In the April edition of VRJ, both the editor and Robert Daley independently complained about cinema’s treatment of motor racing. When I first began writing this column for VRJ, Sylvester Stallone was making “Driven” and I predicted it would be a clunker. That wasn’t clever; everyone I know in motor racing was resigned to the idea that it would bomb even before it was made. Why?
I think we knew that “Driven” would be a clunker because we all secretly know that you cannot make a movie about modern motor racing.
“Rocky” was good because it was about aspiration and determination and we can relate to that. The sequels became ever less good because they became ever more detached from aspiration.
Not only was “Rocky” inspirational, so was the story of how Stallone worked to get the movie made. Sly was a bit-part actor whose previous highlight had been as Stud in “The Party at Kitty and Stud’s,” which centered on the high moral value of spanking the pert bottoms of naughty girls. Sly’s costume budget was zero.
To go from that to an international hit, Oscar nominations for acting and writing and sustained stardom was a story every bit as good as that of Rocky Balboa.
To make a film about F1, Champ Car or IRL is to have characters who have made it beyond the dreams of most people. Even if you are a back marker in Formula One, you are one of only 20 guys in the entire world on the grid—you are alpha male in most company.
Mario Andretti’s story is one of the most inspirational in any sport. The guy was raised in a refugee camp, he arrived in America aged 15, not even speaking the lingo, and not only won IndyCar and World Championships, but major sports car races. On top of that, he became a great ambassador for the sport. Mario is Rocky Balboa in real life…plus a vocabulary.
When was the last time a driver arrived in Formula One without having started in karts at an age when he was still learning his alphabet? Drivers can be in their teens and have more racing behind them than the entire careers of a Jim Clark or a Jochen Rindt.
The most important choice an aspiring driver can make these days is to pick the right parents, ideally a father with thwarted motor racing ambitions and very deep pockets. This is in stark contrast to soccer, where kids without shoes can start by kicking tin cans and eventually play for Arsenal.
These days it is unlikely that you will ever play at Wimbledon, let alone win the tournament, unless you have been hitting tennis balls against a wall from age six. That’s dandy for the handful who rise to the top of tennis, but what about the others? I suspect that is where the best stories are.
Just a thought, but when was a Grand Prix last won by a university graduate? It was Tony Brooks, 1959 German GP.
You want inspirational? Try Peter Connew. Peter was a draftsman with no interest in motor racing. By chance he got a junior job with Team Surtees and had to ask what an upright was. One February morning in 1970, John Surtees’ McLaren was wheeled out; Peter took one look at it and decided that it was so beautiful that he would build his own Formula One car. It was his defining moment.
Peter had no money apart from his wages, £20 a week, but with two friends, he built a Formula One car.
It was made in a lock-up garage and the three friends funded it from their wages. When word got round, leading drivers and engineers would turn up to give advice, because they wanted to share the dream.
One of the trio married, but the car was unfinished so on his honeymoon night, he left his bride to complete the job. The marriage did not last—there’s a surprise.
Connew’s was a story that captured the imagination. Mechanics from other teams helped the trio and McLaren sold Peter one of its spare engines at a knock-down price, and on extended credit.
The car qualified for the 1973 Austrian GP, ran, retired and was later converted to Formula 5000. By most standards it was a flop but Peter says, “I set out to build a Grand Prix car. I built one and it ran in a Grand Prix. So far as I am concerned, it was a total success.”
All three guys involved reckon that it is the best thing they have done in their life. It is an inspirational story, but it cannot happen today, unless you can post a bond of $48 million and there is a spare franchise available.
Bernie Ecclestone attempted to qualify a Connaught at the 1958 Monaco GP, but he wouldn’t be able to do that today under his own rules. Frank Williams ran a second-hand March 716 in 1977 while Patrick Head designed the Williams FW06, but nobody is allowed to do that now.
I once asked Eric Broadley, founder of Lola, how he recruited designers; he said it was straight from university. Eric did not go to university, so I said, “Do you mean if the young Broadley came knocking on your door he’d not get a hearing?” “Right,” said Eric, “I couldn’t take the risk.”
Broadley built a special, so did Chapman, Cooper, Ferrari, Lister, Reynard, Tauranac and Tojeiro, and every one of them has, or had, a good story to tell. You began with passion and a welding torch and went on from there, or you could when it was allowed.
The boxing story is about the penniless kid and the guy who runs an honest gym in a bad neighborhood, the grizzled guy who delivers the speech about guts and determination. It may be corny, but it works for me.
The equivalent motor racing story would be about a 17-year-old hotshoe with a rich daddy who is having to go through the agony and heartache of finding a corporate sponsor. Would you pay to see that?