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F1 History 17

James Hunt’s American adventures

Back in 1973 and ’74 James Hunt leaped from a frustrating few years as a struggling, often ridiculed Formula 3 driver to become a new F1 star with Lord Hesketh’s irreverent, Union Jack-waving team.

A few years later Hunt would win the 1976 World Championship after a dramatic battle with Niki Lauda, inspiring Ron Howard’s new movie Rush, but in ‘73 and ’74 he made an early impression in America in a handful of Can-Am and Formula 5000 races.

I first met James at Elkhart Lake in the summer of ’73 when he was hired by Don Nichols on a one-off basis to drive a twin-turbo Chevy V8-powered Shadow DN2 Can-Am car. The Can-Am series was dominated that year by Mark Donohue aboard Roger Penske’s turbo Porsche 917/30K and as everyone struggled unsuccessfully to compete with Donohue’s 1000+ horsepower 917/30K, Nichols asked his team to stuff a twin-turbo V8 into one of his uncompetitive Shadows.

history  James Hunt’s American adventures

Jackie Oliver would win the final Can-Am championship the following year with a much more refined Shadow DN4 but in ’73 he was thrashing in the mid-field, well off Donohue’s pace. At Elkhart, Oliver was no less than ten seconds slower than Donohue and Hunt could do no better with the monster twin-turbo Shadow. James made it home a lap down in seventh place in Saturday’s sprint race and neither he nor Oliver started Sunday’s longer, points-paying race.

I remember James wandering the paddock wearing washed-out bell bottom jeans and an undersized pink T-shirt exposing his midriff and belly button. He was unimpressed with the Shadow. “I was hoping to enjoy some real horsepower,” he grinned. “But the thing is really slow to respond and when the power does come in it just spins the wheels in any gear. It’s really not much fun and racing that thing is like doing press-ups in a steam sauna for an hour.”

The following year Dan Gurney hired James to drive his latest Eagle F5000 car in the two season-closing races at Laguna Seca and Riverside. He showed his talent by qualifying third at Laguna behind Mario Andretti and Brian Redman and finishing a distant second to Redman in the race after Andretti suffered a flat tyre. At Riverside Hunt qualified the Eagle sixth, finished fourth in his heat and was running fifth in the final when he spun with two laps to go.

At Laguna Seca there was an impromptu party one evening where James amiably quaffed a few beers, smoked some cigarettes and happily puffed away at a funny, hand-rolled California cigarette somebody had produced. In those days there was no delineation between drivers and press people, no PR types to get in the way, and no recriminations for anyone enjoying themselves as they saw fit. Indeed, we all entered into the fun together.

history  James Hunt’s American adventures

A few years later in 1976 at the first F1 race at Long Beach, James was a front-runner in his first year with McLaren. He qualified on the pole for the year’s first two F1 races and finished second to Niki Lauda in South Africa. Hunt and Lauda would go on to engage in a classic world championship duel and at Long Beach they qualified third and fourth – Hunt ahead of Lauda – behind Clay Regazzoni and Patrick Depailler. But in the race Hunt flew off the track at the first turn, creating a renowned photograph that would serve as a promotional vehicle for the race over the next few years.

During that weekend I was asked to write a story about James for a long-gone monthly magazine called Sport. At the time, Sport was a rival for the weekly Sports Illustrated and they wanted a long story explaining where this guy Hunt had come from and what made him tick. I told James about the assignment – again no PR men to get between us in those days ­– and he suggested I fly to New York with him the day after the race.

We met at LAX and James and his girlfriend ‘Hot Loins’ boarded the first-class section of the flight as I filed into steerage. During the cross-country flight James sauntered back a few times to where I was sitting for some light banter. He was wearing cut-off jeans and ‘Hot Loins’ was showing her long legs below an even shorter skirt.

I remember the guy sitting next to me asking: “Who is that guy? Is he some kind of British royalty or something?” I explained that he was a Formula 1 driver who was just emerging as one of the world’s best racers, but the guy had no idea what I was talking about.

After we landed in New York we shared a cab to Manhattan and checked into a hotel. James suggested we dine on room service and spend the next day talking about his life and career for the Sport story. Before the food arrived he called a friend of his who came over with a few of those funny Californian cigarettes to complete our evening. We spent the next day chatting amiably before James and ‘Hot Loins’ flew home to London and I set about writing my story.

Some 15 years later I had the pleasure of sharing a table at the Autosport Awards with James, Innes Ireland, Nigel Roebuck, Eoin Young and Maurice Hamilton. By that time James was Murray Walker’s sidekick on the BBC’s F1 broadcasts and Innes was covering F1 for Road & Track and we had a grand time, as you can imagine, with James and Innes telling hilarious stories amid plenty of wine. At the end of the evening James took off his tux, folded it into his backpack and cycled home through the night to Wimbledon. A year or two later both James and Innes were gone, James the victim of a heart attack and Innes from cancer.

Looking back, it’s stunning to take on board how different things are today. James and Innes were from another age and would have no interest in today’s self-important, stuffed-shirt, politically correct F1 world. I’m sure, wherever their spirits may reside, they’re enjoying a libation or two, grinning and laughing irreverently.

Add your comments

17 comments on James Hunt’s American adventures

  1. Dave Cook, 9 September 2013 12:12

    “But the guy had no idea what I was talking about”. It was like that then. Always a difference between an enthusiast and a fan, especially in our sport. Lovely article!

  2. Nick the Hippy, 9 September 2013 12:16

    A beautiful bit of writing.

  3. Elusive American F1 Fan, 9 September 2013 16:12

    I enjoyed this story, thank you!

  4. Rich Ambroson, 9 September 2013 18:06

    In this day and age of private jets, it’s unimaginable to consider the drivers chatting with the “unwashed” back in coach.

    Loved the last paragraph here especially. Definitely an enjoyable read. Thanks Mr. Kirby, I appreciate your perspective on this one.

  5. David H, 9 September 2013 19:30

    Wonderful, thank you.

  6. Paul Fearnley, 9 September 2013 21:11

    Great stuff. Thank you.

  7. Rob Christoph, 9 September 2013 23:34

    We miss you James! – a beer drinking, drug taking, marshall punching, woman chasing, flip-flop wearing, fag smoking, telling it like is superstar is just what we need back in the sport today!!
    Great piece Gordon.

  8. Steve W, 10 September 2013 09:37

    …”James and his girlfriend ‘Hot Loins’”…

    Perfect. I love it!

  9. Lewis Lane, 10 September 2013 10:22

    Great article perfectly summing up the lives and times of the ’70′s.
    It’s amazing how much attitudes have changed… i mean, can you imagine the outcry that would occur now, if one of today’s F1 stars was partaking in the local tobacco..?

  10. Sandeep Banerjee, 10 September 2013 14:40

    Thanks for sharing your story about James. Very cool!

  11. IndyCar fan, 10 September 2013 19:05

    After growing up seeing the great F1 drivers from the 60′s and 70′s, and with Rush coming out, my interest in James is renewed. All I can say well written and more please!

  12. Peter Manso, 10 September 2013 20:42

    Very nice piece that brings back all sorts of memories, including a bunch of women we both got to know during JH’s F. 5000 period.

  13. crp, 11 September 2013 01:45

    Good Stuff Gordon….pretty well captured James,,but I assure you that you could write an entire book about James’ exploits in California and 2 books about his exploits in Long Beach! Not even including Mrs. Jorgensens’ – Jorgensen Steel – opinion of his
    F.5000 – driving suit patch:- …..- the breakfast of Champions could be left out!
    Keep up your wonderful writing…not many of you guys left!

  14. Tony Geran, 12 September 2013 23:09

    He came to Australia at the end of 1978 to drive an Elfin at a local F5000 event at Winton. Reports from some of the other drivers in that event left people in no doubt that he was an ace. Apparently he showed the others how to “cure” new tyres. I was lucky enough to see him drive in 3 GPs in 1976. The manner in which he won at the ‘Ring left no one in any doubt that he could drive.

  15. Charles Norman, 13 September 2013 10:29

    As is always the case with your articles Gordon; superbly written and full of nostalgia from a great time in history.

    I wasn’t the greatest fan of James in his later years although I enjoyed the excitement of his arrival in F1 back in ’73. As Tony mentions above the guy could certainly drive and that was clearly illustrated by his performances in the M26 in 1978. He probably drove better that year than any other.

    Such a shame it all fizzled out the following year with that disastrous move to Wolf.

    He certainly was a character and pretty off the wall a lot of the time; but in many ways a man of the times. Sadly large corporate interest and the influence of being “PC” have put an end to all that!

  16. dennis krill, 15 September 2013 16:16

    Thanks for reminding me why only Spa and Monza pique my interest any more. And that it is not nostalgia when pining for thee old days. Great read as always!

  17. Kevin Gutteridge, 16 September 2013 11:13

    Great stuff Gordon: I still consider myself to be one of James’ biggest fans, even at my age. Thanks.

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