Between 1965 and 1975, driver deaths were common and racing as a trade made ‘living in the moment’ a career precondition. It was as if an unseen sniper haunted the tracks and picked off random victims without warning, unsparing of veterans and even legends. Every now and then, a death would occur that gave us pause – ‘I never thought that could happen to Jimmy Clark’ – but then we’d bottle up our fears and go back to racing.
MAY 19th 2016
Brian Redman Serialisation – The Mind Of A Driver
In that era, the statistics drivers cared about were lap records and podium finishes, not the odds of being killed in their pursuit. No driver I knew tallied up peer deaths or calculated his chances of survival, but we were not naive. Crashes killed; we saw it, we knew it and simply made a conscious decision to ignore it. This wilful suspension of reality was thoroughly institutionalised across the entire racing community: drivers, wives, girlfriends, engineers and team managers – well, maybe less among team managers. I wasn’t the only driver in denial. We all shared the same universal bias toward a single preposterous conceit: ‘Him, maybe, but not me.’
There was another factor lurking in the background – the practical side of mortal events. Drivers may die but cars are repaired or replaced and racing teams keep going. For up-and-coming drivers and veterans out of a job, each fatality was a career opportunity – a more prestigious team, a faster car, a fatter cheque. At one time or another, every major driver benefited shamelessly from a colleague’s death, including those of teammates and friends. I did so several times. My defence against the morbidity of racing was to keep my friendships few and selective, and honour my vow never to attend drivers’ funerals. My protection from thinking too carefully was to spend as much time as possible in a racing car, where the urgent mechanics of competition kept me safe from brooding about unpleasant possibilities. Once I was engaged with a car, irrelevant thoughts vanished, including those involving risk. I suspect that I wasn’t alone in this psychological exercise.
Driving fast is both a craft and an art. It takes total concentration to keep a temperamental racing car on the knife edge of the laws of physics and it takes athletic stamina to sustain the mandatory hours of intense effort. On an empty track, all good drivers can set successive lap times that fall within a few tenths of a second, but doing so in close competition takes another level of mental and physical dexterity – fast hands directed by fast thinking reflecting fast judgements. Successful racers aim to establish control – of the tyres’ available grip, of the pace required to be a contender, and of their adversaries’ commitment. A strategic driver can slow the tempo of a race by running comfortably in third, timing his charge for the chequered flag, or he can crush an opponent’s confidence with a tough overtaking move and then push hard to open up a discouraging gap.
Winning comes from wanting, and no one wanted to win more than I did. I confess that winning was the best feeling I ever had, in any part of my life. It was the narcotic I craved and I willingly risked health and viability to taste it. When the car, the track and I were perfectly aligned, the sensation of completeness was so exhilarating that I craved more of those addictive moments. As clichéd as these driving platitudes have become, ‘feeling in the groove’ or ‘in a zone’ or ‘at one with the car’ were heady experiences when authentic. This was especially true when competing against the world’s best drivers in the world’s fastest racing cars on the world’s most challenging tracks.
Naturally, there are differences among the top professionals of every era, but in mine it was rare that any single driver dominated all aspects of the sport. If one excelled in the rain, another might be better at dealing with traffic; the master of pre-race set-up might be less effective at getting the most out of a compromised car. Over a season, these differences averaged out and, on balance, the variations among my professional peers were relatively small.
Any reasonably coordinated person can be trained to drive around a track at 90 per cent of a car’s potential, and every race concludes with a group of modestly skilled aficionados contentedly finishing at the back of the field, usually repetitively so. The middle-of-the-pack finishers are skilled journeymen racers, some seriously fast ‘gentlemen drivers’ who have worked hard to master the mental and physical techniques of speed and who regularly out-pace the aficionados. The more prepared – those who train, care, push and risk – can perform quite well, occasionally even winning races.
Standing out above the most capable journeymen, however, is an extremely small class of drivers who rise to the level of paid professionals. Plenty of time in racing cars helps, but talent helps even more. True pros may not always finish in front but they are always in the hunt, and need to be if they hope to make racing a living. Once or twice an era, a driver appears whose abilities are so sublime that they defy comprehension: Juan Manuel Fangio, Stirling Moss, Jim Clark, Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher (plus, perhaps, your omitted favourite). What intangible quality made those drivers exceptional will remain a mystery, but for competitors racing against them, their superiority was an everyday reality. Of course, even the titans of racing could be beaten, and were many times, but more often than not it was due to some constitutional inadequacy in that day’s car rather than the superior performances of other drivers.
The racer’s professional arc
I began racing because it was thrilling to learn that I could execute a difficult trick and do so at a high level. Things began to change as winning fostered my reputation and racing became my established career. Over time, the actuality of being a high-profile driver swelled in importance until it dominated my life and defined who I was. As the glamour years passed, racing turned from a sport into a trade, a means to sustain my family and support a middle-class life. My dream that a motorsport career might furnish Marion and me with a comfortable retirement proved to be delusional.
By the early 1970s I was growing disturbingly self-aware. Accidents and injuries happened with troubling regularity and the odds against longevity became impossible for me to ignore. Inevitably, there came a time when I could no longer deny that driving for a living had evolved into an increasingly uneasy proposition, and I even attempted retirement – but returned to racing within a few months. I knew it was a risky business but it was the only business I knew. Worse yet, I loved every minute I spent in a racing car and planned to compete forever. In the ethical conflict between racing and responsibility, racing always won.
Hemingway is supposed to have written, ‘There are but three true sports – bullfighting, mountain climbing, and motor racing. All the rest are merely games.’ This adage was probably penned by someone else, but the author’s sly allegation raises a legitimate question: what makes this mugging of team and elite individual sports ring so plausibly true? The answer is self-evident. Errors in tennis, golf and football cause disappointment; errors in bullfighting, mountain climbing and motor racing threaten mortality. As a result, every climber, matador and racing driver feels a little bit heroic.
Racing didn’t suddenly become safe after 1976, but it definitely improved and continued to get better year by year. In my riskiest racing period, 1965 to 1975, hazards were omnipresent, yet I never knew a driver who sought out danger or believed crashes were inevitable. We existed as an elite community that revelled in the manifest benefits of our exotic craft: worldwide travel, the opiate of celebrity, easy companionship, and a life of episodic intensity in which our skills and commitment were constantly measured. The trajectories of our careers were determined by the tick of the team manager’s stopwatch, a sponsor’s willingness to fund, flattering commentary in the press and the shifting loyalties of fans.
Racing provided top drivers with a decent income in that era, but nothing like today’s stratospheric returns. What kept us motivated was competitive success. We were rated continuously against each other by team managers, and we obsessively compared our performances with those of our teammates and our closest rivals. We coveted the respect of the drivers we most admired and gratefully tolerated those a level below. Among equals, competition genially simmered on and off the track. Mexico’s great racer, Pedro Rodriguez, once offered me his highest compliment. ‘Bree-an,’ he said, ‘it was great to have a co-driver almost as fast as me.’
Extract from: Brian Redman’s book, ‘Daring Drivers, Deadly Tracks: A Racer’s Memoir of a Dangerous Decade: 1965-75’ By Brian Redman with Jim Mullen (Evro Publishing) Hardback. RRP: £50.00.
Special Offer available for Goodwood readers: £10 off the RRP, plus free postage & Packing within the UK. Europe and worldwide postage applicable. Special offer closes 31 September 2016. Please quote reference code: GW16. Visit: www.evropublishing.com
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