With whippersnapper Emerson Fittipaldi having already locked up the 1972 world drivers' championship, what was the old champ, Jackie Stewart, doing driving like a man possessed in the U.S. Grand Prix at Watkins Glen last week? Well, after a season marked by illness, wrecks, minor mechanical failures that spelled major defeats and the embarrassing sight of Fittipaldi, 25, capturing the title, Stewart was in no mood to go over the hill in the usual sense of the phrase. Instead, he wriggled into his car and graced the flaming autumn ridges of Watkins Glen with a style he has already made legendary on Formula I road courses of the world: smooth, swift and unstoppable.
In return for his 22nd Grand Prix win Stewart collected $62,000—the richest prize in all road racing—and he closed in on the records of Juan Manuel Fangio (24 Grands Prix) and the late Jimmy Clark (25) as the winningest driver of all time. Beyond that, on a more visceral level, Stewart underscored his position as the monarch of motor racing. And he had to beat the fog and the rain and the gales to do it.
No sooner had cars and drivers arrived in the colorful hollows of western New York state earlier in the week than a clear, cool Indian summer gave way to leaky skies and a raw, rain-toothed west wind. The gloomy weather fitted the racing prospects: the Brazilian, Fittipaldi, had already collected an unbeatable 61 points (SI, Oct. 2) and although $275,000 in total prize money was yet to be divided, it was up to the purists to stir interest in who would finish second, third and fourth for the year. There were plenty of purists on hand.
These secondary races involved four of the more exciting drivers in the history of the sport—three "old boys" and one "new old boy." Foremost among the oldsters stood Stewart at 33, twice world champion and unequaled among road racers anywhere. Jackie had 36 championship points when he reached The Glen. Another ex-champ, New Zealand's Denis Hulme, the gristly grizzly bear of the sport, brought with him a total of 35 points and a McLaren M19 that was running better every race. In third place with 25 points lay that malefic choirboy, Jacky Ickx out of Belgium via Ferrari, scar-faced but saintly, who had won the German GP and finished high in Argentina, Spain and Monaco. And for the crowd under the clouds at The Glen, a big question was whether Peter Revson could sustain his late-season drive and, with 23 points in hand, edge Ickx out of fourth place to give an American his best finish in the standings since Phil Hill won the world title in 1961.
October 15, 1972
Revson, who had a brief Formula I career in the mid-1960s, came back to Grand Prix racing this season with Team McLaren after becoming the first U.S. driver ever to win the Can-Am championship—and he came back with blood in his eye. He had won the pole at the Canadian Grand Prix last month in Mosport only to ultimately finish second to Stewart.
"Champagne Peter" was loaded and ready when he went out to qualify before the rains came. Stewart, running the shortened Elf-Tyrrell that somehow resembles a Roman centurian's helmet, quickly broke his own 1971 lap record of 118.445 mph with a clocking of 120.142 mph. Oh yeah? said Revvy. He took his Yardley-McLaren around the course at a speed so closely ahead of Stewart's that only .789 of a second separated them. Stewart, who had been resting in the paddock while Revson ran—and while his own car was being regeared in the garage area—climbed aboard a bicycle and pedaled back to the pits. "Oh, these churls," he said. "They will use special qualifying tires, won't they? I'll just have to go out and convince them. Then again, notice that this is a girl's bike I'm riding. 'Old Lady Stewart' they call me. Just have to show them."
Jackie is still recovering from a bleeding ulcer that took him out of competition for the better part of a month and canceled, perhaps for the best, his Can-Am ride with Team McLaren. That season has been dominated by George Follmer in the Penske L&M Porsche. Now, with his new gears in place and his stomach healing, Stewart went out under the glowering sky and edged Revson for the pole by .06 of a second at a new record lap speed of 120.991 mph.
While Stewart and Revson were resolving their duel for the pole, other drivers went at it: Denny Hulme qualified third, not three-quarters of a mile per hour behind the leaders. Stewart's teammate Fran√ßois Cevert sat fourth, followed by Argentina's Carlos Reutemann in a Brabham, Clay Regazzoni in a Ferrari, Chris Amon, that winless wonder, in the old Matra-Simca. Fittipaldi, in his black and gold JPS Lotus 72D, failed to find the right setup for qualifying and ended up ninth on the grid. "Is a bit perplexible," he said with his saintly piranha smile. And with that, the rain and fog set in like a soggy haggis while the crowd amused itself by igniting outhouses and attending a "Solid Rock Jesus Concert" or simply mingling. The drivers checked out their rain tires and everyone prayed for the sun.
As if by some cosmic preplanning, the weather cleared for race day—sun and scudding, dark-browed clouds—but the great confrontation between Stewart and Revson proved far less spectacular. The Glen course rambles over 3.377 miles of nifty twists, dips and wild turns through the hills, and it takes 59 laps to make the 199-plus miles to the finish. Not everybody made it: Revson got clipped by Regazzoni as the pack howled away. One of the wings on Revson's car was bent and he pitted—just long enough to put him out of contention.
Jacky Ickx hung in for a fifth-place finish (and the No. 4 ranking in the final standings). That whippersnapper Fittipaldi dropped out of the race on the 17th lap.
Though Stewart tweaked a few heartstrings among his fans by showing puffs of blue smoke in the early going, his Tyrrell-Ford clearly had the legs of the field. By the halfway mark Jackie had built a half-minute lead over his teammate Cevert and Hulme in the Yardley-McLaren. Then a spattering of rain at the midpoint slowed the cars and spawned a rainbow over the course, a fitting reward for all the gloom of qualifying. And it presented a fitting symbol as well for Stewart's second American victory.
He poured around the course and under the checkered flag at a record average speed of 117.483 mph—more than two miles an hour faster than Cevert's victorious ride for Tyrrell at The Glen last year. As Jackie collected his prize money and adulation in the victory enclosure he showed his only forbearance of the day: he kissed Trophy Queen Ellen Griesedieck as if she were a cousin. And then—with a Scottish twinkle in his eye—he turned Ellen over to runner-up Cevert for Gallic honors. Cevert promptly demonstrated the kiss that made his nation famous and wobbled la Griesedieck's knees in the process. "I think," said Helen Stewart to her husband, "that you put that girl in bad hands." Jackie laughed and went off to count his blessings.