Bernd Rosemeyer drew his final breath in a wooded area adjacent to the Frankfurt-Darmstadt autobahn in Germany. The end came not after a long life blessed with fond memories and adoring grandchildren but as the sudden eclipse of the silver arrow racing era’s brightest star.
Fans of the 1934-39 period, when Auto Union and Mercedes-Benz ran wheel-to-wheel at 200 mph in 500-hp single-seaters, so relish Rosemeyer’s verve that we’ll exploit any excuse to revisit his life and times. Here’s mine: celebrate the centennial of Rosemeyer’s birth and Audi’s beginning with a 1500-mile tour of Germany in an Audi R8 powered by a 5.2-liter V-10.
Corvette patron saint Zora Arkus-Duntov was an early witness to the Rosemeyer legend. In 1930, he spotted a fair-haired, blue-eyed young man standing upright on the seat of his motorcycle while it hummed down a cobblestone street in Berlin. Rosemeyer – the fearless rider from Lingen, Germany – and Duntov quickly became friends. They swapped tales of derring-do and practiced the fine art of high-speed, two-wheel slaloming through elevated train supports.
Ten days after his twenty-fifth birthday, Rosemeyer was invited to a tryout session for new recruits held at the Nürburgring. Although he lacked any four-wheel racing experience, Rosemeyer had gained the attention of Auto Union team manager Willy Walb because of his eight motorcycle victories, two of which were earned aboard a 500-cc DKW, one of the four brands in the Auto Union combine.
Dressed for the occasion in a suit and tie, Rosemeyer demonstrated a natural affinity for the loose-tailed Auto Union racing car. He was the second fastest of twelve candidates on the Nürburgring’s 4.8-mile Südschleife (southern loop) and the third quickest of the top five prospects on the daunting 14.2-mile Nordschleife. Impressed by the total novice’s performance, Walb signed Rosemeyer to the team as a cadet driver.
In only his second race – also at the ‘Ring – Rosemeyer proved the wisdom of Walb’s decision by leading two of the eleven laps of the 1935 Eifel Grand Prix in adverse conditions. Part of the course was wet, Rosemeyer’s windshield and goggles were damaged, and his V-16 engine had a severe misfire. Nonetheless, the cadet finished only 1.9 seconds behind grand master Rudolf Caracciola’s Mercedes-Benz. To admonish the upstart, Caracciola presented Rosemeyer with a swizzle stick and suggested that he make better use of his head in the future. Payback was swift in coming. In 1936, the fiery Rosemeyer won two GPs held at the Nürburgring; the smug Caracciola was sidelined by mechanical problems on both occasions.
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