In memory of our founder, David E. Davis, Jr., Automobile Magazine editors are choosing our ten favorite American Driver columns and will be posting one each day over the next two weeks.
To be read as it was written, while listening to the Beatles’ “In My Life”
Ann Arbor – One of the great roads in New York State is Route 97 from Port Jervis to Hancock, where it joins Route 17. It is a fast, winding asphalt two-lane that clings to the eastern bank of the Delaware River. We always used it when driving from New York City to Watkins Glen for the U.S. Grand Prix. Watkins Glen was–and is–the only suitable venue for a Formula 1 race in this country. Not Long Beach. Not Detroit, Not Las Vegas, Not Phoenix. Watkins Glen, hard by Seneca Lake in New York’s Finger Lakes district, is the place. A racing car looks comfortable at Watkins Glen in a way that it will never look when running in a moat in downtown Phoenix. I was there when Jo Bonnier drove a Maserati to win a Formula Libre race in a snow shower in 1958, and I was there when Innes Ireland won his first world championship Grand Prix in 1961, and I’d be standing at the head of the line at the press gate if the people who preside over Formula 1 racing ever found enough soul to return there.
I learned about the goodness of Mercedes-Benz automobiles on Route 97. One year my former wife and I drove to the Glen in tandem with Pedro Rodriguez and his wife, Angelina. I drove a dark blue Ferrari 250GT two-plus-two, and he drove a dark blue Pontiac Grand Prix. It was raining–it seems as though it was always raining on those weekends–and my wife was a wreck. She was all white knuckles and sharp intakes of breath. The glorious madness of racing Pedro across the back roads of up-state New York was lost on her. The next year we did it again, only this time Pedro was in a Ferrari 330 two-plus-two and I was in a Mercedes 230SL. We went just as fast and it rained just as hard, but my wife knitted, never dropping a stitch, never looking up. We could have been motoring gently off to church, for all the strain she apparently felt. That marriage is history now, but I still harbor that day’s special feelings for the cars from Untertürkheim.
About a third of the way up Route 97, in the town of Berryville, if memory serves me, there was a nice restaurant called Reber’s that used to be saving a bottle of wine for me. We’d stop there for a late lunch on the way home from the Glen on the Monday after the race. In 1967 I was supposed to meet Jo Bonnier and Jo Siffert there, as had become traditional. But I was late, and when I came flying down the road, one glance told me that their car wasn’t parked out front, so I kept going, not knowing that Bonnier had bought me a ’61 Puligny-Montrachet and asked the bartender to hold it for me. I never got that bottle of wine. Jo Bonnier was killed, Jo Siffert was killed, Pedro Rodriguez was killed, and the Grand Prix at Watkins Glen was killed, and I had no reason to pass that way anymore.
Of all the guys who used to laugh and lie and linger over lunch with me at that nice place on Route 97, only Masten Gregory and I were still alive. Then, the year we launched this magazine, Masten Gregory died of a heart attack in Italy, leaving me. Masten jumped out of at least three racing cars when they were about to crash and survived every kind of mishap the racing driver is heir to, only to succumb to a bad heart.
Now I only look in on the sport occasionally, having walked away from it the day Bruce McLaren was killed. That was June 2, 1970, and I was sitting in my office at the advertising agency when our number one client called. It was John De Lorean, then general manager of Chevrolet, and he said: “I just got a call from England. Bruce McLaren was killed this morning. He was testing at Goodwood.” I was upset by the news, certainly, but my friends had been dying in racing cars since I first got involved in the early Fifties, and I was getting used to it. By the time I got home from work that night, I’d made my peace with the idea that he was gone. It was in that frame of mind that I passed the news on to my three kids in the kitchen, and they were thunderstruck. They’d had a helicopter ride around the Elkhart Lake circuit with Bruce just months before. He’d invited them to sit in his big orange Can-Am car in the paddock. Their horror at the news of his death peeled away the business-as-usual protective veneer that I’d been wearing for fifteen years, and I, too, came face to face with the reality of Bruce McLaren’s death.
The more I thought about it, the more my own insensitivity bothered me. I began to make lists of friends who’d died in racing cars, starting with Ira Garfunkel, who’d rolled his 1500cc HRG in a hill-climb the day I got married in 1955. The list grew, until at last there were the names of more than fifty people who’d eaten dinner at my house, played with my kids, called me in the middle of the night, borrowed my cars, helped me close bars in towns from Riverside, California, to Caltavuturo, Sicily, and then suddenly died. I decided it was too much.
I announced to friends and family that I wouldn’t attend another race until all of my friends were out of it. It didn’t make any difference; they continued to die anyway. But time passed and everybody I’d known, save A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti, had packed it in. And, I must confess, I found a wide range of uses for weekends, once I’d stopped spending them all at races.
Now, I feel a bit like somebody who can’t get over an old girlfriend. I know that racing has changed completely in the years that I’ve been away, and I’m not crazy about any of the changes, but that’s probably just the dry-in-the-mouth bitterness of an ex-lover. Two years ago I watched Jackie Stewart strap himself into a Benetton Formula 1 car and streak out of the pits at Oulton Park, and I felt exactly the same rush of excitement and admiration I’d felt the first time he raced in the United States, at Watkins Glen, in 1965. I felt like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, for Crissake. It’s the oldest cliché in the world: Just when you think you’ve gotten over some woman, you meet her on the street and you go all warm and moist again.
I hadn’t thought much about any of this until quite recently, when I received a letter from Pedro Rodriguez’s stepson, Mr. Guy Zugasti. He enclosed a sheaf of photographs, including one I had taken of him at a party at Pedro and Angelina’s home in Cuernavaca a couple of days after the Mexican Grand Prix of 1965. Graham Hill and Jackie Stewart were there, as were Ludovico Scarfiotti and Lorenzo Bandini. A riotous soccer game was part of the day’s festivities, and, as usual, Graham Hill was more riotous than anybody. Mr. Zugasti’s letter reminded me that next year will mark the twentieth anniversary of Pedro’s death at Germany’s Norisring, July 11, 1971.
Pedro Rodriguez was a very special individual. He began racing with his younger brother, Ricardo, when they were in their early teens. I remember that in 1956 a gaggle of well-known California drivers went down to Mexico for a local race and found themselves being eaten alive by a couple of Mexican teen-agers in Porsche Spyders. Ricardo died practicing for the Mexican Grand Prix in 1962 when he was twenty years old, and his death became a heavy burden for Pedro. A lot of people in Mexico always believed that Ricardo was the better driver–Pedro’s father was outspoken on this point–and I felt that a lot of the joy Pedro might have taken from his own successful racing career was blunted by the ongoing competition with a dead brother. He once asked me if I’d be his manager, and, as a journalist, I felt compelled to turn him down, but with sincere regret. He was as tough and brave as a whole company of marines, but he always struck me as a man who needed a friend.
Earlier in 1965, Pedro asked Mike Spence and me to help him promote a race at an airport in Guadalajara. It was a riot. Guadalajara was one of the most pleasant cities I’d ever visited, and there was a party somewhere every night. The race probably didn’t make Pedro any money at all, but we sure had fun. Two years later, Pedro and Angelina invited me to dinner after the 1967 Monaco Grand Prix. Piero Taruffi was there, and I’d never met him. It should have been a gala dinner, but that was the day Lorenzo
Bandini was fatally injured in an awful flaming crash, and we were all a little subdued. About a year would pass before Mike Spence would be dead at Indianapolis, and Ludovico Scarfiotti would die in West Germany within a few weeks of Spence.
If there’s a point to this, I guess I’m trying to say that I’d go back to racing again tomorrow if I thought the people and the camaraderie would be anything like the same. But I’m afraid all that’s gone forever, banished by drivers who come and go by helicopter and sequester themselves away in air-conditioned motorhomes when they’re not driving. It’s the John McEnroe/Bob Dylan syndrome: They’ve become too important to waste time on their publics. I long for one, just one, Grand Prix driver who comports himself as Stirling Moss and Bruce McLaren and Jackie Stewart did–never too busy for the enthusiasts, always ready to go the extra mile, always appreciative of the sponsor’s investment.
Grand Prix racing is a beautiful, even a noble, sport. All those friends who died knew the risks and accepted them because of that beauty and nobility and how it shaped their very lives. But Grand Prix racing has fallen into bad hands. The bean counters and the merchandisers are in control, and the market for heroes has gone soft. I just wish I’d drunk that bottle of wine.