Fear and Motor Racing

These days everything possible is done to make motor racing, one of the World’s most dangerous undertakings, as safe as possible. The other day, for instance, a proposed new race circuit for Club-type events was being inspected and the R.A.C. advised that some fine old trees close to the course would have to be felled, not because they were actually in the way but because they might blow down on to the racers. We found ourselves wondering if anyone gave any thought to this happening at Brooklands, and, if so, how the thousands of pine trees flanking the bankings were tested.

We are certainly not adverse to proclaiming the skill and courage of those who drive fast cars of all kinds, but we hate over-dramatisation and too much emphasis on accidents in this context. We see that Ken Purdy is at it again, in the January edition of Esquire, with a very long article about accident-prone Mr. Masten Gregory. The by-line says, rather confusedly, “After sixteen years of car racing and seven serious crashes, his life may be his greatest work of art.”

Purdy makes dramatic statements like “A racing driver can summon 220 miles per hour with his toe, using the power of a herd of 400 horses to move a vehicle weighing a little more than 1,000 lb.” (true, if a bit outdated in this age of space rockets and the Concorde). He asserts that “the delight of hazard, the sensuous wonder of straightline sheer speed, the swinging rhythmic pleasure of hills and curves taken flat-out, and the conviction of absolute environment control combine to bind the race driver so tightly to his trade that it is harder for him to abandon it, to retire, than for any other competitor, entertainer, athlete”. He has devoted this enormously long article, much of which reiterates views expressed and incidents described in his remarkable book about Stirling Moss, to Gregory, “. . . the last of an almost extinct breed, the sportsmen drivers, talented, individualistic to an extreme if not eccentric, sometimes wealthy, titled, or both, who decorated and sometimes dominated grand prix and sports-car racing before and after the Hitler war.” “They’ve gone for good, they’ll never be back,” Purdy tells us.

T. H. White, in that splendid book “Burke’s Steerage” (Collins, 1938), “the amateur gentleman’s introduction to noble sports and pastimes”, namely hunting, fishing and shooting, puts the conquest of fear somewhat differently. Written light-heartedly, White nevertheless believed what he wrote about hunting when he remarked that, apart from the master, the huntsman and two whips, the rest of the 400 riders to hounds is not allowed to outwit the fox, so that “the dangerous part of the proceedings is the only one left”. He goes on to say that only about 2% of these 396 actually “enjoy the dangerous difficulty of riding straight”. That leaves 388 people and White, in his inimitable style, develops the theme that these hunt because they fear loss of valour or loss of social prestige. “Terrified of being terrified;” says White, “all the spiritual brothers and sisters of the unfortunate Mytton hurled themselves into the hunting field to prove they were not afraid . . . Hag-ridden by those terrible doubts, ladies of kindly temperament who would otherwise be plotting dinners with their cooks drag their weary bones out of bed at unearthly hours, dip their faces in the flour bag, and bounce off on horses which bump them underneath, to the unending paper chase. Nervously cutting themselves as they shave, and far too qualmish to eat their porridge, unoffending gentlemen who might otherwise be collecting stamps, clamber upon the backs of ill-tempered chestnuts and go out to their purgation of criticism and hate”.

White, who enjoyed hunting, shooting and especially fishing, was writing with his tongue in his literary cheek. But when he asked: “Is it of your virility or your social status that you entertain such doubts?” pointing out that the true cure for the former is not hunting but having “a handsome wife and a large family” and that the latter can be consolidated “by becoming the proprietor of a yellow newspaper and getting a peerage”, was he not making something of a parallel with the reasons why people went motor racing, in the days before it became a lucrative profession instead of sport?

Anyway, we are surprised that Purdy has not written of the danger, and horrors of the hunting field, while surely some of those who continue to motor race do so because they are, as T. H. White put it, “afraid of being afraid”, or afraid of losing status, rather than because they are unusually brave or attracted to it?—W. B.