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Jan. 28, 1938: The Passing of the Silver Comet

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Jan. 28, 1938: The Passing of the Silver Comet
1938: German race car driver Bernd Rosemeyer drives his Auto Union streamliner to the unheard-of speed of 268.432 mph on a stretch of autobahn between Frankfurt and Darmstadt. Never before has anyone driven so fast, and never again has someone gone so fast on a public road.
Rosemeyer was behind the wheel of an Auto Union, which was little more than a grand prix car wrapped in a slick alloy body. It was designed by an up-and-coming engineer named Ferdinand Porsche, who put the massive V-16 engine right in the middle. It had fuel injection and not one — but two — superchargers, it burned a potent witch’s brew of mostly benzene, and it produced something approaching 400 horsepower, a staggering figure at the time.
The Auto Union was not a car for the faint of heart. The tires were skinny, the brakes were weak, and all the weight was in the back. It was, in other words, a bear to drive.
Rosemeyer's teammates – Hans Stuck, Ernst von Delius, the tragic and mercurial Achille Varzi – could make the Auto Union move. But only Rosemeyer could make it dance.
Many wondered why. Rosemeyer was uncommonly brave, mechanically sympathetic and possessed of a cavalier attitude toward his own mortality. But then, so were the other great drivers of his era. He had an advantage though: The Auto Union was the only car he’d driven competitively.
Rosemeyer, known as Der Silber Komet or Silver Comet, started out racing motorcycles, winning on two wheels before making the switch to four in 1935. In his mind, the Auto Union’s handling quirks weren’t quirks. He figured that was how all cars handled.
And so he was quick, blindingly quick, easily defeating the best cars from the best teams. By the last years of the 1930s, grand prix racing was dominated by two men in two cars: Rosemeyer in the Auto Union and Rudolf Caracciola in the Mercedes.
Caracciola was a driver of unparalleled talent and amazing bravery. He walked with a limp and stood with a lean, because his left leg was shorter than the right, having been broken in seven places after a crash in Monaco.
He was nicknamed Der Regenmeister or Rainmaster, because he was especially grand when the sky opened up. Only two men could keep up with him in the wet. One was the Italian driver, Tazio Nuvolari. The other was Rosemeyer.
The rivalry between the two Germans Rosemeyer and Caracciola was as formidable as their skill. For three years, racing at speeds approaching 200 mph in cars without seatbelts, on tracks without crash barriers, in a sport where "safety" meant being thrown clear of the wreckage, the two went against each other like hammers on anvils.
When Adolf Hitler decided in 1938 that the land speed record must be attained by a German man driving a German car on a German road, everyone looked to Rosemeyer and Caracciola. And so it was that on a January day the two made separate speed attempts back and forth on a stretch of highway south of Frankfurt.
Each run was faster than the last, until Caracciola finally came in. Word filtered through the paddock: 268 mph.
The Auto Union crew knew what it had to do. It prepped the Rekordwagen, or "record car", for another run. The wind was picking up, but Rosemeyer climbed in and headed out. Off he went with a roar, as if fired from a cannon.
Those clocking Rosemeyer along the way reported him well on his way to eclipsing Caracciola’s speed. It’s never been stated definitively, but it is widely believed that Rosemeyer would have broken the official record. Would have.
No one really knows what happened next. Even now, 70 years later, the best guess is a gusting crosswind caught the Auto Union just right, causing it to careen out of control. The car skidded for 80 yards, flipped twice and flew 200 yards through the air.
Rosemeyer was thrown clear and killed. They found him lying in the grass, hands at his side, not a mark on him.
He was 28 years old.
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