Long-Life Racing Drivers

The best age for a racing driver is presumably somewhere between 18 and 30. I looked for some confirmation of this in Denis Jenkinson’s erudite book “The Racing Driver” (Batsford, 1958) but all I found was the attitude to some drivers and riders to retirement. We know that there were people like C. Le Strange Metcalfe and Sir Francis Samuelson, Bt. drove racing cars when they were 70 and more years of age.

In round figures Earl Howe was racing effectively when he was 45, John Cobb was 48 when he drove a car at over 400 mph and 53 when he was killed trying for the waterspeed-record, Sir Malcolm Campbell did not give up his pursuit of the land-speed-record until he was over 50 and he took the WSR to over 141 mph at the age of 54. Nuvolari drove his last race at 56. Karl Kling was in the Mercedes-Benz GP team at 44 and Luigi Villoresi didn’t give up until he was 47. Caracciola, who wrote of the racing car that it is a dangerous slave and he who is not its master in speed, reaction time and precision will inexorably be killed, survived crashes in which he broke first one leg, then his other, and suffered bad concussion in a third accident, was still racing when another accident put him out of it, aged 51. S. C. H. Davis had a nasty crash at Brooklands in 1931, when he was 44, but was still racing in major events at 50, when there was the crash at Ards, in the TT Singer, after its steering gear broke. Captain G. E. T. Eyston, OBE, became the fastest man on earth when he was 41 and took his seaplane flying-licence when he was over 70. Lt. Col. A. T. G. Gardner was 63 when he broke records at over 189 mph with an MG. Fangio was 47 when he announced his retirement from motor racing. (I confess that some of these chaps seem quite young, to me).

The age of racing drivers apart, it is interesting that some of them had long driving careers. Arthur Duray, for instance, was record-breaking for Gobron-Brille in 1902, aged 21, and was still at it in the late 1920s, with Excelsior and Aries sports-cars, and in 1927 he won at Boulogne with an Amilcar Six. Similarly, Fernand Gabriel, if he won only one great race, the ill-fated Paris-Madrid, stopped at Bordeaux, with the 70 hp Mors, was still behind the wheel of competition cars after the First World War, driving for Aries in touring-car races in 1923, at Lyons, a racing career lasting from 1899. And what a long spell Jules Goux had on the circuits. He drove into third place for Peugeot in the 1907 Coupe des Voiturettes, which was the commencement of a notable career in light-car racing, which included winning the Sicilian Cup and the Catalan Cup for Lion-Peugeot. He became adept at handling the top-heavy long-stroke Peugeot racers and he was a natural choice of driver in the tram of twin-cam 16-valve fourcylinder GP cars which he, Zucarelli, Boillot and Henry had devised. Thus mounted, Goux was well able to support the flying Georges Boillot and he won the American Indianapolis 500 Mile Race of 1913 in one of the GP Peugeots, at nearly 76 mph. After Peugeot abandoned Grand Prix racing Goux went, with designer Henry, to Ballot and won for them in the 1921 Italian Grand Prix. At the age of 40 he joined the official Bugatti works team in 1925 and drove in a great many races for Ettore Bugatti, having a hollow victory, as the only finisher out of three starters, at Miramas in 1926 but winning the more fiercely contested European Grand Prix at San Sebastian.

Of British drivers, there was Sir Algernon Lee Guinness, Bt, who started racing in the early 1900s, on Darracqs, and tamed the fearsome 22 1/2-litre vee-eight-cylinder 200 hp Darracq at Brooklands and on Saltburn sands, and was second in the 1908 “Four Inch” TT on a Darracq. Yet after the war he was able to get into a diminutive 1,500 cc Talbot-Darracq and in appalling weather conditions, drive it to victory in the 1922 226-mile IoM TT, finishing ahead of the great Albert Dive. Sir Algernon then became a very well-known and respected race-official, including at BMCRC motorcycle meetings, until he died in 1954. His brother, Kenelm, rode with him on the 200 hp Darracq, became a works-driver tor the Louis Coatalen Suhbeam racing team. from 1913, winning the 1914 loM TT for them. After the war he proved his versatility by handling the 350 hp 18-litre vee-12 cylinder Sunbeam single-seater fearlessly, to a LSR at Brooklands, where the big car was timed at 1331/4 mph over the two-way kilometre, and also doing extremely well in the Talbot-Darracq voiturettes, winning three races in a row with them in 1922, at the Brooklands JCC 200 Mile Race, at Le Mans, and in the Penya Rhin race. In 1924 Guinness lost the 200 Mile Race in a blown 1 1/2-litre Darracq but a bad accident while driving a Sunbeam in the San Sebastian GP in that year, in which his riding mechanic was killed, ended his racing career. He was, however, acting in an official motor racing capacity up to 1929.

France seems to have produced some of the more notable long-life racing drivers. Victor Hemery began. after a seafaring career, in the 1902 Circuit des Ardennes. driving a voiture legere Darracq for that difficult manufacturer. He moved to Benz and did well for them, including mastering the giant Blitzes Benz on Brooklands Track in 1909. He had driven for Mercedes and in the 1912 French Grand Prix was at the wheel of a 12-litre chain-drive Lorraine-Dietrich, which he brought to Brooklands for record work. Yet after the war he seemed at home, at the age of 47, in the far-smaller Rolland-Pilains in the 2-litre GP races of 1922 and 1923. But it was the Belgian. Camille Jenatzy, “The Red Devil”, who went from 1898 electric-car LSR work to winning the 1903 Irish Gordon Bennett Cup race for Mercedes, on a stripped (60 hp) in 1903. Jenatzy had a Mors for the 1908 French GP and was still driving a Mercedes in hill-climbs in 1910; he predicted he would die in a Mercedes and did, after being mistakenly shot in one on his estate, when someone mistook him for a wild boar.

The German Christian Lautenschlager, more test-driver than racing-ace, nevertheless won the 1908 French GP for Mercedes and did it again for them in a very different car in 1914, and he was last seen at the wheel of a racing-car in the 1924 Targa Florio. In like vein, Otto Metz started as a racing mechanic for Mercedes, left to chauffeur the Archduke Ferdinand of Austria and was close to the scene of the assassination that sparked off WW1. Returning to Mercedes, he competed in sprint events in the 1920s. When the great 36/220 and 38/250 hp sports cars appeared Metz partnered Caracciola, then drove in the team, winning the German GP at the Nurburgring in 1927. He was second in that race in 1928 and drove in the TT of 1929, tearing off a damaged mudguard with his bare hands. He was killed when practising in a streamlined Mercedes-Benz at Avus in 1933.

Italy, too, had her long-life drivers. The greatest was undoubtedly Felice Nazzaro. Son of a coal-merchant, Nazzaro was apprenticed to the Fiat Company, his driving skills were soon recognised, and he first raced in 1900, at the age of 19, and won his first race the following year, on a four’cylinder Fiat. He was appointed Vincenzo Florio’s chauffeur (chauffeurs then were rather different from those who later propelled black sleeve valve Daimlers round Hyde Park) and took part in various races, driving a Panhard-Lavassor in the 1904 Coppa Florio. When Fiat began to race seriously Nazzaro, with Lancia, headed the team, and with his good looks Felice was the adoration of those ladies who attended the early motor races. He was second to Thery in the 1905 GB race, and second to Szisz in the 1906 French GP. The year 1907 was Nazzaro’s best year, for he won all three of the major contests, the Tango Florio, Grand Prix and Kaiserpreis and in 1908 he defeated the 90 hp six-cylinder Napier in the Match Race at Brooklands, with the 21-litre chaindrive Fiat “Mephistopheles”. The year in which he won the Coppa Florio at 74 mph, Nazzaro took to building cars of his own and unlike Vincenzo Lancia, racing them, and right up to the outbreak of war his racing career continued, with a rotary-valve Itala in the 1913 French GP and in a Nazzaro in 1914. This in spite of apparently saying in 1908 that he would retire from racing and get married.

There was a great difference between driving the primitive giant cars in the early road races and the later, more sophisticated ones in closed circuit contests. Yet, continuing to drive for Fiat after the 1918 Armistice, Nazzaro proved adept in both spheres. We have seen how Lautenschlager won both the 1908 and 1914 French GP for Mercedes and he may well have found the technique of driving the 41/2-litre car that developed maximum power at about 2,800rpm and weighed around 26 1/2 cwt very different from competing in 1908 on a more unwieldy car giving maximum power at 1,400 to 1,800 rpm, and weighing some 33 cwt ready for the conflict. although both were rear-wheel-braked. That doyen of motoring historians, Gerald Rose, averred that the finest racing drivers of the post WW2 period could not slide his corners any more skilfully than Jenatzy or Hemery used to do, but, be that as it may, conditions were different, for the dusty road surfaces that soon rutted and broke up had long since gone.

Gerald Rose also reminded as that the person who never saw — and heard — the tremendous rush and roar of one of the 1908 Clement-Bayards coming down the straight towards Dieppe at 100 mph, the driver crouching under his wheel and the mechanic’s head just visible above the high scuttle, has missed something which modern racing cars and conditions can never again give them. Although things became easier physically for drivers after WW1, with better roads, detachable wheels which obviated tearing off burst tyres with the bare hands (Lautenschlager and his mechanic changed a rim every 40 minutes on average in winning the 1908 GP, and Rigel one every 20 minutes in that 7 to 71/2-hour race), there was a vast difference in coping with the new high-speed small engines that revved to 4.500 rpm and more and could easily be damaged if over-driven, against controlling the almost single-speed enormous power units of up to 18 1/4 litres of those early days. They would also have gone into the corners faster after the advent of four-wheel-brakes, and gear changing from the 1920s onwards would take on a new dimension. There is a story of how one if the great drivers from the heroic age, racing a 2-litre GP car after the war, found it too frail for him and after the steering wheel had come off in his hands he flung it into a field in disgust. This was no doubt an exaggeration and certainly Nazzaro had no difficulties in adjusting to the changed situation, continuing with Fiat and winning the 1922 French GP, in a car developing 92 bhp at 4,500 rpm and weighing only 18 cwt. The back-axle shafts were made from inferior steel so that loss of a wheel killed his nephew and that on his car was found to be equally susceptible, after the finish. He went on driving the little, now blown, Fiats until 1924, gaining a second in the 1923 Italian GP behind Sidman at the age of 42 and he was appointed to the Fiat Competition Department.

There were other drivers who managed this adjustment, like Rene Thomas who raced for a span of 22 years, and coped with the 101/2-litre V12 Delage at LSR pace and the 2-litre GP Delages in the late 1920s. However, perhaps the best example of this was Louis Wagner. He was driving for Darracq by 1903. then did well for Fiat both in Europe and in America, before being employed by Mercedes to follow Latrenschlager home in that highly dramatic 1914 French GP. Wagner was equally at some in the smaller post-war racing cars, whether P2 Alfa Romeo or the 2-litre V12 Delage, from where, with many very good results, he moved to the 1 1/2-litre Talbot-Darracq straight-eights at the age of 45, for his last racing season in 1927. And the year before he had got an Aries into 6th position in the Le Mans 24-hour race. Nor must we overIook Christian Werner, who in the year when Wagner retired was driving the big Mercedes-Benz sports-cars, winning at the difficult Nurburgring and who was co-driver to Caracciola at Le Mans in the Mille Miglia, and at Le Mans in 1930. which might he regarded as quite a tough assignment for a man of 38, Caracciola then being nearly ten years younger.

Incidentally, many of the pioneer racing men got places in those post-war Touring Car races, run at Grand Prix time, which French manufacturers seemed to regard of considerable importance. For instance, such a race at Lyons in 1924 Szisz, who had earned undying fame as the winner for Renault of the first closed-circuit French GP and who had followed this up with second behind Nazzaro the billowing year, again on a big Renault, appeared at the wheel of a streamlined La Buire saloon. In that sane race Gabriel, hero of Paris-Madrid, drove an Aries, Louis Rigal who had ridden a racing De Dion Bouton tricycle as far back as 1898, had another Aries, and a third car of this make was conducted by Arthur Duray, whose racing experience dated back to the Paris-Vienna with a Gobron-Brille. and Porporato was there with another La Buire, a veteran from the 1907 Targa Florio. One authority says Francois Scisz retired after winning at Rochefort in 1914 with a 12-litre Lorraine-Dietrich, having had little luck on his reappearance in GP racing that year, with an Alda, but I think I am right. for surely there cannot have been two racing drivers of that name! (When he drove that La Buire the variously-described Austrian Hungarian or Croat, who had been Louis Renault’s riding mechanic before his GP victory, would have been 51)

Two years before that Rougier, who began in 1903, won the ACF Touring Car GP from Duray, both in Voisins, taking on the French GP proper in 1923 for this maker, and in 1925 drivers of the calibre of Andre Boillot, brother of the immortal Georges, who won the big-car class for Peugeot of the Touring Car race at Montlhery. having had his first win, in the Targa Florio in 1919, and pioneers like Goon, Gabriel, Wagner, Rigal. Foresti. etc were still driving in those long races.

S. C. H. Davis referred to the greats of the age of long races over the dusty, unguarded, continental roads and I hope I have shown that some of them adapted to the faster, very different racing of a later era. — W.B.