Andrew Frankel has been racing cars for over 20 years and testing them for nearer to 30. He is senior contributing writer to both Autocar and MotorSport magazines, sits on the Car of the Year jury and was chief car tester for the Sunday Times for 15 years. He cites driving and writing as the only disciplines for which he has any talent and therefore considers himself vocationally employed. When he is not working he lives quietly in the Wye Valley with his family, a small and unimportant accumulation of cheap old cars and some sheep.
The best job I ever had in salaried motoring journalism was for three years to be the editor of MotorSport magazine before my commitments overwhelmed my income, forcing me into the freelance life I enjoy to this day.
I realise now, 15 years after I vacated the editor’s chair (and no, if you were wondering, I wasn’t the genius who turned the cover from green to red), the only true brilliance of my approach to the job was to be only tolerably good at it. Obviously there would have been some issues had I been useless, but so too would I have had far less fun had I been genuinely superb. Because the same thing happens to magazines whether they are either falling or flying: publishers get involved, in the one scenario to try to fix the magazine, in the other to bask in its reflected glory. But if you just quietly get on with it, return a modest profit and keep your head down, sometimes they appear to have forgotten you even exist.
Then you have nirvana: your own magazine, paid for by someone else, with which you can do what you like. So I’d just dream up stories I wanted to read and commissioned people to write them for me. It was as immense a privilege as it sounds.
Why this now? Because I’ve come across one of those stories in a book I’ve just bought myself as an early Christmas present.
The story was about Mark Donohue. At the time I knew all about his achievements in IndyCar and Can Am racing, in sports cars, Formula 1 and Trans Am, but knew nothing of the man himself, who’d died tragically young at 38, after being hit on the head by a tyre during practice for the 1975 Austrian Grand Prix. So – and I remain agog by the fact I’m still able to do these things – I rang Brian Redman, who was the only racing driver I knew well enough who’d also known Mark and raced against him in North America. I asked him if he’d care to share his memories of the man, which I could turn into a story with his name on it.
‘I’ll happily do it,’ came the reply, ‘but wouldn’t you be better off speaking Sam?’
‘Yes, Sam Posey. He knew Mark much better than me, he’ll do a beautiful job for you.’
Sam Posey. The name rang a bell, so I looked him up and discovered a very accomplished driver with a win in the Sebring 12 hours to his credit, lots of racing in Trans Am, Indy cars and Can Am too, not to mention 10 starts at Le Mans. Indeed in both 1970 and ’71, privately entered Ferraris driven by Posey came fourth and third, the first car home behind the works backed Porsche 917s. But he’d also been Donohue’s team-mate in Trans Am. No slouch, then. Brian gave me his contact details, so I got in touch and was pleased to discover Sam was not only happy to help, he’d write the story and for a fee even my budget could swallow. I knew the story would need substantially rewriting because racing drivers are as good at writing as writers are at driving racing cars, but we were used to that and I was fine with it.
‘In all my years of reading about racing drivers, I’ve never heard the contribution made by one of them summed up more succinctly than in that last sentence. And I don’t imagine I ever will.’
The story arrived ahead of deadline and precisely to the required word count. It was a good start. But then I started reading it. For a professional writer, it would have been a triumph. For a racing driver, it was off the scale. In the end we didn’t change a word.
It started: ‘On May 28, 1972, a driver with a degree in mechanical engineering from Brown University won the Indianapolis 500. His name was Mark Donohue. It was a time of change, a time when technology was transforming the American racing scene, often with Donohue himself in the vanguard. He was something new, a gunslinger who also happened to have designed the gun.’
In all my years of reading about racing drivers, I’ve never heard the contribution made by one of them summed up more succinctly than in that last sentence. And I don’t imagine I ever will.
So when I recently heard a collection of his stories and articles from the last 40 years had been turned into a book, I clicked a few keys, parted with £20 and it was mine. It is a predictably mesmerising read. This is him describing trying to sleep at night at Le Mans in the 1970s, while his team-mate is out on the track:
‘In the darkness of the trailer I see images of the road rushing at me, as if all those laps have been stamped on my mind, a tape loop that cannot be shut off. If I close my eyes, a second later I am grabbing for the edge of the cot, convinced I’m falling; hours of violent motion in a car have upset my balance. Every year the trailer walls seem thinner, or else the cars are louder, and the roaring is a reminder that my car is out there somewhere. When I am particularly tired I get the idea that the car is still going not so much because the nuts and bolts are right, but because the whole team is willing it to run – sheer mind over matter. For me to sleep is to reduce by one the force that keeps the car going.’
And then I found another story that seemed rather familiar. Indeed it was a profile of one Mark Donohue. I didn’t need to get past that first paragraph to know it was the same story he’d submitted to me at MotorSport back in 1998 but, as it turns out, not before he’d first written it for Road & Track in 1992. He’d cut it to length but those passages that remained were word for word.
How do I feel, realising now he’d probably spent five minutes trimming a tale he’d written six years earlier and still charged me the full fee? I admire him even more for it. It’s called being a professional writer. There was no overlap in our readership, six years had passed and for a price I was happy to pay, I got one of the greatest stories I ever published in MotorSport. And Sam got to earn a few very easy dollars. Everybody won.
So if you’re looking for a Christmas present, can I recommend ‘Where The Writer Meets The Road’ and suggest you order it now? That way and so long as you look after it, you’ll have time to read it yourself before handing it on. Better still, buy two.
Photography courtesy of Andrew Frankel, ebid.com, Sam Posey image courtesy of ‘Darren’ licensed under Creative Commons 3.0.