Great Drivers – Who Are They?

When motorsports caught my attention it was the drivers as much as the cars.  They were like move stars in a way.  The American drivers all seemed to come from a local gas station and the European drivers all seemed to be aristocrats.

Jim Clark was the man who could drive anything in any kind of race.  It was tragic to see him disappear in an accident in 1968.  It would be tragic again to have Mark Donahue killed in a Formula 1 practice in 1975.

Every driver had a very different personality and style, but they all had the character of a hero.  Some drivers left the seat behind the wheel but stayed to dominate racing and cars from a different place.  Roger Penske, Carol Shelby, Bob Bondurant, to name a few. 

Jackie Stewart was world champion as well as a talented skeet shooter.  He retired at the top of his game and became known as a top announcer and commentator.  He also pushed for safety improvements in race tracks and racing. 

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Dan Gurney, A. J, Foyt, Phil Hill, George Folmer, Danny Sullivan, Parnelli Jones, Sam Posey, Mario Andretti, were the names that I would see at Indy and the Trans-Am road courses.

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Jim Hall was a talented driver but became known for creating some of the most technically advanced race cars that were also beautiful to see and watch.  He applied his training from Cal Tech to race cars and suddenly there were wings and ground effects.

Then there was NASCAR when it was not just a spec race, but consisted of cars that you could actually find in a showroom.  Junior Johnson and Fireball Roberts, Richard Petty and David Pearson, driving cars that were based on what you could buy at the dealerships and filled with roll cage tubing, heavy duty police parts, and of course, the inventive rule bending advantages of the likes of Smokey Yunick.

So who are the great race car drivers that come to your mind?  What made them special to you?

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Many are gone, but many are still around and have stories to tell about the golden age of racing.  Should we let them fade away or should we invest in capturing their thoughts and memories to share with current and future motorsports enthusiasts?

Please feel free to leave your comments on this post.

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5 Responses to Great Drivers – Who Are They?

  1. Esteban says:

    Where to start…? Great list, I am personally fond to Jackie Stewart, one of the last “Gentleman Racers”, not because he was born with silver spoon, but rather because of the way they behaved on the track.

    I’m not very knowledgeable on NASACR or Indy, thus I don’t have much of an opinion on their drivers.

    Of course my #1 all time driver is Fangio, for several reasons. He won 5 F1 world championships, and he did it on a time where the odds where that you would end on a plastic bag just after a couple of seasons. His main strength was consistency, he didn’t always end up in first position, but he always finished races.

    Ever since Alain Prost retired I have not had any favourite drivers on track. I was sort of fond to Juan Pablo Montoya while he raced for Williams BMW, but I guess he got frustrated afterwards and simply declined. Schumacher was impressive, but he didn’t really face too much of an opposition. Lewis Hamilton is an excellent driver, but I can’t relate, somehow. I’m closely watching Vetel, he seems to be quite a promise. Only time will tell.

    On Rally there’s the late Collin McRae, of course, and now Sebastian Loeb shows what “perfect driving” is all about.

    The list could go on and on; but to go back to your question: I think the stories about the golden age, their pilots and the machines they raced should be captured, remembered and shared. Up to the late 70’s those guys were real life heroes.

  2. Noel says:

    Stirling Moss.

    Interestingly, he never won a world championship, but would consistently finish in the top of the pack, often in slower non-factory cars–his preference, despite being courted by Ferrari and doing some time on the Mercedes Benz team. But Moss could get into anything –F1, sports cars, rally cars– and do well. He was a contemporary of Fangio and often said the best “classroom” was a few cars lengths behind Fangio (whom he beat often enough).

    He did the Mille Miglia in 1955 in something like 19 hours (that’s 1000 miles over public roads) in a Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR with Denis Jenkinson as navigator. That race ran 2 more times before it was cancelled (following a horrendous crash by the Marquis de Portago in ’57), so that record stands to this day.

    There’s a great story about Moss, who asked if he could try out a car another driver said was just not working well and the driver assumed he was getting all there was out of it. On the first flying lap, in a car he’d never sat in before, Moss matched the other driver’s best time. Then took time off each lap for half a dozen laps.

    I think the drivers of the ’50s and ’60s were the best because they could (and had to) be superb in so many different types of cars. And let’s face it, the cars (and tracks) back then were a lot harder to drive at 10/10ths than modern cars or tracks. Now drivers are all specialized, so there are no all around drivers anymore.

    Others… from way back, Tazio Nuvolari. Rudolph Carriacola and of course Fangio.
    Then in the ’60s and ’70s there was Jackie Stewart & Niki Lauda. And Jochen Rindt, Mark Donahue. Jim Clark. Graham Hill. Bruce McLaren. Sadly, all of the last 5 are dead.

    I don’t pay as much attention to the Sport now. Circle track racing is like watching bowling. WRC is something you don’t get on TV much, and F1 is still fine, but I don’t get a chance to watch it. There’s something more sterile about racing now, I can’t describe it. The top drivers are all incredible, but I often wonder how they’d do in the rain on the long course at the Nurburgring in a Lotus 49, no radio to the pits, no computers, and limited aero aids.

    Different world, different drivers.

  3. Esteban says:

    Noel, I think “sterile” depicts it quite fine. not only is the driving, but the pits attitude. I can hardly imagine Lewis Hamilton, Alonso or Raikkonen getting dirty with grease, helping tune / fix their car, whereas in the 50’s and 60’s it would be usual to see the top-notch drivers working side by side with their trusted mechanics (of course the Mechanics where the boss on such circumstances, so much for star egos)…

  4. jimsgarage says:

    Nicely put Esteban. I realize that a lot of things in life change, but automobile racing is something that I’m glad I got to enjoy before it changed to what it is today. Maybe it will get better if it can change again, but now it seems the best racing is at the NASA events and the WRC.

  5. Noel says:

    Yep. I remember Graham Hill being described as a superb driver/mechanic who could really help the mechanics sort and prep a car. Same for Mark Donahue, who was an engineer by training and had no problem turning a wrench.

    The sport, and the drivers up through the late ’70s were so different than the “rock star” types that populate the top end of motorsports today. All are over exposed and commercialized and it takes all the class and style out of the game. Now these dudes are cardboard cutouts in the convenience store or at Best Buy.

    Although I never got to see them, I think there was a lot to be said for the old days of road racing where some races were on public roads closed off for the race (Mille Miglia, Targa Florio), much like some of WRC today. Racing is much safer today (a good thing), but too many of the races are just a follow the leader game in largely equal cars. NASCAR is the worst example, but even F1 lacks the drama of 20-30 years ago.

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