“A spectacle of speed and excitement which Ireland may not have the opportunity to see again…”
It was still dark as they began to gather along the roadway, past the newly erected grandstands, all the way back towards the hairpin at Victoria Cross. As the fading moonlight reflected upon the surface of the river, the people of Cork arrived on buses, by bicycle or on foot as dawn slowly broke across the Lee Fields. In the half-light, amid the red glow of the men’s cigarettes and the hushed voices of the spectators; their breath coming in wisps in the chill morning air, they waited for 6.00 am practice to commence.
Neither Carrigrohane, nor Cork itself had ever seen the like of it.
In this part of the world, people are not particularly au fait with the concept of ambiguity, tending more towards the literal approach. So in the proud city of Cork, should a resident point you towards the ‘Straight Road,‘ there is only one stretch of tarmac they can possibly have in mind. Highways of this variety have never been a particularly common Irish phenomenon, roadbuilders having more frequently to negotiate all manner of natural and manmade obstacles, so the famous 2.75 mile (4.43 km) stretch from Victoria Cross at the Eastern end to Leemount Bridge at the West remains as unusual now as it did when first laid down.
Constructed during the mid 19th Century as a public works project, the Carrigrohane Road was built to provide a more direct route Westwards from the City to Macroom and beyond towards Killarney and Kenmare. Paved during the 1920s with the then newfangled technology of re-enforced concrete slabs, it also hosted the so-called Muskerry Tram, (also known as the ‘old hook and eye’) which ran alongside regular road traffic. Accidents were surprisingly rare, if more than usually vivid.
Almost as soon it became possible, this arrow-straight section of roadway became a magnet to the purveyors of speed, hosting a wide range of trials and motorsport events during the early years of the 20th Century. This would reach its apogee during the mid-1930s, with a series of Grands Prix events, culminating in the Cork Motor Derby which took place over an April weekend in 1938, the flagship event being the staging of the Cork Grand Prix, a fully accredited non-championship event on the motor racing calendar, featuring cars and drivers from the very highest echelons of the sport.
Following the success of the 1937 meeting, the Irish Motor Racing Club, working alongside the Cork and District Motor Club set about making the 1938 event the largest and most successful yet. Since the days of the Gordon Bennett race meetings at the start of the century, the county of Leinster had dominated Irish motorsport activities, with events frequently being held at Dublin’s Phoenix Park, so the Munster region had reason to promote itself as Ireland’s natural home for international motorsport.
What inducements the organisers deemed fit to offer the teams and drivers to compete in what was by then a rather impoverished post-independence Irish Free State appears undocumented, but they are known to have visited the racing departments of Alfa Romeo, Auto Union, Bugatti, Delahaye, ERA, Maserati and Mercedes-Benz, all of whom expressed enthusiasm, assuming they had their metaphorical ducks in a row. Any uncertainty on their parts related to a change in regulations for the 1938 season, necessitating a new design of motor car.
From 1933 until 1938, Grands Prix were run according to what was deemed by the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile as ‘Formula Libre’ (or free formula) which meant that no restrictions existed with regard to weight or engine displacement. However, for this season, and most likely in a (vain) attempt to hobble the mighty German ‘Silver Arrows’, regulations stipulated that non-supercharged engines must have a swept volume of between 1000 cc and 4500 cc, whereas with a blower, the capacity band was 666 cc and 3000 cc. A maximum weight of 850 kg also came into force.
Previewing the event in their January 1938 issue, Britain’s Motor Sport magazine informed readers; “The Cork Grand Prix will be one of the first races to be held under the new racing formula. All three races will, of course, be run on the renowned Carrigrohane circuit, which is one of the fastest and most perfect road courses in Europe. The lap length is 6 miles 154 yards and the course is famous for its unique 2i [sic] mile dead level straight, the perfect non-skid surface of which was widened from 21 to 30 feet before last season’s Cork Car Race. Some idea of the speeds which the Grand Prix cars may attain on this circuit may be gathered from the fact that the lap record stands at 92.08 m.p.h. (C. E. C. Martin-2,904 c.c. Alfa-Romeo).”
A prize fund of £1000 was provided by Mr. Joseph McGrath, Managing Director of the Irish Hospitals Trust, an inducement which prompted nineteen drivers from eight nations to enter, the confirmed entrants including Italians, Tazio Nuvolari and Giuseppe Farina (Alfa Romeo); Swiss driver, Hans Ruesh (Alfa Romeo); Flight-Lieutenant C. S. Staniland, A. F. Ashby, Kenneth Evans, John Snow, and Mrs. Jill Thomas of Great Britain (Alfa Romeo); Prince Birabongse of Siam (Maserati), Herbert Berg of Germany (Maserati); and French team competitors, Gianfranco Comotti, René Dreyfus, Laury Schell, Joseph Paul, and Louis Gerard (Delahaye).
In the event, neither Nuvolari, Farina, nor the Alfa Corse cars arrived, owing to a series of events a week earlier at practice for the non-championship Grand Prix race at Pau, where the ‘Flying Mantuan‘ sustained bruising and minor burns when his Alfa burst into flames. Farina’s Alfa was also withdrawn amid concerns of a design fault and with Nuvolari refusing to race for the Biscione again, (he later that year signed for Auto Union), neither Italian (both favourites for the win) made the trip to Cork that April.
Also absent were the German Silver Arrows, neither Auto Union, nor Mercedes-Benz having their 1938 formula cars ready in time – a state of affairs echoed at ERA, who were also non-attendees – although they would compete in the light car (Voiturette) event. Nevertheless, among the other marques represented were Bugatti, Frazer Nash, MG, Riley, Delage and Ford.
Having been victorious at the earlier GP at Pau, Frenchman, René Dreyfus told an Irish Times reporter that despite Nuvolari and Farina’s absence, he regarded the Alfa Romeos as his major threat, but would also be closely watching the progress of Jean Pierre Wimille’s Bugatti and Prince Bira’s Maserati during practice for the 200-mile, 30 lap Grand Prix race.
The first practice session took place at dawn on the Wednesday preceding the race, with tens of thousands turning up to watch the spectacle – a matter which would be repeated on both the Thursday and Friday sessions as well. Motor racing had gripped Cork and even the dogs on the street were discussing it.
Credits: See Part Two.