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.
This week I spent a couple of days at Kyalami, just outside Johannesburg. This was once one of the world class tracks, up there with those great ultra-fast and undulating European circuits like Spa and Zeltweg before it, like them, succumbed to safety concerns and was altered beyond recognition. The ‘new’ Kyalami held just two Grands Prix, in 1992 and ’93, and over the next couple of decades fell into a state of increasing disrepair. The good news however is that every last inch of tarmac, plus its entire infrastructure has now been rebuilt at the cost (including purchase) of Rand 450million by the man who owns the Porsche concession in South Africa. And while the result will not recapture the spirit of the original because racing would never be allowed on such a track, it is by modern standards an absolutely epic facility. It’s licenced for everything bar F1, so I hope it will again once more host those great long distance six and nine hour races for which it was once so famed.
But I had another reason to go, for it was here in 1974 that the most misunderstood man in motor racing died in a testing accident. That man was Peter Revson.
The headlines appear to say it all. Revson’s father and uncles started the Revlon cosmetics empire providing his family with wealth beyond imagining. He had the looks of a matinee idol and at the time of his death was engaged to a former Miss World. His autobiography was called ‘Speed with Style’. He was a playboy, a man who bought his way into a sport he’d have never got near on talent alone. Or so the popular conception went and, to an extent, still does.
The truth about Peter Revson is somewhat different. Over time I have spoken to many people who knew the true Peter Revson, people like Jackie Stewart, Chris Amon, John Surtees, Jochen Mass and Emerson Fittipaldi. To a man they say the same thing: Revson was anything but the cavalier dilettante of popular portrayal. He was a quiet, thoughtful, profoundly intelligent man who got where he did by sheer hard work. At his funeral another all American hero, Mark Donohue stated ‘One of the greatest injustices was the reputation Peter got as a playboy. He was anything but that. Nobody ever applied himself any harder to succeed in what he did.’
Indeed. A lesser known fact about his life is that his family were not in the least keen on Peter racing and certainly not prepared to finance it: his brother Doug pursued similar passions and was killed in an F3 race in Denmark in 1964. So in the early days Peter drove all over Europe, towing his F3 car behind a second hand van, sleeping in the back and the rest of the time-sharing a house in Thames Ditton with Amon and Mike Hailwood.
Revson spent most of the 1960s honing his craft, arriving in the 1970s with a huge number of races in a vast array of disciplines (including F1, F3, Can-Am, Trans-Am and sportscar) but very few actual wins. Still he kept trying and still he didn’t get the credit.
The Sebring 12 hours of 1970 has passed into racing folklore because it’s the race in which Steve McQueen with a leg in plaster almost vanquished the might of the works Ferrari team. Once more the reality gap between popular conception and what actually happened could scarcely be greater. The fact is that McQueen did the minimum amount of driving the rules allowed and was hopelessly slow compared to the man who uncomplainingly shouldered the burden, his team-mate Peter Revson. Mario Andretti, who actually won the race was incensed, saying that if anyone deserved the win it was not him, but Revson and that the only reason his Ferrari had been able to overtake Revson’s Porsche at the death was because Peter had driven eight of the twelve hours at this most grueling of tracks and was beyond exhaustion. In short Revson did almost all the work while McQueen took almost all the credit.
Finally however, rewards for his efforts started to flow: he was second in the 1971 Indy 500 and romped to the Can-Am title, winning four out of ten races and failing to reach the podium in just two. It was enough to convince McLaren to give him a seat in a proper F1 car. His team-mate for 1972 was former world champion Denny Hulme but as the year progressed, Peter worked ever harder and towards the end of the season usually outqualified Hulme.
His form improved further in 1973, his first F1 win seemingly imminent. It came at Silverstone, where he fought his way through the field to win from Ronnie Peterson, Hulme and James Hunt, just 3.4 seconds covering these first four places. But soon after he learned he was to be sacked at the end of the season, replaced by Fittipaldi who came with not only money from Marlboro and Texaco but was at the time the reigning World Champion. Revson was devastated but, instead of giving up, he got his head down. He won again in Canada and at the last race of the season at Watkins Glen found himself dead last after the start thanks to a faulty clutch and still managed to finish fifth.
Not that he short of offers. Dan Gurney was thinking of coming back to F1 and wanted Peter on the strength, but he also got the call all F1 drivers still dream of: he was wanted by Ferrari. Fatefully however, in the end he signed for Shadow, simply because he liked the people there more.
And then came Kyalami, the 150mph Barbecue Bend and the suspension failure on his Shadow DN3 that ended the life of Peter Jeffrey Revson shortly after his 35th birthday. To this day you can hear the emotion in Emerson’s voice when he talks about it: ‘Peter was such a credit to US motor-racing. So fast in the car yet he carried himself so well when he was out of it. If he wasn’t quite at the top of the sport when he died I’d say he was getting there. All he needed was a little more consistency. I was just behind him when he was killed. It was a total disaster.’
Could he have been an F1 world champion? I’d say it was possible more than probable. I think most would agree he was still getting better, but the competition was immense, he was getting towards the end of an F1 driver’s career and Shadow was never a world-class team. Had he signed for Mr Ferrari perhaps he’d have made it and perhaps he’d still be with us today, after all he’d only be 76 years old.
But he is long gone, as is the old Kyalami and Barbecue Bend with it, buried under a business park. There is no memorial to him there, though the track’s new owner is planning to create one that will include him. But the best way to remember Peter Revson is not in stone and marble, but for the world to re-evaluate who he was and what he did. Not as an over-privileged spoilt rich kid with more cash than dash, but as a kind, decent, brave and modest man he was, who did it the hard way. In other words, a fine racing driver but an even better human being. To me at least that is infinitely more impressive.
Images courtesy of LAT and Raimund Kommer licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0