1912 Vanderbilt Cup Race

Ralph DePalma wins in a Mercedes in Milwaukee

Location: Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Date: October 2, 1912

Only nine entries were filed for the 1912 Vanderbilt Cup Race - its smallest field ever. The list shrunk further with the disqualification of Eddie Pullen’s Mercer – for using an engine smaller than the minimum 301 cubic inch capacity.  Reduced to only eight competitors, the field still boasted impressive talent with the likes of Teddy Tetzlaff (Fiat), Ralph De Palma (Mercedes), Spencer Wishart (Mercedes) and Ralph Mulford (Knox) vying for the classic Cup.

Tetzlaff, a recent winner in a 200 mile road race held on July 5, 1912 in Tacoma, Washington, launched to the front with his patented ferocity that had earned him the moniker, “The Terrible One.” The Californian had the field covered, steadily building a lead as each of the 38 laps of the 299.44 mile race ticked off one-by-one. The crowd of 60,000  responded with enthusiasm for the Fiat teammate to the unfortunate Bruce-Brown.

The competition occurred behind Tetzlaff’s Fiat as Mulford in the Knox ran second in the first lap but was passed by Wishart in his Mercedes on lap 2. By lap 3 Mulford’s Knox died with magneto failure, leaving the field reduced to a mere seven with nearly 284 miles to go. At that point Tetzlaff had over a minute on De Palma’s Mercedes with the third Mercedes of George Clark 47 seconds further back in third. Wishart faded to fourth, 35 seconds behind Clark.

Throughout the race, the most entertaining contention for position was between De Palma, Wishart and Hughie Hughes in his yellow New Jersey-built Mercer.  In a battle of Mercedes, Wishart bounced back to pass De Palma on lap 7, and then surrendered second position on lap 12, only to recapture the spot on lap 15. This seesaw continued until lap 20 when De Palma forged ahead for the duration.

The big moment of the race was lap 26 when Tetzlaff, who had amassed an insurmountable 13 minute lead, lost it all when his drive shaft snapped. Coasting to a stop on the Wauwatosa course’s backstretch, Tetzlaff’s hopes were squelched.

Hughes emerged as De Palma’s primary threat in the final laps, closing to within 33 seconds by lap 37. The Italian-born De Palma was a master of calculation, keeping Hughes’ Mercer at bay despite blowing a tire on lap 28. De Palma’s big 590 cubic inch Mercedes could out-match the Mercer’s 309 cubic inch engine and he drew on his horsepower advantage when needed. 

Wishart’s hopes were dashed when he had to replace a drive chain on the backstretch during lap 29.  He finished third, more than 15 minutes behind Hughes. De Palma and his Mercedes completed the 38 laps or 299.44 miles in 4 hours, 20 minutes and 31.5 seconds to average 68.96 miles per hour. A Fiat gained redemption in the hands of Caleb Bragg 2 days later with triumph in the American Grand Prize. Still, with the death of Bruce-Brown and the drivers’ general dissatisfaction with the course, all was not well for the future of road racing in Milwaukee.