The Good Life: Racer Sam Posey Still Shines Bright
Despite a fight with Parkinson’s, race-car driver, Formula 1 commentator, and author is still as colorful as ever
Sam Posey is 72 years old and as colorful as ever. As if to prove it, when we catch up with the race-car driver, Formula 1 commentator, and author of "The Mudge Pond Express," one of the 1970s most-gripping racing autobiographies, he's padding around his studio in Sharon, Connecticut, with an easel and a multihued array of oil paints at the ready. At the opposite end of the high-ceiling barn-cum-studio — designed, like everything else on the property, by Posey, who did the landscaping as well — we see where his wife, artist Ellen Griesedieck, has been assembling the American Mural Project, a 3D collaboration of artists from around the country she's directing that honors the American worker. When unveiled later this year, expect it to be the world's largest piece of interactive indoor artwork, spanning 125 feet wide and 30 feet tall.
Posey beams with pride describing his wife's work but apologizes for his speech. He worries he may be difficult to understand on account of the Parkinson's disease he was diagnosed with 22 years ago and which has worsened over time. But Posey remains easy to follow and — better still — well worth following. Energetic and youthful in appearance, with trademark eyebrows that look like they have their own electric power supply, he's an effervescent archetype, a midcentury Yankee Renaissance man. A uniquely American character, Posey's journey from Connecticut country homes and elite New York City private schools to an eclectic and industrious life spent racing, writing, broadcasting, designing buildings, and painting can't be replicated.
Looking back at it all, Posey observes with genuine surprise and bemusement: "It's just, things keep coming out right when I do them." Known on air and off for economical, insightful prose — sometimes upbeat, sometimes elegiac — Posey stands out among racing commentators. He's wry, thoughtful, and particularly well-informed. The subject is something he knows quite a bit about, having been a driver of some note in the day when competition was as long on excitement and glamour as it was on danger. His years on the track (1965-1982) coincided with the closing hours of racing's free-for-all period, a less-regulated time that some see as the sport's most interesting era, though also among its most dangerous with a depressingly high fatality rate. Driving in all manner of cars, series, and formulas, Posey often placed and sometimes won, with stops in Formula Vee, Indianapolis, Le Mans, Can-Am, Formula 5000, Tasman, Champ Car, NASCAR, Trans-Am, and F1 with cars as diverse and brutishly powerful as the Surtees TS9B, Ferrari 312M, and Dodge Challenger as well as McLarens, Bizzarinis. Even the Caldwell, a car devised by engineer Ray Caldwell and his designer, driver, and chief financial backer, our host, Sam Posey.
Born to a well-to-do family that split its time between Manhattan's Upper East Side and old money, Brahman northern Connecticut, Posey spent all of one day with his father before he went off to war in 1944. His father would later lose his life to a kamikaze in Okinawa. But Sam was young, and he had a mother, Mary, who doted on her son and enthusiastically supported his youthful fixation on competition and speed. In 1958 when he was 14, she agreed to buy him a 2-year-old Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing from a charter member of post-war Connecticut's elite international racing fraternity, the racer and sometime car dealer John Fitch, for the princely sum of $2,500. In this silver machine, which Posey still owns, he taught himself to drive fast, garnering car-control basics by whipping through rural fields of alfalfa and setting the stage for a victorious run up Vermont's Mount Equinox hill climb. "It turned out it was an absolutely perfect car for the thing because you turned in, and the rear suspension jacked, you'd floor it, and basically it would slide out behind, the axles would come back, and then you'd have a straight shot," he says. A Formula Vee car sharpened his skills further.
"It was remarkable to me that she would let me do this," Posey admits of his mother. "But she always said it was the only thing I was good at. I was terrible in school. Bottom of the class all the time, just couldn't do math, couldn't do languages. English was fine. I was in good shape there.
"The only race that my mom really was scared about was Indy, and when Indy started she went into her laundry room and ironed a shirt for three hours, the same shirt. She came to a lot of the races. I think she liked going, and I don't think either of us in any way perceived the danger. We just didn't understand it. We were too naïve. I mean you look down the grid now for 1959, let's say, and it's 'dead, dead, dead,' right down the list." In her grandmother years, Posey's mom picked up her grandkids at school in her 1969 Plymouth Superbird, and her estate included a Citroën Traction Avant. "She loved cars, and she was a very good driver," Posey says.
Down the road from his compound in Sharon is Lime Rock Park. Founded in 1947 and celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, it's one of the three oldest continuously operating racetracks in the country and very definitely his home base. They named the Sam Posey Straight here for him a few years back, and until recently when doctors began advising against it on account of a blood thinner he takes — its effects make any crash potentially fatal — he'd visit the track to reel off the occasional hot lap. Running solo in a Formula Ford prepared by his friend, Don Breslauer, with a rule-bending 185 horsepower to push around but 880 pounds, it kept his skills sharp.
Posey remembers having one of his greatest races at Lime Rock in 1969 with a Trans-Am Mustang run by Carroll Shelby's team and driven by Peter Revson. "Peter got in the show at Indy, and I was congratulating him. We were friends, and he said, 'You know, the Mustang is going to be open. Why don't we call Shelby?' So we called him right from the pay phone and got Lou Spencer, who was his right-hand man at the time, and Lou shouted, 'Shel, we need a driver for Lime Rock. How about Sam Posey?' And Shelby came back, 'Who's that?'
"But we got the deal and put the car on the pole with a hell of a run. At Lime Rock, you do the turns, but the last thing is the downhill. And so you got your lap, and it's really good, but now you've got to take the chance going flat out of that last turn. It was an exhausting, hot day, and the race was more than three hours. I won it, and then I won at Laguna in the 5000 [series] the next weekend — or was it the weekend before? Either way, I was feeling good."
Earlier in his career Posey had the wherewithal to design a car and start a racing team with Caldwell, a fellow New Englander, acting as his partner. Posey had money but not enough to see it very far. "My mom never put one penny toward my racing," he says. "She lent me money for a week once. I had a monumental crash in Riverside in the spring of '69, and we needed another car. I mean, our car was written off. So she advanced me the $13,000 that it took to buy this car, and I paid her back right away. But people saw her writing the check, you know, and they assumed. … [But] I had an inheritance from my dad. It wouldn't buy a set of wheels today, but it was enough to do the Caldwell car."
The Can-Am sports racer Caldwell engineered was notably aerodynamic — Posey worked the shape out with an MIT professor, and when Bruce McLaren's cars showed up that year sporting more or less the same nose, the famous race-car designer semi-seriously accused Posey of stealing it. The Caldwell unpromisingly featured solid axles front and rear, the theory being that the wide tires newly in vogue would get more power down if suspended perpendicularly to the road. It might've worked better, Posey maintains, if tracks were smoother and flatter than they actually are. The Caldwell was plagued by a tendency to "jerk from side to side as if it was going down the trolley tracks."
Posey returned to driving for hire, and notable finishes included third at Le Mans in 1971 and fifth at Indy in 1972. He won Sebring in 1975, racing BMW's legendary "Batmobile," the 3.0 CSL IMSA, and he had a hand in BMW's famous art cars. He also twice ran a Surtees at the U.S. F1 Grand Prix at Watkins Glen. His career as a racing analyst for ABC television ran parallel to the end of his main racing years, beginning with an on-air stint in 1974 at the Indy 500 and continuing for the next 22 years. Later, he joined Speedvision. With his writing — he's had a home at Road & Track since he sold it his first piece at the age of 14 — his thoughts have never been out of motorsports.
Like many retired racers, Posey makes a fine after-dinner speaker. But how many of them are also successful, museum-collected fine artists? Like some 18th century polymath, Posey maintained parallel careers. He is not just a racer or a painter. He's also the designer of dozens of elegant homes and structures, including the tower and other service buildings at Lime Rock. And he is a respected model railroader. In the basement of the home he designed and shares with Griesedieck, his wife of 40 years, we see an amazing HO-scale layout he masterminded and fastidiously assembled. Unsurprisingly, it's also the subject of a book he wrote. Other tomes concern his art and building designs, and there've been two on his racing life, the aforementioned "Mudge Pond Express" (out of print) and "Where the Writer Meets the Road," a 2015 compilation of his essays and commentaries.
And yet Posey says he is not a car guy. "I don't know what my favorite car is." Pressed to think harder, he says, "I loved the Formula 5000 car we had for '71. It had really big numbers. I loved the Ferrari 312s. And it breaks my heart that I can't drive the Formula Ford.
"I've now gotten to where it's OK. I mean, if I could drive again, yes, but I have a perception now of who I am in the giant scheme of things in racing. If I was out there at Lime Rock with my car, I'd be nothing but a has-been driver, you know? I mean, I'm not much anymore.
"Dan Gurney put it perfectly. He said, 'Sam, sometime between when you're 50 and when you're 100, you're going to lose speed. It may happen all at once or happen slowly.' … John Fitch gave me a great piece of advice, he said, 'Sam, the racing takes place on the black stuff not the green. '"
A big crash in 2012, when someone spun in front of him at Lime Rock during a practice session in a Formula Ford, helped convince Posey it was time to hang it up. "I was unconscious for 4 minutes," he says. "So that wasn't good. Ellen didn't like that much."
Posey still likes to go fast, though. He has a Corvette, which he enjoys, along with his mother's '46 Ford woody wagon and the Gullwing, plus some modern metal. He designed a course amid a large stand of high grass on his farm property, and he drives a Hammerhead 250-cc racing buggy flat out around it lap after lap, with apparently undiminished skill. He loves this place; from here went forward all his careers, from here came his two children, and here is where he's always worked, alongside his wife, she on her art, he on his.
"I would come back from racing or an ABC thing at 3 in the morning, she'd be painting," he recalls. "I'll never forget walking up. The grass was just iridescent with light coming out of the studio. It happened many times. What I realized is that I'd look at her paintings for a while and I'd look at my paintings for a while and start working again. There was never any slippage between racing and painting. The two were absolutely on the same wavelength. My brain didn't have to change at all because you start with nothing and build slowly, and the way you feel determines the elemental character of the thing. There are just dozens of little comparisons. Driving and painting have been the saving grace for me."