Well, given this blog's name, this seems appropriate. Anyway, today's topic: Thunder at Sunrise, by John M. Burns.
Let me start with this: The writing by Mr. Burns won't blow you away. From a pure prose/literary perspective, if you read one chapter, you've read 90% of the book. The Preface, first chapter, and Epilogue are unique however.
A chapter begins with worldly historical events, trying to create an atmosphere in which the racing events occur. A lead-up summary of the event (Vanderbilt Cup, Grand Prize, and Indy) and a summary of the event itself contains the balance of the chapter. Pretty utilitarian.
I don't really begrudge Burns for this, though, since the nature of the topic kind of necessitated this style. I suppose he could have written this more like a novel, but then the racing could get lost. Conversely, he could have narrowed his focus to the Vanderbilt Cup, America's first great racing event, but the drivers and automakers of the era competed in all three events, and the emergence of each event had an impact on the prestige of the previous event. How do you narrow it down?
At any rate, the 257 pages are loaded with great photos from the events, though a majority of them are from IMS. Still, comparing pictures from the 1904 Vanderbilt Cup and, oh, the Peugeots driven by Jules Goux (1913-14) and Dario Resta (1915-16) at Indianapolis, it is striking even then to see the aesthetic changes. Frankly, the 1904 machines look like little more than boxes with wheels (small wheels, with hideously thin tires). The Peugeots show semblance of streamlining, esp. at the back, with a better understanding of engine technology. By 1914, speeds were just a shade under 100 mph at Indy.
The most compelling part of the book might be the first two chapters, describing the first Vanderbilt Cup on Long Island, and the events surrounding it's formation. Burns is at his best describing the atmosphere of excitement and uncertainty for the first race. The crowds simply swamped organizers, making crowd control laughably, though disastrously, impossible. I was struck by the fact these racers, organizers, and fans were truly embarking on uncharted territory; to those at the time, it must all have seemed like something of a fantasy world out of science fiction. They had little understanding of the consequences of what they were attempting. Little thought was put into safety; they simply didn't know what could happen, or what to do about it.
Despite crowd control issues, the race was a smashing success. And Burns wants us to believe that had it gone badly (or never started in the first place), American motorsports would have been stillborn. I don't know about that, but the fact that all 3 events attracted the same caliber of manufacturers (foreign and domestic), gives some credence to the point, in that, had there been no Vanderbilt Cup (in many ways, the first U.S. Grand Prix), would anything else of equal prestige have ever emerged?
Perhaps the best part of the book is getting introduced (or reintroduced) to the great drivers of the day. From Harry Grant, to George Robertson, George Heath to Eddie Hearne and Ralph Mulford to Ralph DePalma, drivers who were otherwise lost to history (other than DePalma, a true legend) are brought back to life.
So too are car makers like Mercer, Stutz, Alco, Locomobile, National, and Pope, marques that most of today's readers (like myself) had never heard of. Burns helps chronicle not just the early racing scene, but the overall automotive scene of the era.
Needless to say, Burns, despite his faults, details an automotive and sporting era far more interesting and colorful than many would otherwise imagine. In that, Thunder at Sunrise is a success and must-read for those interested in the sport's history.