Those Were The Days - Stories and Anecdotes from the Golden Age of Motor Racing
Those Were The Days - Stories and Anecdotes from the Golden Age of Motor Racing

Motor Racing is Dangerous (Part 1)

Special TWTD Contribution by actress and author Ingrid Pitt

Jacky Ickx tries to avoid the flames as Jack Oliver struggles to get out of the BRM.

Jacky Ickx tries to avoid the flames as Jack Oliver struggles to get out of the BRM.

MOTOR RACING IS DANGEROUS - it says so on the ticket and that ain't no understatement. In recent years there have been gallant efforts to reduce the risk but flinging a fragile human body around a circuit on the end of an invisible piece of string at speeds in excess of 200 mph is looking for trouble. And sometimes finding it. My initiation into the dangers of being close to the rampaging monsters came in Spain at the spectacular circuit which used to exist in the palace grounds at Montjuich. I was there to suck up to cuddly Lord Alex Hesketh who, at that time, was running through a fortune providing a high speed coffin for playboy James Hunt. Not content with that, he was also drawn to the thrill of being a Film Producer. So that was where I came in. I was propositioning him in a effort to bankroll one of my film projects. The day before he left for Spain I had a meeting with him in his West End office. Everything seemed to be on the up. His team was entered for the Spanish Grand Prix and as a throw away aside as I left he had asked me if I was going. Before the brain cells could click in I said 'yes'.You gotta go with the flow.

Luckily I had a motor racing insider who was willing to make my hasty words come true so on Sunday morning I was in the pits wearing an aggressively cut denim jacket and an eye-wateringly tight pair of shrunk jeans. I made sure Lord Alex copped the lot before following my escort out of the pit lane and along the track to the first hairpin. It was a great spot. The massive, hard driven cars swept by within inches of the Armco barrier. Suddenly I was seized around the waist and tossed over some convenient straw bales. 'Whooa' I thought, 'What passion!' At that moment there was a tremendous thump and the barrier where I had been standing seemed to take on a life of its own and rear up on end. I felt my arm nearly torn from its socket as my rescuer dragged me further away from the scene of mayhem. There was a lot of screaming and that was enough to put some horse power in my legs. When things quietened down a bit we cautiously drifted back . The scene was unbelievable. About 25 yards before the hairpin Rolf Stommelen, the driver of Graham Hill's Embassy team, had crashed into the barrier, flipped over the top and killed a policeman and four spectators. Rolf himself was not badly hurt but he missed most of the rest of the season. And any designs I had on Hesketh came to nought when his mother jerked the snaffle and Alex had to abandon motor racing and his dream of being a film producer to settle his chubby buttocks in his seat in the House of Lords.

Wreckage of Clark's Lotus at Hockenheim.

Wreckage of Clark's Lotus at Hockenheim

A few weeks after the initial pain in Spain, I went for a Formula Two meeting, this time just outside Madrid at Jarama. Everybody was complaining that it was a Mickey Mouse circuit but that meant nothing to me. If it was to be compared with the Disney Darling it must have been the dark side of Mickey. I had travelled down with Tony Rudlin. He was the ex-manager of American Sports CanAm Champion, Britisher Jackie Oliver. Jackie raced for the UOP Shadows Team in CanAm and Grand Prix. I hate sitting in the pits and feeling like a spare banana in a cucumber frame so I walked out to the corner after the pit straight. I guess I must have been dragging some sort of Nemesis syndrome with me. As soon as I got comfortable, right in front of me, Belgian Jacky Ickx and Oliver ran into each other, spun, locked together, off the track and burst into flame. And when I say flame I mean flame. Both tanks were full of petrol and flames spread in a circle thirty yards wide and as tall as a 5 storey building. It looked like both would be crisped. Then first Oliver and then Ickx ran out of the holocaust and rolled around on the ground to beat out the flames. Miraculously only Ickx was burned slightly and was racing a couple of weeks later. It was all a bit embarrassing as Jacky and Jackie were race winning co-drivers at Le Mans.

Onyx F1 pit garage. Ingrid Pitt & Diane Earl, wife of owner Mike Earl.

Onyx F1 pit garage. Ingrid Pitt & Diane Earl, wife of owner Mike Earl

All crashes that involve injury and loss of life are, of course, regrettable - but scratch a spectator and you will find a ghoul - even if the spectator doesn't recognise the failing in himself. It was one of the reasons that Scottish Jackie Stewart ran into some pretty high powered opposition when he openly admitted that he didn't particularly fancy having his eight precious pints of claret spread out over some foreign field and set out to do something about it. His efforts have obviously borne fruit. Up until the eighties it was accepted that 12 drivers would end up either impacted or barbecued in their car each year. Then Jackie and the Grand Prix Drivers Association got together and forced the circuit owners to make the circuits safer. It has definitely cut down the number of deaths per annum - particularly in Formula One Grand Prix Racing. But you can put up a million barriers and have sand traps the size of the Sahara all around the circuit and it won't stop the sort of accident that crippled twice world champion and Indy 500 ganador, Graham Hill. His Lotus ran off the track in Watkins Glen in 1969 but Graham wasn't willing to accept that his race was over. He pushed his car back onto the tarmac and continued on his way without doing up his safety harness. A deflating tyre did the dirty on him, he flipped and was thrown from the cockpit. In the process his legs were bent to acute angles unacceptable to his skeletal structure and he finished up with more steel than bone beneath the knee.

Another Grand Prix Champion and Indy Winner was Jim Clark. Off the track Jim was quiet and unassuming. The only serious thing he appeared to have on his mind was reducing his nails to the cuticles. Once in the car all that changed. But he was smooth. So smooth that it seemed impossible that anything nasty could possibly happen to him. He was booked up to race the Lotus 47 in the BOAC 500 at Brands Hatch but his Team was locked in a dispute over money with the organizer and the fatal decision was taken to send Jimmy to the F2 race in Hockenheim, Germany, and put Jackie Oliver in the 47 at Brands. Clark was running well, followed closely by Robin Widdows. Suddenly his car appeared to step sideways. This was before the days of all-encompassing Armco. A solitary tree stood beside the track. As if magnetised the Lotus 48 X hit the bole square on. Jimmy was thrown forward violently by the impact. His helmet struck the tree and disintegrated. I hadn't gone to Hockenheim but stayed at Brands with Jackie Oliver's team. I can still remember the mantle of gloom which settled over the stadium when the news that Jim Clark was dead was announced over the Tannoy. If Scots wizard Clark had been killed, what message did it send to the mere mortals of the track?

Stommelen's GH2 after leaping over the Armco into the spectators.

Stommelen's GH2 after leaping over the Armco into the spectators

In the little seaside resort of Zandvoort in Holland one of the most macabre accidents of all time was played out. Piers Courage, scion of the owner of one of Europe's largest brewing companies, was driving a magnesium block engined De Tomaso for his friend and sometime flat mate, Frank (The Wank) Williams. I was at the circuit but didn't actually see what happened. Piers lost it on sand which is one of the banes of the track, and slammed into a dune. Before he could get out, the car did what all cars do in films - it caught fire. The magnesium block added to the furnace and Marshals were unable to get near enough to give their extinguishers a chance. Not that it would have been much good. Nothing could tame the flaming magnesium. Then, miraculously, out of the smoke a white clad figure emerged. The commentator assumed it was Piers and passed on the good news. Sally, Pier's beautiful wife, went to the medical centre to meet him. She arrived at the same time as the ambulance and opened the back door. On the floor was the distinctive striped helmet of Courage. Inside it was Piers severed head.

The Courage horror wasn't the only bizarre accident to happen at Zandvoort. A couple of years earlier, hotelier Chris Lambert Senior had made a life long ambition come true, by proxy. He had a son, Chris, whom he schooled to become a racing driver. He was sure Chris would scale the heights rapidly so, after the briefest flirtation with lower categories, bought him a full blown Formula 2 car. Four races into the season was Zandvoort. Zandvoort management had just, on the insistence of the GPDA, installed steel barriers at what they considered were dangerous places around the track. The East Tunnel was one such place. The track went over one of the roads into the circuit at this point. Chris Jnr was doing pretty well in the race when he ran out of track and headed straight for the steel wall. What an Armco barrier is supposed to do is take the sting out of a side ways thump, slow the car down and feed it back onto the track - hopefully when there is no one else occupying that particular part of the time/space continuum. What happened was that under the impact of the speeding car the barrier lay over sideways and turned into a launch pad. The Armco looked very impressive but its look was deceptive.The idea is to set the uprights firmly in huge concrete blocks. The blokes who did this little bit of under engineering obviously weren't up to the job. They just jammed the stanchions into the sand and stood back and admired the view. As Chris Lambert soon found out. A wheel each side of the steel, the car launched into space and nose dived over the tunnel and into the far bank of the road, still travelling in excess of 100 mph. The result was that driver and car became one in a tangled ball of compacted wreckage. Car and driver were cremated without any attempt to separate them. One of my saddest memories is of leaving the hotel the following morning and seeing the Lambert Team truck standing, forlorn and isolated, in the car park.

Posted 24/7/2008

Motor Racing is Dangerous (Part 2) can be found HERE

Those Were The Days - Motor Racing Stories, Tales and Anecdotes from the Golden Age of Motor Racing