Were you one of those in the big crowd prowling wide-eyed through the Ragtime Racers paddock space at both Rolex Monterey Historics and Velocity Invitational Laguna Seca events in 2021? Were you as stunned as I was by the number of races, racers and racing machines extent in the early years of the 20th century?
As one identifying as Woodstock Generation, I confess an interest-becoming-enthusiasm-becoming-passion for motor racing that didn’t spring to life until 1970. I became a teenage Formula 1 fanatic all thanks to Rob Walker’s prose in Road & Track, later (like you?) a student of racing history, obsessively interested in the roots of what became tragic ’70 Grand Prix season.
My “history obsession,” though, back through the years, came to a screeching halt in 1950 — the year that Grand Prix racing became “official” with the emergence of the FIA Formula 1 World Championship. And so (perhaps unlike you), I remained largely ignorant of the racing that went on before.
Now whether it was encountering the Ragtime Racers or some other trigger, I’ve only recently grown increasingly aware of the magnitude and the impact of racing in the decades leading up to F1 1950 — notably the innovative pre-WWI machines assembled and driven by a wildly diverse cast of characters (“Ragtime Racers”) and the turbulent 1930s.
Over the holidays, I found a treasure on the bottom shelf of a bookcase: “Great Motor Sport of the Thirties”, a hardcover book written by soon-to-retire Jaguar PR man and former Autocar stringer John F. Dugdale. Published in 1977, it’s an eclectic book, rich with memories of the between-the-Great Wars decade when politics and nationalism intruded on a sport which, clearly, was no longer “pure”.
Italy, Germany, France, Great Britain shared a global spotlight via the great marques Mercedes-Benz, Auto-Union, Alfa Romeo, Napier-Railton, Bentley, MG, ERA, Bugatti, Delage, Talbot (and others) and great men Rudi Caracciola, Tazio Nuvolari, Bernd Rosemeyer, Dick Seaman, Guiseppe Farina, Hermann Lang (and many more). All are found in this 250-page tome written by a transplanted Englishman who, as a teenage Autocar freelancer, traveled to many of these races, seeing and meeting many of these men and machines.
Brave men. Glorious terrifying machines. A thousand storylines.
A fledgling freelancer myself in the late 1970s — at the time copies of “Great Motor Sport of the Thirties” arrived in the U.S. — I was introduced to Dugdale at Jaguar’s Leonia, N.J., facility. I remember his as a very stately, formal, impeccably British, gentleman. Holding this book, I so rue my then-lack of curiosity, if not simple courtesy. I would have drawn him out on some of the stories he shares in this book.
If I had only thought to ask …
Sadly, Dugdale died in 2000. Happily, copies of this book can still be found — there were 10 copies in various condition on Amazon when I looked.
Find a copy and dive in.