The Enchantment of Risk

“Because it is the most demanding of all games, motor racing is spiritually the most rewarding, too.” That is the point of view which keeps the great drivers on the Grand Prix circuits despite lethal accidents, on occasion, to the spectators arid the drivers alike. KEN W. PURDYis among the foremost commentators on sports and racing cars, and his book, KINGS OF THE ROAD, has become a standard work in its field.


AT 3:45 on Sunday morning, May 24, 1903, the first of 275 automobiles left Versailles to begin the great Paris-Madrid race. They were to run through Chartres, Tours, Angoulême, to Bordeaux; then to Bayonne, Vitoria, Burgos, Valladolid, and Madrid, where great preparations had been made to receive them. France and all Europe were full of enthusiasm for l’automobile, and the great city-to-city road races had conveyed the fever of high-speed motoring to millions. Races had been run from Paris to Marseilles, MarseillesNice, Bordeaux-Biarritz, Paris-Nice, Paris-Roubaix, Nice-Salon-Nice, Paris-Vienna, and ParisAmsterdam, but Paris-Madrid was to be best of all.

Only scholars and devotees remember now the names of most of the starting cars: Mors, De Dietrich, Turcat-Mery, Gobron-Brillie, Serpollet, Passy-Thellier, Motobloc, Richard-Brasier. Of names we know today, only Renault and Mercedes were represented. But all automobiles were wonderful in 1903, and 100,000 wildly excited Parisians jammed the roads to Versailles all during the Saturday night before the race, on foot, bicycle, carriage, automobile, candle-lighted Chinese lanterns bobbing over their heads, and they crowded close to touch the cars as they passed. The cars nosed their way through the mobs, footlong orange flames slashing from their open exhausts, chain drives clattering, drivers sitting head-high to the crowds, mechanics crouched low beside them.

The English sportsman Charles Jarrott was first off the mark, in a 45-horsepower De Dietrich. The huge, bearded Chevalier René de Knyff, driving a Panhard, was second, and then Louis Renault in a car of his own make. From then on, minute by minute, big cars, small cars, and finally motorcycles were sent away, the last man getting off just as Louis Renault reached Tours, 135 miles from Versailles.

It would be hard to find drivers today who would undertake to push replicas of the ParisMadrid cars to the limit over 750 miles of badly surfaced road, dust-laden and indifferently marked. Lightness and more lightness had been the universal motto, and the chassis of many of them were dangerously weak: their builders had used the lightest and thinnest material possible and then removed metal by drilling. Chassis frames, even pistons, were drilled out, and brake pedals and gear levers were steel lace.

Light as they were, many of the cars carried big and powerful engines: a Mercedes covered the first 17 1/2 miles in 17 minutes, and Louis Renault’s little car was timed, over a straight stretch, at 90 miles an hour. The hazards of the road, high speed and the flimsiness of the automobiles aside, were frightful: there were an estimated 3 million people lining the course, and the force of gendarmery and army men assigned to protect them was hopelessly inadequate; the dust churned into the air by the passing wheels hung so heavily there that following drivers literally steered by setting course on the tops of the telegraph poles bordering the road.

Accidents began almost at once. Marcel Renault, Louis’ brother, lost control of his car at Couhé-Vérac, was crushed under it and killed. The Englishman Barrow hit a tree head on at 80 miles an hour. Another Englishman, Leslie Porter, driving a Wolseley, overshot a curve and went straight into the wall of a house. Tourand, attempting to avoid a child on the road, killed the child, His mechanic, and a soldier. Louis Renault was the first man into Bordeaux, having been on the road for five hours and a hall. Every driver, as he pulled into the control, had a new horror to relate. No accurate total of dead and injured was ever compiled, but it was known that at least twenty people were killed, and the French government stopped the race at Bordeaux. The Spanish government withdrew its permission, too. The cars that had arrived at Bordeaux were not allowed to move again under their own power: they were towed by horse team to die railroad station and shipped to Paris. In the public press, a hue and cry arose at once, and demands lor the abolition of automobile racing eciioed in political halls.

OVER fifty years later, on the twelfth of May, 1957, 301 automobiles began to stream out of Brescia, Italy, in the black early morning hours, to run down one coast of Italy to Rome and up the other to Brescia again in the famous Mille Miglia sports-car race. Uncounted millions of people lined the roads — roads that were, like the ParisMadrid routes, supposed to be closed off for the day. Still the drivers knew, just as the pioneers had known five decades before, that they would enter and leave every town by driving into a solid wedge of humanity, the narrow end of which would suddenly, miraculously, open an instant before disaster.

Because the Mille Miglia was known to be a dangerous race, with heavy spectator and driver fatalities often marring its thirty-year history, the number of entries for 1957 had been reduced and extra precautions for spectator control had been made. Threats of prohibition had been increasingly common in late years, and those to whom the race meant most were anxious to preserve it: the organizers — the chief spirit of whom had said he would run it, if need be, despite any effort of the Italian government to stop him! — the manufacturers, the sports fans of Italy, where racing is a national sport. For the Mille Miglia was the last of the great city-to-city road races. All the races that had fanned out of the hub of Paris were long dead, nothing left to tell of them but the memoirs of old men, a few faded posters, some ancient silver cups. The Gordon Bennett races, the Ardennes races, the Vanderbilt Cup in America, all had been abandoned. Great Britain had never allowed open-road racing. The modern Carrera Panamericana, run the length of Mexico, had proven too costly in money and blood. There were two sizable road races still extant in Sicily, the Targa Florio and the Giro di Sicilia, but classic though they were, they were not the real thing: city-to-city, the cars never running twice over the same piece of road. This is what automobiles were made to do, and this is the only pure form of automobile racing.

Of all the racing community, only the contract drivers for the great houses, the professionals who spend the six months from April to September driving the fastest cars that can be built, had been able to consider the possibility of the Mille Miglia’s prohibition with equanimity. Most of them had come to dislike the race intensely. The present champion of the world, Juan Manuel Fangio, incomparably the greatest driver alive today and sometimes compared with the immortal Tazio Nuvolari, had run five times Brescia-RomeBrescia and then announced he would never do it again. Don Alfonso Cabeza de Vaca y Leighton, twelfth Marquis de Portago, one of the post-war stars, sat with me in a hotel room in Sebring last March and said very earnestly that he hoped he would not have to run in the '57 Mille Miglia. “Unless you’re an Italian you can’t hope to know the roads,” Portago said, “and as Fangio says, if you have a conscience you can’t drive fast anyway. There are too many places where a car can go off the road and kill a dozen people.”

Stirling Moss, No. 2 driver in the world rankings, and a man not yet accused of fear, said before the 1955 Mille Miglia, which he won, that he considered it the most dangerous race in the world. He ran with a passenger, an iron-nerved journalist named Denis Jenkinson, former world motorcycle sidecar champion, who signaled every bend in the road, reading an 18-foot-long strip of paper rolled up in celluloid! Said Moss alter the race, “I should like to say how grateful I am to Denis Jenkinson for making it possible for me to win this race. . . . Through the whole 1000 miles I took his instructions, and when he said the brow of a hill could be taken at over 170 miles per hour, although I didn’t like it, I just kept my foot screwed to the floor and hoped he hadn’t made a mistake.” Moss averaged 97.9 miles an hour for the 10 hours and 17 minutes he was on the road, still the record.

That then is the Mille Miglia, 1000 miles of ordinary Italian two-lane roadway for most of its length, carrying about 2980 curves, bends, blind hills, and other hazards, a circuit impossible to memorize — and a driver feels secure only on a circuit he has memorized, since no one can safely take a corner at 140 miles an hour unless he knows which way the road bends beyond it. The Mille Miglia is a race for sports cars, not racing cars, but in recent years the distinction between the two has narrowed almost to the vanishing point; the great racing manufacturers, Ferrari, Maserati, Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar, produce “sports” cars that differ from lull Grand Prix racing machines only in having room for a passenger and in mounting such amenities as headlights, a starter, a spare tire, perhaps a rudimentary top. The Italian machines are particularly ferocious; some of them are capable of 200 miles an hour, and their engines arc so highly tuned that they cannot be run slowly through more than a few blocks of traffic without stalling or overheating. Viewed against the accepted definition of a sports car, a machine suitable for both competition and ordinary down to the drugstore errand-running, they are freaks — but they win races.

THE great hazards of the Mille Miglia are four: the ubiquitous, suicidal crowds; the presence in the race of every kind of car in the world, fast and slow, big and little; the tremendous speed of the big cars; and the winding road itself. More often than not, the race is run in pouring rain, but this year it was dry when the first of the small cars rolled down the starting ramp at Brescia. All night long, until Stirling Moss’s 185-miIes-pcrhour Maserati jumped down the ramp and howled terrifyingly through the narrow lane of spectators at 5:37 A.M., the cars left at one-minute intervals, the slower ones first. Moss, favored to win, had reached 170 miles an hour before he was three miles from the start, but within eight miles more he was out of the race: entering a curve at 130 miles an hour, he braked and felt the brake pedal snap off under his foot. Somehow, incredibly — tests have shown Moss’s reaction-times to be three times faster than normal — he was able to get into a lower gear and get through the curve, lined with spectators, without losing control. He stopped the car safely.

The twenty-fourth Mille Miglia went on without serious incident until a Dutch driver went off the road and was killed. A motorcycle policeman patrolling another part of the course lost control of his vehicle and was killed. The race turned into a private contest between the Ferrari drivers, Collins, Taruffi, Yon Trips, Gendebien, Portago. Collins’ car broke down, Taruffi was leading Von Trips and Gendebien, Portago was fourth, when he burst a tire at 150 miles an hour near Guidizzolo, 30 miles from the finish. The big red car swerved, screaming, across the road, left the ground, snapped off a telephone pole, slashed through a knot of men, women, and children, came to rest finally in the roadside ditch. The Marquis de Portago, his passenger Edmund Nelson and ten spectators were dead.

Editorial denunciation of the sport began within hours, and it was bitter and prolonged. Inevitably the critics recalled the horrifying disaster at Le Mans, France, during the running of the 1955 24 Hours Race, when the French driver Pierre Levegh’s Mercedes-Benz left the course at 140 miles an hour and killed more than eighty spectators. The veteran Italian professional who had won the 1957 Mille Miglia after fourteen previous attempts, Piero Taruffi, announced that he would retire in deference to the wishes of his wife, and in a letter to me said that he doubted that cars would ever again run down the long straight roads of the Adriatic coast and over the mountains back to Brescia. Some American newspapers found room on page one for long stories, full of bathos and penny-a-line Freudian theory, explaining the “death wish" that had brought the young Marquis de Portago to an early end; and Mike Wallace, persuading the able American driver and theoretician John Fitch to appear on his television program, attempted, although with little success, to treat him as a prisoner in the dock. Otherwise levelheaded citizens argued that automobile racing should be forbidden, root and branch.

It may be that the great city-to-city races have finished a life of more than fifty years — although I doubt it — but automobile racing itself is indestructible and all talk of abolishing it is nonsense. As long as man has run wheeled things over the earth, he has raced. Individual forms of racing may die out, as the great board-track ovals of the 1920s died out, but man’s determination to propel himself faster than his fellow cannot be outlawed.

During the past few years automobile racing aficionados have made much of limited participation in the sport by the great Detroit firms. In the great days before World War I every major manufacturer supported racing as a matter of course and as a sure route to publicity. When Detroit switched targets from the male consumer to the female, racing had of necessity to give way to color, upholstery, shape, and the rest of the factors that combine into what we know as “styling.”

In the mid-1940s the wheel came round again. Chrysler and Lincoln showed interest in the Mexican road race, and did well in it, too. Oldsmobile, Ford, Chevrolet actively supported the big stock-car events, and the master executives of Detroit, while piously denying that a horsepower race was in being, flogged their engineers for another few foot-pounds of torque. The engine of one Big Three model could produce 405 horsepower on the test bench — as much as any contemporary Grand Prix racing car. It was quietly made known to the racing community that Chevrolet’s sports model, the Corvette, would make a sustained major effort in international racing. Americans who hoped for an end to the absolute domination of foreign-built machines in road racing were set alight with hope, but cooler heads were less optimistic.

Then, on the sixth of June, 1957, the board of directors of the Automobile Manufacturers Association recommended an end to all participation in racing by member companies. Indeed, the Association went further and recommended that no company encourage or assist any form of competition, or publicize any such event, or advertise the speed, engine size, horsepower, or acceleration performance of its cars. The unannounced reason for this Draconian edict was simple: in about a dozen state legislatures bills were pending which were restrictive of horsepower, engine size, top speed, and so on. Detroit, an admirably wellinformed and unified business community, was simply taking the wind out of the legislators sails. Except insofar as the promising Corvette racing model was concerned, the move was of little importance to racing as a whole.

Certainly automobile racing is dangerous, and the list of drivers who have died at the wheel is a depressingly lengthy one. It is probably the most dangerous of all spectator sports when improper safety measures are taken and particularly when the audience is unsophisticated. When U.S. road racing was reborn after World War II at Watkins Glen, New York, spectators, often with small children beside them, stood literally within arm’s reach of the speeding machines. They were in hideous danger and seemed unaware of it. At the present time there is almost no open-road racing left in this country. Spectators watching the comparatively dull track racing have always been reasonably safe, of course, and the current tendency in road racing is to use artificial road courses built on private property. On the private course, spectators can be rigidly controlled. Control is necessary, because automobile racing is perhaps the most exciting sport in the world, and it is a commonplace observation that spectators will always try to get almost close enough to the cars to touch them.

Most professional drivers actively dislike the spectators. Barney Oldfield, first of the famous American drivers, thought them little better than ghouls, and Portage once told me that if he were faced with the choice of hitting a tree or a spectator he would unhesitatingly hit the spectator. In the drivers view, the spectator is a necessary evil at best: he provides the money. A top-ranking driver can make $150,000 a year, but I think that most of the good drivers would run for the fun of it with almost equal zest. Many of them are in a real sense addicted and could not stop driving under any circumstances.

I once asked a well-known driver if he did not think it was true that, of all sports, only mountainclimbing, bullfighting, and automobile racing really tried a man, and that the rest were recreations. He agreed completely. “This is not a game that is essentially a game for boys, like baseball,”he said. “This is a game in which you must put up a bond for your life every time you go out to play. Because it is the most demanding of all games, it is spiritually the most rewarding, too.”

I have heard many drivers paraphrase that remark. Typically the athlete is dour, uncommunicative, but many of the younger Kuropean drivers are sensitive and articulate men. Stirling Moss, Wolfgang Von Trips, Harry Schell, Olivier Gendebien, the late Alfonso de Portago — all have demonstrated a peculiarly acute awareness of life, an overt determination to take the maximum out of it, whether in excitement, taste, love, music, or whatever. All of them concede that mastery of a racing automobile on a road course, particularly on a twisting road course or one in the mountains, offers one of life’s monumentally sensuous experiences. It is an experience hard to describe. The unleashed bellowing of an engine which will move the car from a standing start to 60 miles an hour in three seconds, to 100 in eight seconds; the rasp of the brakes, bigger than the wheels and producing, in the course of a 350-mile race, enough heat to warm an eight-room house through a hard winter; the constant controlled sliding of the automobile — all these sensations bear in on one while, a foot away on either side, similar cars driven by other men scream and scrabble for a footing on the roadway.

As in the killing of a bull, or a rappell down a sheer face. Grand Prix automobile racing may infrequently allow one error in judgment to go unpunished — but two, never. It is a sport, an anonymous Englishman has said, at which one gets better and better until one gets killed — an exaggeration, but not a big one. The argument will probably never be settled, but I, at least, do not believe that people watch automobile racing in the hope of seeing men killed. I think that most of the 25 million who will watch auto racing in this country in 1958 — only 16.5 million will see baseball games will be drawn because racing best defines and demonstrates the universal maxim: Only those who are willing to give up life know what it is worth.