'Racing Is a Vice'

This, in part, explains racing drivers, says this dashing young Spanish ace. For the rest, read on
May 12, 1957

What type of man becomes a professional racing driver? At heart he must be an adventurer. Six hundred years ago he would have been off to the Crusades or would have more conservatively stayed at home, slain a few dragons and have saved an occasional damsel in distress. Today, however, the Crusades are over, the dragons are in hiding, and if a damsel gets in trouble she calls the police or her psychiatrist.

Adventure is a religion. Religions require faith, and the adventurer must above all other things have faith in himself. It is the uncertainty of the future that attracts the adventurer most. Few professions, except possibly that of Communist politics, have less security and more uncertainty about the future than racing. One can be at the top one second, but all it requires is one very small error and one is very embarrassingly dead the next.

As one may well imagine, racing is an extremely competitive business. In most sports today, the old spirit of "the game for the game's sake" is fast dying out, and with the exception of a few isolated outposts of the British Empire and, naturally, the playing fields of Eton and Harrow, everyone has acquired a somewhat deplorable desire to win. However, as we approach the limits of human and mechanical ability, it accordingly becomes increasingly difficult, both mentally and physically, to surmount the actual records.

Speed is the keynote of our age. But the sportsman who has neither the physical ability to run a four-or even five-minute mile nor the mental ability to work on things like guided missiles has to settle for such sports as automobile racing and bobsledding. Both of these occupations also have the advantage that one remains, at least most of the time, in a comfortable, seated position. There is none of this nonsense of running around the park at some ungodly hour to keep in proper trim. As we race every Sunday from March to October, after the initial month's racing we automatically (and much to our surprise) find ourselves in excellent shape. We then are able with little or no effort to maintain this condition to the season's end. It is very definitely one of the prime requisites of being a good driver to have, first, the physical strength to drive a car at very high speeds for at least three hours in what is practically unbearable heat, as, for example, in Argentina, and second to have the mental strength to be able to concentrate upon one's driving for the same length of time.

Are we brave? Not necessarily. An act of courage is the performance of an act in which one overcomes fear. Driving a car at what most people would consider a suicidal speed is not frightening to us. We have spent many years learning how to do so with a minimum of risk. At times a driver will perform an act of courage, such as going off the road in preference to hitting a spectator. The mere fact that we race requires no courage on our part. To put it in a nutshell, we are not brave because as far as automobile racing is concerned we have no fear to overcome.

But do we ever get frightened? We get terrified. Fear is the awareness of danger. Whenever a driver makes a mistake and loses control of his car for even a split second, the danger is acute and he is frightened. However, he knows what he should do to rectify his mistake (if it is reparable), so his fear is, in most cases, of very short duration and is quickly forgotten. On the other hand, if the mistake is a serious one, it always seems like an eternity between the time one loses control of the car until the time one hits whatever one is going to hit. I, myself, am considered quite an expert on the subject of going off the road. I have never enjoyed doing so, even at slow speeds. I think what frightens me most is that when I have actually lost control of the car there is absolutely nothing I can do except sit still, frozen with fear, and wait for events to take their natural course.

A driver's first feeling when he goes off the road and is unhurt is one of shame. All the way back to the pits he will be busy concocting a reasonable excuse. I have heard the most extraordinary stories about a new species of tree that will actually jump out into the road and hit cars with considerable violence. Most drivers, however, stick to simple little tales of small children and/or old women crossing the road in front of them.

The problem of automobile racing is not one of winning at the highest possible speed but rather one of winning at the lowest possible speed. Fangio has been practising this theory with rather more than a modicum of success for some years now. It is obvious that the slower one goes the less chance there is of breaking down. At the same time, however, one must go fast enough to be the first car across the finish line. Fangio more often wins races by 10 seconds than by five minutes, and he does this by preference.

In the Grand Prix of Cuba, last February, which is run over a distance of 320 miles, I knew that Fangio was very worried whether his brakes would last the entire race. I knew that the best chance I would have of beating him would be to force him to use his brakes as hard as possible. This strategy worked for a while. Fangio, after briefly trying to pass me, let me go ahead by myself. After we had both made our pit stops to refuel on about the 55th lap, I was ahead by about 65 seconds. My car was not only running perfectly but my brakes were in good condition. I hadn't a worry in the world.

On the 65th lap I happened to see Fangio coming down one straight as I was going up the other. I probably saw his face for half a second. The expression on it gave me a terrible shock. He was completely relaxed and unworried. He had the expression of a man who knew that he was shortly going to win the Grand Prix of Cuba. Five laps later a gas line on my car broke. I was forced to come into the pits. It took my mechanics five minutes to repair it. When I rejoined the race, I was in sixth position, with Fangio, naturally, in first. I eventually managed to finish third (and establish the lap record). But as long as I live I shall never forget that glimpse I got of Fangio's face.


I think that the hardest part of racing is the start of a driver's career. He is more or less forced to take chances to draw attention to himself and prove to the manufacturers (Ferrari, Maserati, Mercedes Benz etc.) his potentialities for the future. If he can stay alive and in one piece for the first couple of years, this is half the battle. If he is fortunate to possess financial resources of his own, he will have to buy at least one car a year. The car will cost him from $6,000 to $15,000 and naturally never go quite as fast as the factory cars he has to compete against. The time he loses going down the straights he will have to try and make up on braking and in the corners. Since he is competing against the best drivers in the world, if our young driver can even pass the fourth car on any works team he is really showing great ability.

Once the driver has been noticed by a racing director his next step will be to drive a works car in one of the major sports car races and, what is more important, to finish in it—even in 27th position. What the racing director will neither forgive nor forget is the young driver who goes off the road or who breaks his engine by overrevving it. One must not forget that in the world of motor racing the racing directors, men like Enzo Ferrari, Orsi of Maserati, Lyons of Jaguar, etc., are the prophets of the gods.

Early last year I had a friend ask Enzo Ferrari why, despite the fact that I was driving quite fast, I was not on his team. His answer arrived a few days later in a large envelope. It contained two pictures of myself going off the road the previous Sunday at the Nürburgring. Not very subtle perhaps, but brief and to the point. Fortunately for me, Luigi Musso broke his arm during the same race, and as Ferrari needed a fourth driver he forgave me, and since then I have been a member of the Ferrari team.


Automobile racing is one of the cleanest sports in the world—especially Grand Prix racing, where only the best professionals compete. Perhaps the reason it is clean is that it is very effectively self-policed. If someone is unkind to me in a race today, I have two possible solutions for dealing with him. I can wait until I next lap him or he laps me, or I can more patiently wait until the following Sunday, when we meet again. And if revenge is sweet, it is only sweet for the avenger. This, however, very rarely occurs as all the drivers are very close friends; so, if two drivers have a lovers' spat, it is usually of very brief duration. It must be remembered that we spend four days a week together from March to October, and we all know each other's little problems, both foreign and domestic. Shortly after the finish of a race everyone disappears without saying goodby. The following Thursday conversations and poker games are resumed where they left off, as if there had been no interruption. On the whole, drivers are, I think, a very happy lot and suffer from very few neuroses. Perhaps we appreciate life more because we live closer to death.

Racing is a vice, and as such extremely hard to give up. All drivers swear that they will stop at such and such an age, but very few of them are able to do so. Racing drivers are inveterate gamblers and, like most of the breed, never know when to stop. Sometimes when a friend is killed you swear that you will never race again. The next day you think, well, this could never happen to me. By the third day you've got your gear together and you are off to the next race.

The art of racing is primarily a matter of sensitivity. Every curve or corner has a theoretical maximum speed. The closer one can approach this maximum the faster one goes. This sensitivity is neither in one's hands, one's head or one's feet, but in the seat of one's pants. When a car is trying, as we call it, to break loose, we feel it in the seat of our pants and nowhere else. This is probably the least romantic aspect of motor racing, but it is so.

The greatest difficulty a driver encounters and the true test of his ability is what we call "a fast curve." This means we come down a straight at speeds up to 160 mph and then have to take a curve whose maximum speed is, say, 130 mph. What makes Fangio Fangio is that he will take this curve at 129.9, when another driver will take it at 125 or at 130.1—in which case he will go off the road.


Where does a driver get this sensitivity? He can be born with it. Then he can develop it further by many other sports, the best of which is probably horseback riding. Moss, Collins and I all used to ride a great deal, principally in races. I eventually started putting on weight, and although I tried all the known systems of slimming it was all to no avail. So that was the end of my riding career. In motor racing, weight is of far less importance. The manufacturers will go to extreme lengths to save a few pounds here and there. However, this does not seem to prevent Fangio, who is probably the heaviest driver, from also being the fastest.

I have noticed, I might add, with a feeling very close to one of despair, that the fastest drivers also seem to have the least hair. I can offer no acceptable explanation for this. I would like to say, however, that Peter Collins (known to his British public as the Golden Glamour Boy) and I are going to fight for our locks to the bitter end.

The most thankless task in our world is no doubt that of the mechanic. He will frequently have to work throughout the night to get a car ready, or to change an axle ratio. The driver will then get into the car, do a few laps and come back into the pits complaining that the car isn't going well. This, of course, will necessitate another night's work for the mechanic. Fortunately, mechanics seem to accept this as part of the cross they have to bear. When their car wins, they are just as proud and pleased as the driver, despite the fact that they get absolutely no recognition for the part they have played.

Automobile racing is dangerous, but it is only as dangerous as you want to make it. Ninety percent of all accidents are directly due to drivers' mistakes—not necessarily those of the driver who has the accident, but all too frequently (especially in sports car races) due to inexperienced drivers.

They are the greatest menace of all to the faster men. Once a fast driver has committed himself to a certain line in a fast curve, he can no longer change it, or, once in the curve, apply his brakes. If somebody else, who is going slower, does change his line, there is inevitably going to be a mixup.

Another 5% of the accidents are caused by mechanical failures, steering arms breaking, rear ends locking, tires blowing, etc. The remaining 5% are the public's fault. The vast majority of the spectators prefer to stand in what they consider the most likely place for an accident to occur and, of course, they will think nothing of strolling across the course if they so desire. Sometimes they stroll at the wrong time and in the wrong place.

The closest escape I have ever had occurred last year at Le Mans during practice. My co-driver was Duncan Hamilton, who had already won at Le Mans. I always like to have a Thermos of water in my car so that I may have an occasional sip (through a rubber tube) if and when I so desire. Duncan, however, does not care for water and had substituted my Thermos for one of his own filled with a revolting recipe of his which is, I believe, 70% champagne to 30% brandy. He had, somewhat thoughtlessly, forgotten to mention this to me. I am a teetotaler and detest even the taste of wine. After two or three laps of practice I felt slightly thirsty and inserted my trusty rubber tube in my mouth, drew in a full mouthful of Duncan's foul concoction and swallowed it before I realized what I had done. At the time I was on the Mulsanne straight and cruising along at 160 mph. The top of my head seemed to fly off. I couldn't see where I was going. The five or six following seconds were, as Duncan would say, extremely dicey. In the race itself, a 24-hour affair, two Jaguars spun directly in front of me on the second lap. I crashed into them, putting all three cars out of the race. I, of course, blamed my hangover.

Racing drivers, all of them, are terribly nervous before a race. Some of them show it more than others. But if you ever see a driver looking calm and relaxed 10 minutes before the start of a race, believe me, it's all a big act. Once the race is started, however, we all resemble the legendary cucumber.

I still think that it is safer to drive in a Grand Prix and far less strain on one's nerves than it is to drive from Paris to the Riviera during the summer months, or in this country during the Fourth of July weekend.


Alfonso Cabeza de Vaca, 17th Marquis de Portago, who appears in color among his colleagues on the opposite page, is one of the few truly romantic sporting figures of our time. Godchild and namesake of ex-King Alfonso of Spain, he is, at 28, the scion of a family which has included some of Spain's great warriors of long ago. His own sense of adventure has been expressed by superlative achievements in horse racing, jai alai, swimming, polo, bobsledding and, finally, auto racing—which he confesses tops them all.