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 2)

Special TWTD Contribution by actress and author Ingrid Pitt

Nicki Lauda.

Nicki Lauda

Watkins Glen in upstate New York was the site of a particularly nasty disaster in 1973. Talented Frenchman, Francois Cevert, equally at home behind a steering wheel or a grand piano and escort to the divine Brigitte Bardot, was getting ready to step into Jackie Stewart's shoes at Team Tyrrell when the World Champion announced his retirement. Francois had a spot of bother in the grunt department during practice and was pushing hard for a good spot on the grid as the minutes ticked away. Coming into the Esses at full bore he hit a bump, ran wide, clipped the barrier, turned over and the car, inverted, slid along the sharp top ridge of steel which acted like a bacon slicer. Stewart was so upset by the death of his team mate that he withdrew from the race and never drove competitively again.

But these are mainly individual accidents which happen to racing drivers. Something that they don't want to accept as a possibility, but is always there. Ex-Ferrari Team Manager, Franco Lini told me about a nasty incident he was involved in at the Indianapolis 500 in 1971 that had nothing to do with the actual race. Now a journalist, he was sitting in a special scaffolding structure that had been erected to give the Press a closer view of what was going down. The parade lap was led around the circuit by local Dodge dealer, Eldon Palmer, driving a Challenger. On board were Chris Schenkel, a TV sportscaster, Tony Hulman the circuit owner, and astronaut John Glenn. The parade lap over, Palmer pulled over to let the race cars loose. Unfortunately his drive around the oval had generated an excess of adrenaline and he took the corner too fast. The journalist's eyrie was strategically placed so that they would get action shots from the pits. The Pace Car skid out and demolished the tower. Twenty nine members of the press were severely hurt, including Franco. Tony Hulman was the only passenger on board the errant car that sustained any sort of injury - a sprained ankle running away from the wreckage.

The scene after Pierre Levegh's Mercedes Benz plunged into the crowd.

The scene after Pierre Levegh's Mercedes Benz plunged into the crowd

Le Mans has seen more accidents than any other extant track in the world. The 24 Heures du Mans hardly missed a year, at one time, without a fatality or a serious maiming. The worst of these was in 1955. This horrendous shunt happened when the Mercedes -Benz 300SLR driven by Pierre Levegh nudged Lance Macklin's Austin Healey. At first it didn't look any worse than a hundred knocks that happen all over the world every weekend. But Levegh's car got a wheel on the dirt, spun up an earthwork bank installed to protect the public, flew over the top and scythed into the crowd. The engine became detached and added to the slaughter. When the dust settled, 83 spectators lay dead and twice as many injured. Juan Manuel Fangio, five times Grand Prix champion, who was also in the race, gave me his personal account of the accident. I was introduced to him at the Spanish Grand Prix. Fangio said he was coming down the straight before the corner that led into the pit area where the accident had occurred. Each time he had negotiated that corner before he had seen the white faces of the crowds in the grandstand looking up the track towards him. This time all he could see was the dark back of the spectators heads as they craned forward trying to get a glimpse of the carnage unleashed around the corner. Fangio slowed and rounded the corner carefully. Cars and debris were strewn across the road but, because of his alertness, he was able to avoid becoming another statistic in the worst accident to ever happen in motor racing. As a knee-jerk reaction to this, Switzerland banned racing in the Cantons. The restriction didn't extend to races outside the country so in 1975 an ersatz Swiss Grand Prix was run in the quaint Dijon circuit in France and, as luck would have it, was won by Swiss driver, Clay Regazzoni, driving a Ferrari. Clay was involved in a nasty accident in 1980 which terminated his career. He was driving the radically under-funded Ensign, a year old design that hadn't set the grandstands alight when new. It backed up on him at the US Grand Prix in Long Beach. At the end of the long Shoreline Drive straight he grabbed for the brakes and they had gone walkabout. The car ploughed on at an undiminished speed, rammed a parked Brabham and spread itself out against the tyre wall. Clay broke his legs and, what was even worse, sustained a permanent injury to his back, and was confined to an electric wheelchair until a bizarre road accident in December a couple of years ago finished him off.

Back in the seventies the place where all European racing drivers ended up sooner or later was The Steering Wheel Club in Half Moon Street in London's Mayfair. I was having dinner there one night when I was introduced to motor racing wizard, a legend in his own Y-fronts, Colin (Chunky) Chapman. He is credited with making modern racing cars what they are today. Before we parted Colin suggested I might like to come and have a look at his new headquarters in Hethel, Norfolk. I wasn't that interested but he offered to pick me up in his plane and fly me the 150 miles or s , so I agreed. I've always been a sucker for a man in a flying machine. As it turned out I flew up with my newly acquired husband. I wish I hadn't. Mike Spence had been killed at Indianapolis some time earlier and when I arrived the remains of his car were being hauled into the garage. It was pretty sickening. What had evidently happened was that Mike's car had hit the wall at about two hundred miles an hour. He would probably have got away with it but one of the brake fluid pipes acted as a retainer and the front wheel smashed back into the cockpit killing the driver instantly. Another driver hammered into his seat was outstanding rookie, Tom Pryce. In 1977 the South African GP, run at the spectacular Kyalami Circuit just outside Johannesburg, was an agreeable opener to the season. The horror which hammered Tom into the cockpit was a fire extinguisher carried by an inexperienced marshal. The Marshal misjudged the speed of the approaching car and tried to run across the track. The Marshal was hit with such terrific force that his body was sliced in half and he ended up on both sides of the track simultaneously.

Ingrid Pitt and Juan Manuel Fangio

Ingrid Pitt and Fangio

Nurburgring in Germany has also had its fair share of accidents. One of the worst happened to Austrian driver, World Champion, Niki Lauda. His car stepped out on a fast corner and he hit the Armco barriers on the far side of the track. His Ferrari was shattered and spun across the track, a ball of flame. Britisher Guy Edwards, smashed into the blazing car and he was followed by Harald Ertl. They were unhurt and instantly went to the aid of Lauda, still conscious but having a problem unbuckling his seat belt. They were joined by Arturo Merzario and Brett Lunger and managed to haul Niki free. He was badly burned and at one time while lying in the hospital bed he heard the Priest giving him the last rites. He said it was enough to make him determined to survive. And he did. He lost that year's Championship to James Hunt by one point but came back to motor racing to win it again in 1984.

More recently Brazilian heartthrob, Ayrton Senna met a sticky end in San Marino. It was suggested, the shaft of the steering wheel snapped when he tried to negotiate the corner after the long straight, pressured by German ace Michael Schumacher. Ayrton plunged across a sand trap and hit a concrete wall head on. Later it was announced that one of the suspension arms had become detached and went like an arrow through Senna's helmet, killing him instantly. A proper investigation was never carried out to find the cause of his leaving the track in the first place. When the car was finally released to the Williams Team two years later it had been standing in an open sided lean-to at the mercy of the elements and had begun to rust up. No meaningful data could be ascertained from the remains but Frank Williams had the satisfaction of knowing that at least it hadn't been caused by a defect in the steering column.

South American racing has always been known for its high mortality rate. The races around the mountainous parts of the country account for a lot of it. It also accounts for some supreme drivers such as Juan Manuel Fangio, Froilan Gonzalez, Carlos Reutemann, Ayrton Senna, Carlos Pace and many others. But one of the most horrendous accidents in the Amirante Browne Circuit in BA had nothing to do with Argentina. Italian Ignacio Giunti was driving a Ferrari 312 PB. He was keeping up with the fast boys and doing well. Frenchman Jean Pierre Beltoise in a Matra-Simca had a bit of trouble coming out of the hairpin before the pits and stalled. Beltoise, not exactly the brawniest of drivers, decided to try and push the car to the pits. A group rounded the corner behind him. The front runners saw the problem and dived down either side. Leaving Giunti with nowhere to go but slap-bang into the back of Beltoise's car. Luckily the Frenchman was at the side of the car manipulating the steering wheel. The impact shot the Matra a hundred yards up the track and compacted the Ferrari which burst into flame. Giunti didn't stand a chance. At least that was how I saw it from the stand on top of the pits. A few years later I was having dinner with some ACA officials and they had a whole different idea of what happened. I prefer my take on the event.

Giunti's accident from the top of the Pits

Giunti's accident from Ingrid's vantage point of top of the Pits

The spectre of the old guy with the scythe and rampant anorexia shaking his hourglass at the experts as well as the expendables gives the professionals pause for thought as well as providing high drama for the bums on seats in the bleachers. In Argentina Andrea Vianini was typical of the type of maverick, wealthy dare devil play boy that the cow country was proud to breed. When they were looking to set up an international F1 team they picked Vianini and Carlos Reutemann, two handsome heroes who would project the country's image well as International drivers in the Fangio mould. Andrea was addicted to the dangers of local Carretera racing and decided to have one more race before settling down to the discipline needed to survive in F1. It was a race too far. He and another car collided, his car somersaulted high over the barrier and Andrea crashed to earth with a broken back. When I lived in Buenos Aires Andrea was a neighbour in Alvear. It was difficult to sit and talk to the immobile wreck of a beautiful man strapped into a chair.

Andrea always lived on the edge but death and mutilation isn't just confined to the wild child. A devout family man, gentleman Jo Schlesser of France was generally respected by all. His ambition was to race a Formula One car. He got his wish - briefly. I rode to Rouen with Jack Oliver and his girl friend Lynne. They dropped me off in the town to get fixed up with accommodation. Rouen was an interesting place so I didn't bother to go to the track for practice. On Sunday I arrived at the circuit just as the race was about to start. I found myself a place in the Press Grandstand. I had hardly settled in when, on the third lap, Jo twitched sideways, hit a bank and the car burst into flame. Jo was dead before anyone could get to him. The accident caused a lot of acrimony. The car, a Honda RA302, was one of the worst cars ever put on the track by a major entrant. It was so bad that the regular driver, John Surtees, had refused to drive it. Even the normal pit-crew weren't in attendance but mechanics jetted in from Japan. So poor old Jo's dream only lasted for two and a bit laps but the dishonour to Honda lasted a lot longer and has only fairly recently been expiated.

Vianini's car flies through the air.

Vianini's car flies through the air

Dale Earnhardt was another of the legendary drivers who appeared to be unacquainted with the man in black. He was over here in London to receive a Gregor Grant Award for Lifetime Achievement. I was invited to the do at the Grosvenor House in Park Lane and was introduced to Dale and his charming wife, Teresa. She told me she wanted to hit Harrods as hard as possible before she headed home. This was my kind of shopper. It gave me an opportunity to help spend someone else's money. Teresa didn't need any help. After that I kept a distant eye on Dale. As he stormed from victory to victory I was happy to have known him. I couldn't believe it when I heard he was dead. It seemed such a pointless accident - if any accident can have a point. Earnhardt was the pre-race favourite to win the Great American Race at Daytona. He seemed to have the race in his pocket when a 19 car pile-up reduced the field to what was effectively a 20 lap sprint event. Dale collided with a Dodge piloted by Sterling Martin and spun up a banking taking the Pontiac of Ken Shrader out at the same time. Both cars slid down the banking. Shrader jumped out of his car and Dale didn't. The steering wheel had crushed his chest. Dale had intended to retire in 2000 but he was doing so well and felt so good about it that he decided to give it a couple more years until he had chalked up the big five-0.

As they say - Motor Racing IS Dangerous and these are just a few of the incidents that prove they ain't talking out of the place where my Aunt's postilion was struck by lightning.

Posted 30/7/2008

Motor Racing is Dangerous (Part 1) can be found HERE

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