In order to appropriately mythologise Jackie Stewart, he really should be dead, the better to fulfil the time-served, cruelly macho parapsychology of his chosen sport. Not suburban-dead, felled by atherosclerosis or a wayward milk float, but dead like a 1970s racing driver, like so many of his rivals, gothically, bloodily, hopelessly, publicly. But he’s not Jackie Stewart is more than still around. Jackie Stewart is positively chipper. Jackie Stewart, thankfully, is still Jackie Stewart.
And, to begin, remember this: nobody does Jackie Stewart better than Jackie Stewart. Which means that, 27 years since he last raced in a Grand Prix, John Young Stewart OBE remains the prototypical modern Formula One driver. Sharp, self-assured, media-savvy, business-minded, fully understanding not only his role in the sport, but also his place in the wider world and, of course, his value, what he brings to the party, time and again.
A concatenation of dollars and cents and commonsense which, somehow, makes it too easy to overlook the 27 wins from 99 starts, the three World Championships, the unspoken confidence underpinning his chrome-steel grip upon Grand Prix racing from 1969 to 1973.
At Monza in 1965, he held off Jim Clark and John Surtees to claim his first championship Grand Prix victory
Grand Prix Photo
Does his subsequent concentration on being a corporate entity deflect from such sublime on-track domination? Should a man who won by over four minutes at a fogbound Nürburgring in 1968 really have talked up the original Ford Capri, the car you (allegedly) always promised yourself? It required his participation in just eight Grands Prix to take his first win at Monza, 1965. His victory record remained unbeaten for 14 years. He was exceptional in an era when the line dividing the quick and the dead was worn translucent. He never broke his skin in a racing car.
Random stuff about me and Jackie Stewart. Each time we meet and he says “Hello, Russell” I still get that same little buzz. I want to say to him that, when I was 11, he was my man. I want to say to him that, because of one picture, a tiny tartan-on-white crash helmet tucked inside that pot-bellied Matra MS80 on the cover of the June 1969 edition of this magazine, I decided to do the job I do.
I want to say to him that because he wore a Rolex watch back then, I do now. I want to say to him that one of my abiding notions as a kid — that important stuff in life must be achieved before you are thirty years old — is down to him clinching his first World Championship at that age. I want to say to him that I, for one, am really glad he’s still around.
Jackie Stewart at the Nürburgring in ’68
Grand Prix Photo
There are more Ayrton Senna fans today than before May 1, 1994 and their evangelism is increasingly unequivocal. The television audience for Formula One grew after Senna perished. His accident amplified the real danger of racing and danger is a synonym for glamour in an increasingly sanitised sporting world. Guess what? Glamour sells.
Today’s race audience, the on-board camera and timing by-TAG-Heuer generation, lost the icon who had defined their summer Sunday afternoons for almost a decade. Jackie Stewart lost Jim Clark, Jochen Rindt, Piers Courage, François Cevert and a host of others, just doing their job.
We prefer our heroes tidily packaged, containable. Being dead simplifies the process. James Dean was never a guest star on Dynasty, but Jackie Stewart did, during his final racing season, model underpants. I can still remember being on holiday with my parents in Spain and picking up a local car magazine, only to discover an advertisement featuring Jackie Stewart, wearing nothing but his skivvies and a beguiling grin, splashed over the back cover. I already had a Jackie Stewart cap: I passed on the smalls.
Jackie Stewart was always a businessman. When I reported Formula One in the ’80s, he earned more than most drivers, without sitting in a race car. My wife, for example, is a huge Jackie Stewart fan — but knows little of him as a racing driver. Growing up in Los Angeles, Jackie Stewart, to her, is the voice of F1 on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, a voice to remind her of sitting on the sofa on Sunday afternoons with her dad. A voice full of good memories.
Was he ever going to end up in the family business, as a garage mechanic in Dumbarton? Most racing drivers you understand, live life compartmentalised into race-test-race and press the flesh: the contemporary Formula One career plan is structured around the notion that once a racer has lost his edge in qualifying, he can disappear to, say, open a golf club. At 60, Jackie Stewart was working 18 hours a day metamorphosing Stewart Grand Prix into Jaguar Racing. And earning the big quid.
Jackie and Helen Stewart at Monaco in 1971
Blackman/Daily Express/Getty Images
He realised, early on, his marketability. Maybe racing at Indianapolis in 1966 revealed new possibilities in a vast new country. He has worked with Ford for 35 years — from Cortina to Focus, — think on that and was also a long-term spokesman for Goodyear, American multinationals both. He had already grasped the codes of professional racing: he taught himself the etiquette of the boardroom, and quickly. He has been a millionaire for half his life.
Never forget he also raced Can-Am, in the fierce L&M cigarettes Lola, while winning in F1, racking up 250,000 airborne miles a year. He drove for Jim Hall’s Chaparral team just once: Hall loved his driving, yet even in 1970, could not meet his wage demands. Never forget that, during the 1972 season, Stewart sat out six weeks when a stomach ulcer went bad. For Jackie Stewart, then as now, pressure was always self-inflicted.
This, then, is my understanding of how Jackie Stewart remains Jackie Stewart. I recall listening to him on My Top Twelve a BBC Radio One programme back in the ’70s, where celebrities were asked to pick their dozen favourite discs. To have an hour of Stewart on the radio was thrilling. Usually just a tiny interview with Barrie Gill on Sunday Sport, would bookend another Grand Prix win: Formula One was rarely a television spectacle.
I can remember one thing about Stewart on My Top Twelve. He picked a track by Queen and a couple of others from that week’s chart. Host Brian Matthew asked Stewart why his choices were so contemporary and, if memory serves, Stewart replied that he was “a modern person”. And I can remember thinking, back in a teenage bedroom with a Jackie Stewart poster blu-tacked to the wall, that Stewart couldn’t care less for pop music and that his choices had been picked by somebody else, probably his secretary. Culture barely exists on his radar: culture is what others think about when they have time to kill. Reassuringly for a race driver, he just doesn’t understand idling.