Reluctant hero

He pulled Niki Lauda from the wreckage of his blazing Ferrari, fought in Vietnam and now pilots humanitarian flights for seriously ill children, but Brett Lunger plays down his many achievements…
Writer Andrew Marriott

Brett Lunger has always been understated, self-analytical, supremely fit and serious. That was his manner back in the 1970s when I handled his public relations in Europe and now, as we talk 40 years later at the Thermal Executive Airport near Palm Desert, California, little has changed. He has lightened up to a degree, but otherwise the so-called American ‘rich kid’ remains just as he was.

Lunger’s Formula 1 career is always linked to the Lauda accident rather than his race performances, so let’s get that out of the way.

It was Lunger who stood on the cockpit of the burning Ferrari and yanked Lauda out of the wreckage by his shoulder straps, flames licking around his legs. But then his courage should have been a given: after all, he had military medals in his collection – an American Purple Heart, or DFM (he describes it laughingly as the “Dumb F***ers Medal – you receive one if you are injured in combat”).

He served as lieutenant in a crack US marine regiment for more than a year in Vietnam. On that August afternoon in the Eifel Mountains, his military training served him well. “The race most people talk about is the 1976 German GP, but I would prefer to be known for winning a race rather than having a famous accident.

“I knew the ’Ring from racing there in Formula 2. We started under mixed conditions and, with a 14.2-mile track, you knew you were going to have wet and dry sections. Like most people I started on wet tyres. I got away pretty well from 24th, while several drivers – including Niki – made an early stop to switch to slicks, because the track was drying. So I was running in front of him but he overtook me going down to Adenau Bridge.

“He pulled away and after the final flat left in that section he was out of my sight, but in my peripheral vision I could see some dust kicked up – that was him crashing. That turn was flat out at 140mph even on a damp track, so I came around this blind corner with a car in the middle of the road on fire and there is not much you can do. My car went into his and my fire extinguisher went off with the impact, which probably dampened the flames a little.

“Art Merzario came along shortly after that and undid Niki’s belts while I grabbed him and pulled him out. I wasn’t a hero. People make a big deal out of it, but it wasn’t that. Maybe my military training helped. I was able to function under duress, and combat in Vietnam was certainly that – you learn to filter out the irrelevant things.

“You learn to do what has to be done. It was not a particularly big adrenaline thing. The next time I saw Niki was on the pit road at Monza in practice, his head all bandaged. He walks up to me, looks me in the eye and all he says is ‘Zank you’. He turned on his heels and walked away, but it was enough.”

What Brett didn’t tell anyone at the time was that his father, by marriage part of one of America’s most famous families, had died the day before the accident.

But what about the rest of Lunger’s career? On the face of it he competed in 43 Grands Prix, did not qualify in nine of them and failed to score a world championship point. Added to that he was considered a rich kid, a member of the Du Pont dynasty, one of America’s wealthiest families. What the racing world didn’t know was that Lunger would not actually inherit his fortune until he was 55.

Today he admits he made some mistakes, particularly in his F1 career, but I contend he was more talented than the results suggest. Let’s not forget he won his first-ever professional sports car race and very competitive Formula 5000 races on both sides of the Atlantic. On his Grand Prix debut, in a Hesketh he had never even tested, he outqualified fellow Americans Mario Andretti and Mark Donohue.

Lunger was born in Wilmington, Delaware in 1947, the fourth of five children of Harry Lunger and Jane Du Pont Lunger. The family lived in a magnificent stone mansion called Oberod, in the Brandywine River Valley. Jane was an heiress, philanthropist and a very successful owner and breeder of racehorses.

Her family fortune was based on the chemical, plastics and paint conglomerate, Du Pont Corporation founded in 1803 by French nobleman Victor Marie du Pont. The family fortune is said to be worth $15 billion.

Brett says, “I was not brought up with motor racing and my introduction came completely by chance when a friend suggested I join him on a trip to a New Jersey track called Vineland Motor Speedway, where some SCCA racing was taking place. Immediately the competitive nature of motor sports grabs you; I was a very competitive person and wanted to be part of it.

“I pestered a local driver called George Alderman and he helped me start practising with a Corvette at Bridgehampton. I took part in this drivers school, even though you had to be 21 and I was only 20. But I was born in November and back then we had a paper driver’s licence and I scratched off a 1, so it looked as though I was born in January rather than November!

“George was very encouraging and we became business partners and started an automobile dealership with a Rover franchise, then we got Lotus. Next, this new Japanese company called Datsun came along and we picked up that franchise and the dealership thrived. We sold it 25 years ago.

“We went halves on a Lotus 23, my first proper racing car, and in my first race at the Marlboro track I won. That was in the spring of 1966 and at the time I was a political science major at Princeton, so there wasn’t much time for racing. I was doing a thesis on south-east Asia and was in a hole because a lot of my assumptions were incorrect.”

By that autumn Lunger had graduated to the Can-Am series, racing a Lola T70 – quite a start to his career, “I benefited from not knowing what I was doing,” he says. “Sometimes you gain from being clueless and I had no preconceived notions. I didn’t think Jimmy Clark was particularly impressive. In my arrogance I thought, ‘I can race these guys’.”

The following year Lunger turned his back on Princeton, without getting his degree, and signed up for the military, a decision that did not please his parents. “Things were beginning to heat up in Asia and I was brought up to believe that to be a citizen of the United States you had an obligation to serve the country,” he says. “If you are going to this sort of thing you might as well go with the best and that was the marine corps.”

Lunger signed up as a private in South Carolina. “They didn’t know I had come from Princeton, or who my family was – if your drill instructor knows you have a brain you could be in big trouble. Anyway, I went through boot camp and at one point they discovered I could spell my name the same way twice so I was enlisted on a commissioning programme. Frankly they were losing officers pretty quickly, so the next thing I knew I was a second lieutenant and heading off to Vietnam.”

All this rather messed up his blossoming racing career, although he did fit in some more Can-Am races in both 1967 and 1968. “In a way I am glad I joined the marines,” he says, “because the Vietnam tour of duty did more to shape my character and personality than anything else I did in my life. But in another way I am sorry because it hurt my racing career, without question.”

Lunger was injured close to or behind enemy lines near the Laos border. While back in the US he started to train recruits, but was also enrolled in what was unnervingly called the Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape School. He was put through a simulated prisoner of war programme of sleep deprivation and was even water-boarded. “They make it as realistic as possible; this is not a teaching environment “ he says. “It broke some guys.”

He had to decide whether to continue in the Marines or return to full-time racing, and chose the latter. “I was very close to going back to Vietnam for a second tour,” he says, “and if I had taken that path the odds are I wouldn’t have survived. I decided I wanted to give motor racing a shot. I didn’t want to wonder what might have happened.” He left with the rank of captain, just a pip away from major.

Out of uniform Lunger was able to put together a sponsorship deal with a pharmaceutical company that made a hangover cure called Quick Over and bought a Formula 5000 Lola T192. In only his second race in the car – and only his second single-seater race – he finished on the podium at the Monterey Grand Prix, behind David Hobbs and Frank Matich. Hobbs went on to win the title, but Lunger acquitted himself well and finished third in the championship.

Lunger’s budget was tight. “I didn’t have enough money to fly to races,” he says, “so I drove everywhere in a van. But this meant I would get into town early. I’d look up the name of the local TV and radio stations, call them up and say my name real fast, so they weren’t quite sure who I was, say I was coming to race and got on the air, promoting myself, my sponsor and the event. That got the attention of the L&M PR guy Rod Campbell, and he would later help my F1 career.”

In 1972-73 Lunger raced alongside Hobbs in Carl Hogan’s crack F5000 team, bringing Haggar Slacks backing. “It was a special time,” he says. “David was great fun and a very strong driver. Those F5000 cars were beginning to be very competitive and Carl set up a great team with equal equipment.” Campbell, meanwhile, saw F1 potential in Lunger and decided he needed some European experience. So in 1972 he was able to structure a deal whereby Lunger did the majority of the European Formula 2 season in a Space Racing March. The results were mixed, with sixth places at the Nürburgring and Monza plus a fourth at Mantorp Park being the best results.

Back in the States, the first year with Hogan brought back-to-back victories at Road Atlanta and Lime Rock, both ahead of Brian Redman, and another third place in the championship. The following year the team started with five races in Europe before the cars were shipped to the States. Lunger was a regular on the podium and, after a second in the Brands Hatch opener, the two Hogan Lolas dominated the F5000 race at Silverstone’s International Trophy meeting, with Hobbs heading home Lunger.

With the cars heading off to the States, Lunger cut a deal to continue racing in the UK, driving Sid Taylor’s Trojan. “I could tell you a lot of stories about Sid,” he says, “but you couldn’t print any of them. However, he ran a good team and the Trojan was a fine machine and we won with that car.” In fact he was leading the championship halfway through the season, but missed several rounds and finished fifth. Back in the States with Hogan, there were engine problems and podiums, but no wins. Somehow he also fitted in a few F2 races.

By now Lunger was starting to earn money from his racing, and for 1974 Eagle offered him a retainer to head up its new Formula 5000 effort. “Dan Gurney is an all-American hero and driving for him was a great experience,” Lunger says. “The car was intended to be the basis for a return to Grand Prix racing and was a little heavy, but it was beautiful to drive and we got it on the podium a couple of times.

“We were looking forward to Eagle returning to F1, with a Cosworth DFV in the back of what was effectively the F5000 car. But then the oil embargo and the recession hit and the money went away, leaving me without any ride for the coming year. In retrospect I could probably have switched to Indycars, but I didn’t have much interest in that.”

Lunger sat out the start of 1975, apart from a few sports car races, but the F1 dream wasn’t over. “Rod and my brother David were able to put together some sponsorship and talked to some F1 teams about the following year. But then Hesketh had cashflow worries that gave me the chance to do the final three races of the season, alongside James Hunt. That car was easy to drive and great on fast circuits. The first time I drove it was in practice for the Austrian GP, where I qualified 17th and finished 13th. Next time out I was 10th at Monza, then retired at the Glen after an accident.

“The following year I drove for John Surtees in a TS19. People keep telling me that he was a difficult man, but that is not what I found. He was dead honest. If he thought you had screwed up he told you. I was very glad to have driven for him. I did make a mistake by not moving to Kent and immersing myself in the team, which would have helped.”

The season, of course, included the Nürburgring crash, a couple of races where he didn’t qualify and a best finish of 10th on his return to the Österreichring.

Brett continues the story. “The following year we moved to BS Fabrications, Bob Sparshott’s team. He had a deal to run the previous year’s McLarens. But at the start of the year the M23 still wasn’t available so we had to run an old March. When the M23 came it was a great car and better than the M26 I drove in the latter part of 1978, because McLaren had missed the ground-effects boat.” During a season in which there were as many as 36 drivers attempting to qualify, Lunger missed the cut just once and finished regularly among the top 10 or 12.

For his final year in F1, Lunger continued with BS, starting with the M23 and switching to the unloved M26 at Monaco, where he failed to qualify. There were just three finishes – all of which would have earned points these days, seventh in Zolder and eighth at Brands Hatch and the Österreichring. His final Formula 1 race was his home Grand Prix, where he switched to Morris Nunn’s Ensign team and came home 13th.

I asked if being perceived as a ‘rich kid’ had hurt him. “No,” he says, “it was an advantage. Even if I didn’t have the money that some people thought I did, it still helped get a few deals.”

In a forthcoming autobiography, Campbell writes: “Brett will say he didn’t have access to the family’s money and I am sure that is true. But I suspect that if he had gone to his mother he could have tapped into his trust fund.

I wanted him to invest more to get the best engines, for instance. I talked with Graham Hill about Brett driving for the Embassy team and he wanted a million dollars. We probably did a season at BS Fabrications on $350,000, so a million would have been a big step.

“I don’t think he thought it was correct to spend some of the family money that way. He was a thoughtful and analytical guy, but probably not crazy enough to push himself to the final degree.”

Does Lunger harbour any regrets about his career? “That’s the easiest question you have asked,” he says, “and the answer is absolutely ‘yes’. You go in to win the world championship, not make up the numbers, and I failed. My failure was not so much on the track, as not putting the right things in place to prepare for the track. This profession is 24/7. There should be no distractions; you are on duty the whole time and I learned that too late.”

After F1 there were the occasional sports car outings – and some good results with a Porsche 935 – then he returned to co-drive a Datsun 280Z with the man who started him in racing, George Alderman.

In 1982 he walked away from the sport completely and says, “I found it difficult to be involved at a lesser level than F1. I didn’t go to a race for 30 years and had other things to do. But I hadn’t appreciated how much F1 meant to me and I struggled for a while. People forget, it is so much fun driving a racing car. I thrive on being competitive and ran marathons and raced pushbikes. I suffered more injuries cycling than I did car racing…”

Lunger had also became interested in flying, a passion he shares with his wife Caroline. He started with a single-engined propeller plane and, when the inheritance finally came his way, traded up to a small jet and really started to focus on aviation. “These days I fly a Cessna Citation Mustang, a great twin-engined six-seater that allows me to do business efficiently. It is a wonderful way to travel.”

But this is more than a rich man’s indulgence. Caroline suggested he sign up to fly for the Angel Flight network and so far he has done more than 120 humanitarian flights for them at his own expense. He flies children with life-threatening diseases and injured military veterans from their homes to appropriate hospitals. “It gets them to where they need to go without the hassle of commercial aviation or perhaps a 12-hour bus journey. It is often a humbling experience.”

He thought he had walked away from racing forever, but old friend and manager Campbell persuaded him to go to the Canadian Grand Prix four years ago. He enjoyed seeing old rivals such as Jackie Stewart, Emerson Fittipaldi and Jean-Pierre Jarier but reckons Ronnie Peterson was the most naturally gifted rival of an era whose qualities he has only recently come to appreciate.

Captain Lunger might not have achieved his racing goals, but his is a life that has been anything but ordinary.