Utter the name Tazio, and it instantly conjures images of the pint-sized Italian racing driver that Dr. Ferdinand Porsche called “the greatest driver of the past, the present, and the future.” The stories of his exploits are the stuff of legend, including being credited with inventing the “four-wheel drift.” Even today, Nuvolari is the only pre-war driver who gets mentioned in the rather pointless (yet inevitable) debate of “the greatest driver ever.”
Mostly lost to history is the fact that Tazio Nuvolari raced in America exactly one time. It was 1936 and the Italian hero, at the ripe old age of 43 years old, secured his 100 percent winning percentage at the Vanderbilt Cup.
So much has been written about the man known as the “Flying Mantuan” that we will spend little time on Nuvolari’s long list of accomplishments. By 1936, he had raced all across Europe and won nearly every meaningful race. He had mastered sports car racing, amassing victories in the Mille Miglia, Le Mans 24 Hours, and Targa Florio, but he was most famous for Grand Prix racing.
His greatest years were behind the wheel of the dominant Alfa Romeos of the 1930s, cars were designed by Vittorio Jano and run by Enzo Ferrari. These years were bookended by driving Bugattis in the late 20s, and for Auto Union in the late 30s, notwithstanding a yearlong dalliance with Maserati in 1934.
By 1935, the great Alfa Romeo race cars were starting to lose ground. The Germans were in ascendancy, which made Nuvolari’s shocking victory at the 1935 German Grand Prix in an Alfa Romeo P3 one of the all-time great victories.
By 1936, Alfa Romeo had lost its mojo. The team tried to keep up with Jano’s 4.1L supercharged V12 Alfa Romeo 12C. Even Nuvolari's otherworldly skill was not enough to overcome Alfa’s lack of competitiveness. When an invitation arrived to race for a huge purse at a high-profile new race in the USA, Scuderia Ferrari readily accepted, and set sail for the New World to race on Columbus Day.
The original Vanderbilt Cup race was the idea of William Kissam Vanderbilt, aka “Willie K”, who was born with a platinum spoon in his mouth. His family's fortune was built on shipping and railroads, and the Vanderbilts had become the wealthiest family in America.
As such, in the early 1900s when automobiles were just becoming a thing, Wille K organized a race on Long Island. It was the year 1904, and as a motoring enthusiast, he wanted to entice American automobile manufacturers to get involved with motorsports. With a huge purse up for grabs for the first Vanderbilt Cup, Europeans steamed across the pond to take part. The inaugural edition was won by a French Panhard, with the next two runnings also won by French Darracqs. Vive le France! The race continued on in various locations until the outbreak of WWI.
In 1936, Willie K.’s nephew, George Washington Vanderbilt III, took it upon himself to revive the spectacle after a two-decade-long hiatus. He raised money to build the Roosevelt Raceway as a home for the reborn Vanderbilt Cup. It was constructed on the former grounds of Roosevelt Field, where Lindbergh had famously taken off in the Spirit of St. Louis.
In the end, the 4-mile track was a dud. It was lumpy and sinuous, and did not suit the increasingly powerful and chunky race cars of that era. You wanna know what overcomes those objections? Money. Lots and lots of money. The winner would take home a kingly $20,000 purse, with the total prize purse being $85,000, equivalent to about $1.25M today.
Despite Alfa Romeo’s lack of speed, Nuvolari’s hunger had not waned one bit. The Roosevelt Raceway was a spectacle, with a huge grandstand that provided a view of the entire packed clay, asphalt and tar track. It was Monday, October 12, 1936, and the crowd of 80,000 showed up to celebrate the national holiday.
The field was huge, with 45 cars taking the start. Most drivers and racecars were domestic, with machines built by Miller, Shaw, Duesenberg, and Studebaker among others. The foreign contingent was filled out with Bugatti, Maserati, and ERA, in addition to the four Scuderia Ferrari Alfas. The American cars were no match for their European counterparts which had superior brakes, steering, and handling due to their experience on road courses, as opposed to the speedway races that were more prevalent in the U.S. at the time.
Nuvolari, who had only qualified eighth, shot into the lead on the first lap. Driving in a Miller sprint car with only a single gear, Billy Winn was the only American to make an impression. Winn “dirt tracked” his way around the course and was up to second place by lap 10.
Nuvolari sliced through the backmarkers, moving inside and out as he wished, and amassed a 30-second advantage after the first hour. Since the race was held in the U.S., they used full-course cautions, which the Europeans had never experienced. They just kept on passing under yellow, and would be confused when subsequently issued a “stop and go” penalty!
In the end, the race was just a slog. The track was rapidly breaking down, which curtailed speeds as the race progressed. In the end, the average speed was only 66 mph. On the track, cars were all jumbled up and it was hard to tell the place of the cars on track. A Swiss publication later reported that it was “a race without any sensations, incidents or accidnets” and “the circuit was in miserable shape.”
In those days, every car had to finish the full distance, regardless of whether or not they had been lapped. Nuvolari won by 8 minutes and 16 seconds over Jean-Pierre Wimille in a Bugatti T59, with Tazio’s teammate Antonio Brivio in third at more than 13 minutes. Bill Cummings was the first American, in seventh at 25 minutes down.
Nuvolari was presented with what is purported to be the largest trophy ever made: the George Vanderbilt cup was solid silver, weighed more than 150 lbs and stood 28 inches tall! The 5’5” tall Nuvolari famously plopped down into it at one point in the celebration.
The Vanderbilt ran one more year, and was once again dominated by the Europeans, with the Germans taking the spoils. While not a great race, it did afford the one and only time to see Nuvolari race in anger on American soil.
Although a side note in what was a very noncompetitive race, it appears that his journey to the USA made a positive impression. In 1938 after “retiring” from racing, Tazio and his wife Carolina sailed over, bringing their personal Alfa Romeo 6C 2300 to drive to he Indianapolis 500 and enjoy the event as spectators. He visited the race, and was named the honorary starter. He returned to Europe and promptly signed a contract to race for Auto Union.
He never made it back, as after the war his health was already in serious decline. However, for one afternoon, Nuvolari was able to display his immense skill at the wheel of an open-wheel car. It would be another 39 years before an Italian team took another open-wheel victory in the U.S.A. with Ferrari's 1975 win at Watkins Glen.