At Ten Tenths of Capacity..
KEN PURDY After years of following motor racing all over the world, Ken Purdy undertook to find out what attracts drivers and spectators. “As long as this excitement is to be found,”he concludes, “men will drive, and other men, jealous of them but settling for second best, will watch.”
Now and then an editorial writer in a far corner of the land calls baseball the “National Pastime,” but the fact of the matter is that baseball is boring, as a major-league umpire not long ago said flatly in True magazine; and on the statistical evidence, most of the populace long ago abandoned its dubious attractions for a sport of more elementary excitement: racing. Horse racing attracts 40,000,000 or so admissions a year because one can bet money on it. Foot racing, lumped with the other track and field sports, is a minority endeavor. But the biggest crowds ever assembled on the North American continent have come together to watch automobile racing, a sport on which hardly a dollar is bet from one year’s end to another. If wagers on the horses were forbidden tomorrow, automobile racing would instantly become the world’s first sport.
Why? No one is sure. In twenty years of watching motor racing and pondering its attractions, I have come to limited conclusions: everyone drives, has driven, or wants to drive an automobile, and therefore everyone can identify with the race driver, who does this one thing so well. Furthermore, the risk of death is forever present in automobile racing. It is significant of the high rate of attrition of motor racing that the two oldest Grand Prix drivers who were active as this was written, the American, Masten Gregory, and the Frenchman, Maurice Trintignant, began their careers in 1956 and 1955. They could if they wished list nearly two hundred men killed at the wheel in their time.
It has long been held gospel that racegoers hope to see drivers killed. I do not believe this. I do believe that they want to see drivers go to the very edge of the precipice, to the rim of death, but they want them to come back. It is important that they come back, because the spectator so tightly identifies himself with the driver. He does not want to die; therefore he does not want the driver to die. But he does want the driver, as his alter ego, to demonstrate his bravery by hazarding death.
Finally, and probably most significantly, the racecourse shows us life and death in essence, in compression. Here a fortune is made or lost in three hours. A man makes an error in judgment and dies of it, not ten years later, but three seconds later; another, innocent as a lamb and watchful as a wolf, is struck dead in an instant, as though stabbed from behind in the night.
A fatal incident on a racecourse has an obviously depressing effect on most of the audience. A certain number of people will leave the course. A fractional minority will demonstrate a morbid and perverted interest. Most will say, sadly, “Terrible. Still, that’s the way it is.”
Drivers are quite unlike other men in such essentials of dangerous living as vision, motor reaction, ability to concentrate, and so on, and quite like other men in that some of them think about death a great deal and some, apparently, almost not at all.
The Marquis de Portago, killed in the Mille Miglia in 1957, a dedicated hedonist, often thought of the mortal hazards of Grand Prix driving, but not seriously in fear. A few weeks before he died, Portago said to me, “If I die tomorrow, still I have had twenty-eight wonderful years.” In a note to a friend just before his last race he said that he thought he might die, that he did not like the car he was to drive. (To drive a car about which one has reservations is a serious mistake, but one that young drivers often feel forced to make. David McDonald, killed at Indianapolis in 1964, told his father that he did not like the handling qualities of his car and suggested that it frightened him.)
I he four greatest drivers who have ever lived, Tazio Nuvolari of Italy, Rudolf Caracciola of Germany, Juan Manuel Fangio of Argentina, and Stirling Moss of Great Britain, all lived to retire. Nuvolari had been terribly injured in many accidents, and several times was given up for dead; Caracciola had two severe crashes which undoubtedly hastened his death; Moss had only two bad accidents, but he was so battered in the last one, in May, 1962, that he was paralyzed and in a coma for over a month; Fangio had only one bad accident and one serious injury in his career, a broken neck. All four might be excused a mild obsession with death, and it was clear that the thought of it was often in their minds.
THE type of racing a man does seems to matter in this connection. The Europe-oriented Grand Prix driver is often a complex personality; he is likely to be sophisticated and introspective. He may drive in a dozen countries a year, including Australia and South Africa. He is probably as much at home in New York as in Rome. He is usually reserved and withdrawn: Jimmy Clark, a Scots landowner who is presently the champion of the world, pleasant, courteous, but unreachable in casual contact; Joachim Bonnier, a dark-bearded Swede who lives in Italy and runs an art gallery as a side endeavor; Olivier Gendebien, a wealthy Belgian aristocrat with a formidable record in the Underground during the Hitler war; Graham Hill, implausibly goodlooking, almost a caricature of the Guards officer (which he is not), a lifelong devotee of the arduous sports, an oarsman, a former champion of the world; John Surtees, former motorcycle champion of the world; Phil Hill, the only American to be champion of the world, who keeps in his car a tape recorder stocked with classical music and is an authority on the player piano; Richie Ginther, chief driver for the Honda team of Japan, who likes best to get on a motorcycle and go rock-hunting in the California desert country; Maurice Trintignant, mayor of the town in France in which he grows wine.
The cars these men drive — they are built to an international standard called Formula 1 — are
improbably small, light, low. They weigh 1000 pounds or so, are driven by a small rear-mounted engine — only ninety inches cubic capacity (less than one quarter as big as a Chevrolet) — and steered by a wheel only a foot in diameter. Most of them have no chassis as such but are built on a stressed-skin principle somewhat like an airplane. The fuel tanks are placed alongside the driver, under his seat, and over his knees; he is almost encased in gasoline, and he sits in a recumbent position, arms and legs straight out. Drivers lower themselves into the cars, wriggle down with their arms over their heads.
Two British designers, John Cooper and Colin Chapman, are responsible for the tiny rear-engined race car which has been a standard everywhere in the world except the United States since 1960.
Their appearances at Indianapolis in the past few years—Jimmy Clark, in a Lotus-Ford, was second in 1963 and looked a certain winner in 1964 until tire failure put him out — have forced into obsolescence the standard American race car, particularly the Indianapolis roadster. This car has been something of a freak for years, since it could not run in regular competition anywhere else; indeed, was unsuitable for almost all other tracks.
Indianapolis cars are built with a left-side weight bias, which is of considerable use on that track but would make the car dangerous in a right-hand turn. Since 1934, with few exceptions, the heavy majority of cars running every year at Indianapolis have been basically identical. Three chassis, Kurtis, Watson, and Kuzuma, have dominated the track, and one engine, the famous Offenhauser-Meyer-Drake fourcylinder. Offenhauser-engined cars won all but three races from 1934 to 1964. The appearance of Jack Brabham in a Cooper in 1961 and the full-out entrance of the Ford Motor Company into racing radically changed the scene last year, with nine Ford engines in the race, all mounted in the rear. (Rear-mounted engines reduce the car’s frontal area, which gives better penetration of the solid mass that is air at 125 mph and upward.) Estimates on the cost of the engines ran as high as $50,000 per unit, and Ford made them available without cost, stipulating only that Ford mechanics service them. Remarkably, not one case of engine failure was recorded among the Fords.
One of the antediluvian roadsters won the 1964 Indianapolis. The winning driver was A. J. Foyt of Texas, who had won in 1961. Foyt is a big good-looking man, thirty years old. He is probably the best driver in the United States, and unlike most Indianapolis or “big-car” drivers, he wins in the smaller “sprint” cars as well, and in stockcar and sports-car races. He is in the business to make money, and he makes a good deal of it: the first-place man at Indianapolis these days expects to go home with $175,000 in cash, goods, and contracts. On the European Grand Prix circuits, first place may be worth $2000, with another $1000 in appearance money. Dead-last place is worth more than that at Indianapolis: $5750 this year. Foyt averaged 147 miles per hour, which meant that he was going through the turns (engineered in 1909 for 90 miles per hour) at 140, and reaching 190 or so on the straightaways.
Foyt and Parnelli Jones, who won in 1962, are perhaps typical of the American track driver: outdoor-bred, athletic, honorable, straightforward men, quick to anger, quick to fight, who tend to view race driving as a more desperate endeavor than it may seem to the Europeans, since they see it primarily in economic terms. They are not much concerned with the aesthetics of the sport, or its history. They have an eye on retirement, and they try to invest their money wisely. They are not colorful men, and they distrust those who are.
A decade ago, it was the fashion among U.S. track drivers to disparage the Europeans, call them “sporty-car” drivers, suggest they would not long survive in the fierce hub-to-hub competition of the dirt tracks which are the American school courses. Similar courtesies were extended by the Europeans. To a Grand Prix driver who had won on the Nurburg Ring in Germany, 14.1 miles to the lap, 175 corners, uphill and down 3000 feet, an Indianapolis driver was a trucker who knew no more than to stand on the accelerator and turn left. Listening to spokesmen for each camp, one marveled that such communication failure could occur.
The jet airplane changed all that, as it has so many other things. The jets made it possible, although still very difficult, for at least the wealthier of the European teams to compete at Indianapolis and still meet their contractual obligations on the Grand Prix circuit, which schedules a major race almost every Sunday in the season. European drivers discovered that Indianapolis, though it looked so simple, was nothing of the sort at the speeds required today, and the Americans were surprised to find that the Europeans were superlatively good drivers. Many Indianapolis veterans were amazed to see Jimmy Clark post the fastest qualifying time of the thirty-three starters last year, and take the lead immediately after the race began. They needn’t have been. After all, he was the champion of the world. A local interviewer asked Clark if he was thrilled to be running in “the greatest race in the world” and was appalled when Clark replied, no, actually he had found the Grand Prix of South Africa more exciting.
SINGLE-SEAT race cars are at the pinnacle of American automobile racing, but stock-car and sportscar and hot-rod racing make the base on which the structure rests. There is hardly a community of any size that does not support stock-car racing, and thousands of events are run off every year. It is easier by far for the spectator to identify with stock cars. They are standard sedans, at least in outward appearance. Since they will do 160 to 170 miles per hour, they are not quite the same inside as the Ford or Plymouth just off the showroom floor, but at 100 feet the differences are not obvious. A stock car is a sedan that has been stripped and rebuilt to precise tolerances by racing mechanics. The process is called “blueprinting,” and it means that the vehicle has been brought up precisely and in every particular to the manufacturer’s set standards. The chassis and running gear are strengthened by welding and bracing; the interior is gutted of everything flammable; the doors are permanently shut; the driver is surrounded by a cage of steel tubing to protect him in roll-over situations. Fatalities are rare in stock-car racing, and a good driver running good equipment can do well. He can make $40,000 a year and upward.
The hot-rod drivers not long ago were dedicated amateurs, most of them young, most of them on the West Coast, who built their own cars and ran them for pure sport. Hot rodding today is very highly organized, and there are drivers who make from $20,000 to $50,000 a year in the simplest, most stylized form of the sport: the endeavor to run an automobile from a standing start to maximum speed in one quarter of a mile. The terminal velocities reached by cars in the fastest categories are hard to believe. As this was written, the record was 199.7 mph, and unofficially one driver had done 202! These Speeds are reached in the 7to 8-second range. For comparison, a standard passenger car that will reach 80 to 85 miles per hour in a standingstart quarter mile, and do it within 16 to 17 seconds, is a fast car.
There is nothing in the world of sport more spectacular than the run of a big dragster, a “railjob.” It looks like no other automobile in the world. The design evolved from a “slingshot” built by the eminent Mickey Thompson in the middle 1950s, and so called because the driver sat in a little pod out behind the rear wheels, looking for all the world like a stone in the leather pouch of a slingshot. The driver still sits there in today’s rail-jobs, behind or just beside two enormous tires, their flat treads a foot wide; in front of him is the engine, a big V-8, a General Motors diesel locomotive supercharger mounted on top of it, and a gaping air intake on top of that. Somewhere up in front there is a shiny spun-metal fuel tank holding a couple of gallons of exotic fuel: nitromethane, methanol, benzene. The front of the car is supported on a couple of spidery-light motorcycle wheels. There is no radiator, no fan, no cooling arrangement except the water in the engine block.
Dragsters run in pairs. They are push-started by trucks, rumble down to the starting line the wrong way of the course, turn widely, so that the one on the left-hand side of the track now takes the right, inch up to the line, watching the starter, break a timinglight ray, and go. Clouds of rubber smoke wreathe the drivers as the big tires spin on the asphalt. (A precise 15 percent slippage produces maximum acceleration.) Often the front of the car will rise three or four feet into the air under the brutal torque going through the rear wheels, and when this happens, of course the steering wheel ceases to furnish a useful function. The driver keeps his foot down and waits for gravity to put the front wheels where they belong. Presumably his expression is calm and inscrutable, but one cannot tell: he is lost in blue-white rubber smoke, and he is wearing an asbestos-and-aluminum-foil suit, gloves, and face mask, armor against flame.
the noise as he leaves the line is appalling. Spectators unashamedly clap palms over ears, but even so, the shock waves produced by the four big exhaust pipes on each side of the car batter at one’s viscera: the engine may be pumping out 1000 horsepower. The two cars simply disappear; a quarter mile down the track, and that is a very short distance indeed, a light pops on, left or right, showing which car has made it first to the finish, and simultaneously two big parachutes blossom from the rear of the cars — brakes alone wouldn’t stop them. After a bit the cars come back along the side return road, dead silent, hustled along by push trucks. You can see the drivers now. They are usually young men, always slender (twenty-five pounds of extra weight in the driver’s seat notably increases the car’s tendency to lift, to do a wheel stand, a “wheelie,” and this is undesirable), and one of them is smiling. He is the winner. He is happier than he was three or four minutes ago, and richer.
Sports-car drivers, on the other hand, must be content with more glory than cash, although limited professionalism is allowed. Sports-car racing began the post-war revival of automobile racing in this country with a race at Watkins Glen, New York, in 1948. Sports cars, like stocks, must have been built with the accommodation of at least one passenger in mind; a sports car is by definition a twoseater. It is never run on a track; its natural habitat is the road circuit, and sports-car people are proud of this adherence to the grand tradition: after all, automobile racing began on the road, and purists depose that it should never be done elsewhere.
In Europe, since the demise of the Mille Miglia and Ulster’s Tourist Trophy, there is only the Targa Florio of Sicily and the Le Mans 24-Hour Race in France. Le Mans is the premier sports-car race of the world, bringing perhaps 250,000 spectators together every year. Like the Sebring 12-Hour Race in Florida, it offers the extraordinary excitement of motor racing under headlights — and the bigger Le Mans cars can touch 200 miles per hour.
In the United States the privately owned, specially constructed artificial road circuit is the rule, and some forty have been built since 1950. Bridgehampton on Long Island, Daytona in Florida, Lime Rock in Connecticut, Road America in Wisconsin, Riverside in California are busy and well used. There is a new circuit at Watkins Glen — the cars no longer roar through the streets a few feet from the watchers on the curbs as they did in the innocent old days — and it is over this circuit that the Formula 1 cars run in their single appearance on this side of the Atlantic, the Grand Prix of the United States, usually in October.
The new Watkins course was built after a car flicked into a crowd, killed one person, and injured a dozen others. There was some talk, then, of legislating the race out of existence. It came to nothing. When a Mercedes-Benz flew into a spectator enclosure at Le Mans in 1955 and killed eighty-five, more pressure was mounted in the same direction, but the race went on. Efforts to outlaw the sport have been unremitting since about 1900, but I believe we will have motor racing as long as we have automobiles. The enjoyment of speed, the enjoyment of risk, is deep within us. The great drivers do not run for money, and they are not mad. Of those I know, Stirling Moss has made it plainest to me: “ To drive a really fine, balanced race car at ten tenths of its absolute capacity, right on the edge, at the point at which one more mile an hour will send it rocketing off the road into the woods — this is the most splendid and most rewarding sensuous pleasure, save one, known to man. Once you have known this pleasure, believe me, it is hard to give it up. Remember, it is an intellectual exercise as well. If you cannot concentrate absolutely on this effort for three hours, and I mean absolutely, without a single extraneous thought, you will not long be with us.”
As long as this excitement is to be found, men will drive, and other men, jealous of them but settling for second best, will watch.