28 April 2015

The Danger Story

The life of a racer in the 1950s and ’60s

Stirling Moss has said he did not go motor racing because it was dangerous, but if danger had not been involved it's unlikely he would have been drawn to the sport. And danger was a large part of racing in the mid-century days when Sir Stirling was demonstrating his unique excellence on the circuit.

With a season's opening flag, we knew it likely that several of the drivers roaring into the dust of the first turn would not be there for the year's final lap. Which ones? I knew no one who openly speculated on that. Dangers were recognized or ignored quietly and individually.

In his day, Sir Jackie Stewart directed masses of his great energy to increasing safety. Race organizers were pressured to make improvements. Drivers were cajoled into accepting rules covering helmets, seatbelts and fire-resistant clothing. It was not until 1978 that a major step was made — by current F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone. Bernie enlisted a highly regarded English neurosurgeon (and racing fan) to organize and create standards for Formula 1’s medical treatment systems at all racing venues. Called the “Prof,” Sid Watkins said after his retirement 26 years later: “When I started, one in 10 accidents resulted in death or serious injury. Now the ratio is one in 300.”

Stirling's career-ending crash came in 1962 at Goodwood, long before most safety measures were implemented. He was unconscious for a month, his body shattered, and one eye on a different level than the other. A series of surgeries brought him back to an amazing approximation of normal, but in a private driving test his concentration was not up to his satisfaction. He left any serious pursuit of the sport that had been his life.

In the late 1950s, I was present when an American journalist was hectoring Phil Hill about why he persisted in the dangerous world of racing. “You are more intelligent than that,” he said. “Why do you keep racing with all these people dying?” Phil finally blurted, “Because I'm good at it.” The journalist jotted something and left. Phil turned to me. “Do you think he understood I meant, ‘Because it's the only thing I'm good at?’”

Phil was like a lot of race drivers. He had started young, developed his talent and was a success. The money was meager then, but adequate. Like a young soldier, a young driver knew about death but as something that happened to someone else. Phil knew that anyone was vulnerable, but he was trapped by his being “good” at it. He kept racing. With care and intelligence and luck he retired on his own terms. Not so for his Ferrari teammates: Musso was killed at Reims in 1958 and Peter Collins later that year at the Nürburgring; Von Trips died at Monza in 1961 as Phil went on to win the World Championship.

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