An "Italian mechanic" was the victim of Savannah's 1908 Grand Prix Auto Race

Originally Appeared in : 9823-11/8/18

This much was known about him. He was killed in a practice lap for the 1908 Grand Prix Automobile Race held in Savannah.


He was Italian and hadn’t been in this country long. He was 25 or 30 years old and rode as a mechanic in a light race car of French origin with driver Jean Juhasz. His job as “mechanician” wasn’t easy. Traveling a road smoothed out and graveled by Georgia convicts, M. De Rosa had to watch cars behind the one he was riding in, force air into his vehicle’s gas tank and oil into its engine, and hang far out of it at the turn. If the car won the race, its driver would be photographed, not its mechanic.


Obscure as he and his job were, M. De Rosa’s funeral was something else. So were earlier preparations for the race. Wangled by Savannah Mayor, George Tiedeman, and prominent members of the Savannah Automobile Club, this “first American Grand Prix Race” occurred on a course previously used for a stock car competition.


For this big race, however, the 17-mile course was expanded to 25.13 miles and was resurfaced with oiled gravel. Its grandstand encompassed two blocks of Estill Avenue (now Victory Drive). From Estill, the course would turn on to White Bluff Road, move south to Montgomery Cross Roads, eastward to Isle of Hope; then, back north via LaRoche Avenue. It would skim through Thunderbolt before proceeding westward to the finish line. Even President Taft, then visiting Savannah, stopped to take a look at what was considered the finest such facility of its time.


As early as November 17, 1908, the New York Times described the prestigious races Savannah would host for the next few years, reporting that racers preparing for upcoming competition had run fast practice laps.


By November 20, the Times noted that all twenty cars scheduled to compete on Thanksgiving Day, November 25, were present and ready for weigh-in. Each car would carry not only a driver, but also a “riding mechanic”. More than 5,000 people watched as thirteen big cars and seven light cars practiced.


On November 21, during another practice, the S.P.O. (Societe Francois de Petite Outillage), a light car driven by Jean Juhasz, sped along White Bluff Road, a mile from the grandstand. Despite elaborate precautions, a large dog wandered onto the track. When driver Juhasz swerved left to avoid hitting it, his auto’s inner wheels stuck in soft sand, causing it to crash sideways into a tree and telephone pole. Both driver and mechanic were injured; mechanic De Rosa, critically.


“Speed God Claims First Sacrifice” a November 22 headline of the Savannah Morning News exclaimed. The driver of another car, also on a practice run, found Juhasz and De Rosa unconscious and hurried back to the grandstand to get help.


According to the New York Times, Juhasz’s left leg was broken above the knee and DeRosa’s left leg, left arm and nose were broken. DeRosa had also suffered internal injuries and a fracture at the base of his skull. The Savannah paper’s account differed, noting that the mechanic’s right thigh was crushed, his right knee cap broken, that he had no injuries about the head and that he apparently died from internal hemorrhage.


Contacted in Marseilles, De Rosa’s mother cabled a request that he be buried in this country from a Catholic Church since he was Catholic. The Savannah Automobile Club decided that an automobile funeral would be appropriate. Savannah’s mayor and aldermen and officers and members of the Savannah Automobile Club would be present. There would be numerous floral arrangements, including one in the form of a broken steering wheel.


Father G.F.X. Schadewell, pastor of the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist, conducted the funeral service on November 30, 1908. De Rosa’s body was transported to Laurel Grove Cemetery on an automobile chassis – the first motorized funeral in Savannah. Flowers placed on his grave included those used the day before at the reopening of Our Lady of Good Hope Catholic Church at Isle of Hope. Burial was in the Police Benevolent Society Lot.


A web search suggests that M. De Rosa was possibly Giovanni Marie Giuseppe De Rosa, born in Napoli, Italy on October 30, 1880 to Raffaele De Rosa and Amalia Iaccarino. As Marius De Rosa of Marseille, France, he immigrated to New York on October 17, 1907. His associates recalled that Marius often spoke of his mother, and had come from New York shortly before the race.


The Savannah Grand Prix Race went on as planned in 1908, followed by others in 1910 and 1911.   


Originally appeared in an April 2014 issue of the Southern Cross.


Columnist Rita H. DeLorme is a volunteer in the Diocesan Archives. 

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