My Word: Racing – The Way It Was

February 14, 2014 Comments (4)

Denise McCluggage

By Denise McCluggage (written in 1998)

“You asked what I remember most about those days,” Louise said. “It was the laughter.”

The sand was hard packed. We strolled with three dogs along a deserted stretch of beach on Casey Key just south of Tampa. We talked of the late ‘50s and the racing scene in Europe of which we had both been involved in our different ways. Louise King had been starring in The Seven Year Itch in Miami when she met Peter Collins, an attractive young Englishman on the Ferrari racing team. Within days they were engaged then married and off to Italy and the racing season.

Peter Collins

As a journalist I wrote about the races and as a driver I raced assorted cars—Alfas, OSCAs, Ferraris, Porsches—in assorted races. It was simpler then.

Laughter, yes. A photograph Louise had readied to mount in an artful montage on her wall was testimony. In it Mike Hawthorn, another talented Brit in the Ferrari stable and Peter’s mon ami mate, was arched backward with laughter throwing his open face to the sky, mouth open. The tweed cap, the pale blue racing pants. It was all so instantly familiar I could hear Mike’s uninhibited guffaw across the decades. And I could see Peter and Louise creased with smiles. It ached with memory.

Mike Hawthorn

And. The caring,” Louise added.

That was then. Like most major sports, motor racing has segued from game to industry. Megabucks have a way of settling seriousness over a scene. A great infusion of sponsorship money may well have saved motor racing, but it has imprisoned it, too.

It has even changed its color.

In those days race cars were painted the assigned national colors—red for Italy, blue for France, yellow for Belgium, white with blue for the United States, silver for Germany etc. (Actually, Germany’s assigned color was white but Neubauer, racing guru of Mercedes-Benz, knew how much paint weighed and decided that naked silver was white enough—and lighter.) These days racecars are the color of cigarette packages or whatever else those who pay the bills decree. Only Ferrari has clung to tradition and red.

As for money, in 1961, the year Phil Hill driving for Ferrari, became the first American to win the world driving championship he probably made something well less than $100,000. Now successful drivers most likely tote up some $2 million each race. Plus endorsements.

Let me take you back to earlier days and the ragged orbit of the racing world careening from Monaco to Rheims or Rouen to Silverstone to the Nurburgring and on. Time and places were interchangeable—we spoke of “after Sebring” or “before LeMans.” Our world coalesced around one place or another each weekend, shattered into individual parts then whirled back to a shared life again the next week.

Maybe it is for me the year of the Alfa. A bright blue Sprint Veloce with a snarky engine note. Or the year of the Porsche 356, the color of a wet river stone with an unheard-of electric sunroof and knock-off hubs. Or maybe of the Ferrari 250 GT, a dark blue Berlinetta with a sonorous authority that drew heads to second-story windows even before it could be seen flashing through toy mountain villages. Nothing does more for an echo than a V12 at full song.

And nothing in those days could be cooler than pressing along sharply in that very Ferrari with a crunched fender and the ghosts of racing numbers on its sides, hastening back to Modena and Scaglietti’s little Carrozzeria to get the car’s skin put right after a spot of trouble at the Nurburgring. (That alone shows how long ago it was. Scaglietti’s is now a full-blown factory.)

If it is the Alfa then I might be on the way back to Modena, Ferrari’s hometown, from Monaco. I had spent a few days with Peter and Louise on Mipooka their boat docked in the harbor. There they lived between races, much to the consternation of Enzo Ferrari. He preferred his drivers unmarried and living within his beck. That described Phil Hill. Every year Phil took delivery on a new Volkswagen Beetle, drove it to Modena and checked into the Albergo Reale (now a bank, emblematic of what has happened to racing.) As the season lengthened Phil pined for an American breakfast. I was taking him some Rice Krispies I had found in a Monaco grocery. There were no American breakfast cereals in Italy. Phil was exceedingly grateful. How he bridled when they referred to his cereal as “fagiolini” (little beans) at the Albergo breakfast room.

En route from Monaco I picked up a friendly dice. Often on the highway drivers of sports cars—which were not yet common among the every-day Fiats and Renaults—would pair off for some anonymous sport on the road. We whipped along together, not exactly racing, but exercising each other’s skills. Over one col then another. This time I do not remember the marque just that the car was red. He led. I led. When I blinked my intention to pull in for fuel the red car stopped just beyond the gas station and waited. Then we resumed our dance until the pull of differing destinations separated us. We never stopped to converse and rarely even waved; we just drove spiritedly in parallel play, like tots in a sandbox. That was the way it was then going to and from the races.

Getting into the races these days requires a major effort. In Japan (not part of the scene then) the right to buy tickets is granted by lottery. I doubt that I would even qualify for press credentials now. Then it was easy. There were so few of us covering races. And there were no press conferences. No after-race gatherings where everyone dutifully writes down the same quotes. (And no winner’s podium either where the top three stand at appropriately varied heights and spray the world with champagne.)

Drivers were accessible then. They sat on the pit wall, strolled about the paddock. No motor homes to duck into. No helicopters to whirlybird them off to their private jets. If you had a question you posed it to the drivers in the pits, at the hotel, over dinner. They were your friends. They were there, sharing space and talk.

And laughter.

Language might have been a partial barrier. Now English is the lingua franca of the racing world. Then you learned smatterings of all the languages. By the time Phil Hill’s stint in Europe ended he not only spoke passable French and an excellent Italian but he could even send his Ferrari mechanics into gales of laughter with Modenese, the French-Italian melange that is the local dialect.

There’s that laughter again.

Sometimes the drivers seemed like fraternity brothers after finals, an observation I am sure cannot be made of the current crop. I suspect today’s drivers are totally immune to high jinks. Not then. I recall the year at Rheims when Harry Schell’s tiny little Vespa car (yes, car) proved too great a temptation to the pranksters. First it was driven into the hotel lobby. An early-retiring Harry was sent for to view the joke. He declined to come down. Somehow enough willing hands were found to wrestle the mini-car up the curving stairway and into the salon at the summit. A vase of flowers was set atop it. This time Harry did come out, robe-wrapped, to sleepily shake his rumpled head over his colleagues’ handiwork. (The next day the car had to be taken apart to get it back to ground level.)

I also remember bicycles placed high in trees and mild food fights in tolerant restaurants. And symphonies played by rubbing the rims of wine glasses. (I recall Phil Hill meticulously tuning the glasses by sipping here and there.)

The modern Formula 1 race car probably has more in common with a rocket than the Formula 1 cars of the ‘50’s. Now computers control most of the vital functions, including declutching. Shifting is done with a button on the steering wheel. Telemetry tells more what an engine and chassis are doing than the most sensitive drivers could discern. Today the greater G-forces and higher speeds make driving a race car quite different from what it was then. Today’s drivers score no points for being adept at stirring about with a gear shift. That’s as useful as flicking a buggy whip. What is demanded of today’s drivers is both so little and so much more.

In those days drivers were not the racing specialists they are today. Formula 1 was the elite, as it is now, but factory drivers drove everything else, too—the long-distance sports car races and sometimes even rallies. And most of them did the Mille Miglia and the ten-day rally-race hybrid called the Tour de France. The driving championship was determined in the open-wheeled single-seaters of Formula 1. Factory championships were back then determined only in prototype sports cars. Examples: Ferrari Testa Rossa, D-type Jaguar, Maserati 300S—machines that increase the heart rate of modern collectors. Porsche wasn’t a contender for overall victories in those days because its engine at 1.5 liters was half the size of the big guns. Its hegemony came later.

Some team drivers did only the sports cars while waiting for the chance at Formula 1. Before Phil Hill got his drive on Ferrari’s Formula 1 team he had become a frequent winner for Ferrari in the long races, like the 12-hours of Sebring and the 24-hours of Le Mans. He teamed sometimes with Olivier Gendebien and sometimes with Peter Collins.

That’s another change from the old days. Pairs won the long races then, now the list of drivers on a single car at Le Mans or Sebring or Daytona (not existing in the ‘50s) can be as long as a college team roster. Always at least three now. When there were only two it was easier to keep track of things.

Perhaps I have made the point that in those days the racing community was truly a community with all that implies—brotherly closeness for some like Peter and Mike. And Harry Schell and Portago. Friends, perhaps; friendly quite likely. Truly caring at best; civil to each other at least. I cannot recall the open animosity then that seems to exist today. Back then, Fon Portago used an odd term—“unkind”—in describing driver comportment. He told me: “You are not unkind to someone on the race course because they can be unkind in return.”

It can be said with certainly that unkindnesses have occurred in modern day racing. Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost were more than rivals. Senna actually used his car as a weapon against Prost in a Grand Prix in Japan and removing them both from the race. And Schumacher and Damon Hill have had their problems. Schumacher lost his chance at a third championship when he abruptly turned in on Jacques Villeneuve at Spain in 1997 but, instead of deterring the Canadian, Schumacher ended up stuck in a gravel pit.

No laughter here, at least not the sort born of good humor.

On the same Casey Key beach where Louise and I spoke of the laughter of the old days she fell into conversation on another afternoon with neighboring dog walkers. They had a residence in Monte Carlo. Louise told of her time in Monte Carlo on Mipooka. “I was married to Peter Collins, the racing driver. We lived there,” she explained. As coincidence would have it the Monte Carlo pair knew of Peter Collins and the August before had been at the Nurburgring for a vintage car event. They had participated in an impromptu memorial program at the site on the ‘Ring where Peter had been killed.

The old days had laughter and caring, yes, but they had death as well. It was almost common in those days. The crashes. The funerals. Drivers raced with that awareness always with them—unmentioned, but hard to ignore.

Today’s drivers began their careers and proceeded without that spectre. It was simply absent from the scene. So much so that Ayrton Senna, the extraordinary champion from Brazil, was deeply shocked when Austrian Roland Ratzenberger was killed in practice for the Grand Prix of San Marino in 1994. The possibility of dying in a race car seemed to come as a startling novelty to him. So affected by the revelation was Senna that he sought out Prost to apologize for his past behavior which he now recognized as life-threatening. Ironically Senna himself was killed the next day in the race. These were the first fatalities in twelve years in Formula 1.

The crash at the Nurburgring that killed Peter Collins was in August 1958. He and Louise had been married eighteen months and since their first date in Miami had been apart only the one day when Peter and Mike Hawthorn went to practice for the Mille Miglia. That’s what Louise remembers. That and the laughter.

Peter Collins and friend

Those were the days.

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Comments (4)

  1. alex dearborn:
    Feb 14, 2014 at 07:51 AM

    Denise, you recall days of old with amazing clarity, but this piece has been the most heart-warming. I would miss the smiles and comraderie of "your" era if I were still racing. When you borrowed my FV for the ladies race at Nassau, and had a "shunt" with it just before the feature, I am pretty sure we were still smiling….. and I smile to recall it. Visit us near Casey Key any time, and carry on! Alex

  2. David Roth:
    Feb 15, 2014 at 11:20 AM

    Denise and Alex, As the current Pres. of the Suncoast jaguar Club covering the Tampa bay area, let me say thank you for your wonderful article and comments. We would be thrilled to meet you on your next trip to south west Florida. Thanks, Dave 941-224-5786

  3. Vincent Metais:
    Feb 16, 2014 at 06:51 PM

    Dear Denise,

    Thank you very much for a great piece and some wonderful and oh so evocative pictures! What you did not mentioned, out of modesty no doubt, was that this great spirit you explained so well made for so many heroic feasts at the races back then that just simply cannot be equaled or topped today, no matter how fast the drivers may drive. You all were racers and this time will just not come back.

    Thank you again for bringing it back to the fore so eloquently - each of your articles is both a pleasure to read and an incredible catalyst of emotions for an era gone but not forgotten. The only issue is that they all leave us longing for the next one, maybe not a bad thing after all,

    Until then, and with many grateful thanks again,

    Vincent.

  4. Rex:
    Mar 21, 2014 at 09:17 AM

    Denise, I guess everyone says those were the days.... But I guess that if you were to measure success baby the fun we all had tat is the case!!!!But it was all hard work,and well worth it all....I did enjoy all the time I spent with you all over your side of the POND


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