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January 2015
Brett Lunger at speed in the McLaren M26 he drove during 1978, his last season in Formula 1.
FAST LINES: Brett Lunger, F1 Hero
Pete Lyons

Like all heroes, Brett Lunger denies being one. To him, running into fire broiling from Niki Lauda’s crashed Ferrari, its tanks still first-lap full, was simply what one does when action must be instantaneous. He says he didn’t even think about it.

Yet the rescue will forever define this American driver’s F1 career. Footage is easily found on YouTube. Other drivers are assisting, but Lunger is the man you see jumping atop the burning car, straddling the cockpit and hauling the World Champion out.

Watch closely and you can see thin fiberglass giving way under Brett’s foot and he starts to fall.

It’s not likely the young man ever imagined such an incident when he went into F1, even though he had seen combat as a Marine captain in Vietnam. His total focus now was on becoming a professional racer, and it seemed to be going well. After nine years in sports cars and open-wheelers, including Can-Am and F5000—where he scored three wins—late in 1975 he was able to gain the sponsorship required for an F1 ride.

He needed outside sponsorship, contrary to widespread conception. Why would a member of the vastly wealthy du Pont family have to find backing?

“A lot of people don’t understand this: I did not have access to money,” Brett explains patiently. “When I did my first season of motor racing, pretty much everything I owned was in a suitcase. I had to drive from race to race while other people flew.

“OK, the family had money, but I had not discovered leverage, or borrowing—thankfully! I personally had no access to family money until I was in my 40s. Which probably was not a bad thing. It teaches you self reliance. You have to look after the dollars and cents.”

Brett hustled sponsors on his own, but credits his older brother Dave, a stockbroker, and longtime PR man and friend Rod Campbell for putting together a package to open the door at Hesketh.

Alexander, Third Baron Hesketh, part American but all Brit, did have access to his own money and had been spending it lavishly, building a strong little team around rising sensation James Hunt. Famously, Hesketh eschewed sponsorship at first. But F1 was costly even then, even for a Baron, and Lunger’s late-season proposal was well-timed. He came aboard for the last three races of 1975.

For the whole story, see the July issue of Vintage Racecar.

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