Given all the recent kerfuffling about Russian influence in the United States, perhaps it is an apt moment to mention that the first Formula 1 United States Grand Prix was organised by a man who was born in Russia…
Alexander Edward Ulmann, known as Alec.
There had been some Grand Prix races in the US in the early years of the sport, notably the American Grand Prize on a road course near Savannah, Georgia, in 1908, but Ulmann was the first promoter to bring the F1 World Championship to US shores.
Born in St Petersburg in 1903, Ulmann was the son of a wealthy industrialist, while his mother was a member of the aristocratic Volgensky family. When Alexander was five he became enthralled with automobiles when he saw cars taking part in the St Petersburg-Moscow road race.
In 1917, when he was 13, Russia erupted into revolution and the Ulmann family fled the Bolsheviks and settled in Switzerland, where Alexander was sent to school. He was soon fluent in Russian, French, German and English. He was still fascinated by machines and in 1921 won a place at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge, Massachusetts (read Boston), where he earned a Master’s degree in aeronautical engineering.
He became a naturalised American citizen in the same era – and developed a taste for high-powered American cars. Graduating in 1928, he went to work for Goodyear, his language skills getting him transferred back to Europe, where he soon gained a pilot’s licence and flew from country to country in a Kinner-engined Brunner-Winkle Bird biplane, which had been designed for barnstormers. He would become the European agent for the firm.
While in England he met Mary Foote, who was a rather glamorous assistant to Lieutenant Commander Harold Perrin, the director of the Royal Aero Club In London. This organisation issued all UK flying licences. Foote was a well-spoken young beauty, who lived in Weybridge, had attended finishing schools in Switzerland, France and Germany and spoke three languages. They married soon afterwards and Ulmann whisked her away to New York, where he quickly became a leading light in the Automobile Racing Club of America, which later became the SCCA, and she became a celebrated member of the New York social scene.
When the war came, Ulmann was named president of the Dowty Equipment Corporation, a U.S subsidiary of the listed British engineering company which manufactured landing gear and hydraulic systems for aircraft. The company produced more than a million hydraulic units and tens of thousands of undercarriage structures for a range of aircraft. Ulmann realised that after the war there would be huge opportunities in aviation and so he established AE Ulmann Associates Ltd, in order to acquire surplus military aircraft to convert or upgrade them for civilian use. He became the purchasing agent for Lufthansa and Alitalia in the U.S and represented American aviation firms in Europe. The parts business he developed was akin to printing money and it grew rapidly. In 1960 it was merged with Allied International, which did similar work in Asia, creating a global business with Ulmann as its president and key shareholder.
Motor racing remained his passion and hobby. He wrote books about automotive history and his articles appeared in various magazine. He collected Bugattis and Hispano Suizas. He served as chief steward for early road racing events at Watkins Glen, Bridgehampton, Floyd Bennett Field and Westhampton and went to Le Mans in 1950, managing the Briggs Cunningham racing team. He decided on that visit that America ought to have its own international endurance race.
One of his parts warehouses, and his workshops, were located at a Florida airfield called Hendricks Field, which had previously been the main training base for B-17 bomber crews during the wartime years. This had been turned over to the local authorities in Sebring to be used as a civilian airport. Ulmann concluded that Hendricks Field had endless possibilities as a racing circuit, thanks to its intersecting runways and taxiways. He talked the local government into agreeing to the idea and at the end of December 1950 he organised a six hour race, which was won by Fred Wacker and Frank Burrell in a Cadillac-powered Allard. In the course of the event, Ulmann took Florida Governor Fuller Warren for a lap around the track – while the race was in progress.
His European connections enabled him to lobby the necessary authorities and in 1952 the Sebring 12 Hours was launched, as a full scale FIA-sanctioned event and a round of the World Sports Car Championship. This would be held each year with a string of associated social events, which attracted not only Europe’s top racers, but also wealthy Americans, who liked to winter in Florida. It wasn’t quite Monaco, but there were good parties…
The Ulmanns lived a jet-set life, with an apartment on Park Avenue in New York, a home in the Hamptons and regular trips to big European races, notably Monaco and Le Mans, but also the Targa Florio in Sicily.
The success is the Sebring 12 Hours – which took a few years and some hefty losses – led Ulmann to decide that America was ready for F1 and he did a five-year deal for Sebring to host the United States Grand Prix in 1959, the first F1 race in the U.S.
Fortunately Senator Joe McCarthy was dead by then and so there were never any paranoid claims of Ulmann being involved Communist subversion.
The first race, won by Bruce McLaren, attracted only a small crowd and was a financial disaster. Ulmann decided to move the race to Riverside in California in 1960, but this fared little better and so in 1961 he took up the offer to run the race at Watkins Glen in upstate New York…