Legends - History in print

“Hold this for a second”, said Roy Salvadori, handing me a glass of beer. “No, on second thoughts perhaps you’d better hold this,” and he passed a half-eaten sandwich into my care.

Racing.was over for the day, and this maddening eight-year-old had asked for Roy’s autograph. It was the Oulton Park Gold Cup in 1954. August 7 1954, to be precise. The date is etched in my mind as the first time I saw Grand Prix cars race, and I still have the programme, complete with the faded signatures of Salvadori, Moss, Parnell and others.

As some who collect models soon conclude that, if the hobby is not to get out hand, they must limit themselves to a particular marque, so am I with programmes. By and large, I try to restrict myself to particularly memorable races, those especially significant to me (such as anything won by Jean Behra), or quirky events, like the one-off Grand Prix in Dallas in 1984.

An exception to the rule, given my obsession with the ‘roadster era’ at Indianapolis, is anything from America from the mid-50s to the early 60s. These I scoop up whenever I see them, particularly if they happen to be signed by such as Jimmy Bryan, Eddie Sachs or Bob Sweikert.

I am not, by contrast, an avid collector of magazines. Some individual copies are kept intact, of course, but usually I tend to hack out stories of interest, file them, and sling the rest in the bin. In general, I have found that those who glory in miles of shelving, in immaculately bound volumes of this, that and the other, tend to have rather little passion for the events recorded therein.

Race programmes I find endlessly absorbing, though, for so often a deal of social history, sometimes hilarious, sometimes chilling, is to be found within their covers.

Probably the pride of my collection is the programme from the 1936 Vanderbilt Cup, run on Long Island, and won by the Alfa Romeo of Tazio Nuvolari – ‘The man who has a contract with the Devil…’

The art deco cover is a thing of beauty, and on the back is an ad for Camel cigarettes, featuring Lee Gehlbach, America’s leading test pilot of the time. A photograph shows Gehlbach in a diner booth, eating his meal – and also smoking. “Camels set me right!” he says. “I smoke them with my meals and afterward – for digestion’s sake. They speed up the flow of digestive fluids, and help bring a sense of well-being.” Well, who’d have thought it?

It is not only in matters of health that accepted thought has changed down the years. Etiquette on the race track, for example, was once taken for granted. In the programme for the very first World Championship Grand Prix, at Silverstone in May 1950, a few useful facts are assembled to further spectators’ appreciation. I will quote a single example.

‘PASS, FRIEND. The French were the pioneers of motor racing, and ever since it has been a tradition to use their rule-of-the-road. Therefore, overtaking drivers should pull over to the left-hand side of the road.’ Just like today, really.

Elsewhere in the programme are listed the awards for the day’s events; in winning the Grand Prix d’Europe for Alfa Romeo, Giuseppe Farina won for himself and his team £500, doubtless a handy sum 49 years ago, but rather less pro rata, one imagines, than Michael Schumacher and Ferrari trousered last July. This must remain in the realms of speculation, however, since presumably only Bernie Ecclestone and Luca di Montezemolo are aware of the figure on the cheque.

Not long ago I bought the programme from the 1939 German Grand Prix, primarily because this was the last major victory of Rudolf Caracciola, a driver whom Alfred Neubauer considered even greater than Nuvolari. The race was run only two months before the outbreak of the Second World War, and the programme is appropriately doom-laden, with swastikas and Nazi salutes well to the fore. In the midst of this cauldron of nationalism is a full-page ad for Coca-Cola; perhaps some things are timeless, after all.

The programmes I enjoy most, perhaps, are those from the America of 40 years ago, when Mom and apple pie still held sway, when, as Woody Allen put it, his parents’ values were ‘God and carpeting’.

In a 1963 sprint car programme, from Reading, Pennsylvania, there was pictured a pretty young woman adjudged the area’s ‘Outstanding Future Homemaker of America’; elsewhere we note that, racing the Wergland Roofing Special, was one Mario Andrette (sic), who might reasonably have been considered ‘Outstanding Future Race Driver of America’, but was not. They couldn’t even get his name right.

Back then, it seemed that the world was squeamish about almost everything but death, In Memoriam pages – sometimes three or four of them – being set aside, paying homage to drivers recently killed. In the same programmes toilets are referred to as ‘comfort stations’.

Across the world, the attitude to safety was indeed somewhat different. My Oulton Park programme offers a polite reminder to spectators that, The earth banks around this circuit have been erected as a crash barrier for your protection. It is forbidden to stand, sit or climb on them.’

This brought back a remark made to me by Tony Brooks: “As far the drivers were concerned, safety was never even discussed. Our attitude was that the spectators had to be protected at all costs, and that was it.”

My favourite programmes of all are from the Hoosier 100, an event run to this day at the Indiana State Fairgrounds, a one-mile dirt oval in the classic American tradition. For front-engined dirt cars, the race in its glory days was a round of the USAC Championship, and pulled the country’s finest drivers. You were nothing until you’d done something there: in 1957 the driver of the Hoover Motor Express Special was listed thus: AJ Foyt (no picture available)’.

My 1960 programme exhorts race patrons to, ‘Insure America’s Future! Vote for Richard M Nixon for President.’ Well, who knew?

A year later, Cold War fever was rife, and clearly there were those who believed it only a matter of time before the Commies cleared customs in Indianapolis. In the ’61 Hoosier 100 programme, the Columbia Construction Co Inc took a full-page ad: “Will Your Family Survive?” it luridly began. “It Can! With One Of Our Fallout And Bomb Shelters!”

If the ad pandered to fears of nuclear holocaust, it did not neglect America’s preoccupation with creature comforts. “Choice Of Colour Interior! Two Bunk Beds! Landscaped Renditions Available!”

One might have thought the word ’emergency’ redundant in “Emergency Lighting Equipment!”, but my real favourite is “Chemical Toilet With Two Weeks’ Supply Of Chemicals!” If the fall-out lasted more than a fortnight, presumably you were a bit stuck. “Pardon me, do you know where there’s a comfort station?”

Putting flippancy aside, my affection for America and its motor racing has always run deep, and I would never part with these programmes, or they evoke a period of classic racing, with an innocent clarity that can catch you unawares. Amid ads for hamburgers and tractors in a 1968 programme, you come upon a whole page given over to a small photo, and a simple handful of words beneath, without affectation: ‘He was the greatest, and his name was Jimmy Clark.’

Contemporary programmes, particularly those dealing with Formula One, leave me cold, I’m afraid, for they have come under ‘official’ control, and have a drab uniformity of appearance, size and content. But there was a notable exception to the rule in Hungary a few years ago, when some intrepid fellow slipped in a remarkably detailed feature suggesting that Bernie had put the organisers through a financial wringer down the years.

No-one seemed to know how it happened; everyone doubted that it would happen again.