Jackie Stewart: the hero driver, team owner and campaigner

There's always been more to Jackie Stewart than his driving ability. He's also been team owner, safety campaigner and unashamed promoter of other people's products. Russell Bulgin assesses the career of the prototypical modern racing driver.

Jackie Stewart in his Tyrrell Ford during the 1973 British Grand Prix at Silverstone

As comfortable in the boardroom as he was behind the wheel of a Tyrrell (here at Silverstone in '73), Jackie made the transition from racing driver to businessman with ease

Grand Prix Photo

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.

Jackie Stewart, John Surtees and Jim Clark on the front row at Monza for the start of the 1965 Italian Grand Prix

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 in the rain at the Nurburgring during the 1968 German Grand Prix

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 walk alongside Monaco harbour in 1971

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.

From the archive

He summons absolute focus, projected at what he is concentrating upon right now, be this a project occupying five minutes or five months. Which, for 90 per cent of the past 40 years, has been the care, nurturing and high-bandwidth networking of Jackie Stewart Inc., recreating himself as a globally-recognised brand. Acute dyslexia rules out reading for pleasure and results in his startlingly impressive random-access cranial Rolodex. Detail a non-dyslexic might easily research is compacted within Stewart, simmering gently.

Detail consumes Jackie Stewart. When Paul Stewart Racing, the race team he founded with his eldest son, contested the FIA International Formula 3000 Championship in 1992, six journalists worked the press box for a round at Jerez, Spain — and, every 30 minutes, eight cleaning ladies shuffled in to empty waste-bins and swab ashtrays. This was, as a paddock joke had it, the racing series where not only did the spectators know the names of the drivers, but the drivers knew the names of the spectators.

Yet PSR treated F3000 as a Formula One substitute. The team truckie not only had to wash down the transporter upon arrival, but he also had, on Jackie’s instruction, to jack up cab and trailer and rotate each tyre so that the legend ‘Bridgestone’ on the sidewall was top-dead-centre. Next, he picked out each letter of the logo individually in white. Because by now Jackie Stewart was — you guessed — a consultant to the Japanese tyre corporation.

Car by Mary Walton, the inside story of how Ford created the second-generation Taurus sedan, highlights how Stewart-think functions within Ford.

He is, Walton reckons, the company conscience. She accompanies him to the test-track. He rails at door-handle-feel, handbrake action and the fact that the engine turns five times before firing. The brake pedal is, he claims, too noisy. Thirty-one demerits are listed. Plus the fact that the fuel-filler cap, with its plastic tether, is “a piece of crap”.

Just after the book came out, three years ago, I bumped into Stewart. Foolishly, I asked if he had read Car. No, he hadn’t: afterwards, I realised that a dyslexic with a crushing schedule is not going to grind through 360 pages. So I said three little words: gas cap tether.

Stewart trickled into this fantastic, passionate riff, about how the flimsy rope is going to break in cold weather and annoy any customer recently parted with hard-earned cash and that the company was better off putting their money into a simpler gas cap with a nicer surface finish and a better twist-action and… And, suddenly, I saw Stewart’s value to Ford. Not only an incisive car-tester, but as a self-made man who retains faintly Calvinistic notions of quality, value and integrity.

Hire Stewart for a day’s promotion and he does 8.30am until 6.00pm, with a sandwich lunch. He doesn’t stop, is world-class at working the room, preternaturally chatty. I was at a media event, sat next to a twinkly young television presenter. Stewart saw us, eased into a terrifically avuncular routine, what’s-a-nice-girl-like-you-doing-associating-with-a-dreadful-guy-like-that , all smiles amid a faintly forced conspiratorial air.

Only later did I realise that he hadn’t actually been funny, that his attempt at lightheartedness was far from sidesplitting. No, why this worked was precisely because it wasn’t what you expect from Jackie Stewart.

This was Stewart making an effort, creating conversation with a woman he didn’t know when he could have done the simple thing and chatted with me about our common interests: cars, racing, paddock gossip. No Jackie Stewart spent three minutes making her feel special, anchoring two strangers. Usually, humour isn’t his preferred tactic: this time, it was all he had. “Isn’t he lovely?” smiled Ms TV as Stewart glided to the next table.

He is, in truth. Yes, he can be infuriatingly pernickety. But he can wander into the Ford VIP box after the British Grand Prix qualifying session, stand in front of board members and marketing dweebs and assorted VIPs and say “Well, today ladies and gentlemen, we let the Ford Motor Company down”, before doing a quarter-hour, no notes, on the expectations for the Stewart-Ford team, his relationship with Ford, how Ford uses racing, quiet and downbeat and realistic against an environment pebble-dashed with hype.

From the archive

Explanation over, he will say quietly, “I’m afraid I haven’t got much time for autographs today”. That’s the other side of Jackie Stewart. Was he just being disingenuous? Or do people automatically brandish pen and paper, even now, as he approaches? He admits to having designed his autograph in fluid curves and a rare legibility, so it didn’t disappoint.

Or was this World Champion ego, still lurking after all these years? He announced he was standing down as CEO of Jaguar Racing at the team launch, where he could be guaranteed the widest coverage. And where, during the rehearsal, he refused to reveal what he would be saying on the day. Afterwards, he told a television interviewer that he was leaving because he “Casts a pretty big shadow in several directions”. Why say so? Because its true. Why not?

He’s made his money, stayed married to Helen and raised two solid sons, Paul and Mark: they have their father’s charm, manifest his values. He cried on-camera when Rubens Barrichello finished second for his team at Monaco in 1997, stood blubbing in the rain, happy as a kid, the shield of quotability, the fast-track soundbite, lost for a moment He’s loyal to family, friends and employees like chauffeur Gerry Webb, who pounded that black Scorpio, 1 JYS, through outside lane Britain while his boss sat in the back, juggling three mobile phones. He has an undisguised admiration of the monarchy, would count himself a patriot, yet lived as a tax exile for 35 years — which is why the knighthood is a long time coming.

Jackie and Paul Stewart on the pitwall for Stewart Grand Prix at the 1997 San Marino GP

Stewart’s decision to stand down as CEO of Jaguar’s new F1 team was, he says, the result of not wanting to work 18-hour days for the rest of his life

Grand Prix Photo

The Stewart Grand Prix-Jaguar Racing deal was pure Jackie Stewart. Racing insiders decried it as cynical: Ford funds Stewart’s Formula One dreams and then, five years and one F1 win later Jackie Stewart sells the team back to Ford for $110m.

What the detractors fail to understand is that when Ford went through due diligence on Stewart Grand Prix, they discovered a company run the old-fashioned way. Stuff was paid for, the bankers were happy, cashflow was impressive, spending rational. Ford could buy with confidence: this team had fiscal self-discipline.

You should expect no less from Jackie Stewart. Call it personal morality. His tireless campaigning for improving the safety of racing from the 1960s onwards won him few friends outside of his fellow drivers. This magazine was notably harsh in its condemnation of Stewart as an armco-wielding antichrist, set upon reducing racing to a caricature of what it had been, an attitude which assumed that the Grand Prix establishment had been right all along. In fact, Jackie Stewart was right all along.

Partly through the efforts he made in racetrack safety, partly through an extraordinary sensitivity to machinery — he was, don’t forget, also an Olympic-class shot — as a driver, Jackie Stewart choice of career didn’t leave him dead.

Superficially, that he still breathes and walks and talks and signs autographs and poses for pictures and mithers over minor Ford componentry might lessen the legend, but it shouldn’t. He is one of the greatest race drivers of all time. In truth Jackie Stewart is beyond broad-brush mythologising. He’s just Jackie Stewart. And, for 30 years, that’s been more than good enough for me.