Big George Robertson (1884 - 1955)
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Big George Robertson

George Robertson
Though 'Big George' Robertson's racing career only encompassed half a decade, he is remembered as one of the immortals of motor-sport history. Robertson was the first American driver to defeat the top European makes in an international event in an American car.

The Vanderbilt Cup

Born in 1884, 'Big George' Robertson with a Stevens-Duryea first appeared in front-line racing in 1905, at the wheel of the front-wheel-driven Christie. It must have taken a driver as strong as the burly Robertson to hold the lethally unstable Christie at speed, though its wretched showing in the Eliminating Trials for the Vanderbilt Cup said little for either driver or car.

The Lowell 250 Road Race

Robertson's bad luck persisted in the 1906 Vanderbilt Eliminating Trials, when he wrapped his rapid Apperson round a telegraph pole during practice. The following year, a series of minor successes compensated for the disappointments of 1905/1906, with Robertson driving cars as diverse as the Christie, a 1906 Grand Prix Hotchkiss and a Locomobile, with which he won the Lowell 250 Road Race at Howell, Massachussetts.

The Leading American Race Driver

By the latter half of 1905, Robertson's career was in full stride: in the month of October he won three major victories which set him at the head of American racing drivers. On 3 October, on the one-mile dirt track on New York's Coney Island, Robertson and Lescault averaged 49 mph at the wheel of a big Simplex to win the 24-hour race with an elapsed distance of 1176 miles, then a week later Robertson was entered in the first Founder's Day Cup race on the 7.5-mile Fairmount Park Course in Philadelphia, driving a 40 hp Locomobile. A crowd of 400,000 watched Robertson win the 195-mile event at an average speed of 49.5 mph.

Then, on the 24th October, Robertson drove the 16.2-liter, 90 hp Locomobile in the Vanderbilt Cup on Long Island. Driven by Joe Tracy, this car had finished ninth in the 1906 Vanderbilt; in 1905 it ran against cars from Isotta-Fraschini, Mercedes, Chadwick, Renault and Matheson. At the mid-way stage of the Vanderbilt, it looked as though Willie Haupt's Chadwick would win, but ignition troubles held him back, and eventually Robertson won by just two minutes from Herb Lytle's Isotta, at a record speed.

The Brighton Beach 24-hour

The following year saw Robertson concentrating most of his efforts on driving big Simplexes; on 31 July Robertson and Al Poole won the Brighton Beach 24-hour event at 45.9 mph over 1102 miles with a Simplex. Solo, Robertson drove Simplex cars to victory in the 318 miles Lowell Road Race, and the second Founder's Day Road Race at Fairmount Park. His ventures into racing other marques were less successful, especially when he tried a large and clumsy Houpt-Rockwell in the August Brighton Beach 24-hours: impossible to crank and too heavy to push, the car was eventually withdrawn from the race after completing 11 out of 24 laps.

In 1910 Robertson set up several speed records, even managing to hold the snake-prone Christie at 120 mph over a mile on Daytona Beach, and was scheduled to lead the Benz team for the Vanderbilt Cup, his team-mates being Eddie Hearne and David Bruce-Brown. But before the race a reporter, Stephen Reynolds, begged a ride round the course so that he could write up some first-hand impressions of the event. Robertson was roaring through a bend at 70 mph when Reynolds panicked and snatched at the steering wheel, causing the car to roll over. The reporter was unscathed but Robertson received very serious injuries and though he eventually recovered, never raced again. He did, however, remain involved in motor sport in later years, managing the 1921 Duesenberg team which won the first all-American victory in the French Grand Prix.

In 1936 Robertson was manager of the recently built Roosevelt Raceway, where the Vanderbilt Cup was to be revived. Before the first race at the track, Robertson drove a fast exhibition lap in Old No. 16, afterwards confiding that he did not know how he had managed to 'handle the brute' at racing speeds in the old Vanderbilt. But he was reunited with his old car once again, in 1954, when the fiftieth anniversary of the Vanderbilt Cup was celebrated by a run over the original roads by 70 antique cars, and drove it at speeds which greatly incensed the local constabulary. It was the last reunion. Robertson was already a sick man, and the following year he died.
Old Number '16' - which brought George Robertson great fame
Old Number '16' - which brought George Robertson great fame.
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