They were born too late to fight in World War II, but they survived an era when racing was deadlier than combat. Back then, racing was still just a sport rather than a marketing vehicle, and drivers were hired on the basis of skill and nerve, not how many sponsors they brought or how well they played with the media. Television coverage was rare and tape-delayed, and magazine reports dribbled in months after races had been run, so drivers didn’t become pop-culture celebrities in the modern sense. Remote and somehow mythic, they were lionized as heroes, and their feats became the stuff of legend rather than the ephemeral fodder for endless highlight loops on ESPN. Many of these drivers are gone now, dozens killed in wrecks so ghastly that they would inspire universal opprobrium if they occurred today, in the age of YouTube and twenty-four-hour news cycles. And none of them are getting any younger, of course. So we sent photographer Rick Dole across the country to document some of the remaining icons of this bygone era. His portraits — and their stories — will run in an ongoing series that we call Generation of Heroes.
Dan Gurney was central casting’s idea of an all-American racer — tall, blond, and handsome, with a sunny smile that radiated the optimism of Southern California. He was so popular that David E. Davis, Jr., the founding editor of Automobile Magazine, inaugurated a “Dan Gurney for President” campaign in 1964. Oh, and he was blessed with talent, too. At Jim Clark’s funeral, the two-time world champion’s father confided that Gurney was the only driver his son had feared. Despite legendary bad luck, Gurney won more Formula 1 races than any American not named Mario Andretti, and he claimed five NASCAR victories (in six years) on the road course at Riverside. His driving career peaked during a remarkable eight-day stretch in 1967 that began when he and A. J. Foyt dominated Le Mans
in a thundering Ford GT40 Mark IV.
(Afterward, Gurney invented the tradition of spraying the crowd with a celebratory bottle of champagne.) The next week, he conquered Spa-Francorchamps, winning the Belgian Grand Prix in an Eagle, a car of his own design. His race car company, fittingly dubbed All American Racers, built cars that claimed eight championships and three Indy 500s. Still working at 81, Gurney remains the fair-haired boy of American motorsports.
They called him Lone Star J. R., and the name worked on several levels. He lived in Fort Worth. He cut his teeth running modifieds at Devil’s Bowl Speedway near Dallas. He raced with a Texas-flag motif on his helmet. He was braver than a Brahma bull rider. But Johnny Rutherford was no cowboy. Polished as a politician and a devotee of the arts, he became the public face of the Indy Racing League after quitting the cockpit. Seeing him now, poised and prosperous, it’s hard to envision the rocky road he traveled en route to winning three Indy 500s. He was among the last drivers to race at the Speedway in a front-engine roadster, and a violent sprint-car wreck at Eldora Speedway nearly ended his career. After several years in the wilderness, he landed a dream ride with McLaren, and he later scored the first win at Indianapolis in a ground-effects car with the Chaparral 2K, a.k.a. the Yellow Submarine. Like Mario Andretti and A. J. Foyt, he hung on too long, failing to qualify for the 500 during his last three attempts before finally retiring at the age of fifty-six. But as IndyCar’s longtime pace-car driver, he remains one of the sport’s greatest ambassadors.
In the second installment of our Generation of Heroes series, we look back at the careers of the most successful Indy car driver of all time, an American hero who quit in the prime of his career, a five-time Le Mans winner, and a Brit who raced everything from Formula 1 to rally cars.
In his prime, nobody was tougher to beat than the cocky, irascible, and fiercely combative Texan, Anthony Joseph Foyt, Jr. He’s the winningest Indy car driver of all time — by a long straightaway — and there were entire seasons when he won more races than he lost. Wrenching on his own cars, he was the last man to win Indy in a front-engine roadster, and he claimed his fourth 500 on the cusp of the ground-effects era. A. J. also found time to win the Daytona 500, and even though road racing wasn’t his forte, he’s one of a handful of drivers who scored a triple crown in endurance racing, with victories at Le Mans, Daytona (twice), and Sebring. Foyt was ornery enough to survive several wrecks that would have killed lesser men, and he was as hard to get along with as he was to race against; witness his two explosive divorces from Hall of Fame crew chief George Bignotti. As a car owner, he’s better remembered for slapping Arie Luyendyk than for winning Indy with Kenny Brack. Don’t be fooled by the paunch and the avuncular smile he wears these days. In his heyday, A. J. Foyt was the baddest badass of them all.
It’s not uncommon for sports heroes to hang on too long. Parnelli Jones was one of the few who quit too soon. In 1967, he was within four laps of his second Indianapolis 500 victory when his STP-sponsored turbine — the so-called Whooshmobile — crawled to a stop with a broken gearbox. Although Parnelli (born Rufus Parnell Jones) had been magic at the Speedway, he never raced an Indy car again. Thirty-three years old at the time, he was too young and competitive to retire. So he turned his attention to road racing and claimed a hard-fought Trans-Am title over Mark Donohue. Later, he became the first superstar of off-road racing, scoring back-to-back Baja 1000 wins in “Big Oly” — the fast and seemingly indestructible Ford Bronco that embodied his take-no-prisoners personality. Meanwhile, he and partner Vel Miletich created a superteam known as Vel’s Parnelli Jones Racing, which won Indy twice running with Al Unser in the cockpit, contested everything from drag racing to Formula 5000, and sent Mario Andretti to Europe in a homegrown Formula 1 car. Jones lost a lot of friends in racing, and his own son Page suffered a traumatic brain injury in a sprint-car crash. Looking back, maybe Parnelli got out at just the right time.
Derek Bell is proof positive that nice guys can finish first — five times at Le Mans, three times at Daytona, and on dozens of other occasions at racetracks all over the globe. Fast, consistent, self-deprecating, and unfailingly affable, Bell was the consummate endurance-racing co-driver. But like Fred Astaire, another class act who spent decades at the top of a brutally competitive profession, Bell worked only with the best — drivers such as Hans-Joachim Stuck, Jo Siffert, Mike Hailwood, Stefan Bellof, Al Holbert, and, most famously, Jacky Ickx, his partner for three Le Mans victories. Not that Bell needed help behind the wheel. He showed enough pace as a Formula 2 tyro that Enzo Ferrari hired him after he’d been racing for less than four years. Alas, Bell arrived during one of Ferrari’s dry spells, and his Formula 1 career was undermined by a chronic case of wrong time, wrong place. But he never looked back after settling into a John Wyer Gulf-sponsored Porsche 917 in 1971, and he continued to race touring cars well into his sixties. Despite all his victories, he says his most rewarding race was a third-place finish at Le Mans in 1995 with Andy Wallace and — here’s the kicker — his son Justin.
Plenty of drivers have made the transition from two wheels to four, from single-seaters to door- slammers, from ovals to road circuits. But only one driver earned legendary status in both rallying and road racing. Vic Elford’s career was remarkable for both its variety and its brevity. The cosmopolitan London native didn’t take center stage until he won the European Rally Championship in a Porsche 911 in 1967 at the relatively advanced age of thirty-two. Early the next year, during an implausible two-week stretch that showcased his unparalleled versatility, he claimed the Monte Carlo Rally and the 24 Hours of Daytona. By midsummer, he’d also overcome an eighteen-minute deficit to win the Targa Florio, and then, in pouring rain, on a deadly circuit where Jo Schlesser was killed, he finished fourth in the French Grand Prix in his Formula 1 debut. By 1971, he’d scored an epic win at Sebring in a Porsche 917, an unexpected victory in Trans-Am, and two Can-Am poles in the Chaparral 2J sucker car. His career as a frontline driver was over almost before it started. But Elford will always be remembered as the first person to lap Le Mans at better than 150 mph. Quick Vic, indeed.
In this installment, we pay tribute to a drag-racing icon, an ingenious engineer and fabricator, and a racing innovator.
Drag racing is the most elemental form of motor-sports. But some- thing about the apparent simplicity of the action on the track fosters a cast of matchlessly memorable participants. Think about Don “Big Daddy” Garlits. John Force. Shirley Muldowney. Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins. But none of them enjoyed a longer career at the top than Don Prudhomme. He was dubbed “The Snake” because of his lanky frame and wicked-quick reactions off the line, but the sobriquet applied equally well to his ruthlessly competitive nature. He claimed his first Top Fuel win in 1962 — when he was merely twenty years old — and aspired to nothing more than owning a body and paint shop, then amassed a remarkable 230-7 record in the Greer-Black-Prudhomme rail that smoked all comers. He later segued into Funny Cars and won four consecutive championships, continuing to race until he was fifty-three. After hanging up his Nomex, Prudhomme added 63 wins as a team owner to his 49 as a driver. Still, he’s best remembered for his long- running rivalry with Tom “The Mongoose” McEwen, which inspired a series of beloved Hot Wheels models and opened the floodgates for the major-league sponsorship that transformed drag racing into a sports-entertainment leviathan.
Jim Hall had the gambling heart of a Texas wildcatter, the hefty bankroll of an oil tycoon, and a precocious imagination tempered by a degree in mechanical engineering from Caltech. He was also a pretty fair race car driver, running a creditable season in Formula 1 in 1963, winning the U.S. Road Racing Championship in 1964, and dominating the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1965 in a car he designed and built himself. But the taciturn Texan is remembered best as the founder of Chaparral Cars. With a private test track in dusty Midland, Texas — aptly named Rattlesnake Raceway — and a pipeline leading to Chevrolet R&D, Hall pioneered several advances that revolutionized racing. His Chaparral 2 was built around a composite semi-monocoque tub. The 2C offered clutchless shifting. The daunting rear wing on the 2E opened up a new world of aerodynamic downforce. The 2J introduced ground effects via suction provided by a snowmobile engine. Later, Hall worked with John Barnard to produce the 2K that brought underwings to Indy. Modern rules no longer permit this brand of blue-sky innovation. Or maybe there are no longer any Jim Halls brave enough and smart enough to take the right kind of risks.
For a long time, Phil Remington — master race car fabricator, mechanical wizard, and practical engineer par excellence — seemed to be just about everywhere: running with the legendary Low Flyers of Santa Monica hot-rod club before World War II. Setting records on the dry lakes after returning from the South Pacific. Prepping the one-off sports car that won the first big road race on the West Coast. Assembling Indy roadsters and midgets with Lujie Lesovsky and Emil Diedt. Building the first American Formula 1 racing car and the last of the Scarabs, both for Lance Reventlow. Perfecting Cobras for Carroll Shelby. Ramrodding the massive Ford effort that overwhelmed Ferrari at Le Mans. Then, in 1969, he signed on with Dan Gurney at All American Racers, and he never left. Since then, he’s worked on Indy cars; Can-Am cars; Trans-Am cars; GTO, GTU, and GTP cars; Formula Fords and Formula 5000s; even prototype motorcycles. At 91, he still logs a full day every day at AAR, most recently fabbing parts for the radical Delta-Wing Le Mans racer. Nobody ever did it faster, or better, or longer. “Rem’s like a tornado,” Gurney once told us. “He’s just a great, unstoppable force of nature.”
Installment number four of our series features drag racing’s Big Daddy, the Ironman of off-roading, an American driver who won international fame, and a photographer who captured many of the era’s greatest racing moments on film.
Don Garlits is the Michael Jordan of drag racing — the best-known name in his sport and the standard by which all other participants are measured. In 1955, he won the first organized race he entered in the first dragster he built. By the time he retired at age seventy-one, shortly after hitting 323 mph in one of his last quarter-mile passes, Big Daddy had won a record 144 “open” races and seventeen national championships in the top-billed Top Fuel category. He was also the first racer through the 170-, 180-, 200-, 240-, 250-, 260-, and 270-mph barriers. Over the years, he built thirty-four numbered race cars, known as Swamp Rats in honor of his Florida roots. Unlucky number thirteen nearly killed him in 1970 when the transmission exploded, shearing off part of his right foot. After that, Garlits abandoned the traditional slingshot template, where the cockpit is hung behind the rear axle. Swamp Rat XIV revolutionized drag racing by mounting the engine behind the driver and a gigantic wing over the rear tires. Fifteen years later, Garlits also introduced the Top Fuel world to the flipping-over wheelie, known as a “blowover,” in Swamp Rat XXX, a car so radical that it’s enshrined in the Smithsonian.
The public face of off-road racing during the 1980s and ’90s had a predictably stout physique, the craggy good looks of a Hollywood war hero, and a nickname so fitting that no self-respecting public-relations maven would have dared to make it up: Ironman. In 1973, in his first off-road drive — which he got only because the regular driver fell off a ladder and broke his leg — he won the Ensenada 300. Three years later, driving a Volkswagen-powered buggy, he became the first person to drive single-handedly to an overall Baja 1000 victory, and the Ironman was born. Over the next quarter century, Ivan Stewart earned four SCORE off-road championships and won a record seventeen Mickey Thompson stadium truck races. Promoted in advertising campaigns by Toyota, his longtime sponsor, Stewart also became the sport’s most recognizable icon. He claimed the last of his three overall Baja 1000 victories in 1998 after a grueling nineteen-plus-hour solo drive that required an epic 100-mile finishing sprint to La Paz to make up time lost due to a sticking throttle. As Stewart explained later, “I knew that it would be better to drive that truck off a cliff and wad it up into a little ball than to finish in second.”
John Fitch’s resume traces the high points of a stellar career. He was an entrant in the first road race at Watkins Glen in 1948. The first SCCA national champion in 1951, driving for Briggs Cunningham. A member of the first American team, with co-driver Phil Walters, to win an international road race in an American car — a Hemi-powered Cunningham C-4R at Sebring in 1953. Class winner in the Mille Miglia (in a Mercedes-Benz 300SL) and overall winner in the Tourist Trophy (with Stirling Moss in a 300SLR) in 1955. But the measure of the man is better demonstrated by his actions at Le Mans that year. Shortly before Fitch was scheduled to begin his first driving stint, the Mercedes-Benz raced by his co-driver, Pierre Levegh, flew over an embankment and scythed through the crowd, killing at least eighty spectators. Fitch implored the team manager, Alfred Neubauer, to withdraw the two remaining cars. “If Mercedes won,” Fitch says, “I felt it would have been a public-relations disaster.” To this day, Moss — whose Mercedes was leading at the time — resents the company’s decision to retire from the race. Fitch, meanwhile, spent most of his postracing life promoting highway and racetrack safety.
In the spring of 1954, Jesse Alexander headed off to Europe with his young family, a 35-millimeter Leica, and a loosely defined plan to become the Henri Cartier-Bresson of the motorsports world, freezing the “decisive moment” on film at celebrated racetracks across the continent. During the next decade, Alexander put countless kilometers on a Volkswagen Microbus, a Porsche 356, and then the Mercedes-Benz 300SL that had won Le Mans in 1952. But he didn’t merely chronicle the racing scene as a photojournalist. With his empathetic eye, he also captured the essence of the intoxicating but dangerous sport. Consider, for example, his iconic portraits of Phil Hill, smiling wearily after winning at Monza, and Jim Clark, his eyes haunted after dominating the Belgian Grand Prix on a Spa-Francorchamps circuit he feared and hated. Etched on their faces is the strain of competing in the world’s deadliest form of entertainment. A decade later, Alexander’s work was featured in a boldly oversize book, At Speed, full of luscious, full-color images that forced viewers to reconsider motorsports photography as fine art. But it’s his earlier black-and-white photos — quiet, understated, elegant, and direct — that we remember best as essential artifacts of racing’s Golden Age.
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 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.
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 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! 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.