In the Moment: To believe you’re the best
Welcome to a regular feature we call In the Moment!
A while back, Hagerty editor-at-large Sam Smith began kicking off our mornings by plopping a random archive photo into our staff chat room. His descriptions of those photos were fun, so we ran them as irregular columns.
These days, Sam writes ITMs specifically for publication. Often while drinking too much coffee and going rhetorical walkabout. Enjoy, and let us know what you think in the comments! —Ed.
Sooner or later, everyone meets trauma. For some, the strain is mental. For others, it’s physical. For a third, less fortunate group, it is both.
Warning: This post contains images that some may find disturbing. It’s worth noting that the photos below were deemed suitable for public consumption in 1960s newspapers. Nevertheless, they depict an injured person.
Consider the racing crash at the top of this page. Incredibly, a man lived through it. When he was pulled from the wreckage of that small and fragile car, on a spring day in the south of England, he was famous, one of the best in the world at what he did for a living, a household name in the land of his birth.
The crash caused significant injury. He recovered, though he was, by his own admission, never quite the same. When he died in bed a few years ago, he remained widely beloved, but he had never regained—or at least, could no longer access—the ability that brought him fame. No one was ever quite sure why.
We spend so much time discussing the importance of our differences. That we do so is not so remarkable as the fact that we know those differences don’t really matter. Most people have a pretty good idea of just how much ties humans together. We have a staggering amount in common; the deltas between us are mostly window dressings of tribe and culture.
Still, we pretend they carry weight: Beware the people from Shelbyville / Foreigntonia / that religious building across town! They’ll drive you from your home and take your things! They hate all you hold dear!
Not that this doesn’t happen. Genghis was a particularly cruel Khan; Ivan was indeed terrible; Vlad impaled people. But most people simply want to keep what they earn and be left in peace. They aren’t really interested in annexing your Sudetenland or going Mongol on the masses.
Which doesn’t mean we don’t worry about disasters. Only that the odds are against them.
Is it human nature to think too much on unlikely loss? Or have we simply trained ourselves to, the bad moments from thousands of years steeped in genetic memory?
Do you ever see the aftermath of a car crash and reflexively wonder how the impact felt?
I occasionally find myself wondering if my brain was accidentally built with too many empathy cells. This flattering notion would probably leave me a little too impressed with myself if I didn’t also regularly think I was born with too few. (Big mouth here. Doesn’t always spit the best words for the moment.)
My wife, a kind and perceptive person, knows writers are glued together with self-loathing. She once suggested, without looking up from her book, that this empathy questioning is probably just evidence that I am something like normal.
Ah, I said, thank you.
At least, she said, in this respect.
You’re funny, I said.
Think about the impact itself. So many parts moved around. This is—was—a 1962 Lotus 18/21 Formula 1 car. Two years prior, it began life as a 1960 Lotus 18 Formula 1 car. By the morning of the race that killed it, it wore several updates, including an English V-8 and the sleeker bodywork of Lotus’s 1961 Formula 1 car, the Type 21.
Look at the seat. The radiator, that rectangular bit at right. The dashboard hangs outside the car, limp; those two black cylinders are gauges.
The dash location would suggest that impact force caused the steering wheel—removed by the time of this photo—to end up near the driver’s right elbow.
An assumption we can unfortunately prove.
This image is lightly graphic. It is worth sharing, however, for what it illustrates. As we noted earlier, the driver survived and recovered. This image was printed in English newspapers during a relatively conservative time in a relatively conservative country. On top of that, the subject did not find it disturbing.
“The photographs that were taken after the accident, with me trapped in the car,” he wrote in his book, My Racing Life, “look rather lurid, but in fact I find myself able to look at them quite dispassionately. After all, I knew nothing about it. I was trapped in the car for about 45 minutes, I gather, because the chassis had completely folded up over me.”
It has to be normal, to look at that picture and think about the hit.
By extension, it must be normal to imagine falling from the top of the world, right?
When this picture was taken, on the night of April 23, 1962, Stirling Moss was 32 years old and unconscious. The ambulance in the background had just carried him 60 miles, from a track called Goodwood, in West Sussex, to London’s Atkinson Morley Hospital. That morning, he had been an international star at the height of his powers, one of the sharpest and most naturally talented drivers alive.
His crash made international news, even the papers in America, where no one cared about such things. And though he recovered fully, his life would never be the same.
Born in 1929, Moss first raced a car in 1947. He was 17, a former show-jumper of horses. His dentist father, Alfred, had once driven in an Indy 500. At first, he tried to discourage his son. He had hoped the boy would be a dentist. Then the talent became clear. Just a few years later, the younger Moss would be a national hero.
From 1948 to 1962, Stirling Moss started 529 races. He finished first in 212 of them.
Two hundred and twelve.
The tally is staggering. The man won 16 Formula 1 grands prix but also sports-car landmarks like the 12 Hours of Sebring, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and the annual 1000-kilometer race at the old Nürburgring.
Perhaps the brightest spot on his resume is an overall win in the “old” Mille Miglia. A cross-country, thousand-mile, open-road race that ran from 1927 to 1957 and ended only when the Italian government grew weary from the body count and outlawed the whole thing. (Fifty-six drivers and spectators dead in 30 years.)
Imagine: A flat-out, nonstop competition, basically a lap of midcentury Italy, with factory teams and the best drivers on earth, over narrow two-lanes and cobblestone village streets. The Mille was said to draw more than 5 million spectators across the country. In 1955, they lined roads in throngs, no real barriers or crowd control, watching as Moss repeatedly cranked a Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR to more than 170 mph. He finished in record time: 10 hours, 7 minutes, and 48 seconds, an average speed of 98.5 mph.
That last bit is impressive at a glance. Think on it even a smidge more, you maybe lose your mind a little.
Success in racing has always hung both on car and driver; Moss himself always said that the Mercedes made the win possible. Even the likes of Ayrton Senna could not land an F1 championship at the wheel of a Toleman. (What’s a Toleman, you ask? Exactly.)
Top-flight racing cars can today be separated by as little as hundredths or thousandths of a second, and they do not make huge speed gains from year to year. At the risk of gross understatement, the 1950s were different. Technology evolved far quicker; motorsport was still more art than science, but the balance was shifting. Cars grew noticeably faster every season. No country or designer held an advantage for long.
Moss was staunchly patriotic; he preferred to race cars built in his homeland. (“It is better to lose honorably in a British car than to win in a foreign one,” he once said.) Exceptions were made—he was at one point a Mercedes-Benz factory driver, he loved the Maserati 300S, and so on—but that preference bit him more often than not.
Imagine saying no to a Ferrari, then driving the wheels off some slower car while some lesser talent warms the seat you turned down and leaves you behind. Imagine, too, racking up those 212 wins without always having the fastest car.
It’s also worth noting that Moss ran at the front, in some of the fastest and most dangerous machines then built, in an age when scores of drivers around the world died at the wheel every season, in cars all but absent driver protection, in an era where safety gear was so laughable that a cork-lined polo helmet was often seen as overkill.
That he survived is remarkable; that he was so good is impressive. That he survived while being that good, while racing that often, life so regularly in the odds? Astonishing.
As with any gathering of stats, there are caveats. This is not Pete Rose, however, and the asterisk only improves the man.
Take those 212 wins and 529 starts. Two hundred and twelve divided by 529 is 0.400. Forty percent.
Where else do we see a single member of a team put on the spot to deliver results?
In major-league baseball, Wikipedia says, a season batting average of 30 percent or higher is “considered to be excellent.” The site calls an average greater than 40 percent “a nearly unachievable goal.”
Ah, you say! That’s not a level comparison! Baseball isn’t 1950s road racing.
True. There is a difference.
A hitter at the plate is not asked to maintain hours of peak performance in the sustained, 120-degree heat of an uninsulated metal cockpit, or in driving rain. They are not required to endure those conditions without water or food. Nor must they perform in close and often deafening proximity to other hitters, reacting to the boxer-like feints and defenses of those individuals while knowing an error from anyone involved could unavoidably maim or kill.
There is no mental strain from concentrating on car placement to the nearest inch at, say, 130 mph. While engaged in an activity that has recently killed several of your friends. While often mere feet from trees and fences and other landscape furniture. While thinking (but not too much) about the close proximity of spectators and how any one of a dozen small mistakes on your part could at any point end you or them or both.
Bats do not often suffer unpredictable and game-ending mechanical failures, and even when they do, those failures do not take a hitter’s life. Nor does each season ask that the hitter choose a new bat from a fresh round of unproven designs. Choosing the wrong bat for even a single game does not alter the hitter’s chance of success, or fame, or survival, nor does it change the odds on his continued presence in the sport.
On top of that, MLB players make a good living. Some F1 drivers of the 1950s and 1960s, even the champions, held day jobs to pay the rent. Moss did well, but he was an exception, a star whose fame and success brought sponsor deals and eventual knighthood.
Fine, you say: What about the current era?
We once used this space to discuss modern Formula 1 star Lewis Hamilton. At time of writing, HAM has started 310 F1 races and won 103. Thirty-three percent. Moss’s 16 grand-prix wins came over 66 starts—24 percent.
Numbers are the least interesting part of any sport. Still, a quick internet search will give you a list of all-time Formula 1 win ratios.
Those lists are inherently misleading, hung as they are on many variables—politics, engineering, funding, the perpetually changing number of races per season, whether a driver was lucky enough to sign with the right team at the right time, whether F1 was their sole focus, and so on. The closer you get to today, the more those variables weigh the odds.
Still, it’s fun to look. Here’s one for reference. Hamilton is currently fourth. Moss is ninth. Jim Clark, a personal hero, is third. Senna is eighth. Michael Schumacher is fifth. The Argentinian Juan Manuel Fangio, a Moss contemporary and mentor, is first. From 1952 to 1958, he notched 24 wins in 52 starts. Forty-seven percent.
So many differences between eras. With Moss, Fangio is probably the best comparison. He was just as versatile, yet unlike Moss, he did not carry loyalties when choosing a car. For the most part, he simply drove the fastest thing on offer. He was also lucky enough to end his career when he wished, quitting in his prime, neither too early nor too late.
Such a long run. The two men were friends. Moss saw Fangio as his superior, a talent he couldn’t match. The older man, however, thought Moss his equal, a concept the latter never quite agreed with.
Fangio began racing in his home country in the 1930s. When the F1 world championship launched in 1950, he was already a seasoned veteran. He won five F1 titles, then retired in 1958, at 46.
The story of how Fangio arrived at that decision is telling. He would later confess that he had known without doubt when it was time, could point to the exact moment he made the choice.
You must always strive to be the best, but you must never believe that you are.
The 1957 German Grand Prix was held at the old Nürburgring Nordschliefe, or “North Loop”—then as now, basically just a long, one-way road in the mountains. Fangio qualified on pole, starting first. By lap 13, he was more than 30 seconds ahead of the car in second. He came into the pits for tires and fuel. Mechanics botched the stop, taking far too long. By the time he left the pits, he had fallen to third, now more than a minute behind second place. In his head, a breaker tripped. He drove as he never had, a man possessed.
“I had to risk,” he said. “That’s something I never did before in my life.”
Chew on that for a second.
Remember that the old ’Ring was and remains one of the fastest tracks ever built. Fangio’s pole lap of 9 minutes and 25 seconds translated to an average speed of 89 mph. This on a 14-mile circuit with more than 170 corners, mostly bordered by hedges and trees, on treaded tires about as wide as your palm.
After that botched stop, he went even faster, resetting the lap record again and again. By the checker, he had found seven seconds under pole. An eternity.
“If in one turn I was using second gear,” he said, “then I went into third. When it was third, I used fourth . . . there is much more risk, this is much less safe, but you go faster . . . I’ve never been a spectacular racer, but I did things I had never done in my life.”
He won, of course. Some stories simply end as we want them to. And yet, in the process, he forced himself into a different place. Whatever he saw and felt there was too much. He retired the following year.
I like to imagine what might have happened had either man kept going. If Fangio hadn’t stepped down, and if Moss hadn’t crashed. Or perhaps what either man might have done when younger, for better or worse, had they known what life would bring.
When Moss crashed in 1962, at Goodwood, his life turned. He and a raft of other F1 regulars were competing in a non-points race for Formula 1 cars, in front of packed stands.
I raced at Goodwood once, several years ago; like many British circuits, the track lives on the site of an old RAF airfield. A quick lap there is heartbreakingly fluid—fast corner after fast corner, nothing but rhythm, equal parts risk and drug.
Moss’s Lotus flung into the grass at St. Mary’s, a quick and narrow left-hander on the circuit’s west side. Reliable eyewitness accounts are rare, and Moss himself never remembered the moment. Contemporary reports suggested a host of causes, including mechanical failure and the actions of other drivers, but he never assigned blame.
What we know for sure: He was going around 120 mph, in a cigar-shaped, 700-pound confection of thin steel tube and fiberglass, when he hit a grassy bank head-on.
I had pretty serious brain injuries, and my face was badly crushed, particularly the left eye socket and cheekbone. My left arm and leg were broken, the leg in two places. I was paralyzed down one side for [six months], and when I started to wake up, I didn’t know how to speak.
—From My Racing Life, via Goodwood Road & Racing
When the marshals reached him, he was alive but unconscious, choking on a piece of chewing gum. As he was cut out of the car, photographers swarmed. An X-ray later showed that the impact had physically detached the right side of his brain from his skull. The coma that resulted would last a month.
England fell into a state of national worry. The press prepared obituaries. In America, Time magazine assembled a Moss cover feature, to be run in the event of his death.
When I had my accident I was 32 years old, and I had been racing for 14 years. I was driving as well as I had ever done, maybe better. Had the accident not happened, I firmly believe I would have continued for at least another 14 years, and probably much more.
—From My Racing Life
Slightly more than one year later, in May of 1963, after months of rehab, after learning to talk and walk again, Moss returned to Goodwood. He drove down from his London flat early in the morning, then climbed into a Lotus 19 sports racer and set off, on a wet and empty track, to test. He had not been in a race car since the accident.
I would describe that test, but my efforts wouldn’t be a patch on what Robert Edwards wrote in his excellent Stirling Moss: The Authorized Biography:
He drove the damp circuit at lap speeds that were acceptable . . . but without being particularly startling by his own measure, which mattered more to him than any absolute—he was not racing, after all. Passing St. Mary’s, he felt absolutely nothing.
He realized, with a dawning sense of horror, that . . . all the flowing instincts, the unthinking balancing, unbalancing, and rebalancing of the car . . . were absent. To the uninformed observer, the performance was probably impressive; to Stirling himself, it lacked everything which he had come to love about the sport and his own place in it.
Gone too was the schoolboyish enthusiasm for the sheer, fierce joy of it. If his relationship with a racing car had once been a sensuous dance, it was now more like a vaguely recalled hop with a mere acquaintance . . . a disconnecting experience . . . he even spun the car at the chicane.
This was a devastating revelation for him. But perhaps more objectively, Stirling finally realized that this was life in the real world; this was what it was like for everyone else. That the massive advantages he had unconsciously enjoyed for so long were now a thing of the past, alien to him and probably impossible to recover.
He was now as other men. It was a terrifying prospect.
We should not feel sorry for him; for all he lost, he still felt deeply fortunate and did not truck in self-pity. The rest of the man’s life was apparently full and happy. He kept busy with various business commitments and enjoyed the continuing evolution of racing and technology, all the way to his late-life presence on social media.
He even returned to the track eventually, dabbling in modern historic racing. Which is, if you are not familiar, best described as old cars on modern tracks, something like the old days but also nothing like them at all.
Years later, when he retired from driving at high speed, it was for good, he said, a firm stop to green-flag activity. He made the announcement on Radio Le Mans, on June 9, 2011. He was competing in a Le Mans Legends race, he said, and had scared himself that afternoon. He was 81. He is still widely regarded as the greatest F1 driver to have not won a championship.
I have known people occasionally moved to inaction by the likelihood of a worst-case end. That quality does not make them lesser. If I understand that feeling, it is only because I have fought the instinct my whole life.
We all lose things, and we never know when that will happen. The only practical path forward, I think, is to be clear-eyed about the potential outcomes of the risks you are willing to take, embracing reality without letting fear slow things down too much.
The first person to fly faster than the speed of sound was an American test pilot named Chuck Yeager. His life was steeped in risk. You do what you can for as long as you can, he once said, and when you finally can’t, you do the next best thing—you back up, but you don’t give up.
After that horrible accident, Moss got back in the car, to try. Because of course he did. It is, in the end, all we can ever do.
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