Late last month, just as we were going to press, we learned of the tragic and untimely death of ’70s Formula One star Clay Regazzoni. Regazzoni was driving on the Italian Autostrada, on his way to a club function, when he lost control of his specially-equipped Chrysler Voyager and crashed into the center divider. While the details were somewhat sketchy as we went to press, it appears that Regazzoni may have suffered a heart attack.
Regazzoni’s legacy is long, and I would contend, rather unique. If you were a Tifosi in the mid-’70s, Regazzoni was like a god descended from the heavens. He, and his teammate Niki Lauda, broke Ferrari’s longest winless streak and returned the manufacturer’s championship to Maranello in 1976. From there, Regazzoni raced for a number of other teams, most notably Williams, where he gave them their first win as a manufacturer. However, the Formula One portion of his legacy came to a brutal end at Long Beach, in 1980, when the brake pedal of his Ensign snapped off at 160 mph, entering the braking zone of the long front straight. Regazzoni’s car shot down the escape road and plowed into the back of an abandoned car, which in turn catapulted it into a concrete barrier. It took the safety crew considerable time and effort to extricate him from the crumpled wreckage. The result of which was lower spinal cord damage that left Regazzoni relegated to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Yet that is where his real legacy begins.
Regazzoni went on to, in essence, fight the system. Professional motorsport is a very egalitarian pursuit, provided that you are an affluent, white, Anglo-Saxon. For those in underrepresented classes, such as women, minorities, and perhaps most especially the disabled, motorsport has been a difficult avocation to pursue. In the case of the disabled, the history of motorsport is littered with tales of bias and outright prejudice against disabled drivers. Prior to Regazzoni, one of history’s most noteworthy disabled drivers was Archie Scott Brown, who competed and won against some of the finest sports car drivers in the early postwar period. Scott Brown was born with severe disfigurement to his legs and right arm, as a result of his mother having German measles during pregnancy. Despite this handicap—which included very short legs, club feet and a withered right arm that ended in only a palm and a thumb—Scott Brown went on to race a variety of sports cars, including the famed Listers, to great effect. However, despite qualifying his outclassed Connaught with a speed that would have taken the pole for the 1956 Italian Grand Prix at Monza, the organizers denied him the right to race on account of his “physical handicap.” Sadly, ignorance ruled the day.
In 1960, Alan Stacey, who lost a leg in a motorcycle accident, was racing a Lotus in the Belgian Grand Prix when he was struck by an errant pheasant and killed. Despite the fact that Stacey’s missing leg had nothing to do with a suicidal pheasant flying into the path of his speeding racecar, authorities at the FIA used his death, and Scott Brown’s earlier death at Spa in 1958, as justification for denying racing licenses to drivers with disabilities. Needless to say, on a worldwide basis, the acceptance of disabled drivers has been spotty at best.
That is until Regazzoni had his accident. Refusing to be left on the sidelines, “Regga” used his star status to begin driving and racing cars with hand controls, as well as teaching others how to do the same. Leading by example, he raced in the grueling Paris-Dakar Rally, as well as the Sebring 12 Hours, La Carrera Panamericana, and numerous other rallies and historic race events. Unbelievably, in spite of all this Regazzoni was denied a license by the FIA to compete in the World Sportscar Championship, because of his disability. Despite this setback, Regazzoni continued to drive and race in various events right up until the time of his death.
While Clay Regazzoni possessed a Formula One record that would be the envy of many Formula One drivers, I would contend that he left his greatest mark on the sport, after his “official” career was over. By showing that a disabled driver could be just as fast, just as competitive and just as determined as any “abled” driver, Regazzoni helped break down some of the prejudicial barriers in modern motorsport. As a role model and example, Regazzoni opened the door for others, like Alex Zanardi, to follow in his path and build on his achievements. And that is, in my book, a legacy that will truly stand the test of time.