Well, if I end up too broke to eat anything but peanut butter and crackers in my retirement years, you can probably blame the publishing and movie industries. As if by some conspiratorial signal, they've recently unleashed a flood of new books and movies on the history of F1 racing—with more to come, apparently.
I first became aware of this trend last fall, when I hauled my Formula Ford to the autumn vintage races at Road America and found myself—as usual—wandering through a book tent in the vendor area. Being an alert lad, I immediately noticed two new hardcover books that forced me to pull out my Visa card fast enough to produce friction burns. One was Shunt, The Story of James Hunt, a fat new biography by Tom Rubython, and the other was the lavishly illustrated Jochen Rindt, Uncrowned King, by David Tremayne.
I'd no sooner gotten home and devoured these biographies when The Limit, Life and Death on the 1961 Grand Prix Circuit, by Michael Cannell appeared at our local bookstore. It's the story of the fateful season in which Phil Hill became World Champion and his Ferrari teammate Wolfgang von Trips was killed (movie supposedly in progress).
A week later, I found another Tom Rubython offering called In the Name of Glory, 1976, The Greatest Ever Sporting Duel, about the year James Hunt became world champion and Niki Lauda had his fiery accident at the Nürburgring. Ron Howard has been shooting a movie called about this rivalry, soon to be released. Then there was the fascinating film Senna, of course, which I saw twice last fall.
Of all the new books and movies that have recently drained my life's savings, however, I must say that one of the most powerful and poignant is a BBC-produced documentary DVD I bought last winter called Grand Prix, The Killer Years, directed by Richard Heap.
I confess that I almost passed on this movie because I feared it might be one of those gruesome and sensational crash flicks, but the review blurbs were so impressive I took a chance. Good thing. It's a thoughtful and brilliantly edited film, full of archival footage of racing and trackside life (most of which I'd never seen) that documents the dangers of F1 racing in the '60s and early '70s, as well as the efforts made by Jackie Stewart, Jo Bonnier and others to make racing less casually lethal.
It opens with the Von Trips tragedy and then segues to a rather stunning quote from Jackie Stewart: "In my period of driving, there was only a one out of three chance I was going to live. There was a two out of three chance I was going to die." Now there's something to think about.
With further comments by Jacky Ickx, John Surtees, Jackie Oliver, Nina Rindt and others, the movie takes a hard look at the combination of mechanical failures, indifferent track management and grossly inadequate fire-fighting and medical facilities that made the fatality rate so high in that era.
In his campaign for track safety, Stewart had to fight some very intransigent track owners, and there were a lot of hard feelings. Incredibly, some critics accused world champion Stewart of being timid and overly cautious. They must not have seen him drive. Or have ever driven a race car themselves—and been passed by somebody like Stewart. In any case, he finally got the job done, and the film ends at 1976, noted as the first year ever without an F1 fatality.
There have been a few since, of course—Senna's among them—but death on the track is now as rare and shocking as a major airline crash, rather than accepted as just another day at the racetrack. As it once was.
Many of us remember that period all too well, and watching The Killer Years triggered an odd trackside flashback of my own, which I hope I may share—at the risk of repeating part of an old R&T story. It happened while I was attending my first GP, in 1971.
Having just come home from Vietnam, I flew to Europe that year to bum around for a while before going back to college. I hitchhiked from Luxembourg to Paris and liked it there so much I ended up staying for three months, hanging around with a bunch of other free-floating Americans at a cheap hotel in the Latin Quarter. Jim Morrison of the Doors and his wife Pamela, by an odd coincidence, arrived the same week I did and were said to be lurking around the city, but I never saw them. We suspected they might be over on the Right Bank, where some hotels were said to have a bathroom on every floor.
In May, my buddy Bill Steckel and I decided to take a bicycle trip, so we bought two Peugeot touring bikes and rode them down to Barcelona (1000 miles in 13 days) to see the Spanish Grand Prix at Montjuich Park.
I went straight out to the track that weekend to watch qualifying and was soon standing along the fence, race program in hand. The two Team Lotus cars went flying by, driven by Emerson Fittipaldi and...some new driver called Reine Wisell...
I turned to a fellow American F1 fan who was standing at the fence and said, "Where's Jochen Rindt?"
He looked at me oddly for a moment and said, "Rindt's dead. He was killed last year at Monza."
In further conversation, I learned that Rindt had been named the first posthumous world champion, and that Bruce McLaren and Piers Courage had also been killed the previous year.
Our friend was probably astounded at my ignorance, but I hadn't read any car magazines (the only source of F1 news then) during my 14 months in Vietnam, and when I got home all these fatalities were old news, so no one told me. Also, there were 200 or 300 Americans getting killed almost every week in Vietnam (for years on end), so the world of racing had seemed remote and slightly superfluous for a while, like something happening on another planet, and I just hadn't been paying attention.
On my way out of the circuit that Saturday afternoon, I spotted Pedro Rodríguez sitting by himself in a Fiat sedan with the door open. I went over and got his autograph, and he was very pleasant and polite. He told me he was waiting for the track to dry off after a brief afternoon shower, and might go out again later for another qualifying session. Pedro was killed three months later in an endurance race at the Norisring.
Looking back at the starting grid from that race now, I see that we would also lose Jo Siffert that summer, then Ronnie Peterson, Rolf Stommelen and François Cevert to racing accidents in the years ahead. And Graham Hill would fatally crash his team's airplane. Six out of 22 starters.
Jo Bonnier died that year, too, after coming out of retirement to race at Le Mans. Not yet on the grid in Spain, but fated to be lost in the next few years were Roger Williamson in 1973, Peter Revson in 1974 and Mark Donohue in 1975.
After the Spanish Grand Prix, Bill and I sold our bicycles, took a train back to Paris and then headed for the States. A few weeks after I got home, Jim Morrison died in Paris, at the age of 27. It was a bad year for rock stars as well as drivers. Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Duane Allman all died within the same 12 months.
Sometimes it seems that death was just in the air during that period. It sounds morbid, but there was almost an unspoken cult of what you might call Fatalism Chic, as if life had to be lived very close to the edge to be adequately stimulating, and we were all walking with like-minded ghosts who were only half gone from our presence. And there were so many ghosts...
Strangely, the war and the high death toll in racing ended about the same time. It's an interesting and dramatic era to contemplate, but I'm glad we're no longer there. Watching The Killer Years makes you want to send Jackie Stewart a letter of thanks for his courage, both on and off the track. He finally made us understand that racing is dangerous enough without stacking the deck in favor of the trees, and gasoline and walls.