There but for fortune
Just as it finally seemed within his reach, a broken titanium component crushed Peter Revson’s F1 dream
Peter Jeffrey Revlon Revson had it all. Good looks, breeding, an attractive personality and an ability to drive race cars fast. In 1973 he won two Grands Prix races for McLaren, in one of them defeating the best opposition fair and square. After a struggle against his silver spoon background, he was on the brink of establishing himself as a leading F1 contender when Shadow went testing at Kyalami just prior to the South African GP in March 1974 . . .
As befitted his birthright, Revson was well educated, although he tended to move around colleges with restless regularity. He was a very deep thinker, at times quietly cynical. Happy to discuss racing but also to talk about Hemingway, philosophy, sailboats. A jazz freak, who loved the alto sax. The ladies found him irresistible.
He worked awhile in Seagram’s market research department, before a spell on Madison Avenue in the Mogol, Williams & Saylor advertising agency, but it was while he was in Hawaii in 1960 that he bought a Morgan and started racing. He was second in his first race, and won the next.
Three years later he scraped together $12,000 from his work savings and the remains of the trust his mother Julie had set up for his education, and went to Europe. Equipped with a Formula Junior Cooper, a Ford Thames bread van called Gilbert, and mechanic Walter Boyd, he took up an offer of workshop space from Reg Parnell. Later he would say of that sojourn, which the financial constraints on all parties sometimes rendered a little tense, “I learned enough, but not enough.” What he did pick up, he learned the hard way.
Revson made his F1 début in the 1963 OuIton Park Gold Cup, finishing an undistinguished ninth in his Lotus BRM. The following year he again ran under the Parnell wing, albeit as Revson Racing so they could draw more prize money. He did four Grands Prix and five non-championship races, with a best GP result of 13th at Monza. He ran an old spaceframe Lotus 24 with BRM power and Lola Mk4 bodywork, while team-mates Hailwood and Amon had monocoque 25s. “He preferred high speed circuits,” recalled Pamell’s son Tim. At Spa his best lap of 3m 59.9s placed him on the fourth row, but he was disqualified for a push start.
The non-championship races were only marginally better, but he was fourth at Solitude, on the same lap as Bob Anderson and a lap down on Clark and Surtees. And in Enna, where Hailwood landed his Parnell car in the snake-infested lake, he was sixth. A year earlier he’d set the fastest ever F1 lap there at 130mph while dicing with Jo Schlesser.
“He was a great pal. A great card. A real gentleman,” Parnell remembers. “He was going to drive an F2 car for us the following season, but he got signed up for Ron Harris in the works F2 team.” Revson made the best use of that opportunity, and walked the Monaco F3 support race that year in one of the film maker’s cars.
“He was ever such a nice chap. They all lived in that flat in Ditton Road, Surrey. A hell of a riotous affair! People were always ringing up, fearful of their house being destroyed! Wonderful times…!”
Indeed, the Ditton Road Flyers were signally adept at enjoying life to the full, as Bruce McLaren’s former secretary turned writer Eoin Young remembers.
“I knew Revvie very well in the Ditton Road days. One time we all went to London in one of Amon’s MkII 3.8s, Revson, me and Amon and his girlfriend. We went up to the Adlib club, a well-known joint then. We all got drunk and started being outrageous with Amon’s girlfriend, to the point where he threw us out! He told us to take the car home, and at that point Amon was buying 3.8s by the dozen and having them done up and sent to New Zealand, so he always used to drive the one that worked. Well this one worked but it had a flat battery, so we get slung out on the street about one o’clock in the morning, inebriated, and it’s parked on the footpath right outside of the club. We get the bouncers to push start the car.
“Then I’m driving home and Revson’s fallen fast asleep alongside. We get to Shepherds Bush where all those traffic lights are, and I’m sort of wandering through them and they go red so I stop. Revson stirs; thinks he’s home. He’s looking all around and he says, ‘What’ve we stopped here for?’ I said, ‘The lights are red.’ He said, ‘Yeah, but you should be stopped back there, shouldn’t you?’ I said, “No, no, you Americans don’t understand traffic lights.’ What I’d done was stop right across the middle of the intersection! So he said. ‘Well explain it to these two guys coming up here . . .’ “And there’s a couple of bobbies on the beat flashing their torches at me, so I pull in to the side. The guy says, Is this your car, sir?’ So I said, ‘No, it’s Chris Amon’s, the racing driver’s.’ He said, ‘Does he know that you’ve got it?’ So I said, ‘Well, he gave me the keys, so ! suppose he does.’ So he said, ‘All right, but we’d like to look in the boot.’
‘Well, you know what the keyhole on a 3.8 lag’s like; tiny little key. And there’s about 27 keys on this ring, and I’m merry, it’s dark. I couldn’t see the keyhole, let alone find the key. So eventually we get the boot open and it’s all full of racing numbers, all that stuff, and he said, ‘Okay.’
At this point a squad car pulls up on the opposite side of the road and this cop yells out, ‘Everything all right, Constable?’ And the bobby shouts back, ‘Yes, it’s just a couple of drunks on their way home.’
“I’m desperately relieved, leap into the driver’s seat, and then realise the battery’s flat, so we have to get these two coppers to push start us . . .
“I suppose after days like that, Revvie just had to get serious, you know? I don’t know; maybe he just suddenly remembered who he was, what he was. He was like all these guys. When they’re young they’re having a good time. Sure, they all want to do well. At the time they’re not doing well, they’re all good blokes. When they’re serious, putting their mind to it, life suddenly isn’t the ball it was. They change. It’s automatic, isn’t it? By the Can-Am days he was distant. I don’t know, maybe it was because I was mates with Denny and he was the American sporting star . . .
Times might have been fun in the very early days, but Revson was disappointed with his results. A little disillusioned, he went back home in 1966 and began rebuilding his career in the Can-Am and TransAm series.
Looking back, Young reflects: “I think having his brother killed knocked him sideways a bit.” Revson and younger brother Doug had often fought, but right after the funeral, when Doug had been killed after hitting a backmarker in the rain in a Danish F3 race in 1967, Revvie had gone straight to Bryar Motorsports Park in New Hampshire. There, with grim determination, he won the TransAm race in his Mercury Cougar.
By 1969 he’d taken the unfashionably turboless Brabham BT25 Repco from 33rd on the startline to fifth place at the end of the Indianapolis 500, and quietly admitted that it burned to see Mark Donohue take the Rookie of the Year honours. The next April he partnered Steve McQueen to second place at Sebring in the former’s Porsche 908, the pair of them beaten only by Mario Andretti’s iron determination not to be beaten by a movie star.
Revson himself had a movie star personna allied to a hard business head. He always sought to shrug off the ‘Revlon Heir’ tag, and his Lincoln-Mercury dealership in California’s Harbor City was doing well. As 1970 developed he showed class chasing the McLaren steamroller in the Can-Am, driving Carl Haas’ L&M-sponsored Lola T220.
Haas recalls: “He and I were pretty good friends. I’d known him a long time before he drove the T220 for me. He was very personable, very serious about his racing, and a very good race driver. He turned in some good performances in the Can-Am: he pushed the McLarens hard. When he was killed he was just at a point where he was ready to become a real contender.”
The real break came when Amon finally called it quits at Indy and handed his McLaren M15 over. Chris, the man who could take the Masta Kink flat at Spa without worrying about the houses and the trees, admitted that the Brickyard’s wall spooked him. For Revson, it was the passport to the real Big Time.
“I always figured that you only get one chance,” he said, and he parlayed that drive into a regular seat. In 1971 he stunned the Indy fraternity by placing his M16 on the pole at 178.696mph. In the race he finished second, 22.88s behind Al Unser Snr.
Former McLaren mechanic Hywel Absalom was another who liked Revson. “He was a pretty quiet guy, really. He was hyped up to be a playboy, but he really didn’t play that part at all. In those days there were a lot more flamboyant drivers about, yet he was characterised with the playboy image.
“I think he was very serious about showing what he could do, although it was better for him on the Indy front because they’d probably got more accurate American information on him. He just pulled that one out of the bag at Indy in ’71. I remember him just hanging in there on the same lap as Al Snr in the race.
“When he was killed, he was still climbing as far as I was concerned.”
There were other good things about 1971, for he had taken the regular seat alongside Denny HuIme in the Can-Am, and there he became the first American ever to win the title as his M8F carried on McLaren’s glorious North American reputation.
“There was a good picture I remember,” says Young. “I think it was Laguna Seca. Denny had been winning the race and the engine blew. It just covered the car with oil There was a picture of Denny in the pit lane, and he’s writing in the oil on the wing ‘Go Revvie!'”
For Young, any warmth from their original Ditton Road relationship had more or less evaporated by the time they worked together on the Can-Am scene, and by then Young’s involvement with McLaren was winding down to a deal as Gulf’s public relations man. There were nevertheless some amusing moments.
“Revvie was walking away with the race at Mid Ohio, so around lap 60 of the 80 I wrote the Gulf press release and had it all photocopied before the race finished. Then, just as I looked up, he went past trailing a cloud of smoke!” A halfshaft joint was failing. “I tore up all the releases, except for the original, which was still in the machine. While I went off to find out what had happened, the guy in the press room found the original release and photocopied it all over again, and then began handing them out. Revvie was fit to be tied when he saw them!
“By that time Denny was still Denny, but Revvie was . . ., someone else. He became an . . . well, I didn’t like him.”
Parnell has different recollections of the man. “Every time he ever came to England he always used to ring me up. When he was killed in South Africa, we’d all gone out together on the aeroplane because I was out there testing with BRM. We were ragging him at the time because he was involved in all that Miss World thing. And of course, me being a football chap as well, connected with Derby County, knew that Marji Wallace was also going around with Georgie Best. We used to rag him about that!
“He was a terrific pedaller by the end. A real nice guy, was Peter Revson. You’d have a joke with him about anything. I didn’t notice any change in his character; to me he was always the same, was Revvie.”
At the end of 1971 came the thing Revson was beginning to want most of all: another crack at Grand Prix racing. “Being an American, Indy is the race I really want to win, but where I want to race is Formula One. That’s my big challenge,” he would tell reporters.
There were suggestions that Goodyear had bought him the ride in Ken Tyrrell’s third car at Watkins Glen, but works manager Neil Davies recalls: “We took him because he was a very promising young driver.”
They weren’t the only ones who now felt that way. Though he qualified 19th only to retire on the first lap with oil on the clutch, Teddy Mayer was interested in his services for more than just USAC races in 1972. He would stand down from the Can-Am (although plans to supplant him with Jackie Stewart eventually foundered through JYS’ ulcer), and step into the F1 team alongside Denny. Seven years after that first abortive sortie, he was back. And this time it was very different.
By his own admission he learned a great deal as the year progressed, despite often having to switch each weekend between F1, Indy and the Can-Am. He did nine of the 12 GPs, and there were thirds in South Africa, Britain and Austria to add to fourth in Italy, a fifth in Spain and a seventh in Belgium, where he fought back in style after a puncture. Best of all was pole position in Canada, where he finished second to Stewart after a brilliant recovery fight with Ickx, Regazzoni, Fittipaldi, Hulme, Amon and Reutemann after his throttle had originally jammed in the closed position. In the qualifying stakes, he edged Denny out five races to four, and he was fifth in the World Championship.
Though he was disappointed not to have won a race that year, his improvement had caught many eyes. “Brands Hatch in particular was a very good drive,” recalls Autocar & Motor Grand Prix editor Alan Henry, who covered the race for Motoring News. “He was the only driver on the same lap as Fittipaldi and Stewart by the end of the British GP.”
1973 would be better still, the year in which he finally established himself as one of the world’s leading drivers, but the first half was relatively barren. He was second to Stewart in South Africa, fending off Fittipaldi by a scant half second, fourth in Spain and fifth at Monaco, but Denny comfortably aced him in qualifying. He was close, but somehow not close enough, to achieving his aspirations. He maintained there was something amiss with his M23. And then came Silverstone.
Round the Northamptonshire track he parked his McLaren on the front row, alongside Peterson and HuIme, and when all the dust from team-mate Jody Scheckter’s carnage had settled and Stewart had got two gears at once at Stowe, Revvie calmly picked off Ronnie Peterson for the lead on lap 39. The Swede counterattacked, but the American kept his cool and with great precision swept home to win his first GP by 2.8 comfortable seconds. To add to his pleasure, the night before he’d backed himself for £150, with £50 each way at 14 to 1 . . . He netted an easy £875 extra prize-money.
Fourth place followed at Zandvoort, and third at Monza where he’d started from the front row again. In Canada he was again second fastest, and in a wet-dry race of total confusion he was eventually named the winner after everyone’s lap charts had blown up. That one might have been a gift, but after Stewart had kept Kyalami despite passing under yellow flags, maybe he’d been owed a little good fortune.
Again he was fifth in the World Championship, and now there was little doubt about his prowess. Peter Revson was maturing nicely. “At the end of the day,” said Henry, “at Silverstone he beat Denny, Ronnie, James and Emerson fair and square . . “
Henry always liked Revson. “He was good looking, and scrupulously polite. I thought he had a lot of star quality. There was an aura about him, which was enlivened further when he turned up at Watkins Glen in 1973 with Miss World, Marji Wallace, on his arm.I hadn’t been doing F1 long then for Motoring News, and I suppose 1 was a bit star struck with him. I interviewed him in a camper at Mosport Park, just before he ‘won’ that race. Actually, the camper belonged to a wealthy retired businessman called Bill ‘Spanky’ Smith, with whom Revvie had become friendly. That was quite a big deal then, you know: Smith had a camper before people in F1 had campers, and Revvie would hold court in it.
“He wasn’t necessarily world class but he was a lot better than some people perceived him to be at the time. He was probably better than Denny in 1973, and Denny had won in Sweden and been on his only pole in South Africa. The M23 was a hot car then, of course, but Revvie was good.”
His racing philosophy was simple. He always sought a car’s limits, but he did so in a controlled manner. His approach was always calculated, and the title of his biography said it all: Speed with Style. And, though a slender six footer, he was tough. He once ran Joe Frazier close in a weight-lifting contest.
Revson once told the writer Ken Purdy: “I began to understand that I had to learn to be conscious of everything I’m doing, to anticipate, to be deliberate, never to lose myself, never just to slam my foot down and go, and above all to concentrate, to turn off absolutely everything in my mind but what I’m doing – everything.”
There were, however, clouds on the horizon. There had been, indeed, since July 28 at Zandvoort, only a couple of weeks after his Silverstone victory. Mayer had informed him that he was out of the F1 team for ’74, and offered only F5000 and USAC races in the States. He was then swept into an unsettling maelstrom of political wrangling. Of Mayer’s advice that he wasn’t wanted, Revson retorted laconically: “It seemed that Teddy’s sensitivity index was particularly bad.”
Mayer had former World Champion Emerson Fittipaldi waiting in the wings, with Marlboro in tow. Marlboro wanted Hulme to stay and Denny was keen for one last season. You didn’t need Calculus maths to see that three into two wouldn’t go. Already hotshoe Scheckter had got the message and started taking with Tyrrell.
Henry: “There was high inflation in ’73, and that affected the Yardley deal. Basically it had agreed terms to stay with McLaren for 1974, putting in the same as it had in ’73. Then along came Marlboro with Emerson and three times the money . . .
“Yardley actually issued a statement that just tore McLaren apart. Teddy threatened legal action if the press quoted from it, and to be honest because I’d only been doing F1 for a short while I didn’t have the nerve to go ahead. If it was today, we’d just have told Teddy where to go!”
Mayer remembers those days well, but still harbours a degree of unhappiness about how things evolved.
“I liked Peter enormously, actually. I think the thing that was probably difficult for both of us was to separate our friendship and then the fact that we’d grown up together to some extent, from the professional necessities of motor racing.” Mayer’s brother Tim (who was killed in the Tasman series in 1964) ran with talented amateur Bill Smith and Revson in the Rev Em team in the early Sixties. Timmy Mayer and Revson were a similar age.
“Later on, when we both moved into real professional racing, I always felt that Peter’s talent was more in Indycar racing, that he was a better Indycar racer. But he didn’t particularly like doing that. One of the things that probably came between us a certain amount was that at the time one of our main sponsors was Gulf Oil, and they were a lot more interested in Indianapolis and the three 500 mile races than they were in Formula One, and I had to sort of insist that Peter do those races and he really didn’t want to even though it was part of his contract. I don’t think his talent in Formula One was quite as brilliant as it was in Indycars; he had to work that much harder.
“The Yardley situation got a bit tangled. The sensitivity index thing . . . that may well be. We were having all sorts of problems at the time. In those days the financial rewards were quite small. You had to do what you had to do to keep going. We had the contract with Yardley for one car, and then Marlboro and Texaco came along and wanted us to take over Emerson. He didn’t want Peter around. I can’t really say why; I guess he felt he was more demanding than Denny. It came very close to Peter driving the Yardley car, and I think in the end he was badly advised, I really do. I don’t want to go into details, but I’m still fairly unhappy about some of that. But I thought we gave him some pretty good assurances.
“I think he could have matured to the top half dozen. I’m not sure his consistency was there to win the Championship. I mean, I liked Peter a lot but when he made a mistake it was quite difficult for him to come to terms with that. One time in Austria he burned his clutch on the starting line. At the next race he collared me and said, ‘What happened? Why did the car fail?’ And I had to tell him that as far as we were concerned and we were being quite genuine it had been his fault. And he really couldn’t accept that. He wouldn’t believe he hadn’t done it right.
“I think, in the cold light of day, to win the Championship, you’ve got to get everything right and you’ve got to be prepared to admit you might have to change things. That really was the only reservation. He had the driving ability. And having said that, he certainly grew up a lot since the Rev Em days. No question about that.”
The other point was that, where Denny was winding down, Revson was still climbing his learning curve. On his day he could match anyone out there. He wanted to stay in F1, and began a round of talks with beleaguered Ferrari (which was offering a less than perfect deal), Dan Gurney, who aspired to bring Eagle back to F1, Graham Hill and Don Nichols of Shadow. That Mosport weekend, when Henry interviewed him, the backdrop was one of internecine meetings between drivers and teams, and the secrecy created tension over and above the normal racing atmosphere. Plans to run Revson in a separate Yardley car looked alternately good, then bad. He and Mayer had always had an up and down relationship. Revson once opined that he’d “Like to hit the little guy with the white hair,” before reflecting that Teddy would probably like to clobber him sometimes, too. It was time to part. With reluctance, he quit McLaren and took up Nichols’ persistent offers to join Shadow.
“I remember that Shadow had a big announcement at the end of 1973 in Paris, and Revvie had driven the new DN3 the day before at Ricard,” chuckles Henry. “Maybe he was still feeling a little sore with McLaren, but he said that already it handled better than the M23. Teddy went ballistic!”
Roger Silman, now in charge of engineering for TWR Group, was Revson’s mechanic on the DN3, and had slight reservations before he worked with him. “I wondered what we were going to get, but I was enormously impressed with him. We had found somebody who very much wanted to help build the team. I had the impression that he didn’t expect the team to be a world beater immediately, but he was quite prepared to build it. I was amazed by him, I really was. Most impressed. I thought he was a super person. He was a real gentleman, and very much a team member.
“I was astonished at just how professional he was. He was very, very capable, and had this ability to turn on a really quick lap. I think he was extremely capable; I’m not sure I’d describe him as being one of these really outstanding natural talents, a sort of Ronnie Peterson or someone like that, but in terms of being able to apply himself and to produce that quick lap when it was all-important – you sometimes work with drivers who are just unable to put it together and find anything else when it counts – he’d definitely got that.
“The accident was terrible. It was my first experience of being so close to somebody like that. A lovely bloke” . . .
Trevor Foster, now race director of Team Lotus International, worked on Jean-Pierre Jarier’s Shadow when Revson joined the team. He recalled the first day the American drove, testing at Ricard in a DN1. “He spent all day with the car. It was bloody cold. Immediately he said it’s this, that and the other. I remember we went right up to the stiffest springs we had, and couldn’t go any stiffer. There was no bull with him. He was very nice, very friendly. Very good with the mechanics. Used to come in and say hello. He was just very factual: ‘This is what I want.’ He was very professional, and he knew exactly what he wanted.
“Everyone was quite buoyant. We’d finally got a name, somebody who’d won a Grand Prix as opposed to Jackie and George who were sort of journeymen. The whole thing was on a bit of a buzz. Revson was a good motivator, very positive, and wasn’t going to take any prisoners. And it seemed to us he was out to prove a point to a lot of people, that he could do the job. I think he wanted to prove to McLaren that he could do it on a regular basis. That came over in everything he said. Not on a grudge basis, though.
“The team was shattered when he was killed. It reeled everybody back.”
Former Shadow team manager Alan Rees, now a shareholder in Footwork, echoes Foster’s sentiments. “The strange thing was I drove against Revvie quite a lot, in Formula Two, and he wasn’t very good then! But he became very good.
“I think he was very close to being, if not actually, a top driver, I would say. It’s fair to say that he gave the team a good bit of direction in the three races he did. He knew exactly what he wanted with the car, and how to sort it out. He was a really experienced, intelligent driver.
“The problem after he was killed was that it all just disappeared for us. For sure, it set us back. I think we’d have got much better results, no question of that. He really was a very significant driver.”
To designer Tony Southgate Revson was, “Very intense; he used to worry a lot. He was always worrying about race strategy, the opposition, something like that.”
He remembers a key element in Shadow’s story, that possibly reflects Revson’s friendship with Larry Truesdale of Goodyear. “Because of Revvo we would have got a better tyre deal. We were on a bit of a poor deal with Jack and George, to be fair, although we didn’t know it at the time. When Revvie came along we got normal tyres, so immediately the car felt better. Obviously Revvo was a better driver anyway, so you got a double bonus.”
Revson loved the DN3 even though the Argentinian and Brazilian GPs yielded him little after practice promise. “It rides smooth as a Packard,” he would say of it. Then, shortly after finishing sixth in the Race of Champions, the team went out early to Kyalami to test before the South African GP. Revson had particularly high hopes, after his 1972 result there. But on Friday, March 22 1974, his Shadow failed to negotiate the very quick Barbecue Bend righthander, and slammed into the guardrail that had, ironically, been erected in front of a wide run-off area. By the time that rescue teams arrived on the scene, the popular American was beyond help. Investigation later suggested that the titanium pin holding the front left wishbone to the upright had sheared.
“Unfortunately, what happened was that the car was of low build and it hit the Armco at a shallow angle,” says Southgate. “It struck it at 45 degrees and wedged itself under the barrier, then tried to wrap itself round it and broke its back. The steering column was crushed on to his chest. The barrier didn’t do its job of bouncing the car off. The ironic thing is that three days later they changed all that and made it three double fences.
“In the crash there were several parts in the suspension that were broken that were what you might call suspicious. Although they were all well within their life, there were a lot of titanium components used. Titanium is commonplace now, and was relatively common then, but the degree of quality control was less than it is now. Things like machine marks, from grinding and turning, are quite critical on highly stressed titanium parts. Compared to what we have now they were inferior, and could have contributed to a premature failure.”
Just five months earlier Peter Revson had thought long and hard about Francois Cevert’s death, and about the faults in the installation of the safety barrier that had caused it. Now, just like the dashing Frenchman, he had been plucked away as he stood on the very threshold of the last big step forward.
Prophetically, while discussing racing with another writer, Hal Higdon, he had captured the precise circumstances of his own death when he said: “More than half the accidents in racing are probably due to mechanical failure, not from driver error.”
Revson’s parents, like the Rodriguez brothers’, lost both their sons to the sport they loved. D J T