by Russell Jaslow
Thunder at Sunrise
by John M. Burns
McFarland & Company
ISBN: 978-0786424745. List Price: $55.00.
When I first heard about Thunder at Sunrise: A History of the Vanderbilt Cup, The Grand Prize and the Indianapolis 500, 1904-1916, I thought I died and went to heaven. After all, here was a book about the very racing era that I enjoy reading and studying so much with the three key events of that time all rolled into one book.
Unfortunately, I found myself disappointed with John M. Burns' effort. For starters, it's not what I would call a true historical piece. The book is billed as one that is "compiled in great part from contemporary sources such as newspaper accounts and automotive journals." Even in this regard he falls short.
From the Bibliography, it appears that Burns relied mostly on the New York Times, Motor Age, and Horseless Age as well as the Philadelphia Inquirer and Trenton Sunday Times-Advertiser. All good choices, but how could he not use the Indianapolis News as a a key resource for the Indianapolis 500? Or, the local papers in Milwaukee, Savannah, and California when the road races moved to those locales? Or, even Scientific American which provided extensive in depth coverage of early motor racing? Essentially, Burns got a slanted view by using such a limited resource base.
In fact, judging from his other sources -- articles on the Internet, including one that I wrote -- it appears that Burns did all his research from the comfort of his computer. Thus, he missed so much information that could have made this book a deeper, richer historical piece.
Just using contemporary sources leaves him prone to the mistakes of contemporary journalism. So many people have researched this era and corrected early misconceptions that Burns never took advantage of. First and foremost is Automobile Quarterly, which again I am surprised Burns did not use.
Then, when the author did choose a non-contemporary source, he chose the wrong one -- The Checkered Flag by Peter Helck. Though this book is a must for all racing fans, it has been shown by serious historians that it should not be relied upon for historical fact. Helck was an artist (a great one at that) and he took extreme artistic license in his books.
Most notable was the one portion that Burns relied upon -- the 1914 Vanderbilt Cup held in Santa Monica where Ralph DePalma supposedly faked out Barney Oldfield by indicating he was going to pit; instead DePalma kept motoring on after Oldfield committed to a pit stop, thus giving DePalma the race. The irony of this for Burns is he states the newspapers of the day never reported these chain of events.
So, when he does stray from the contemporary sources, he uses a source that perpetrated this myth. A myth that has since been debunked by Harold Osmer and Phil Harms in their Real Road Racing, The Santa Monica Road Races and Gary Doyle in Ralph DePalma Gentleman Champion. What else does Burns not get right?
Then, there are the photos. Again, Burns relies on limited sources -- just two, the Smithtown, N.Y. Library, Long Island Room (which I personally found pleasing since that is the town I grew up in, spending a lot time in that library researching the Vanderbilt Cup) and IMS Photo. I can't complain about the photos he chose, but when a chapter dealt with a race that these two sources did not have photos for, the chapter was rather thin in the photo category and Burns was forced to use pictures that didn't really have anything to do with that particular race.
Plus, the photo reprint quality in the book is terrible at times. Granted, the paper used is of low quality and that will hurt the photo reproduction. However, more effort should have been spent to properly reproduce what otherwise would have been fantastic photos.
Another key item missing from the book are race sheets, lap charts, and race statistics. These do exist for these events, and any book of historical significance has to include them to be taken seriously. There's just no excuse for not doing so.
On the plus side, the writing is very good and makes for a good read. You won't get bored. Burns presents the story in the context of the times, starting out each year with the top news, inventions, and racing scene, putting the reader in the proper historical perspective. While other books about this era always seem to limit themselves to a particular race or a particular location, Burns properly talks about all three together, giving the reader an understanding how they all affected the racing not just at the time, but the evolvement to today's racing.
Is there anyone I'd recommend the book to? Actually, yes. Though my colleagues will disagree, I would recommend the book to someone who is new to the subject and interested in learning about it. The book is written well enough that if it perks the interest for someone to further explore this period of racing, then it is worth the historical shortcomings. They can learn so much more in the long run if this book turns out to be the catalyst for their interest.
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