The Golden Age of F1 Was Also Its Deadliest

From Road & Track

Hang out at any vintage motorsport event, any Rolex Historics or Motorsports Reunion, and you'll come across the phrase, uttered with the ingeniousness and ironclad truth of freshly-printed gospel: "ah, when sex was safe and racing was dangerous!"

Racing is just as dangerous, my good cliche-spouting man, and STIs have always been around, though not that kind of STI. Grand Prix racing is a roll call of the quick and the dead: Cameron Earl, the first to die in a Formula One car in 1952, while testing for ERA. Wolfgang Von Trips, at Monza, along with 15 spectators. Jo Schlesser, 1968 French Grand Prix. Piers Courage, Jochen Rindt, Jo Siffert. Cevert, Revson, Villeneuve, Ratzenberger, Senna, 1994. Jules Bianchi, 2014. Hell, the whole Le Mans field in 1955 (which led to John Fitch's personal crusade). Yes, racing is dangerous, it has always been dangerous, and it will always carry a certain amount of danger-but there used to be a time when our only response to such heightened levels of danger was a well-meaning shrug and a moment of silence. Not coincidentally, this is also the period in racing that we celebrate the most.

Sir Jackie Stewart was the most prominent figure to speak up about driver safety, and he was mocked for it. "Leave motor racing to the men," they told him: the same sort of people who today grin when they tell you about the time when sex was safe told him to go home, stop racing. If you can't stand the heat, to trot out another cliche, stay out of the kitchen.

The three-time World Drivers Champion spoke from personal experience. He had to. You have to, when 57 of your close friends die on the track. Most people can't even point out having 57 friends, much less dead ones. But "to be a racing driver between 1963 and 1973 was to accept not the possibility, but the probability of death," he wrote, starkly, for Britain's Telegraph, an excerpt from his 2007 autobiography: "I somehow taught myself to compartmentalise my emotions, to lock them in a box and put them away…then I would be able to climb back into my car and go racing again."

Writing in 2007, Stewart minces no words in expressing an anger at the ambivalence on the part of F1 organizers, track owners, authorities and even fellow drivers, one that evidently still remains strong today. "Why were so many of my friends being killed? Why did I look in my rear-view mirror every time I left home to race and wonder whether I would see it again? Why did we attend a dinner at the end of the year and bow our heads in memory of those who had died but do nothing to prevent more drivers being killed the next year? Why was the chief medical officer at one circuit a gynaecologist with minimal experience of neurology, burns or internal medicine?"

Even Sir Stirling Moss, who seems to speak his mind in that hilariously anachronistic manner that cranky grandpas across the Deep South do with aplomb, with nothing but his old age to discount such yelling at clouds, said at the time for a New York Times article: "the public needs its vicarious thrills."

The source for such pointed thinking may not cover the sort of things you-dear Motorsports Enthusiast, demographically young and male (like your humble author) and therefore instinctively impervious to danger-normally read about. In the world of human intelligence and thought, perhaps the Venn diagram for people who read car websites and people who read feminist blogs with the tagline "visions of female sexual power and a world without rape" are two giant circles separated by an ocean.

But: "the reason I'm writing about it on a feminist blog is because this has everything to do with masculinity, machismo and men," says writer Thomas Macaulay Millar. Spurred by an innocent comment by F1 commenter David Hobbs-who survived that tumultuous period of Formula One, incidentally-the end result covers in anguishing detail the perils of machismo, the efforts by one driver to change it, and the relative safety that ensues among one of the world's most dangerous and exciting forms of sport.

Yes Means Yes: When Men Were Men, And Burned To Death

Above: Jack Brabham slides past Jacky Ickx's burning Ferrari during the 1970 Spanish Grand Prix. Image via

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