Generation of Heroes

Rick Dole

The final installment of our series on racing greats from the twentieth century features some of the most recognizable figures in the sport.

Jackie Stewart
Jackie Stewart was the bravest Formula 1 driver of his era. Not because he claimed three world championships during a five-year span, or because he won 27 of 99 F1 starts -- a higher winning percentage than either Alain Prost or Ayrton Senna -- or because he waxed the field at the Nordschleife by four astonishing minutes in 1968 during an epic drive in rain and fog. No, Stewart's courage was of the moral variety; no racer advocated driver safety more persistently or stridently. Until the wee Scotsman with the rock-star sideburns arrived on the scene, the idea that several top drivers would crash fatally every year was considered a lamentable but acceptable fact of life. But after hitting a house (!) in the rain at Spa in 1966 and being trapped in his fuel-dripping BRM for about thirty minutes, Stewart began lobbying for safer cars and tracks, leading driver boycotts, and compelling improvements that we now take for granted. His critics called him a coward -- how's that for irony? -- and he retired from the cockpit when he was only thirty-four. Knighted in 2001, Stewart continued to exert influence on the sport as an announcer, a longtime Ford ambassador, and, briefly, as an F1 team principal.

Richard Petty
At first glance, Richard Petty doesn't look like a king. Tall and stick-thin, wearing his trademark cowboy hat, signature shades, and the world's sunniest smile, he radiates none of the arrogance and entitlement you'd expect of royalty. No, King Richard is universally regarded as NASCAR's chief monarch not because he's feared but because he's beloved. An amazingly affable country boy who was born, raised, and still lives in Level Cross, North Carolina, Petty is a perpetual fan favorite who's probably signed more autographs than anybody in history, and it's no coincidence that he won NASCAR's Most Popular Driver award on eight occasions. Not that he was just a pretty face. Petty also won 200 top-level NASCAR races, which is nearly twice as many as any other driver. (David Pearson is second with 105 victories, Jeff Gordon third with a mere 86.) Along the way, Petty earned seven Cup titles -- matched only by Dale Earnhardt -- and won the Daytona 500 a record seven times. In fact, he was so hard to beat on the banking that his most famous Daytona appearance was one he lost, wrecking spectacularly with Pearson as they ran 1-2 on the last turn of the last lap in 1976.

Stirling Moss
Stirling Moss was the first thoroughly modern race car driver. He wasn't the first to get paid, of course, nor was he the most mercenary. But he understood far better than his peers that racing was a business rather than a sport. While many of his postwar rivals approached racing with cavalier fatalism, Moss employed a business manager, avoided alcohol, enjoyed personal sponsorship, kept himself scrupulously fit, thought deeply about driving technique, and even abstained from sex the night before races. Sir Stirling is often described as the greatest driver never to have won a world championship. (He finished second four years running.) But this annoying statistical anomaly shouldn't overshadow the remarkable fact that he won more than half the races he finished. Along the way, he scored some of the most magical wins in racing lore: Conquering the Mille Miglia in 1955. Relieving an ailing teammate midrace to become the first British driver to win the British Grand Prix in a British car in 1957. Humbling the all-conquering Ferraris in his underpowered Lotus-Climax at Monaco in 1961. Although his career ended prematurely after a near-fatal wreck in 1962, Moss remains one of the sport's most enduring icons.

Mario Andretti
Mario! Like Pele, Oprah, and Beyonce, Mario Andretti is a one-name celebrity and quite possibly the best-known racer in the world. His name is at or near the top of everybody's list of the greatest drivers of all time. He earned championships in Indy cars, Formula 1, USAC dirt cars, and the International Race of Champions. His race log includes wins in the Indianapolis 500, the Daytona 500, the 12 Hours of Sebring, and the Pikes Peak Hill-Climb. A perennial favorite of both fans and journalists, he's been the perfect international ambassador for American motorsports and the embodiment of the American Dream. He was born in Italy and didn't emigrate to the States -- from a post-World War II refugee camp -- until he was fifteen. A scrawny kid with no money, patron, or mechanical skills, he clawed his way up from small-town bullrings with dogged persistence, irrational bravery, and incomprehensible talent. How good was he? He was series champion in his second Indy-car season, qualified on the pole in his first F1 grand prix, and was still winning races when he was fifty-three. Today, silver haired and prosperously tanned, he's the patriarch of racing's most famous family.

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