ARTICLES

THE FATAL FASCINATION OF CAR RACING

From 1960: The last and most popular of the blood sports is now taking hold in Canada. This is a report on what draws men to racing: not speed alone, but the certainty that if they spill blood it will be their own

June Callwood November 19 1960
ARTICLES

THE FATAL FASCINATION OF CAR RACING

From 1960: The last and most popular of the blood sports is now taking hold in Canada. This is a report on what draws men to racing: not speed alone, but the certainty that if they spill blood it will be their own

June Callwood November 19 1960

FOR THOSE WHO FIND DEATH alluring, an attitude that Freud believed is a dominant instinct in all mankind, the world now provides three sports that offer the penalty of a splendid exit for the slightest mistake. They are bullfighting, mountain climbing and car racing — and the most violent and bloody of the three is racing.

In the past three years, fifteen ace drivers have been charred, broken and crushed to death on European courses alone. Pursuing the ecstasy of the ultimate thrill to be derived from the ultimate risk, they ran out of track.

One of Canada’s most promising drivers, former Canadian ski champion Peter Ryan of Mont Tremblant, Quebec, once remarked. “You live in a higher way during a race. Everything is duller afterward.” He is now embarrassed that he is quoted, in explaining his switch from skiing to car racing, as saying, "In skiing, all that can happen is that you break your leg.”

In Canada, where racing is a noisy child only ten years old, Harewood race circuit in southern Ontario last summer took its first life, that of a Toronto CBC television producer named Ted Pope. In the year it lasted, Pope's tragic romance with racing encompassed all the stages of the sport's Canadian history: he began by owning a sports car because he admired its jaunty appearance; next he drove in the clocked paper chases called rallies; finally he sat at the wheel of a racing car under a summer sky, with pennants and crowd a horizontal blur and the harsh, lusting roar of engines around him.

Ted Pope’s death came at a time when Canadian sports-car racing is moving from the relatively safe, fiat abandoned-airport tracks to courses that will be both faster and more hazardous. British Columbia already has built an elaborate track. Westwood, outside Vancouver, which attracts thirty thousand people. Ontario will open Mosport Park, sixty miles northeast of Toronto, in the spring. Eventually, it is hoped that a Canadian Grand Prix will be held at one of them, with the world’s best drivers competing in the naked-wheeled pellet-bodied Grand Prix Formula One cars, which one driver explained are as difficult to handle on a dry paved road as an ordinary car is on glare ice.

As the sport grows. Canadian drivers are improving and the fastest one to date is twenty-year-old Peter Ryan. "If he lives,” one authority observed matter-of-factly, “he will be good enough to race with the best in Europe.”

Ryan is too impatient to wait a few years to find out if he can race with the best. This autumn he entered a race in California where he knew ten crack drivers would have cars identical to his. “I'm going to learn whether I can drive or not, if I have anything under pressure,” he said. “If it turns out that I come in tenth. I’ll just walk away from racing.” He came in third.

Ryan is a big blond boy, lightly larded with baby fat, who has driven his thirteen-thousand-dollar Porsche RS-60 (purchased for him by a wealthy mother) to the Canadian championship in its class. In filthy tennis sneakers and rumpled clothing, his appearance is in contrast with the militarily precise Porsche mechanics, murmuring tersely in German, who wear the Porsche racing team costume of spotless coveralls.

When he encounters adults come to stare at the wicked lines of the low-crouching Porsche, Ryan displays the deference of a boy raised in an elite boarding school, which he was. With his contemporaries, he is sometimes brashly tactless. In a race, he is a cool madman. “He risks more than other drivers.” said an official. “It is the biggest thrill you can get out of life, the biggest in the world." Ryan has observed.

Racing drivers the world over display a passion for their craft somewhere between heroism and lunacy. One of the immortals. Dr. Giuseppe Farina, survived nearly fifty crashes and always returned, fresh from casts, skin grafts and suturing, to drive even faster, lounging loosely in the cockpit while going three miles a minute.

Stirling Moss, considered the world’s greatest living driver, broke his back and both legs last June in a racing accident and, though he had to be lifted into his car. was driving again within three months. He once finished a race with blood streaming from a cut in his eyeball, that he had endured for twenty laps.

A few years ago Sergio Mantovani, then twenty-five, asked to have the track at Modena, Italy, closed while he drove around it in lonely fury, at a speed that approached the lap record. He had just emerged from hospital, where a mangled leg had been removed following a crash during a race in Turin. He requested privacy, he explained, because he knew he would weep if he found he couldn't drive one-legged.

Moss once wrote: "There you are, sitting at the wheel of your car with the engine humming rhythmically and well. ... The narrow road seems to close up to a mere path as you put your foot down. ... You go faster and faster until it seems you are aiming the front of your car at an incredibly slim target. Now and again the music of the wind changes into a swish as you pass through a village.”

During the 1955 Mille Miglia, a thousand-mile race around the Italian countryside and mountains that Moss won in a Mercedes, he outraced planes sent to photograph him. He was traveling over blind hillbrows at a hundred and seventy miles an hour and through villages at a hundred and fifty. His navigator later spoke of "that awe-inspiring narrow margin that you enter just before you have a crash, unless you have the Moss skill.”

It is within this margin — Moss recently described it as “going through a 130-mph corner at 131 mph" — that exultation lies. Sometimes the private glee is so obvious that spectators share in it. It was during the 1953 French Grand Prix, when a 23-year-old Englishman, Mike Hawthorn, raced for sixty laps side by side with Argentina’s veteran Juan Fangio, five times a world champion. Their cars were so close the drivers could read each other’s dials; on the straights, they grinned joyfully at one another. Hawthorn won by inches, the first British driver to win the French Grand Prix in thirty years.

At Le Mans, 82 spectators died

Spectators, unhappily, also share in many of racing's disasters. The worst in history occurred in 1955 at Le Mans, when a heavy, rolling, burning Mercedes slashed at better than a hundred miles an hour into a dense crowd; eighty-two died along with the driver, and Mercedes quit racing. Mille Miglia, called the Race of Death because of its gory record of thirty deaths and a hundred injured, was cancelled after 1957 when the Ferrari of the Marquis Alfonso de Portago blew a tire and plunged into a cluster of villagers, killing ten. Portago, whose craving for danger restlessly led him from Olympic bobsledding to riding in the Grand National steeplechase, amateur bullfighting and mountain climbing, was cut in half by the car’s hood.

The Mille Miglia was almost reinstated this autumn, with stiff safety regulations and restrictions on the speed. Drivers were so indifferent to a less dangerous race that it had to be cancelled. The macabre preference for near-destruction that seems to be part of racing was also illustrated two years ago, when the ruling body of world racing, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, announced that 1961 Formula One Grand Prix cars must be less powerful, in the interest of driver preservation. The hottest protests came from drivers; they had been hoping for faster cars.

Despite precautions and regulations that make racing in Canada as safe as the nature of the sport permits, no one doubts that drivers will die on the new tracks. But, since the drivers themselves rather enjoy having a spectre in attendance, shocked complaints have even less effect than the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animal’s protests against bullfights. (The bull’s preferences, after all, are not made known.)

Dismay over racetrack fatalities is unlikely to discourage the sport for two reasons, only one of which is the drivers’ inclination to prefer a challenge that is total. In addition, the multi-million-dollar automobile and accessory business regards racing as a vast sales promotion, despite the fact that racing on this continent seems to be in the hands of amateurs — car clubs promote the races, stewards and starters are unpaid volunteers, inexpensive bricabrac is given as prizes.

"North American sports-car racing is evolving as a professional sport,” says David Ash of West Nyack. New York, the world’s leading MG driver until his recent retirement. “It’s hypocrisy to pretend it is amateur. It's time racing came out in the open and admitted it would die without the support of manufactures.”

European car manufacturers find that  the performance of the few $20.000$40.000 Grand Prix cars they issue every spring has a direct bearing on the sale the firm’s thousands of sports cars family sedans. "When Porsche wins.” grinned Dr. Helmut Albrecht, sales promotion manager in Canada for Volkswagen. which distributes the Porsche here, “even Volkswagen owners drive victory.”

This year Porsche shared honors with Britain’s Cooper in the three championship classes; accordingly the waiting for Porsches in the United States is a year long. Sales of British cars jumped in early 1950s, when they started to win international tracks. The Duke of Edinburgh once congratulated Stirling Moss for a British win, commenting “it dresses the shop window.” When an MG driven by Ed Leavens in London, Ont., won Sebring in Florida on a Saturday afternoon in 1957, thirteen MG's were sold Monday morning in Toronto. And 1958, when an Austin A-40 won Winter Rally in the Toronto vicinity, sales of Austins jumped forty-five percent the following month. “That’s not coincidence,” remarked British Motor Corporation’s Ian Paterson.

Car manufacturers in Europe therefore scramble each autumn to hire leading drivers for the following season’s factory team; the better the driver, the better the sales demonstration. The procedure emerging in Canada is that car dealers purchase racing vehicles, make them available to promising drivers and foot the bills for mechanics and parts. Peter Ryan, for instance, owns his RS-60 Porsche but the expenses are partly underwritten by a Toronto Volkswagen dealer. Another Volkswagen dealer bought a twin Porsche RS-60 for Francis Bradley, a thirty-three-year-old Toronto bus driver, who thus was enabled to duel all summer with Ryan for the championship. The pool of sponsors widened season when the R. M. Hollingshead Company, maker of such products as chrome cleaner and waxes, bought a nine-thousand-dollar Lola for driver Boris Janda.

Some forms of help are as quiet as British Motor Corporation's gentleman’s agreement to provide a free replacement for any BMC car part damaged in a race —a gesture that cost a hundred thousand dollars last year. Others are as noticeable as the Sunoco trucks that loom in the infield on racing day like nursing mothers, surrounded by a litter of rasping, hubcap-high racing cars that get free fueling.

Dealers and manufacturers acknowledge the perambulating salesroom aspect of racing, but they prefer to emphasize piously that racing has improved the breed. Fuel injection, they point out, originated with German racing cars, disc brakes with the English. Pioneer experiments with four-wheel brakes, balloon tires and superchargers were carried out on the Indianapolis 500 track.

“About the only parts of today’s cars that weren't tried out first in racing," a driver commented recently, “are the soft upholstery, the hi-fi radio and the Martian antenna.”

The urge to race cars, whatever the peripheral benefits, is almost exactly as old as the automobile itself. In 1894, a scant four years after the birth of the first French motor car, proud owners organized the Concours de Voitures Sans Chevaux, from Paris to Rouen, eighty miles away. Almost every horseless carriage in France entered, a total of nineteen, and citizens stared as they clattered through the streets. The winner, six hours and forty-eight minutes later, was a De Dion Steamer, stoked throughout by a perspiring fireman, shoveling coal and steered by a tiller.

The United States had its first race the year after, in 1895. High-wheel one-lungers, equipped with buckets of water to douse overheated engines, drove from Chicago to Waukegan and back. A two-cylinder Duryea, recklessly overpowered, won ahead of a Benz single-cylinder.

Racing fell into disrepute in Europe in 1903, when a Paris-to-Madrid road race had to be stopped at Bordeaux, a ghastly trail of wrecked cars and mutilated victims in its wake. It was revived in the Twenties in its present form, a tiny, touring Olympics with the nationality of the manufacturer identified by the car’s color, green for the British, white for Germans, baby blue for French, red for Italians. They perform under stimulating conditions: The 17.6-mile course at Nurburgring, Germany, has a dizzy total of 176 corners and a curve in Sicily, on the brink of a cliff falling straight to sea-washed rocks, has come to be known to British drivers as Coffin for England Corner. European designers understandably put much effort into evolving a suspension that would cut down body sway on such corners, a feature beloved to modern sport-car owners.

The North American sports-car craze hit shortly after the war, when returning servicemen brought a few home as souvenirs. Sports cars, belching emphatically, became way-in for status, way-out for conforming nonconformists. A cult developed, complete with mutually congratulatory handwaving, a jargon of tachometers, drifting in corners and over-revving, women passengers languidly bored behind dark glasses and doughty all-weather male drivers in squashed cashmere caps. A roadhouse gathering place in Northport, Long Island, cleared out the music in the jukebox and put in race noises. Sounds of Sebring is a favorite: “Man, listen to that Ferarri,” groans a boy in a beard.

Production of sports cars by the world’s largest manufacturer, British Motor Corporation, shot from 900 in the first year's output after the war to 79,000 last year. Canadians in 1959 bought 3,000 sports cars, ranging in price from $1,875 to $10,000; some 14,000 are now registered in Canada.

The sports-car boom was felt first in the country's only three car clubs, Toronto's British Empire Motor Club—founded in 1928 mainly by motorcycle owners anxious to organize picnics — Montreal’s Sports Car Club and Ottawa's Light Car Club, now known as the Motorsports Club of Ottawa. Together, they had about 250 members in the late Forties and, like the men who owned steamers in 1894, their natural instinct was to find racing room. In 1951, they formed the Canadian Automobile Sport Committee, the ruling body in Canada.

“Our first interest was in holding rallies,” recollected James Gunn, Ontario Region CASC chairman. "Husbands and wives could go in them together and the cars didn’t need any special equipment. We laid out the routes on highways and back roads—all driving to be within the speed limit, of course. It’s precision, navigation, endurance that counts. But after a while some of our members wanted more excitement.”

The clubs began hunting for bargains in abandoned airport leases. The first official race in Canada was in 1950, at Edenvale, 100 miles northwest of Toronto. People drove all the way from Montreal, just to look at the cars. The CASC found itself in a membership explosion; the original three clubs bloomed to forty-five and clubs are still joining at the rate of six to ten a year. They are concentrated in Ontario and Quebec, with a western region in the process of forming. British Columbia enthusiasts are part of the U. S. West Coast Sportscar Conference.

Races at Harewood, near Port Dover, which just finished its seventh season, are sponsored by multi-member Toronto clubs such as the founder BEMC, which now has 500 members, but the wonder of racing is a 30-member club, London Automobile Sport Club, which for the past three years has been sponsoring three races a summer on a weedy old airport near Goderich, Ontario. One member of the London club, Ed Leavens, is the only Canadian to set a world speed record.

Its original four members borrowed $4,000, leased an airport, named it Greenacres and called for volunteers to fence it and chop with axes the thousands of half-tires that rim the track. In 1958 and 1959, the club sponsored six races and lost money on every one. “It's a high-risk sport, all round,” Globe and Mail racing reporter Bill Wordham once observed. LASC pulled itself out of debt ingeniously by staging the biggest car show in the country, London’s International Auto Revue, which last year displayed 130 cars ranging from an lsetta to a Rolls-Royce.

"We made a profit in 1960,” reported the club's publicity director, Bill Arab, proudly. “Two hundred dollars. We're thinking of building a road course next. We'll work out the financing as we go along.”

Ontario's projected road course, Mosport Park, cost $30,000 for its 450-acre site and needed another $75,000 for grading and building the 2.4-mile track, pierced by three tunnels to facilitate infield traffic. Car-club members raised the money for the land by buying shares at $25 apiece and the money for the track came from the sale of debentures. “It'll be a frosty Friday if the shareholders get it back," one club executive remarked cheerily. "I've written mine off.”

The track will be available for participating clubs' races; profits, if any, will be plowed back into the sport, probably to provide cash prizes for winners. The new track is expected to raise the proportion of money races; last summer, Ontario had only two, both underwritten by breweries.

“It’s an upper-middle-class sport, almost like yacht racing,” commented Bill Wordham. “These drivers have to be willing to spend about six hundred dollars, at a minimum, during a racing season in order to win a ten-dollar trophy.”

The cost is brutal. Some of the three-thousand-dollar racing engines have to be rebuilt every three races. The cheapest racing tires cost forty dollars apiece and their life expectancy, on back wheels, is less than six hours. One Corvette owner bought forty tires last summer. Peter Ryan’s expenses the first summer he raced were ten thousand dollars; in the summer of I960, he said, they would be more than double that.

"When he sent in his application to us at Greenacres for the first time,” recalled Bill Arab, “it was on Mont Tremblant Lodge stationery. We figured he was a bellboy there or something.”

Ryan’s mother, widow of the flamboyant American millionaire Joseph B. Ryan, owns and operates Mont Tremblant, the most expensive and luxurious resort in the Laurentians. Her only son is able, literally, to buy whatever he fancies. When he was seventeen, he watched a man building a racing car in a Montreal machine shop. "Will you please make me one?’ he asked politely.

"Are you serious?” asked the man.

Ryan was, and proved it with a deposit a few days later. "It wasn’t much,” he says uncomfortably. "The car was only worth about three thousand."

 he car had been started when Ryan’s attention was distracted by a crisis. By dint of training so fiercely that he regularly missed the first four and five months of high school. Ryan had become a superb skier and was looking forward to representing Canada at the Winter Olympics. He was advised, however, that he was ineligible, because of his U. S. birth. He was devastated by the news, and his subsequent failure to qualify on the U. S. Olympic team. Racing appealed as a consoling alternative.

"The car I ordered still wasn't ready, so I heard about a Porsche 550 that was for sale and bought it instead," Ryan explained.

He took it to Lime Rock, where hawk-faced John Fitch, now in his forties and a racing driver all his adult life, gave him a two-hour lesson for fifty dollars.

"Racing driving is the most difficult thing in the world," a jet test pilot once said. Fitch shows beginners the elements of finding the truest line around a corner, sits stonily beside them as they discover how a car feels just before it rolls —and sometimes endures the icy horror of an actual roll. Reflexes have to be faster than thought — a racing car in full cry travels seventy feet while a message is getting to the driver's brain. It was discovered. for example, that Stirling Moss brakes five times as fast as an ordinary driver.

"You should know,” Moss wrote, "to an inch the most effective point for braking and for acceleration." Races are ordeals of judgment and stamina. During a Grand Prix at Aintree, for instance. Moss estimated that it is necessary to change gears twenty times a lap, making eighteen hundred gear movements in a ninety-lap race — one every six seconds for three hours. During the Monaco Grand Prix, drivers brake more than a thousand times. All this, while flickering at speeds up to a hundred and eighty through a herd of other cars.

Ryan was entranced. He returned home and, to his mother's dismay, practised thunderously on the private roads of the Mont Tremblant property. During his first race, at Greenacres in 1959, he excitedly shifted to the wrong gear and burned out a three-thousand-dollar engine. "I nearly cried, sitting there watching the others cars go around." Ryan recalled.

It was a shaming experience that still mortifies. Ryan had the engine rebuilt and went back to racing. This year he bought the RS-60 Porsche and he has already ordered an RS-61, a car that may cost close to fifteen thousand dollars, for next season. He lives well. After the final race at Goderich this summer, he planned to play host at a celebration banquet. Accordingly, he rented an entire motel for his guests. When he decided to enter his Porsche in California, he arranged for a company mechanic to accompany him for a month, at his expense.

Ryan has a disarming frankness about the advantage his wealth gives him. "There are lots of better-qualified drivers in Canada, but because of a lack of funds they have no chance to develop," he remarked shortly after winning his championship. "I know how lucky I am to have the kind of backing that allows me to do what I like."

You might get killed, a friend remonstrated.

Ryan shrugged negligently. "When your number comes up,” he observed mildly, "you're going to get it. But meanwhile, you’re enjoying yourself." ★