On July 28, 1935, 300,000 spectators jammed along the 14+ mile Nürburgring Nordschleife, the world’s largest purpose built racetrack, to watch the AIACR European Championship’s third points race of the season. Tensions were high as the continent was bracing for World War II, which as the stage seemed like a dim possibility. Nevertheless, the aftermath of World War I had exasperated things as the German’s continued their desire to prove themselves the world’s best in anything. To fuel this goal, the Nazi government supplied the modern equivalent of $4,000,000 to the Mercedes-Benz team and $2,000,000 to the Auto Union team. As such, these were easily the best teams in the world much as Hendrick Motorsports, Penske Racing, and Joe Gibbs Racing lead the way in current NASCAR.
Under such circumstances, a German win seemed inevitable as they arrived with four Auto Union B’s and five Mercedes-Benz’s, driven by some of the best drivers of the era. The opposition was scattered with a force of Alfa Romeo’s, a Bugatti, and many private Maserati’s and Alfa Romeo’s. Two Alfa Romeo’s from Renato Balestrero and Tazio Nuvolari and the Auto Union of Hans Stuck were, by lottery, placed on the front row.
On race day, the throng in attendance included Adolf Hitler and many of his goons, as—I dread to say this—Der Führer was a racing enthusiast himself. The crowd had to be thrilled as the Mercedes-Benz of Rudolf Caracciola stormed to the front and dominated early in the race. However, after the first pit stops, Caracciola began to fade. Following the pit stops, it was Caracciola’s teammate, Manfred von Brauchitsch, who took over. Manfred began extending his lead as Caracciola battled a tapeworm, while Tazio Nuvolari in an Alfa Romeo began slowing picking off the German cars. Nuvolari, The Flying Mantuan, had been slowed by a 134 second pit stop, compared to under 50 seconds for his opposition. Rain had equalized the cars, removing the horsepower advantage the Germans had had and placing the race firmly in the drivers’ hands.
When the final lap started, von Brauchitsch lead by 35 seconds over Nuvolari, but the German, a known hard-charger and hard-braker, had worn his tires down to the inner layer. This allowed Nuvolari to pass von Brauchitsch on the final lap and take victory by 134 seconds, ironically the time of Nuvolari’s pit stop, over Hans Stuck. Manfred ended up 5th, over 6 minutes arrears.
The crowd cheered Nuvolari’s great display of sportsmanship. The Third Reich was less than amused, having been so certain of victory has to only have German national anthem records on hand to play during the podium ceremony. Tazio, however, was not to be denied this moment. Race car drivers of all nationalities have always been superstitious, and the Italian always carried around a vinyl copy of “Marcia Reale” with him on the track as a good luck charm and happily provided it for the irked Germans.
Thus was the story of what is generally regarded as the greatest race ever driven. It was the last defeat the Germans would suffer in a points race until after the War. On that day, one man upended the establishment and forever etched his name in history.
Up yours, Führer