national championship a decidedly new look for the 1970s and beyond. In addition, with 500-mile races at Ontario and Pocono now on the schedule, Indy car racing formed its first “triple crown.” The city of Indianapolis celebrated its Sesquicentennial in 1971, and the occasion was reflected on the bronze and silver pit badges for the month of May. During the week leading up to the race, Indianapolis was also the site of 1971 NATO International Conference of Cities…….40 years ago this week, Hans J. Stuck and Nelson Piquet teamed in a BMW M1 to win a tragic World Sports Car ‘ADAC 1000 Kilometers-Rennen’ shortened by the fatal crash of Swiss veteran Herbert Muller [24 May 1981]. Muller (41), co-drove to two victories in the ‘Targa Florio’ (1966 and 1973)……. On the same day [24 May 1981], Bobby Unser was first to the checkered flag at the 65th Indianapolis 500 for his third major victory since 1968. The victory, however, was short lived, as race stewards took the win away from Unser the next day and awarded it to Mario Andretti. It was the first time a driver had been stripped of the championship. Race officials, looking at videotape, said that Unser had violated the caution light rule and penalized him one lap. After a lengthy protest and appeals process, the penalty was rescinded, and Unser was reinstated the victory on October 9. Officially, it became Unser’s third-career Indy 500 victory and his final win in Indy car competition. Unser stepped out of the car at the end of the season, and retired from driving…..USAC striped Al Unser Sr. of the previous day’s Indianapolis 500 win because of a yellow flag violation and awarded the win to Mario Andretti [25 May 1981]. Over three months later, the USAC Appeals Board reinstated Unser’s win……30 years ago this week, the critically acclaimed road movie “Thelma and Louise” debuted in US theatres, stunning audiences with a climactic scene in which its two heroines drive off a cliff into the Grand Canyon, in a vintage 1966 green Ford Thunderbird convertible [24 May 1991]…….20 years ago this week, Vittorio Brambilla (63), a Formula One driver from Italy who raced for the March, Surtees and Alfa Romeo teams, died [26 May 2001]. The Italian F3 Champion of 1972 moved through F2 into F1 in 1974. His moment came in Austria when he scored the March factory teamís first-ever championship Grand Prix win in pouring rain at the Osterreichring. Swapping March for Surtess in 1977 he also drove for Alfa Romeo in the World Sports Car Championship scoring four wins with the T33 and winning the Championship for the team. Vittorio was involved in the start crash in Monza 1978 which claimed the life of Ronnie Peterson, suffering severe concussion which kept him out of the cockpit for almost a year, before Alfa Romeo brought him back for the last three races of the season. He made two more appearances for them in 1980, but it was painfully obvious that his days as a Grand Prix driver were over, though he did race the Osella sports car in a few rounds of the World Championship of Makes, before phasing himself out completely in 1981. He died of a heart attack at the age of 63 while working in his garden…… on the same day [26 May 2001], Rockingham Motor Speedway in Northamptonshire, England the first purpose built race track in the UK since Brooklands, was opened by the Queen. It has 13 configurations of track, which can be used for anything from touring cars to motorcycles to rally cars. Rockingham Motor Speedway was constructed on a British Steel works brown field site as a banked oval with the intention of bringing the American oval racing across the Atlantic for the first time.

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