Peter Revson and the wheel of fortune

Heir to a multi-million dollar fortune, a genius driver and with a Miss World girlfriend, Peter Revson seemed to have it all. But reality, says Mark Hughes, was not so simple

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Revson – the dashing F1 hero with a fiery determination

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He was the Grand Prix driver straight from the Hollywood A-list. An offspring of one of modern America’s icon dynasties, this handsome, debonair sophisticate would kiss goodbye to any one of a number of beautiful women, climb into his race car and win Grands Prix before jetting off to a society gathering or maybe to a California beach house.

At least that’s how Peter Revson was perceived at the height of his fame in the early 1970s; resplendent in trademarked “Peter Revson” shades with the drilled metal arms, Marji Wallace – officially then the world’s most beautiful woman – looking on adoringly, Revson existed in an impossibly exotic, glossy, highstyle world, living out the fantasies of a million men. It was an image that went way beyond Grand Prix racing and into society pages which bestowed upon him such crude titles as ‘the world’s sexiest athlete’ or ‘most eligible bachelor’.

“He looked upon money as an index of success”

But if it all sounds more Jackie Collins than Jackie Stewart, it was just a veneer behind which lay a driver of very real talent, a man of grit, fire and commitment who struggled a long time for recognition. Despite appearances, this man was no dilettante; according to those who knew him well, he was one of the most resilient, fiercely determined individuals ever to lower himself into a racing car.

The qualities were those bred into him by Martin Revson – one of the two founding brothers of the Revlon Cosmetics corporation – the very qualities which Peter then used to rail against that environment. Motor sport was his obsessive bid to establish himself independently of that family, a bid that naturally received zero support from within. It’s a story of a million complexities and subtleties, tensions and fissures and which is told beautifully in arguably the finest motor racing biography of all time, Leon Mandel’s Speed with Style.

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Early US sports car races established Revson as a force

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Mandel, who came from the same New York school as Revson, spent the entire 1973 season with him and was almost certainly the only journalist who got beneath the surface of his personality. Today he tells of the uneasy relationship between the family and the man: “The centre of his ambitions was the achievement of success independent from his family. He looked upon money as an index of that success and the achievement in the car was an equal measure of a very different kind, but one that couldn’t be compared to or diminished by anything the family represented.”

So was Revson in some way looking to impress a father he secretly admired? “I can only answer that by negative inference,” says Mandel. “They were not close. The relationship between all the male Revsons was distant, flinty and demanding. It’s very hard to search through all the little filaments that made up the cable of that relationship and say, ‘Yes, on balance he admired him’. I think that he really wanted his respect; more than that, he demanded his respect, and be also wanted the respect of his uncle Charlie.”

It came, eventually. But only after over a decade of struggle for Revson. It wasn’t hard, though, to set off on this path his family allowance was enough to get him started in a modest way, with a Morgan in local sportscar racing, and the cashing in of bonds that were supposed to pay for his college education helped keep him going. From sportscars he moved onto Formula Junior through a partnership with two high-flying New York brothers, Teddy and Timmy Mayer. A schoolfriend of Revson’s, Teddy Mayer is an on-off but intrinsic part of his story, weaving through it, linking its early years to its ultimate high points.

Yet it’s a relationship – an often stormy one – that showed Revson’s intense drive for independence extended even beyond his family, for he clearly felt uncomfortable with his perceived dependence on Mayer for the advancement of his career. So much so that he was to leave him. Twice.

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Competing in Can–Am in 1970

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Teddy, a lawyer by profession, ran his brother, the highly gifted Timmy – who was later to die in a Tasman series accident – in the Formula Junior team alongside Revson. “At that stage,” remembers Mayer today, “Peter really wasn’t anything special as a driver. My brother beat him most of the time.”

Teddy and Revson were intensely competitive with each other right from the start. Tyler Alexander, who was later to become a core member of McLaren Racing along with Mayer, remembers, “Even then, Teddy could wind him up. There was one meeting where it was raining, Teddy had said something disparaging and Peter just exploded, ‘How the hell do you know I’m not fast in the rain, I’ve never driven in the rain before!’ He then fell off when he was leading.”

Revson’s horizons extended beyond racing in the States and, also keen to be independent of Mayer now that he had a level of single-seater experience, he cashed in his remaining bonds and set off for the UK. He arrived at the Cooper factory and built the F3 car he’d bought. I le also purchased a decrepit old Ford Thames van from Jack Brabham into which he installed the car and set off for mainland Europe, with the aim of living off the prize money, something that was just about feasible then so long as you lived in the van or a tent.

From the archive

So that is how Peter Revson, the apparent heir to multiple millions, spent the 1963 season. On the track, he was frequently impressive, occasionally winning against a quality field of up and comers that included Jochen Rindt and Denny Hulme. He’d rented workshop space from Reg Parnell who had kept an eye on his progress and was sufficiently impressed to offer Revson a place on his planned ’64 Formula 1 team, alongside fellow new boys Chris Amon and Mike Hailwood, all paid for and with a share of prize money.

Revson was elated. He’d arrived, or so it seemed. At the end of ’63 he made his first F1 appearance, finishing seventh in a non-championship race at Oulton Park in Parnell’s Lotus. Parnell had also arranged a flat in Kingston for the three drivers, and so began the legend of the Ditton Road Flyers. Parnell’s son Tim still recalls the flak that the resulting high-jinks caused. “They terrorised that neighbourhood with their antics. The police were always ringing me up saying your drivers are causing all kinds of problems – noise and parties. They asked if I would have a quiet word because they’d been called out so many times but just ended up each time having a drink with them.”

Today Amon downplays the time with a laugh: “A lot of those stories have been embellished by history. There was often something going on there, but it would invariably be on the Sunday night after a race. We were all actually quite serious really. Peter was very much a part of the antics but only as much as he wanted to be. Even though he had a keen interest in enjoying life, he was actually a very serious minded individual and he certainly didn’t allow those things to get in the way of his racing. We talked about his family and I got the impression that it wasn’t a particularly happy environment for him. He had a real determination to succeed because he didn’t want to be seen simply as someone with the proverbial silver spoon in their mouth.”

The racing prospects had sadly taken a downward turn before the season even began, with the sudden death of the paternal Reg Parnell. Tim took over. “But I was very much thrown in at the deep end and the team ran on much less money than had originally been planned.” The car were uncompetitive and Revson was barely noticed. He fared considerably better in a parallel programme with Ron Harris Racing, the unofficial works Lotus entrant in F2, Revson deputising whenever Jim Clark couldn’t make it. The team also took in the Monaco Formula Three race supporting the Grand Prix, and Revson won it.

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Pole at Indy ’71 secured Revson’s McLaren future – or so it seemed…

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But even that failed to open any further doors in Europe and, reluctantly, Revson accepted an offer of a drive in the States, in a series that was the forerunner of the Can-Am championship. Over the next few years he built up a solid reputation, was taken on by Ford for both its TransAm and GT programmes. He was a paid professional, successful and fast, but out of the European limelight. But it was the making of him as a driver. He became annealed, harder and more complete.

The paternal disapproval was still very much there, even more so when his younger brother Douglas, who had followed Peter’s racing footsteps, was killed on the track. It was a sad resolution of one of the conflicts within Peter. Mandel remembers “Peter and Douglas were close, even though when they were younger they certainly fought a lot, physically. But still Douglas represented a problem to Peter in that he attempted to be the same thing as Peter, who was not able to accommodate anyone else in that sphere. He was daring to step into a space that was clearly marked out for Peter by Peter.”

But the story of Revson and his family wasn’t all conflict, and there is a strange paradox that for all his clear strivings to gain independent wealth, he was prepared to utilise parts of the family empire to help him do this. He had a business tie-up, for example, promoting Revlip, ‘the vitamin for men’, which was produced by a company owned by his father. Nothing was black and white in that relationship.

Peter remained close to mother Julie, by now separated from his father. Mandel maintains that “She was a doting mother but I think Peter was slightly condescending to her. He accepted all that was offered to him by her in the way of lavish affection but I think like all male Revsons he had a measure of disdain for the females.” Some say it was a trait he carried into his relationship with women in general. It was, in fact, just another contradiction in the man who Mandel says “Taught me a lot about the art of being a gentleman. He knew what it meant to be a gentleman when a waitress spilt something on him, or when somebody did something bad to him on the highway. My son was 13 at the time we did the book and Peter went out of his way to be gracious to him, and to be interested in what he had to say. That, of course, went a long way toward endearing him to me. I liked him a lot.”

He could also be a lot of fun. “He was mischievous,” recalls Mandel. “He also used to practice a wonderful controlled outrage and did remarkable things for the sake of shock.” Tyler Alexander too remembers a man “full of jokes. He was great fun to be with and though he never traded on who he was, he knew everyone, knew where to go.”

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Revson remained a distant personality to many despite affable exterior

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There was, though, a place beyond which you couldn’t tread. “That again is a very male Revson trait,” says Mandel. “That distance. Even I felt it and I’m content to think that it would not have been easy for someone else to establish the relationship that I did with him, or go beyond that.”

Revson’s big break as a driver came, ironically enough, when Chris Amon couldn’t get McLaren’s first Indycar up to speed at the 1970 Indy 500. This was a McLaren team now being run by Mayer and Alexander, his two friends from way back. The year before, Revson had made his debut at the brickyard in a Brabham, taking’Rookie of the Year’ honours with a fifth place finish. He had also proven to be the main thorn in McLaren’s side in the 1970 Can-Am championship with a Carl Haas-run Lola. When Amon turned his back on the McLaren at Indy, it was obvious to everyone concerned who the ideal replacement was.

From the archive

So it was that Revson re-united once more with Mayer, displaying the same willingness as in his business connections with the family, to bend his aversion to dependence in exchange for the necessities of the long term goal. But it wasn’t without a price. “Oh yes,” confirms Mandel, “Peter and Teddy came from the same circumstances and were so competitive socially that when it was clear to Peter that he was reliant on Teddy for the advancement of his career, it generated some resentment in Peter, because those fires just burned very deeply in him.”

It wasn’t, however, an issue that Mayer really felt. “He advanced his career on merit,” he says, “but I think Peter used to sometimes find it hard to separate his career from our friendship and that made the relationship at times a little bit edgy.”

Whatever, Mayer inherited a very different driver from the one he had known in Formula junior. He blitzed the ’71 Can-Am championship for the team, taking five wins from 10 and claiming pole position virtually everywhere. He also sat on pole for the Indy 500 that year. This was a momentous achievement for him in more ways than one. As a result of his qualifying success, both his father Martin and his uncle Charles – who hadn’t spoken to each other for many years, ever since Martin had left the company they founded together – came to the track on raceday and agreed finally to let bygones be bygones. It was also a seminal moment where the recognition and respect Revson craved of his father was at last implicitly given.

“Partly as a result of that,” says Mayer, “he drove the race in a bit of a daze. He had his seatbelt on backwards when he got in and he just slowed up too much during the yellow period.” Second place to Al Unser was the outcome.

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Revson headed to Shadow for ’74 after falling out with Mayer at McLaren…

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It was but a short step from there to securing a combined Can-Am, Indycar and F1 ride with McLaren for 1972 and 73. So it was that Europe saw a very different Peter Revson race driver to the one that had last been seen in ’64. He didn’t contest every F1 race in 72 but still finished fifth in the championship and scored pole at the Canadian GP.

Amon noticed a difference in the man too: “He came back a lot more intense and with a lot more belief in himself. I think he was a more aggressive sort of person, and I don’t mean that in a derogatory sense.” The breakthrough Grand Prix win came at Silverstone in ’73 after passing and pulling clear of Ronnie Peterson. There was another, more controversial, victory in Canada, no-one really sure who had won in the confusion caused by the first ever use of a pace car.

Revson was by now one of the world’s most famous sportsmen and he filled the gossip pages to overflowing when Miss America, and later Miss World, Marji Wallace took up with him. As a driver, both Mayer and Alexander believe he was still underrated. “I think he was as quick as hell,” says Alexander. “One of these guys who was quick in anything he drove.” In ’74 McLaren was to win the world title with Emerson Fittipaldi, so forming a useful point of reference. “He was quicker than Emerson,” avows Tyler, a judgement that Mayer fully endorses. “Maybe he didn’t have Emerson’s race savvy but he was still on a pretty steep learning curve,” continues Alexander. “He would have got even better.”

But, in the end he didn’t stay around at McLaren, opting instead to head for the Shadow team for 74. In testing for the early-season South African Grand Prix a suspected suspension failure caused a violent accident in which he was killed instantly. A career halted cruelly short of the ultimate level of achievement that Revson sought the world championship.

The catastrophic decision to leave McLaren for Shadow had many influences, not the least of which was Revson’s desire to free himself once more of Mayer. Mayer had helped get him started, then Revson left. Mayer had later helped catapult his career onto a different level. That achieved, Revson wanted out again. That intense, even skewed, sense of non-dependence sat uneasily with his competitive relationship with his former schoolfriend. Talking in Mandel’s book of the final breakdown in negotiations with McLaren for ’74, Revson says: “I concede I didn’t have an open mind going into the meeting. I wanted out of the contract, out from under Teddy Mayer’s management.”

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Shadow tie-up would lead to untimely demise

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Partly because of this attitude, Revson was not as entwined a part of the McLaren furniture as team-mate Denny Hulme. “That’s true,” agrees Mandel. “For all Denny’s bluff, confrontational, no-bullshit style, if you made sense to Denny you could win him over. Whereas with Peter you could only really bend him to the necessity of a situation. You could never enlist him in your legion because he was a legion of one, a tiger who walked alone. Denny may have spat in your face as he’d done it, but he was part of the legion, he’d signed up.”

Then there was the matter of Mayer having to fit in Fittipaldi and his associated Marlboro sponsorship, as well as Revson, Hulme and an existing sponsorship deal with Yardley. “Basically Teddy was looking out for McLaren,” says Alexander. “The Marlboro deal was very necessary for the team’s survival, and Peter was looking out for Peter. But you have to say that Peter made a mistake getting so pissed off at Teddy that he left.”

Finally, Revson’s obsessive consideration of money as the barometer of his independent worth played a fatal part too. As well as the Shadow deal, he also had an offer from Maranello on the table. He rejected it because they couldn’t match Shadow’s offer. Ferrari instead took on Niki Lauda… “Oh dear,” sighs Mandel. “It was the wrong strategic move, the wrong tactical move, the wrong career move and it ended as it inevitably had to. It was a question of money, which is some irony considering the family we’re dealing with.”