Speed and Women
After fifteen years and 125,000 miles of automobile racing, the British driver STIRLING MOSS announced his retirement from competition. While Moss was convalescing from the accident which caused his retirement, he spent many hours in conversation with his American friendKEN W. PURDY,himself an authority on automobiles and racing. Out of these conversations has come the story of Moss’s career,ALL BUT MY LIFE,from which the following article was taken. The book will be published by Dutton this fall.
OFTEN judged the ablest motor racer who has lived since the sport began in 1894, Stirling Moss entered more races than any other driver. In fifteen years, he campaigned in twenty-five countries around the globe, and during the decade 1951— 1961 he was indisputably the best-known sports figure in the world. A severe crash at the British Goodwood circuit in April, 1962, the cause of which is still unknown, brought his retirement.
As a boy of seventeen, in his first year of racing, Moss entered fifteen events and won eleven of them. He was then invited to run on the Continent, in a small race at Lake Garda, Italy; he won that race, and he kept on winning. Since then, Moss has been in about 466 races, rallies, sprints, record attempts, and endurance runs. He has won 194 times — 43 percent of all the races he has entered, a fantastically high percentage and one that no other driver has approached.
“No one ever offered me a shilling to let someone else win a race,” Stirling told me, “and I’ve not heard of any such thing being done, in my time. Certainly drivers in the same team have let other drivers pass, and that sort of thing, and have boxed off cars, but on orders, not for money. A famous example of that, I suppose, was the Grand Prix of Morocco in 1958, when the championship of the world hung between me and Mike Hawthorn. To take the championship I had to win the race and have as well the extra point for making fastest lap, whereas Mike had only to take second place. I made fastest lap, and I won the race by more than a minute, but Mike was champion, because Phil Hill, his teammate, lying second, dropped back to third. One might say that it was Phil who beat me, not Mike, but I’ve never felt a trace of bitterness against Phil for it — if he hadn’t done it, he’d have been fired off the Ferrari team five seconds after he stepped out of the motorcar. Ideally, of course, every driver would try his best all the time, but that’s not the way things are done.
“Some people like to say that motor racing is the cleanest game in the world, the cleanest sport. The older I get, the more I distrust absolutes like that, but it is a clean sport, and to me it’s a saintly sport compared with any other.
“That’s not to say that there hasn’t been crookedness, that there haven’t been fixed races. I’m sure there must have been. We know, for instance, that the Grand Prix of Tripoli in 1933 was, as they say in the States, a boat race, a tank job. And, unhappily, there were a lot of important people running in that race: Nuvolari, Varzi, Borzacchini, Campari, Birkin, Fagioli.
“There was a lottery on the Tripoli G.P. You must remember that this was in Mussolini’s time. People always say that it was Hitler who first really exploited motor racing as a national policy, as propaganda, but in fact Mussolini did it first. Marshal Balbo was running the Tripoli race. I’ve forgotten what the lottery prize was in lire, but it was eighty thousand pounds, and the pound was worth twice what it is today, so the winner of the lottery stood to collect a major fortune.
“A ticket holder — we’ll call him Giovanni — drew Achille Varzi to win the race, and he went around to see him. Giovanni told Varzi that if he could persuade the other drivers to be sure that he won, he, Giovanni, would give him half his winnings. ‘Right,’ Varzi said, ‘fair enough, but how can I be sure?’ So Giovanni gave him a written agreement! Then, presumably, Varzi went around to talk to the other drivers.
“Apparently it was a neat arrangement, but unfortunately one little thing went wrong: Varzi fouled a couple of plugs when he was lying third and just beginning to close up on the leaders. This made things difficult for everybody, the drivers behind him as well as those in front. Campari just went into the pits and stayed there. Borzacchini somehow ran into an oil drum and blew a tire. Nuvolari coasted to a stop at the head of the straight, half a minute in the lead, and made a big show of pointing to his tank and screaming that he was out of petrol. A mechanic had to come running with a churn to get him going again, and Varzi just pipped him to win, limping along on six cylinders. But it was a bit plain that something had been afoot and there was a scandal. Nothing happened to the drivers — there were too many of them and they were too important — but the lottery rules were changed. After that, the winning tickets were not drawn until five minutes before the off!
“People have suggested to me that if motor racing were a betting game, like horse racing, there would be a good deal of hanky-panky. I doubt it. I suppose it’s easier to sabotage a racing car than it is to dope a horse, but I doubt if it would be as effective. If you dope a horse he will just run faster, or slower, depending upon what you’ve given him; but anything that’s done to sabotage a racing car carries the risk of putting it out of control, and that means that other cars may be involved. If someone, let us say, gets half a pint of sugar syrup into my petrol tank, just when my engine seizes solid I may be passing the car he hopes will win, and perhaps it goes out of the race with me.
“If you did it the other way, by bribery, I think you would have to spend a great deal of money and buy all the drivers, because with competition the way it is today you couldn’t buy just the top two or three. There are, I would reckon, six top drivers who are pretty close; after that you get another six or so who are pretty terrific as well. I wouldn’t put Innis Ireland or Jo Bonnier in the first six, but they’re that good that you couldn’t afford to back off much, boy, before they’d be worrying you. Even after that lot you come to another group of perhaps six who are pretty darned good. They wouldn’t beat Graham Hill, they wouldn’t beat Dan Gurney, no, but I can tell you that Graham or Dan couldn’t go to sleep for long before they would be beaten. You’d have to buy the whole field, which is what I presume happened at Tripoli, from reading Neubauer’s account of it. I imagine one or two of the drivers went along without taking any money, just not to spoil the pitch for the others. But trying to buy the field today would be an impractical solution because you wouldn’t have that much money and because there are some people whom you simply couldn’t buy for any amount of money. I would say the whole list of 1963 ranked drivers couldn’t be bought. I think some of them would not only refuse, they might react in an unpleasant fashion. I shouldn’t think it would be wise to try such a proposition on Jo Bonnier, for example. Or Innis Ireland. Innis just might call you a bloody something-or-other and pop you one.”
“He’ll call you a bloody something-or-other in the friendliest way,” I said. “When I first met Ireland, at Watkins Glen, he pointed a finger at me and he said: ‘I know you! When I saw you this morning I said to somebody, “I know the bloody man, I saw him on the bloody telly in the bloody motel last night!” ‘ ”
“I can hear him now,” Stirling said. “He’s got a bloody big voice, Innis. But to go back, isn’t it true that the sports in which bribery and fixing are common are games like horse racing and dog racing, where the lives of the players aren’t at stake?”
“I don’t think so,” I said. “I think that the governing factor is money, and I think that mountain climbing, which kills three-hundredodd people in the average year, and tiddledywinks, which I hope I’m right in saying has yet to produce its first fatality, would both be crooked if there was money in them. After all, boxing — at least in the United States, where it’s biggest, and where most championships are decided — is very dirty, and boxing is dangerous. About the same number of men have been killed since the war in boxing as in motor racing, one hundred and seventy-five to one hundred and eighty, although out of a very much bigger total of participants.”
“It’s still not really a parallel with motor racing, though, is it?” Stirling said.
“No,” I said. “But I don’t know what is a parallel, unless it was chariot racing in the Roman Empire, and I’m sure there were plenty of fixed chariot races, because there were vast sums of money bet, and big purses for the drivers. Daniel Mannix, a friend of mine who knows a great deal about it, has written that a top driver could make a hundred times the salary of a Roman senator, and the man who was probably the greatest charioteer of all time, a Spanish ex-slave named Diocles — a medium-height dark-haired man, by the way — was worth about seven hundred and fifty thousand 1963 pounds sterling when he retired. Diocles once won a race for a side bet of more than twenty-five thousand pounds. The bet had been that he couldn’t win driving a fourhorse hitch without a whip. The whip wasn’t used to beat the horses, it was a guide. The drivers used the reins for coarse steering, so to speak, but when it got down to inches, they held the whip against one or the other shoulder of the lead horse, as a signal.”
“Sounds very dodgy,” Stirling said.
“Yes, I think it must have been.”
“I wouldn’t want anything to do with a big betting sport,” Stirling said, “though I don’t care how much the participants get: they’re making the effort, they’re doing the entertaining, they’re taking the risk, fair enough, and good luck to them. And I agree with you, betting does always carry with it at least the risk of corruption. But you don’t need betting to attract big crowds. In Europe I should think football was the biggest spectator sport, and it’s not a big betting game, because the pools are really a form ol lottery, the odds arc so high; then comes horse racing — I suppose that’s the biggest of all betting games; and then motor racing, with no betting at all. And in the States it’s horse racing first, motor racing second, then baseball and football and basketball and that lot, right?”
“Yes. Motor racing is the second biggest American spectator sport.”
“And there isn’t a dollar bet on it, is there, even at Indianapolis?”
“No. Perhaps a few private bets.”
“I believe there used to be a bit of betting on British races, before the war. I’m told there were bookmakers at Donington, when the Germans came over in 1938. Ehe bookmakers didn t know anything about form, and they posted long odds against the Auto-Unions and the Mercs, which, of course, came in one, two, three. They couldn t pay off.”
“Stirling, I used to know a journalist — he worked for me for a long time when I was an editor — who specialized in turning up corruption in government and financial circles all over the world. He was very able and very toughminded. I knew he’d been threatened on the one hand and offered bribes on the other, and I said to him one day: ‘Look here, everyone has a price, and what is yours? You should have been either dead or rich years ago.’ And he said: It would have to be enough so that I’d never need to work again and, in addition, enough to compensate me for the enjoyment I get out of working, because, don’t you see, the first dollar I took would destroy me, I never could work again.
“I wouldn’t know how to put it better,” Stirling said. “If someone came to me, someone I knew was worth millions, and said, here’s a signed check, fill it in as you please but don’t win tomorrow, I couldn’t do it; not because I’m a saint, not because I’m incorruptible, I doubt I am, but because he’d be putting me out of motor racing. He’d be buying my life, and there isn’t that much money.
GRAND Prix racing is much more of an art now than a matter of survival of the fittest,” Moss says. “I can’t think of anyone who races every week who thinks it’s his bravery that gets him through. Bravery is common. In 1954, I think it was, some four thousand people wrote to Mercedes-Benz asking for a place on the team. They all thought they were brave enough for the job, and I daresay five hundred or so of them would have been. Bravery isn’t hard to find. Skill is something else again. Drivers who have only courage don’t drive for long.
“I would say courage comes into the equation — oh, let’s say you’re driving a car belonging to a team and a wheel falls off a teammate’s car and you see it at the side of the road and you have to keep going, in a sister car, identical. That takes a certain amount of courage. You have an intellectually valid reason for suspicion: if it was a design error that knocked the wheel off his car, the same thing can happen to yours.
“On the other hand, if a wheel came off my car today in practice or I had a brake failure in practice and nothing was broken on the car or on myself— in other words, if I got away with it — I could get into that car as soon as you could change the wheel or put the brakes right and go straight out and not worry at all, at all. It is a complete blanking of the mind; it isn’t courage, it’s absolute control of the mind. I say to myself, there’s no use thinking about it, so I shan’t, and I don’t.
“I’ve had plenty of wheels come off and I’m damned sure I know why: I go through the corners a bit faster than the next bloke, and doing that I put a greater G-loading through the suspension. [“G” is a symbol for gravity. A car turning a corner fast enough to produce a force of two G’s is exerting a sidewise force equal to twice its weight.] The designer of the car may say: ‘Right, we can get one G stopping force and point-eight G cornering and that’s the lot. Well, I know jolly well, boy, I can get one G stopping together with point-eight G cornering, together with a bump, and it will add up to two or perhaps three G’s in that corner. The designer will tell you that you can’t, the tire-adhesion factor won’t let you — the tires will let go, and the car will slide before the force reaches that many G’s — but nevertheless you can. I’ve had enough wheels come off to know. I’ve had wheels come off and brakes fail and steering gear collapse and gearboxes break up. I’ve had more gearboxes break than most people have had in their cars, and I’ve had my experience to protect me in what people say is a dangerous sport. But do you know one thing I would not do, Ken? I would not go up on a thirty-foot board and dive. And yet I know as well as you do, boy, that if it’s deep-enough water I’m not going to hurt myself, but I just haven’t got the guts to do it. I would hold my nose and I would jump.
“It took courage as far as I was concerned to do the record attempts with the MG on the salt flats in Utah in 1957, mainly because they buttoned me into the thing and I knew it took three miles to stop it and there wasn’t a hope in hell of getting out of it if it caught fire. That I didn’t like. I had quite a long time to think about it, while the thing was building up to one hundred, one hundred and fifty, two hundred, two hundred and fifty miles an hour, and the whole situation was made worse by the fact that when you’d gone through the measured mile you cut the ignition and put your foot flat down to suck any flames through the engine and out the pipe, and when you did that you got a smell of fuel, of fumes throughout the car. You wouldn’t get out, because to start with, the lid came down from the front — you know, wind pressure would hold the nose down even if you could undo it; there was a release inside, but if the thing went on fire you’d be all thumbs. The runs turned out well, though, and I set up five records.
“I’ve been truly frightened twice, or perhaps I should say the two times I was most frightened were at Monza in 1958 and Spa in 1960. At Monza I was doing one hundred and sixty miles an hour or so in a Maserati when the steering sheared on the banking, the wheel just came loose in my hands — it was no longer connected to anything. I had time to think about it, to try to find something to do, but there was nothing for it. I stood on the brakes, which were nothing — they were sports car brakes, you couldn’t even feel them bite at that speed; then I thought maybe I could steer it by holding the bare steering shaft between my feet, which was silly, of course, but gives you an idea how bad the situation really was; I knew I just had to sit and wait, and I knew damned well I had to be killed. I was sure we were going over the top of the banking. I ripped steel posts out of the concrete for more than fifty yards. That car slid for a quarter of a mile, blowing its tires, buckling the wheels, breaking itself up. When it stopped, and right side up, I was surprised to find myself alive, I can tell you that. I could hardly believe it.
“The other time was when the wheel came off in Belgium, I was doing perhaps one hundred and forty miles an hour when the car suddenly went into a very violent oversteer condition. First I thought I had hit oil, then I saw the wheel go past me. I knew I was going to crash. I jumped on the brakes and tried to spin the car around. It’s best to hit going backward, it distributes the shock more evenly over your body. Also, you can’t see what you’re going to hit! I took fifty miles an hour off it before I hit. I hung on — you’d better believe I hung on — until I felt the tail start to come up. I knew the car was going over, so I let go the wheel — I’d already bent it to a pretzel — I let myself go limp, and I went out. Next thing I knew, I was on my hands and knees beside the road and I couldn’t see and I couldn’t breathe. And that frightened me. I was in great pain around my chest, and I was afraid I had broken ribs and that they would puncture my heart or my lungs. That was how Bobby Baird died, at Snetterton in 1953. Me got up and walked around after the crash, and then he died. I was more afraid of that happening than I was when I knew I was going to hit that bank at around a hundred miles an hour.
“I had myself fairly well in hand, but I did do one bad thing; other drivers kept running up, of course, Bruce McLaren and Graham Hill and Phil Hill and others, and I asked someone, I think it was Bruce, to help me breathe by giving me artificial respiration. I was confused. Me wouldn’t do it, and of course he was dead right not to, because I could have had broken ribs. In fact, my back was broken with three crushed vertebrae.
“At Goodwood, I suppose I must have been frightened, but since I don’t remember even getting out of bed that day —
“When I did the Portuguese G.P., a couple of months after the Spa crash, I remember feeling some fear. I was driving the same type of car I’d crashed at Spa, and that circuit is tree-lined, and I remember going through a really fast corner, one hundred and thirty miles an hour or something like that, and the idea flashed through my mind, what would happen if a wheel came off here? All one can really do is put it out of one’s mind. One’s just got to conquer that. It isn’t courage, it’s just a case of overcoming whatever it is that worries you.
“People think courage is required for things that don’t need it at all. For example, people say to me: ‘How do you dare take your hands off the wheel to wave to someone in a corner?’ — maybe they’ve heard me lecturing on the subject of one-hand driving on the road, which I think is so stupid ! What they don’t know is that once a car is presented to a corner, other things being equal — that is, no oil on the track or something funny happening — that car has a sort of line of destiny, a line on which the damned thing is going to go no matter what; once a car has been set up for a corner, it should hold its line at the driver’s will. That is one of the primary techniques of highspeed driving. I remember doing a demonstration in a Healey, in about a ninety-mile-an-hour
wide right-hand sweep, where I started on the left, set the car up, and then told the student to watch the steering wheel, and I would go from the very left verge, clip within a couple of inches of the apex of the bend, and go out the exit to the very verge within, say, three or four inches without moving the steering wheel a fraction of an inch over, say, two hundred and fifty yards. Of course, you do compromise with the throttle, but I think once you’ve got it set up, you should be able to go to nine-tenths motoring anyway. It’s only when you’re right on the ragged edge, at ten tenths, that you do need quite a lot of steering to keep the thing exactly in balance, but one doesn’t go beyond nine tenths all that frequently. And so, once you’ve got the thing set up, you can let go with one hand or the other — it doesn’t make any difference, the decision has been taken.”
A racing car, at racing speeds, spends quite a lot of time going sideways, “drifting,” as it is called, with all four wheels sliding equally. This is generally held to be the fastest way through a bend, although there is some indication that modern suspensions are altering the picture. When the car is going fast enough, and it must be going very fast if the road is dry, the driver can provoke a drift by turning the steering wheel sharply and abruptly — but always smoothly — and by hitting the brakes hard, once. The car’s adhesion to the road is broken, and it is thereafter steered with the throttle, more throttle increasing the angle of slide, usually miscalled a “drift,” the nose pointing to the inside of the bend, and less throttle decreasing it, because the faster the rear tires are spinning on the road, the less grip they have. Going through a series of S-bends very fast, a driver can be extremely busy with the steering wheel, and a layman sitting beside him would be quite unable to tell what he was doing. He would be not so much altering the direction of the car, in the sense of steering the front of it, as altering the whole attitude of the car relative to the road, pointing it now this way and now that — in various sliding positions — braking and restoring adhesion of the front wheels separately, the rear wheels separately, or all four together. Going through a long S-bend at, say, one hundred and twenty-five miles an hour, a driver of Moss’s caliber might change the whole direction in which the car is pointing on the road as many as six times. Maintenance of inch-by-inch control of a car doing perhaps one hundred and fifty miles an hour, partially forward and partially sideways, is the essence of the difference between race driving and ordinary driving. It is a skill difficult to acquire, since it can’t be learned with the car going at a safe slow speed. Also, the sudden appearance of a patch of oil, sand, or a puddle of water can fatally upset the requisite balance.
Tazio Nuvolari is said to have contributed to racing the idea of the controlled four-wheel drift; Moss brought to it a radical concept of braking. It has from the beginning, since the pioneer days when a skid was referred to as “the dread sideslip,” been held basic to the driving of any motorcar, passenger or racing, that the brakes should never be applied in a corner. Brake before the corner, accelerate coming out of it, is holy writ. Braking while actually in the corner was supposed to bring automatic disaster — as it did often seem to do. Moss upset all that. He applied brakes when the car was in the actual corner, turning, and then instantly banged on full acceleration, so that the car was always under either heavy braking or severe acceleration, and spent no time coasting. The difference between this technique and the old one can amount to useful fractions of seconds, and in the frantic world of Grand Prix racing, a tenth of a second in each of ten corners can make the difference between losing and winning, or between winning desperately and winning almost easily.
Moss’s attention to the details, the minutiae of motor racing has been matched by very few drivers indeed; offhand I would say only by Piero Taruffi and by Tazio Nuvolari. The attention he has given to the “Le Mans start” is an example. In this method of beginning a race, the drivers stand across the track from their parked cars. At flag fall, they run to them, jump in, start the engines, and go. It is used in very few races. At any Le Mans type of start, it was always easy to spot Moss. He was the one in a sprinter’s crouch. He had practiced. Almost invariably, he was first to the car, first to have the engine going, and first away. Really earnest drivers watched Moss, not the starter’s flag. Hours of practicing this little-used device seemed a waste of time to most drivers. It’s used only in long-distance races. What’s the point in getting to be expert in something that will save a maximum, say, of two seconds in a twenty-four-hour race? Moss wasn’t interested in the two seconds at all. He became the fastest Le Mans starter in the business in order to have a clear track for the first lap, to get well away, and to avoid the potential disaster that always lurks in a traffic jam of forty or fifty cars, not by any means all of them in the hands of front-rank experts, running flat out for the first corner.
Stirling’s determination in the matter was notorious among other drivers, of course. As a gag, Mike Hawthorn once blatantly and openly jumped the gun, starting to run well before the flag fell. The dead hush that always marks a Le Mans start at a big race was ripped by Moss’s furious and despairing shout: “Mike, you bastard!”
Reeling with laughter, Hawthorn could barely start his own car, and got away well behind the leaders.
“If, for example, a four-wheel slide gets out of hand,” Moss says, “the driver senses the loss of the vehicle, before it becomes apparent to anyone else, through the steering wheel. It’s a funny thing, it’s practically a noise. When you lose the back end of a car you just feel it go. When you lose the front end you feel a ‘growl’ through the steering wheel. You hear a sort of rumble. There can’t be any sound, you’d never hear any sound, you’re wearing earplugs and the engine is screaming away just behind your head, but I can assure you that you nearly hear this sensation, this growling, rumbling sound as the thing is losing adhesion. When you lose the whole bloody vehicle you don’t get either of these sensations — I suppose the two just cancel each other out — you just know the car is moving sideways more than it should be at that moment; say it’s moving eight feet sideways per eighty feet forward, and that may be exactly what you want, but if the rate rises to nine feet sideways per eighty feet forward you know somewhere inside you that this is not right, and if you worked out the equation quickly enough, you know there’s not going to be enough road. I wish I could explain that phenomenon of the noise better; I cannot. I don’t suppose I really hear it. I sense it, somehow.”
Alf Francis, for years Moss’s personal mechanic, has said that Moss clearly has an inexplicable anticipatory sense, and that many times he saved himself serious trouble by stopping just before a rear axle let go or a wheel bearing locked up.
“I think one must have these extra sensibilities if one’s to go on a long time,” Moss says. “Perhaps one’s born with some of them — unusually acute vision, for instance — but I think most of them are the result of the endless polishing and honing, through experience, of quite ordinary abilities. I have said before: I think a man can do anything he really wants to do. And I suppose one must, for safety’s sake, be afraid of some things. You know, Dick Seaman died at Spa in 1939 not because he was so badly hurt in the crash, but because he sat in the car after the crash, until it began to burn. Seaman died of burns. I pounded that into my head, you’d better believe I did, until I had come to the point where my subconscious could take over, if I had been too badly hurt to think. I had that in hand as early as 1950. In the Naples G.P. that year a fellow burst my front tire and put me off the road into a tree. I had some teeth knocked out, and my knee was broken, and I was dazed, but the instant my car — it was an H.W.M. — had stopped, I was out of it and running, broken knee or no broken knee, and 1 went a good way, too.”
(Said Geoffrey Dupree, the course marshal who was the first man to reach Moss at Goodwood: “He was totally unconscious, but his body was shifting and moving and struggling, trying to leave the car.”)
“One’s entitled to be afraid of something like that. I’m not sure whether I am more afraid of burning, or dying, or if it’s the needlessness of dying because you haven’t taken the trouble to think ahead a little bit.
“One must be afraid of some things. After I’d got out of the Atkinson Morley Hospital, after the Goodwood shunt, I was euphoric, which, as you know, is a kind of unreal sense of well-being. You noticed it in the hospital, you wrote that I couldn’t stop talking. Now, euphoria, if it goes far enough, can be very dangerous, because you can walk across Piccadilly Circus at high noon perfectly convinced that nothing can touch you; you can walk on the ledge of a building and be sure you won’t fall off; all natural fears have been taken from you. I tried hard to get over that. Of course, part of it was because my brain had been injured — nothing I could do about that until it healed itself. But I tried hard to understand what was happening to me. One of the nurses was very helpful to me about all that. You met her, Christine Williams. She knew a lot about neurological things; she brought me books and medical journals and helped me to plow through them. If you’re really euphoric, you’re fearless. And if you’re fearless, you’ll kill yourself, just walking about, never mind motor racing.
“Fear is always there and we must control it. For example, I will not sit on the pit counter, and look at my car standing on the grid, and say to myself, that front-wheel hub nut might be loose, so I shall just stroll over and tap it with a hammer. Once I start doing that I shall have to strip the car myself, before every race. I have never gone around a car that Alf Francis had prepared to check things like that. Never! I would think that a ridiculous thing to do. You’ve got to have faith in your mechanics, in the people who are with you, and you’ve got to have faith in yourself. When I get into my car I don’t think I have ever in my life consciously considered the point of being killed. If you asked me if it was a dangerous sport, I’d say yes, obviously. But not for me. I would say the only danger to me is if something falls off or somebody spins in front of me where I can’t help hitting him, or if I hit oil on the road. But if you asked me didn’t I think it dangerous to the point where I might overdrive and go off the road, I’d be insulted. It’s as simple as that.
“It doesn’t frighten me to go over the blind brow of a hill at one hundred and sixty or seventy miles an hour. I know I shall make it. I say to myself, if I say anything, that I know how to do this, this is what I have spent my life learning, the chance of anything happening is next to nil, and I’ll do it.
“What’s the point of living if one’s not able to do at least one thing?”
HEMINGWAY and Barnaby Conrad and Kenneth Tynan, to name three of many, have written clearly about bullfighting; Ring Lardner and W. C. Heinz, again among many, have done as much for boxing; Sir John Hunt and Sir Edmund Hillary can convey the meaning and the emotion of mountain climbing; but most descriptions of motor racing have been failures.
They do not begin to tell what it means to have behind one, as Stirling Moss has behind him, a decade and more of driving, at least 125,000 miles of driving as fast as a fast car can be made to move. No one who has not done this can express what it means, and not by any means everyone who has done it can tell of it. One hundred and twenty-five thousand miles — that’s five times around the earth at the equator — flat out. One must think about it for an instant, looking down like an astronaut, the globe spinning in space, and on the rim of it the toy car and the small white figure in it. When was the last time I drove five miles as fast as the thing I was in would go? When was the last time you did? Five times flat out around the equator —
“That reminds me, that idea,” Stirling Moss said, “of the exhibits one sees sometimes in toy-shop windows, a little electric train or a car running on a freewheeling track; the track spins, the toy’s wheels push it away, and the toy stands still. If the earth’s speed is a thousand miles an hour at the equator, and I believe that’s the figure, then if the whole world had a smooth road around it, and you could get a car up to a thousand miles an hour, would you stand still?”
“I can’t think why not,” I said. “It’s an intriguing idea. To do that would be to reduce speed absolutely to absurdity, wouldn’t it? What a thing! A thousand miles an hour — and going nowhere!”
“If you went the other way,” Moss said, “with the rotation instead of against it, would you do two thousand?”
“Ask Ken Gregory [Moss’s manager] to see about getting the road built,” I said. “We’ll find out.”
“There’s the little matter of a car that would do a thousand, too,” Stirling said.
“By the time the road’s ready, the car will be as well, I daresay,” I said. “Think how you’ll be denounced in press and pulpit, to coin a phrase. ‘Mad Moss motors to nowhere. I did it for kicks, he says.’ ”
“That’s all I could say, and be honest.”
“Yes. I’m sure plenty of people have quoted Aldous Huxley to you as saying that speed is the only new sin, the sin of the twentieth century, but what he actually did say is that in his view speed provides the only genuinely modern pleasure.”
“Yes. Certainly it’s a great pleasure, speed, and it is modern all right, isn’t it? After all, sixty miles an hour was first reached within the lifetime of people now living. So it would be hard to quarrel with Huxley over that.”
“To what degree is it a pleasure, would you say? To start well out, really far out, there used to be an American driver who said that driving so excited him that he occasionally had an orgasm during a race.”
“I think the chap must have been round the bench don’t you?” Stirling said. “A bit abnormal in some fashion or other. I’ve never had anything like that happen to me; no driver has ever told me of anything of the sort. Mind you, that’s not to say it couldn’t happen. It probably could. I’ve heard of that happening to a bullfighter, that kind of excitement.”
“A psychologist might think that particular torero a bit odd. I’m afraid.”
“You mean, of course, because of the connection with death, with killing. Yes. Odd, indeed. But to go back to driving, great speed is an intense pleasure; I think it’s instinctive and basic. I’m not sure it doesn’t run through all mammals, not just humans. You know, if you put a dog in a car he’ll stick his head out the window into the slipstream and look ahead, and he gives every indication of enjoying the sensations of speed. I know that some dogs do that because the car’s exhaust system is leaking — they can pick up the smell though the people in the car cannot, and it distresses them — but that can’t always be the reason, and you almost never see a dog with his head inside a car if there’s a window open. It’s true of children, too. A child of two or three will sit up and show signs of pleasure, and so many children’s games involve speed, don’t they? They don’t know where they’re going and they don’t care.
“One can’t really enjoy speed to the absolute limit if there’s a destination involved. A destination introduces an element of obligation, makes a job of the whole thing. For real enjoyment, the speed itself must be the purpose. For example, coming out of a corner into a straight, one’s purpose is to leave it as fast as possible, and at the other end, one’s purpose is to come as close as possible to the corner before doing any braking, and those purposes are in a sense destinations; but in the very middle of the straight, perhaps, one can enjoy the sheer sensation, the sheer delight, of flat-out speed, when you’re in top gear, and the pointer on the rev counter has gone around the dial as far as it will go. Oddly, I don’t think women have this excitement. I think that when women drive, they always have a destination.”
“Probably you’re right, Stirling,” I said. “Women are more practical. They are less susceptible to aesthetic excitement, one of the reasons women artists, musicians are rare. But they’re not less susceptible to sensual excitement, after all. Haven’t you found that the sights and sounds, the drama, if you like, of motor racing excite some women?”
“Definitely. It may even be true of all women, or nearly all. You will certainly find that a woman is more receptive to an advance during a race, or just before a race, than she is afterward. There’s no question about that, and it must be because her level of excitement falls after the race is over.
“In Europe it’s quite an accepted thing that when you go motor racing you take your wife, your girl friend, mistress, vahine, whatever, with you. Most drivers do have a girl and she comes along and decorates the pit. If she can, she takes times. Perhaps she does nothing. With her, the driver can unwind. You come in from dashing around the circuit, it’s a fair job, you put a lot into it, and then you pull in and you see your girl and it’s light relief, it’s like reading a mystery novel after being in school all day, and you have a little chat with her while they’re changing the tires or whatever, and then you say: ‘Well, goodbye, sweetie,’ and you’re off. And the moment you leave the pits you’ve forgotten about her, you’d better believe it, you’re looking at the rev counter again.
“There are lots of girls who hang about, of course, as there are around any sport, and of course they’re rather different from the regulars, the ones people think of as an essential part of the equipe. Even Mercedes, an organization that was very strict with drivers, saw you had enough sleep, and so on; they didn’t frown on your having a girl friend. Neubauer might make jokes about them, but he would never make the girl feel she was unwanted. The most he’d do, he might say: ‘Now, look here, keep your mind on the job, boy. I’m afraid tonight we’ve got a meeting and you’re not going to go out.’ And the strong comradeship drivers generally feel toward each other extends to the girls. Most drivers are easy to get along with anyway, and everyone’s nice to the other chap’s girl, or girls, as the case in ay be.
“I won’t say everyone approves. Alf Francis would approve of the Indianapolis rule: no women in the pits. Obviously I don’t agree with him. I think I take my motor racing pretty seriously, but Alf is really in earnest. A man would have to be, to do some of the things he’s done. My God, when I think of the times, when we were with H.W.M., when Alf would leave England in a clapped-out Ford transporter with the cars —just enough time, let’s say, to get to Monza before a race; drive across France, over the mountains, Italy, nonstop, except that he’d probably have to get out and crawl under the van two or three times to put something right — it was forever breaking; get there, unload the cars, and then perhaps have to tear down an engine. There were times when Alf went two straight nights without sleep, and he’d go three with a few catnaps. So Alf’s entitled to any opinions he has about racing, he’s earned the right. But for me, I think a pit’s all the better for a bit of crumpet, somebody to wave to, somebody to take your mind off things, if just by chance you come in half a lap ahead, and the transmission in bits.
“And there’s the night to think of, after the race. You want to unwind really, no nonsense. Usually the drivers won’t be leaving that place directly; there’ll be parties, and if it’s a city like Brussels, for example, where there are excellent restaurants and some swinging nightclubs, everybody wants to go out. And you may not feel like being alone.
“I used to discipline myself so severely, I would not have intercourse for five days before a race. Later, I began to think that was going pretty far; who needs to live at all, allowing oneself sex two days out of seven? I believed that if I had made love the night before a race, I would be physically just that little bit weaker when I drove, and that belief was enough for me. Then one night before a race at Brands Hatch I was with a girl. We were fond of each other, and I abandoned my rule. Next day I had seven races, quite a few really, only short ones, but seven, and I won the lot! I was really swinging, I was in great form.
“That day didn’t altogether change my mind, though. After all, they were short races, I had intervals of rest. The night before a really hard race, Le Mans, Sebring, the Mille Miglia, or a G.P. race — no.
“An odd fact: while I don’t get a conscious sexual stimulation from driving, as I said. I do get a tremendous stimulation; I think of it as intellectual — that’s not the right word, but it’s a nonphysical sensation, and it produces a tranquillity that is very like the tranquillity that follows a deep relationship. Driving does that to me. My mind is calm, but very active, and I feel at peace.
“I know it’s been put forward that one drives to prove one’s masculinity because it’s a masculine sport like bullfighting and mountain climbing, things that women really and truly can’t do, or never do well. A most male thing. I don’t know. Anyone who’s paid much attention to what some have called the blood spoils can name homosexuals who’ve been boxers, bullfighters, racing drivers, but none of the latter, at least, were even close to the first rank. I don’t think that I drive to prove I’m a man. I think I drive for a dozen different reasons, but not that one. Still, if it were true, I suppose I’d be the last to know. If there are those who think I drive to prove I’m a man, or that other drivers drive for that reason, fair enough, and good luck to them, they know something that I do not.
“I do think that no woman could become a truly great racing driver. I didn’t see the great women drivers, Elisabetta Juneck, Kay Petre, ‘Bill’ Wisdom, Gwenda Stewart, and the others, but I understand that only Juneck could worry top men drivers in Grand Prix cars, and she didn’t drive for long. I don’t believe that lack of physical strength, ability to hold the car, that sort of thing, keeps women from driving as well as men. My sister Pat, for example, certainly has ample physical energy to do three hundred miles flat out in a Grand Prix car. I doubt Pat would even have to go into her reserve. It isn’t lack of strength. It’s just that women are almost never personally competitive. In rallying, which is a less demanding form of racing, there are women who are very good indeed; there are women who will beat all but the top men, and beat them easily. But rallying is running against the clock, and women do that sort of thing very well. Also, rallying makes much of minute detail, and women are good at that, too. For instance, everywhere in the world where very small machines are being assembled, tiny radios, subminiature ball bearings, and that sort of thing, you’ll find women are doing the work because men can’t do it as well. Anything involving patience, detail. But women will not compete, as the Spanish say, mano a mano, hand to hand. They will not go into really brutal competition with another person; they will not, or they cannot, as a rule, reach the highest plane of the competitive urge, where a man will say: ‘Right, now I’ve had enough of hanging about, now I’ll have a go, now we’re going to separate the men from the boys here.’ No, they won’t do that. Mind, I’m not saying that’s wrong, or a bad thing, I’m just saying that’s the way it is. When someone says that if women ran the governments of the world there’d be no wars, no argument comes from my corner of the room. It’s probably true.
“You’ll notice that in driving a woman passenger, sometimes she’ll pay attention to how fast you’re going, she’ll watch the speedometer, and when you go over the limit at which she’s comfortable, you’ll sense that she’s pushing her right foot on the floorboard, or she’ll reach for the grab handle, and then of course, unless you’re a hopeless clot, you’ll back off ten miles an hour. But if the speedometer is disconnected, or unlighted at night, she may not object at all, providing you work up speed slowly and drive very smoothly. In other words, she’s probably just not aware.
“I had a date with a girl one time, we were in a Mini-Cooper; I’ve forgotten where we were going, but it was a bit of a journey, and after fifty or sixty miles she told me she thought it was very amusing that a friend of hers who had an M.G.A., a solicitor or something, drove much faster than I did. I asked her what was the fastest she thought we’d been doing— the speedo cable was broken, she couldn’t tell from that— and she said, oh, around fifty, which was pretty funny because she was about thirty miles an hour out of the way. Of course, she was no doubt a poor judge of speed, but she didn’t think she’d been going fast because she hadn’t felt any violent movements of any kind, and that’s how most people judge. I should say right here, however, that I can think of six nonprofessionals who, in my opinion, drive really well, and four of them are women.
“Another woman — let’s say, a top woman driver — will sit there, you can go very fast indeed, right on up, and she’ll be tranquil, outwardly at least, and she may say she’s enjoying the ride, but I believe that what she’s enjoying are the points of technique she finds interesting; she’s not enjoying speed for the sake of speed. Fair enough, most passengers do not, but I at least have never found a woman who I think enjoyed speed for its own sake, either driving or being driven. I think it’s a peculiarly male reaction. It satisfies something fundamental in men. You and I can certainly expect to live to see trains doing one hundred and fifty and two hundred miles an hour, and people will be mad to travel on them, you’ll see. As for aircraft, the Concorde, the jet passenger plane the British and French governments are planning, will do about fourteen hundred and fifty miles an hour!”
“Yes,” I said, “but you can’t have windows in anything that’s doing fourteen hundred and fifty miles an hour. The passengers will be sitting there reading or watching a cinema; perhaps the captain will come on the blower and say there’s a tail wind and the airplane is indicating sixteen hundred; they’ll think: ‘My, that’s quick, isn’t it?’, and go back to watching the screen — they won’t have any sensation of speed at all.”
“True enough,” Stirling said. “When you get down to it, speed matters only in a motorcar or on a motorbike. Nothing else goes fast enough, on land, carrying only one man, or at the most, two; speed on water seems to me to be imprecise,uncontrolled; speed underwater, or in the air, doesn’t produce any sensation, really, doesn’t count.
“No. For me it has to be in a motorcar, in contact with the earth, if not by much, and a man using his hands, his feet, his eyes, his brain to balance inertia and momentum and gravity and centrifugal force in an equation that changes ten times a second; in a vehicle, if you like, that represents the best efforts of the most skillful specialist designers in the world, and a beautiful thing, too — you must admit, there have been very few ugly racing cars; that is living, and in the company, if you like, of the dozen or fifteen men in the world who can do what you’re doing, and, let’s say, on a real circuit like the Nurburg Ring, that is motor racing, and when you think of it in that fashion, as it really is, you realize that it’s absurd to compare it with any other sport. I’m not being provincial, I am not narrow-minded, I hope I’m not, but I really do believe that: there is nothing in life so satisfying. Garacciola said it years ago, that it was the most intoxicating sensation in life, something like that. And it is!”
“Hear, hear!” I said. “And hot sunshine and a bright-blue sky!”
“Blue sky, nothing!” Stirling said. “In the pouring rain, in a half-cloudburst. The sun coining out in the last lap, if you like, for the finish.”
I LOOKED down the long settee at him: immaculate in hand-sewn Italian loafers, gray flannel slacks, a blue jacket; he was silent for ten seconds; he was waiting for me to say something, looking at me. This was long after Goodwood, after the Atkinson Morley Hospital, but before his second trip back to St. Thomas’s, where they would saw a piece of bone out of his pelvis and prop up his left eye socket with it; now his left eye was lower in his face than the right, and the eye itself pointed off at a slight angle, looking past me. “You are a damned strange man,” I thought, “and there is certainly a hell of a hot little fire burning in you somewhere. I don’t know where you’re headed; I hope you get there. But you won’t be going motor racing anymore.”
I walked over to the big window and looked out. There are temporary buildings in the street, the view is not enchanting. Life looks real out there, though, and sometimes, in contrast, the living room in the Moss house seems unreal in its newness and its shiny near-perfection, in the eerie sensation that there are many motors humming unseen, hidden in the walls.
I came back.
“The transport pilots say flying is no fun anymore,” I said, “because the black box does everything, and if you want to land in London you have to start letting down over Paris. There aren’t many generations of pilots left. Of fighter pilots, none, we’re watching the last one. Can you think of Formula cars without drivers, big black boxes doing the steering and the shifting, and treading on the loud pedal?”
“No, never,” Stirling said. “The race would be totally without excitement.”
“Do you think that means that people come to see races in the hope of seeing the drivers hurt?”
“No, but I don’t think we’ll see that question answered definitely until someone works out a way to fit fifty thousand lie detectors to fifty thousand people watching a Grand Prix race. But driverless cars, never. That would ruin everything.”
“What, then, in the year 2000?”
“Smaller cars, lighter, lower. This will be possible because you’ll have a smaller engine: a gas turbine, perhaps, or a Wankel engine about as big as your head, perhaps even a steam engine, maybe a tiny sixteen-cylinder petrol engine with cylinders the size of florins. The car will have two hundred and fifty miles an hour available, and I’m probably being conservative. The suspension and the adhesion will be fantastic, incredible; the car will track through any corner, the drift will be forgotten, and the words ‘understeer’ and ‘oversteer’ will be quaint historical terms that nobody uses anymore.”
“I think he’ll lie down flat, his face right up in front next to the accident; he’ll steer with a tiller or with levers, have a brake pedal for his left foot and a throttle for his right. He’ll have a periscope rearview mirror. The transmission, if there is one, will be automatic, of course. No gear shifting whatever.”
“Won’t it be rough to drive in that position, Stirling?”
“They said it would be rough to drive a Formula One car with the seats turned practically into hammocks, but we did it. And those cars are comfortable once one’s in them, you know, very comfortable.”
“Yes. And they said the old pre-World War Two Auto-Unions couldn’t be handled, with the driver way up in front.”
“Right,” Stirling said. “But they managed, up to around two hundred miles an hour. Rosemeyer. Nuvolari. It was only a matter of getting used to the position. I had a Kieft years ago; I sat so far forward in it that if I crept up on the grid I’d reach out and wind it back with the front wheels! I never thought that car dicey in the least.”
“All right, but with your face ahead of the front wheels, and about six inches off the deck!”
“Ken, did you ever stop to think, when the man runs a Boeing or a Comet jet down the runway at one hundred and sixty miles an hour, he’s sitting so far in front of his wheels it’s not to be believed. It would just be a matter of getting used to it, driving up front lying down; just a matter of conditioning, like everything else. Perhaps you’d do what the Auto-Union people did, recruit motorbike riders, men vvho’d never driven a racing car, and so had nothing to unlearn; they thought that was the normal place to be, up in front. Rosemeyer was the best Auto-Union driver, and he was a bike rider.”
“Would you like to drive a car like that, Stirling, a two-hundred-and-fifty-mile-an-hour Grand Prix car, lying flat on your belly?”
“Now, yes. In the year 2000, no. Do you realize that in the year 2000 I’ll be over forty-five years old?”
“No! It can’t be true!”
“It is, though. I’ll be getting on.”