The Curve: A True Episode in the Race at Reims
Since he gave up flying in 1948, JOHN FITCHhas driven in most of the major road races of North and South America and Europe. In the 1952 Pan-American road race in Mexico, as the first American to drive for Mercedes-Benz, he set a record for the final leg, averaging 133 m.p.h. for the 230 miles. In the 1953 sports car lace at Reims, he drove for the Cunningham team, and from his experiences he has written the account which follows.
by JOHN FITCH
THAT fast curve meant trouble for me. The first time I drove it during practice, I thought the rear axle had broken loose from its centering bracket, the way the car waddled. That’s how rough it was. I actually brought the car to the pits to be repaired. But the car was all right. It was just that I didn’t like that fast curve and I guess it didn’t like me.
Elizabeth didn’t like it either. She just said it was too fast. The road was pretty narrow post the pits, and our concrete stall with the open side facing the road and the grandstands across it must have made a sound trap of some kind. When one of the fast ones flashed by, a burst of exhaust would jolt the air and you could feel a piercing vibration in your eardrums. I explained that we passed the pits at Le Mans just as fast, 150 m.p.h., so what was wrong with this? She hadn’t been around the course and it wouldn’t have told her anything if she had, but she stuck to her guns. She didn’t like it. She just said it was too fast. Women in general and pregnant women in particular seem to have a way of knowing things. I wouldn’t say I didn’t like the course, but - to be honest — I liked a lot of others much better.
The lap record at Reims was well over 100 m.p.h. on this famous old circuit which had been the venue of the important Grand Prix of France since long before the war. The course, about five and a half miles to the lap, was roughly a triangle with the hypotenuse snaking through four fast curves over the rolling farm country. The first of the curves was the one I am talking about. The rest of the course was straight, the two shorter sides of the triangle rolling over the low hills to 30 m.p.h. hairpins.
The road climbed past the pits to the top of the hill where the Dunlop Bridge, shaped like half a tire on end, crossed over it. The bridge was a marker of more than the hilltop. Before the bridge was the starting line — the tribunes, the timers, the lights, the pits, the social part of the race where friends and officials wandered between the paddock and the pits, greeting campaigners from other races and detouring by the bar regularly. This was the heart of the champagne country. Past the bridge was the curve. At night the bridge caught all the light from what we called Broadway. You could feel a slight compression as you popped through it into the deserted darkness. No lights and no parties here; just the approach to the last curve, almost invisible alter the bright lights. You went into it fast because you knew you had done it before, not because you could see it or know how you were going to do it again. That’s how it was; before the bridge was Broadway, and past it was the fast curve where everyone was on his own in the dark — the kind of place where people talk to themselves seriously.
During night practice this darkness beyond the bridge was split by the flaming wreck of a French Panhard. While passing in the curve, one wheel got in the gravel of the shoulder and sent the Panhard spinning. It tripped on the ditch, rolled, and threw the blazing driver onto the road. All the race cars carried fire extinguishers, and the first driver on the scene doused the flames of the Frenchman’s clothes. The following cars stopped and drivers rushed up with their extinguishers, but the burning car was hopelessly enveloped in flames, now licking at the inverted wheels. After the ambulance had gone, the red pyre, towering into the night sky, was an unholy sight as we plunged into darkness under the bridge.
The race started at midnight and ran for twelve hours until noon the following day. In the carnival atmosphere before the race, the refreshment stands did a bustling business with their staple drink of champagne. The ubiquitous loudspeaker relayed lively dance music, advertised as jazz, from the pavilion, and the crowd was in a playful mood before its all-night lark in the balmy summer air. With the special French talent for abandoning themselves to the light society of a public party, they seemed to say, if you are foolish enough to chase yourselves around the countryside all night in the fastest cars you can find, we are foolish enough to stay up and watch you and enjoy ourselves.
The two American Cunninghams were favored by many after their outstanding performance at Le Mans three weeks before. The builder and chef d’equipe, Briggs Cunningham, would drive one, relieved by young Sherwood Johnston, eager to do well in his first race in a Cunningham. Phil Walters and I were teamed, as we had been many times before, on the new car in which we had finished third at Le Mans.
They were big cars as sports cars go, weighing 2500 pounds without fuel or driver. The Cunningham group had modified the big Chrysler engine until it produced over 300 dependable h.p. We had four carburetors so that it could “breathe” while turning at its peak of 5400 r.p.m., and double valve springs to make the valves close at this speed. We had to hedge a little on the “Made in USA” label by using a four-speed transmission from Italy that gave us the ratios needed to use all the available power and to help us slow down from high speed for the slow corners. Without engine drag to help reduce speed, our brakes would have taken an even more severe beating, perhaps to the point of failure.
Our magnesium wheels were light and strong. We could reach 100 m.p.h. from a dead stop in about ten seconds, the time it takes a powerful modern car in optimum tune to reach 60; 5400 r.p.m. on the tachometer (a speedometer would be useless to us) gave us 156 m.p.h., the maximum we could use for more than a few seconds and expect the engine to stay together. The urgencies of the race permitted brief bursts over 160 m.p.h.
Entered against us were the light French Gordinis, always astonishingly fast, a strong team from the Italian Ferrari camp, two formidable French Talbots, and among others, Stirling Moss driving one of the English Jaguars that had won Le Mans. It was strong opposition, but we had confidence in our cars and hoped to win.
AT the stroke of midnight, Phil began our race well, dashing across the road, scrambling into the car, and pulling away under the bridge among the first few. There had been an extravagant display of fireworks flashing and cascading in the northern sky, but the tumult and noise of these first few laps in darkness was more of a show. Gordini, Ferrari, Jaguar, Talbot, Cunningham, and all the other teams seemed to be trying to win the twelvehour race in the first hour. The dance band behind the paddock gave up.
More than half the competitors were driving little racing sports cars derived from small French production models. They were superbly made and wonderfully fast for their size, having a top speed near 115, from an engine smaller than many motorcycle engines. Their relatively slow acceleration and top speed made passing them a ticklish business when the fast cars would pass with 50 to 80 m.p.h. greater speed, especially when the faster car might be overtaking at a cool 150 to 160. When entering a fast curve or approaching a hairpin, passing became very difficult to judge accurately. The small cars were so many and the circuit so short that we were constantly passing someone. “It’s like a warm Sunday on the Merritt Parkway” was the way Briggs Cunningham described it.
Behra, the popular Frenchman, led the race from the start, driving a Gordini, followed by the competent Italian, Maglioli, in his red Ferrari coupe. The U.S. racing colors of blue and white were third — Phil, in our new Cunningham.
Phil came in to refuel at 3 A.M., and after checking over the car, I started my turn. The car felt heavy with a full load of gas, 330 pounds of fuel alone, but the engine was singing and would reach maximum revs, giving about 156, before a downhill run on the longest straight. Behra threw a tire tread and plunged off the fast curve. Now Maglioli was leading by nearly a lap and we were second. This was a good position and it was still early in the race. We were well within striking distance and a lot could happen yet. The new tires were wearing info a shape that gripped the road better, and with each lap the fast curve following the plunge into darkness under the bridge could be taken a trifle faster.
On one lap, I remember, I blew the horn and flashed the headlights when something blinked erratically near the road on the back straight. Suddenly the point of light crossed the shoulder, and the headlights caught a red fox bounding across the road with inches to spare, his thick brush horizontal with speed.
The battering wind stream and the abrupt bouncing which lifted me above the level of the small windshield into a blast of air produced an annoying stiff neck that made it difficult to look around as much as I wished. Even our special lights were simply not adequate to these speeds, and our path on the course was fixed as much by memory and optimism as by sight. It seemed sometimes that the same small cars would be overtaken twice in the same lap, there were so many of them. This, with the lurching and wallowing through the rough curve, seemed to induce a mild vertigo in the featureless night. I was never so glad to see the stars dim and the eastern sky light up in a race before. The dawn broke and there was no more overtaking at high speed with only the dancing tail lights to judge the close passing.
Five of the twelve hours were now behind us. A failure to anticipate a driver’s intention sent me down the escape road at the hairpin for a loss of perhaps five seconds. It would have been more except that the escape road curved quickly back to the course. I had begun to pass a little open car on a short straight with plenty of room to make it before the hairpin, when he started across my path. I had too much speed to brake and drop behind; such an attempt would have ended with a slide into the rear of his car. I had no other choice but to accelerate past, in spite of the approaching corner, before he cut in front, and luckily, I made it into the escape road, which on that corner happens to take the place of the usual ditch or stand of solid trees.
THE Cunningham was feeling good, getting lighter as the fuel tanks emptied and the wearing tires increased their bite on the road. I went faster on the pit straight until I was holding the throttle wide open as I passed under the bridge. This was enough, though, as the entrance into the curve was then a real problem with the-car shifting and pitching erralically over the bumps. Any increase of speed here now became a matter of how soon power could be resumed in the curve. Further experiment found my absolute limit to be a gentle but increasing throttle opening started when the car was set into its new direction on the curve, getting full throttle just as the end of the curve came in sight. The rev counter read 4500 — about 140. I settled down to that, feeling any further improvement would be at an unreasonable risk. It was nearly light now and cars could be recognized across the fields leading to the triangle of the sharper hairpin. I identified Maglioli’s red Ferrari as the car that had for hours been behind me on every lap.
I had just sighted the end of the fast curve and gently opened the throttle wide when suddenly the rear of the car broke to the outside of the curve, quick and far. Oil, I thought—a patch of oil as slick as ice. At any rate I knew I was in real trouble. I turned the wheel toward the slide to keep from spinning, but the car had angled across the road too far for the steering to compensate at full turn. It was heading across the now straight road, pointing hopelessly off its line of travel and charging for the ditch and a field below. As the flying gravel of the shoulder rattled against the undercarriage, I leaned far over into the passenger’s seat and thought of the hundreds of times I had expected to be in this spot when luck or opportunity intervened at the last moment. This time, I told myself out loud, you’re in for it.
There was a wrench at the safety belt at the first plunge end over end. Each time we hit, I thought it had to be the last. Each was spine-shattering, frame-breaking, earth-shaking, impossibly, unreasonably sharp and stunning. The car must be torn to pieces, the frame tubes and the engine must be skating across the fields — no two pieces could possibly stay together! The crashing and bashing went on for an unconscionable time, the car in convulsive gyrations as I pressed to the side, still holding the wheel and bracing elbows against hips to stay in. Then dead silence. I sat up with a strange sense of a gap in time or memory, and looked at an unfamiliar scene. Instead of a road, a smoky wheatfield. Instead of the wide sloping hood, a dirty litter of oil-splattered junk threaded with ripe wheat, steam wafting from the pulled water hoses and the hole in the cocked radiator where the filler neck had been.
A fine dust settled like mist on the quiet scene. A hand turned the ignition off— my own, with a red tear on the back of the glove. Landed upright and no fire. A crumpled alloy piece like a chunk of wrecked aircraft lay a few yards ahead. The front of the body. I am at Reims and I have had a wreck and I have blood in my mouth. It is dripping in my lap but I am all right. I am a normal optimist and not surprised to be all right. But as I look around I have a hunch I am lucky. I don’t know what happened. Everything is at odd angles — the steering wheel, the cowling, the wheat and earth in the car, the front of the car and door gone. A car goes by sounding muffled. Muffled by distance? I know I am at Reims, but where? I think of Elizabeth waiting at the pits and I am suddenly in a hurry to get there and I feel very energetic and impatient. I unhook the safety belt and take an unusually short step to the ground. Nothing I can do here. The car is not going to burn. The left front wheel is gone. The other tires are up, the left rear is out of line with the chassis. The magnesium wheels don’t bend, so there is a big job under there.
I go toward the sound of cars and climb a bank, crawling through the weeds at the top when a loud red Ferrari flashes by two feet from im nose. It is leaving the fast curve and I know which way to go. I turn back and run toward the pits. Two incredulous gendarmes approach. With tentative smiles, they ask if I am from the wreck. They seem embarrassed. I tell them everything is all right. There is nothing to do to the car; the course is clear and I have to get to the pits. I run on, reassuring them over my shoulder. Here are my skid marks. They show all the tires up and in the right position. I wish one of them had been flat. I wrecked a car and I’m looking for an excuse. Another gendarme and a nurse are running toward me on the other side of the road. A couple of Deutsch-Bonnets pass as I have an exchange like the one with the first gendarmes. I can run very fast with no effort. I should do this more often — very pleasant with the wind in the face. A white Cunningham comes by and I signal thumbs up, but no response as the driver is intent on the curve. I can’t tell if it is Briggs or Sherwood Johnston because there is a lot of dust or mist cutting visibility. There is Behra’s Gordini in the field. It went squarely over the huge chipped rock which ripped the bottom out and dragged the body out in the back.
It is a long way but I seem to run without tiring. I feel irrationally carefree and even elated, as though I suddenly had no responsibility, no problems, no possessions or plans to worry about. A shipwreck survivor may have lost all his goods as well as his ship; he may even have some explaining to do later, but at the moment he wades ashore he has nothing but his pants, no duty but to hold them up, and he has survived!
The side of my head is warm, and blood is running off my helmet strap and down my clothes. I stop at a first-aid shack to get cleaned up. I know I am all right but I must look pretty bad. I don’t want to scare Elizabeth or anyone else in the pits. There are at least ten people in the tiny shack who greet me like Lindbergh landing at Paris. They all help patching my ear and cleaning my clothes and helmet as I try to tell them in French what happened. I was thinking how much easier it would be in English when I realized I knew what had happened. I could remember it all then.
The quick breakaway that went too far to recover, the awful feeling when I gave up and ducked under the cowling, the gravel rattling underneath and I thought I was in for it.
I had counted on that cowling brace that looks like a piece of the Brooklyn Bridge, and it held.
The car that Jack and Roy and Phil and John and everyone had sweated over day and night was a write-off. A few pieces of it might race again, but they would be very small pieces. I realized that right now no one was thinking about the car. The garbled reports that reach the pits after a wreck are bewildering and frightening. If there was an eyewitness from a following car who had since stopped at the pits, he would tell a terrifying story. Elizabeth must be sick with worry.
I hurried from the shack with assurances and many thanks in clumsy French, ran down to the pits and along the back of the booths to the Cunningham team, to find Elizabeth — thank God — sound asleep. Everyone was extremely kind, offering coffee, pills, bracers, coats, chairs, everything available. They were not interested in the condition of the car. Bandages were changed, although they had just been put on. Doctors must be like mechanics — no one else does it right. Every member of our team required detailed assurances that I was all right; all insisted that I lie down, the last thing I wanted to do. Not one person asked me how I could have been such an incompetent clumsy fool as to wreck the best car we had. Not one. Not a suggestion. The crowning disappointment was to learn that just before the wreck we had gone into the lead. Maglioli’s Ferrari was disqualified for a pit infraction.
An hour later Elizabeth woke and I told her that Phil and I were out of the race. I had carefully combed my hair and was dressed for visiting cathedrals. I said I had had an accident, which explained the bandages. She looked incredulous and showed it - a girl needs a little time after she wakes to get her disguises up. She couldn’t accept the possibility that I had wrecked a car without good reason, and she held out for an oil patch or a bad tire. I was okay and that part was all right. Glad she had been asleep. She had heard my name and much unintelligible comment about our Cunningham #10 over the loudspeaker but paid no attention, thinking we had probably gone into the lead. Okay.
I had been noticing a growing stiffness and an acute sensitivity to movement in my head. My brain felt as if it had turned to jelly. When I moved, there was a piercing pressure in my temples, which felt thin as parchment. Every muscle and tendon was sore, and unless I accurately balanced my head over my shoulders the cords in my neck protested sharply. I was very tired and a little nauseated, eager now to lie down.
The sun became bright and strong. Stirling Moss seemed sure to win with his Jaguar — he did win — and the character of this unspoiled young star is such that even his rivals were pleased. The short and fierce Grand Prix would soon roar away. The drama of the race moved on at its set schedule.
The other Cunningham went on to finish third. As wrecks go, this was a good one. No one else was involved; no one was even angry. I never did find out what caused it. “You all right?” Briggs kept asking me. I suppose I was, but I couldn’t help wondering about that curve — whether I hadn’t overreached myself and simply lost it. And it had been a real fine machine.