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When Men Were Men, And Burned To Death

December 21, 2009
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David Hobbs should know better, so when he said it, I hit replay on the Tivo to make sure I heard him right. I don’t have a transcript, but I know what I heard:

“When men raced at Spa … when real men raced at Spa …”

The sound of that caught me like a record scratch, incongruous against the deep green Ardennes hills that surround the storied racing circuit in Francorchamps, Belgium. It wasn’t just what he said. It was what he meant. Hobbs was talking about the changes that have been made to the track for safety. And the reason I’m writing about it on a feminist blog is because this has everything to do with masculinity, machismo and men.

Once upon a time, race car drivers were real men: men who crashed and got injured, crashed and got killed, crashed and burned in fires. Once upon a time, men in race cars pretended they were not afraid, as they buried their friends, and the fans pretended the carnage was a series of accidents, instead of a culture of unsafety around how tracks were built and staffed, cars were built and races were run. Then, once upon a time, a young Scot refused to be a man, and decided instead to be a husband to his wife and a father to his children, and to keep coming home. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I intended to write about this for a feminist sports blog that someone was going to start, and it never got off the ground, and I’ve commented about it on various threads, usually around May when the confluence of Danica Patrick’s prominence and the Indianapolis 500 brings motorsports to feminist blogs. I’ve been reading books about men lately – Guyland, Self-Made Man and Dude You’re A Fag, each of which I may review at some point – and this has had some time to percolate.

The Good Old Days: The Maimed And The Dead

When men were men and film was in black and white, race car drivers died and were injured in crashes with what now seems like shocking regularity. European motorsports resumed after a nearly decade-long hiatus caused by the Second World War, with sports car and Grand Prix racing adopting advances in engines, materials and aerodynamics spurred by military technology, and the cars went faster and faster from the early fifties on. The speeds quickly outstripped the cars’ rudimentary abilities to protect drivers in a crash, leaving ever thinner margins of for lightweight machines with hundreds of horsepower on tracks made of winding public roads.

In 1955, a driver in the new Mercedes endurance racer at the 24 Hours of LeMans crashed, sending his fiery, magnesium-bodied car into the crowd, killing about 80 spectators. Enzo Ferrari fielded a team of six Grand Prix drivers for the 1956 Grand Prix season; in a year, five were dead. Peter Collins crashed his Ferrari 246 Dino in the 1958 German Grand Prix, was thrown from the car and hit a tree. He was flown back to Britain, but his injuries were fatal. Stuart Lewis-Evans, a brilliant rising talent, died in the 1958 Moroccan Grand Prix. His engine seized and he spun off the track. His car burst into flames. Lewis-Evans escaped, badly burned, and was airlifted back to the UK, where he hung on for six agonizing days before succumbing. His team won the Constructor’s Championship that year, but the team owner couldn’t get over the carnage and withdrew from racing. German Aristocrat Wolfgang Von Tripps went into the Italian Grand Prix at Monza in 1961 just one point behind Californian Phil Hill in the driver standings. If Von Tripps won, he would be the first German Driver’s Champion; Hill would be the first American. Von Tripps had been injured in crashes at Monza in 1956 and 1958; in 1961 he touched wheels with Scottish Lotus driver Jim Clark, and spun into the crowd. He and fifteen spectators died. Hill won the race and the championship. Video here.

Lorenzo Bandini’s accident came on the streets of Monaco:

The car hit straw bales which lined the harbour side, rupturing the fuel tank … Marshals flipped his car upright and pulled Bandini, unconscious, out from the flaming Ferrari. It is thought that during the effort to right the overturned car that gasoline leaked on the hot brake line or the exhaust pipe and exploded…

Bandini’s burns were extensive, with third degree burns covering more than 70% of his body. The worst burns were on his arms and legs with slight burns on his face… He also sustained a chest wound and ten chest fractures … Three days later Bandini succumbed to his injuries. He died at Princess Grace Polyclinic Hospital in Monte Carlo.

You can see for yourself. He barely clipped the barrier. It happened so fast. [Warning – the video shows Bandini’s body]

In 1965, John Surtees was the defending Grand Prix world champion, He crashed at MoSport in Canada. Though Wikipedia says he made a full recovery, A.J. Baime in his recent book Go Like Hell says it wasn’t like that. Surtees came out of the crash with one side of his body four inches shorter than the other. Doctors set most of the breaks nonsurgically, in part by physically stretching his shattered body until the right-left discrepancy was under an inch – and there it stayed.

Surtees’s rivals in sports car racing included Ford GT-40 pilots Ken Miles and the New Zealander Bruce McLaren, who finished 1-2 in the 1966 24 Hours of LeMans. Just months after that finish, Miles, who survived the Second World War in a British tank, died at Riverside in California testing the next generation GT-40. McLaren died in 1970 testing a Can-Am car at Goodwood in England.

In 1968, Surtees, one leg still shorter than the other, was test driving for Honda. He told them that their new F1 car was far from ready to race” “a deathtrap.” They fielded it anyway. Jo Schlesser slid the magnesium-bodied Honda off a corner at Rouen. It was the second lap, and he had a full tank of gas, which ruptured; Schlesser died. Cameras captured the ball of fire. [Warning, the video clearly shows the recovery of Schlesser’s lifeless body.]

Jo Siffert, who gave Porsche some of its great wins in endurance racing in the 907 and 917 models, and who won the last race for a true privateer in F1 at Brands Hatch in 1968, crashed and burned at the same track in 1971. The trackside fire extinguishers did not work, and he was overcome by smoke and never made it out of the car. Another death in a race, cameras captured the burning car.

The list seems endless.

JYS

There is a particular insensitivity to Hobbs’s remark, because he is a Briton, and because he was talking about Spa. In 1966, when according to Hobbs real men raced at Spa, there was a farmhouse near the circuit, which was a set of public roads closed only for racing purposes – as many Grand Prix circuits were. The road ran straight from the Malmedy curve to the Masta Kink, a little left-right chicane, so that the cars (as they were most of the time at Spa) were near top speed as they approached it.

That year, the hottest rising star in Grand Prix racing was John Young Stewart, a small and unprepossessing Scot who had given up national-level skeet shooting to follow his older brother into race car driving. The world knows him at Jackie Stewart, and the signal boards of the racing world, which reduce all drivers to three letters, know him as JYS.

Stewart slid off the Masta Kink and found himself upside down on the lower floor of that farmhouse. Stewart has told the story frequently ever since, and one account appears in his new autobiography, Winning Is Not Enough:

That weekend at Spa, the organizers unexpectedly announced there would be no warm-up lap before the race, prompting the joke among the drivers that they didn’t want us to drive around the notorious circuit too slowly because we would see all the hazards and drop-offs and refuse to race… I drove into a river of water on the track [in a downpour, common in that part of Belgium] at 170 mph, immediately lost control … and aquaplaned off the tarmac. My car had effectively become a missile and it proceeded to flatten both a woodcutter’s hut and a telegraph pole before careering off an eight-foot drop and finishing on the lower patio of a farmhouse. The chassis of the car was severly bent around me.

[Stewart, Winning Is Not Enough, p. 135]

On the long Spa track, sudden downpours often flood parts of the track, leaving the rest dry. This rainstorm sent several drivers off the course, and Stewart’s teammate, the tall and impeccable Graham Hill, had been preparing to steer his spun-out car from the grass back onto the track when he saw Stewart’s crash. Hill and another crashed driver, Bob Bondurant, found Stewart, but couldn’t get him out. The car was bent and the steering wheel needed to come off. But after twenty minutes, no race marshalls had appeared. The drivers crossed the active track to the infield, where some spectators sat with parked cars, and borrowed a wrench to take the steering wheel off. By this time, fuel from the ruptured tanks had pooled in Stewart’s broken car and soaked his clothes. A spark from anywhere would certainly kill him, and might end Hill’s and Bondurant’s lives as well. Stewart, in terrible pain from a broken collar bone and ribs, slipped in and out of consciousness, and after they dragged him free, he asked Hill to strip him naked, because the high-octane fuel in his clothes was burning his skin.

(The tragic and the comic often go hand in hand. Stewart lay in the adjascent barn in the back of a hay truck as Hill fetched medical attention. Three nuns saw Stewart naked and began redressing him, then Hill returned and, unable to explain himself without a shared language, undressed Stewart again, in full view of the nuns.)

Stewart:

There were no doctors and there was nowhere to put me. They in fact put me in the back of a van. Eventually an ambulance took me to a first aid spot near the control tower and I was left on a stretcher, on the floor, surrounded by cigarette ends. I was put into an ambulance with a police escort and the police escort lost the ambulance, and the ambulance didn’t know how to get to Liège. At the time they thought I had a spinal injury. As it turned out, I wasn’t seriously injured, but they didn’t know that.

I realized that if this was the best we had there was something sadly wrong: things wrong with the race track, the cars, the medical side, the fire-fighting, and the emergency crews. There were also grass banks that were launch pads, things you went straight into, trees that were unprotected and so on. Young people today just wouldn’t understand it. It was ridiculous.

If I have any legacy to leave the sport I hope it will be seen to be an an area of safety because when I arrived in Grand Prix racing so-called precautions and safety measures were diabolical.

The accident never entirely left him; he drove thereafter with a wrench taped to the wheel for such occasions, and some time later, he began bringing his own physician to races. But he didn’t just act for his own safety. He began a career-long fight against the morass of apathy about drivers’ death and disfigurement.

There were trees, right off the trackside! The Hockenheim ring in Germany ran through the woods. There were runoff areas where, if a driver slid off a curve, he would hit a berm and launch into the air. Fire safety was a joke. Medical facilities varied from the Spartan to the merely nominal. One race physician was a gynecologist, who happened to be a motorsports fan. Stewart’s own physician was barred from some tracks, on the grounds that his presence would be an insult to the appointed race doctor.

And the fans and racing press were more than happy to excuse this state of affairs – after all, if the drivers risked death with every lap, wasn’t the derring-do part of the thrill? Hemingway is rumored to have said*, “There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.” Sport was risking one’s life for a thrill and the roar of the crowd.

“But there was criticism from the media, even from some drivers,” Stewart remembers. “It was said I removed the romance from the sport, that the safety measures took away the swashbuckling spectacular that had been. They said I had no guts. But not many of these critics had ever crashed at 150 miles an hour. Fortunately, I was still achieving a lot of success, winning races in hideously dangerous conditions, and that gave me greater influence.”

One attack on Stewart in the motorsports press read, “Really, we have had enough of this timidity of his. I suggest he retires to Switzerland and leaves motor racing to the men.” [Emphasis supplied.] Fellow Scottish driver Innes Ireland made chicken noises. There was a joke in circulation that, to get to Stewart’s house in Switzerland, you left the airport and followed the Armco safety barriers to his door. Even Stirling Moss, one of the most storied and infuential drivers of the 1950s, spoke against safety reform. The New York Times quoted him:

“The public needs its vicarious thrills” said Moss, who quit in 1962 after a race accident in England left him paralyzed for six months. “I’m not saying they come to races to see people hurt, but to see them almost hurt. And it is important for the general public to look at the race driver as a daredevil, somebody crazy enough to do this dangerous sport.”

“New Breed of Drivers Too Tame, Says Moss”, Bernard Kirsch, NY Times, June 3, 1973, available from online archives.

Hobbs should well know the history: he was a direct contemporary. He drove six Grand Prix races between 1967 and 1974, and while his showing in F1 was undistinguished, this was part of a long and significant racing career. But Stewart persisted, in part because, as he has often later said, in an eleven year perior he buried 57 friends. He said:

To be a racing driver between 1963 and 1973 was to accept not the possibility, but the probability of death. If an F1 driver was to race for five years or more, he would be more likely to lose his life on the track than to survive and retire.

It took the death of another Scot, Stewart’s friend and mentor and one of the most loved figures in the racing world, to help Stewart get the traction he needed. Wee Jimmie Clark was the two-time world champion and thought by many then and some now to be the most talented driver ever to get behind the wheel of a car. (There are many claimants to that title, including Moss and Stewart). Clark and Stewart were close friends, sometimes referred to as Batman and Robin. The flat they shared in London was called the Scottish Embassy. In 1968 at Hockenheim, Clark was driving a Formula 2 car when the steering failed. Hockenhiem’s famous trackside trees claimed Jim Clark.**

With the best among them shouting for change, the drivers started to stand up. Stewart was the most vocal and visible figure in the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association, and led it in 1968. The organization began making safety demands: particularly removing obstacles and insisting on adequate medical care. In 1969, on behalf of the GPDA, Stewart demanded safety changes at Spa, and when the changes were not made, the British and Italian teams pulled out and the race was cancelled.

Trees came down, safety walls went from bales of hay to Armco barriers, and later tire walls. The dangerous curves got flat run-off areas, then gravel traps, then pavement run-off areas. The changes that started with Stewart have marched forward ever since. His revolution was not completed within his own career, and his friend and protege Francois Cevert was killed in Stewart’s farewell race in 1973. He passed the baton as safety crusader to Professor Sid Watkins, a neurosurgeon and the Chief Medical Officer for Formula One’s governing body from 1978 to 2004. Stewart is cited today as the driving force behind seatbelts, the full-face helmet, the Formula One medical team that travels with the series from race to race, run-off areas and safety barriers – virtually every safety innovation except the cars themselves. And when Jackie Stewart is cited, he is properly cited as Sir Jackie. He was knighted in 2001.

Taking Formula 1 alone, in the years 1955 to Stewart’s retirement in 1973, fifteen drivers died. That toll does not sweep in all the drivers who died around the racing world, and in Stewart’s era especially, drivers often raced in many series. Jim Clark died in the Formula 2 car. The same people often drove Can Am cars, Indy cars, sports cars in LeMans and other endurance races, open-road races like the Targa Florio … all of them dangerous. The list of motorsports deaths is endless.

In the 36 years since Stewart retired, twice the period, only eight deaths have followed: four more in the Seventies, two in 1982, two in 1994 … and none since. Drivers don’t die in Formula One. They drive fast, they make contact, they blow curves, they make mistakes, they spin, parts fail … but the drivers can get back in the cars for the next race in the series. I got to celebrate David Coulthard’s retirement, instead of mourning his death.

End Of The Green Hell

The worst track in Europe was the Green Hell. You can still drive a car as fast as you’re able at the Nurburgring – and I do mean you. It is a public toll road. You can take a family station wagon there and drive it on certain days, under certain circumstances. But when the F1 cars let loose there, the loop of about 14 miles with endless winding turns and almost nowhere to go off the track took a horrible toll. 48 racing drivers died in competition there.

Stewart said that whenever he went there, “I take a long look at my driveway, because it might be the last time I see it.” There was nothing for it; there was too much to reconfigure. Today, the old Green Hell, the Nordschliefe, sits next to a modern Sudschliefe, the Grand Prix circuit that has hosted the Grand Prix of Europe.

It was only because he directly faced, and excelled in the face of, the dangers of the old Green Hell that Stewart had the credibility to call for change:

I won four times at the original Nurburgring in Germany – the most dangerous circuit in the world – and yet I was always afraid of that place. In 1968 I won there by over four minutes in thick fog and rain where you could hardly see the road. That race should never have been held, and having won it by such a big margin gave me more credibility when I demanded safety improvements. But I wouldn’t have done what I did if I had wanted to win a popularity contest.

There were changes to the old circuit during Stewart’s career, and after his retirement they continued. By 1976, the drivers and the series realized that it simply was not possible to make enough changes to make the old circuit reasonably safe, and the 1976 race was the last. The Green Hell exacted its last toll in Formula One. That year, Ferrari legend Niki Lauda called for a boycott. He, too, had the credibility to speak out against the old Ring, as the only driver ever to complete the full 14-mile loop in under seven minutes. When the drivers’ vote went against him he raced anyway, crashed and was badly burned. Last rites were administered while he lay in a coma, but he pulled through. When you look at Niki Lauda today, you can see the melted ear, the scars on his head and the place where his eyelids were reconstructed.

I watched then-McLaren ace Kimi Raikkonen, trying to nurse a flat-spotted tire and hang onto a lead at the Nurburgring in 2005 — on the new Grand Prix circuit, built to avoid the deaths that plagued the old Green Hell. I bit my nails as the vibrations shook the suspension and Kimi tried to keep the car on the track. Physics overcame hope and the suspension shattered. Kimi did not burn or die. Carbon fiber shards flew everywhere, the left front wheel dangled oddly, and Raikkonen’s car spun across the pavement, slid through the gravel run-off area and right up to the safety wall, from where he was retrieved, annoyed but unharmed. That loss is written in the record books, not on a headstone, and I have had the pleasure of watching Raikkonen both beat and lose to my favorite drivers since then.

*Hemingway probably didn’t say it. It was probably Ken Purdy, in the Saturday Evening Post, speaking through a fictional character modeled on Hemingway. In fact, Hemingway didn’t think Bullfighting was a sport, but rather a tragedy.

**Clark was a Fifer, and I have roots in Fife, and so I feel a tremendous attachment to him. He was the only Scot until recently to win the Indianapolis 500. Stewart tried, and led at lap 192 of 200 in his rookie season of 1966, but a failed pump in the engine forced him out when a win was in reach. Ashley Judd, married to 2007 Indianapolis 500 winner and Scotsman Dario Franchitti, said as she headed towards her husband in the winner’s circle, “I can tell you he’s thinking of Jimmy Clark.” I’ll never forget that.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. December 22, 2009 2:34 pm

    Honestly, the general public still have this attitude, or one very like it, towards most athletes. It just had a much, much higher immediate mortality rate in racing.

  2. Sam permalink
    December 22, 2009 11:26 pm

    It’s spelt “Nordschleife” and “Südschleife”.

    Apart from that, sorry, but by that logic the best men are those who merely survive death, and I can’t think of anyone except Nietzsche who would even quip about that.

    • December 23, 2009 1:29 pm

      Either I miss your point, or you miss mine. The best men are the ones willing to do the right thing, even when called unmanly for doing so. Is that a proposition with which you disagree?

  3. msnovtue permalink
    January 19, 2010 9:34 am

    Excellent article. As a (nearly) life-long racing fan and resident of Indianapolis, I know all too well of what you speak. Since the big split in open-wheel racing here in the US, there have been a number of people calling for the 500 to go back to the old “run what ya brung” days of the ’60s. Guess they’ve forgotten about Bill Vukovich, Pat O’Connor, Eddie Sachs, and Dave McDonald.

    Those who claim safer racing is boring aren’t watching it for the racing anyway–they’re watching to see someone crash.

    The one thing I do find truly regrettable is that all too often, it takes the death of a major racing talent for people to accept a new idea or piece of equipment– recent examples include Senna and of course Dale Earnhart Sr. Still, saftey’s come a long way– just ask Alex Zanardi.

  4. January 18, 2014 12:27 am

    Thomas, I have very belatedly read this, from your list of significant entries. I’ve read a lot about F1, having been a fan of Michael Schumacher during his Ferrari days (I lost interest when he retired). It says something about the safety standards’ improvement that his most serious injury in a long F1 career was a broken leg – and makes it all the more ironic that he should suffer life-threatening injuries now, while skiiing.

  5. The_L permalink
    June 8, 2014 8:33 pm

    I agree whole-heartedly with this article. Being “manly” isn’t about bravado and risking your life for stupid reasons. It’s having the courage to do the right thing, even when everybody else is against you.

  6. Ellesar permalink
    June 16, 2014 12:20 pm

    I had no idea it was this bad. I think that Moss was being more than a little disingenuous by saying that people wanted to see drivers ‘almost injured’. The fact that deaths and serious injuries were so common and none of the pressure for safety came from people watching these guys crash and burn certainly suggests that the spectators were not at all upset by watching serious injury and death.

    Machismo sure is a killer!

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