Skip to comments.Velocity Channel: Grand Prix Killer Years (7 p.m. Eastern FIOS)
Posted on 03/05/2012 10:57:16 AM PST by dickmc
The Legacy of the Killer Years
What was so wrong with Formula One racing during this period? Why were there a shocking 57 driver deaths from 1961 through 1973? What gruesome events finally forced a change in the racing culture for good?
Grand Prix: The Killer Years, [airing Monday, March 5 at 7:00 pm Eastern on the Velocity Television Channel FIOS Veizon] is an uncompromising look at just what was going on in racing during those years, and is a tribute to those drivers whose deaths eventually forced a change. This is their story.
I have watched it twice. It is very well done with lots of film and interviews with Jackie Stewart, Emmerson, Ickx, Jim Clark's mechanic, and other directly involved parties. The Williamson-Purley crash and subsequent incident at Zandvoort was particularly horrifying because it was all captured on film. It was the final straw resulting in major safety changes.
The 60s marked a time when rapid developments in mechanics, technology and aerodynamics were increasing the speed of cars. Drivers were often clocked at well over 150mph during test and racing runs. Unfortunately the rest of racing industry didnt progress as quickly as the speed of the cars.
The decade started with very little safety features for the drivers protective neck and headgear was minimal and seatbelts were just starting to see the light of day. Even those who experimented with them were often afraid theyd do more harm than good.
Fire retardant driver suits were the extent of real safety innovation that was universally adopted at the time.
The uncomfortable truth was that safety was an afterthought and the possibility of death was an accepted risk associated with the sport. Racing was meant to be fast and raw an adrenaline packed undertaking that allowed the racing fan to live vicariously through the feats of the drivers.
As for the drivers, one cant deny the desire to win. Real men, real racers were expected to carry on or let the up and comers take their place on the podium.
Beyond the lack of safety in the cars, the racetracks themselves didnt keep up with the times. Barriers or safety walls were not able to deal with the impact of speeding cars. Track staff were also not equipped to deal with accidents often lacking basic safety equipment such as fire extinguishers or fire suits to assist when crashes occurred.
The Crashes That Changed Everything
Due to this perfect storm of speed and lack (some would say disregard) of safety precautions throughout the sport led to the tragic number of deaths in the period.
Many promising racers perished, rocking the racing community to its core. Notable up and comers Jim Clark was killed in 1968, and Jochen Rindt died in 1970 and their deaths among the others of the period should have been enough. Unfortunately it took two more terrible events before change was adopted.
In 1966 popular and winning racer Jackie Stewart who counts among his many achievements three World Driver Championship wins had a crash at the Belgian Grand Prix. Rainy conditions caused a few crashes at that race, but it was Stewartss crash, that sent his car overturned into a safety barrier.
Upside down with his car leaking fuel, Stewart struggled to escape before a fire started. Shockingly, race marshals did nothing to help him get out of the car. Fellow racer Bob Bondurant who had also crashed was the one who had to pry him from his car. Despite muddled medical care and a long trip to the hospital Stewart survived.
The terrifying crash incensed Stewart and he became a voice for the drivers who, after watching so many of their friends die, were starting to reconsider the dangers they faced when they got in their cars. Stewart started calling for changes in the sport and even brought his own doctor to the races to ensure his safety.
Even though Stewart was a wildly popular and winning racer, the popular culture of the sport was hard to change. There were those that questioned the changes Stewart was calling for believing it would take the spirit of adventure out of the sport.
Meanwhile, drivers like Jim Clark who ended up dying in a 1968 crash were quoted as saying, I was driving scared stiff pretty much all the time. His feeling was reported to be common among the drivers, who simply steeled themselves with a do or die mentality just to carry on.
While the previous record of death and high profile crashes should have been enough it took the horrifying death of 25-year old British racer Roger Williamson at the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort in 1973 that mercifully shook some sense into the sport.
After a crash, Williamsons car was engulfed in flames. Though the race continued around the wreckage, fellow driver David Purley stopped to try and rescue his fellow driver. Unfortunately cameras were trained on the race and caught the whole tragic scene.
Purley tried in vain to turn the car over and footage shows him desperately begging track officials to help him free his friend. The track officials did not step in not having fire retardant suits and fearing for their safety. The deeply moving footage shows Purley frantically working to save his friend with a sole fire extinguisher, and it is reported he could hear his friend begging for help as he tried to turn the car. Fire crews and ambulances failed to arrive being confused about how to reach the wreck while the track was still in use.
Williamson perished due to asphyxiation while a frustrated and clearly devastated Purley is led off the course. The whole scene, captured on film was the emotional tipping point that finally changed the sport in everyones minds.
Following the race, Stewart and the racing community led boycotts of the Belgian and German Grands Prix until drivers demands for safety were finally addressed. With their united voice, combined with the shocking public death of Williamson, the culture began to change to include safety as part of the standard research and development in the sport.
Some of the changes credited to Jackie Stewarts lobbying are full-face helmets, standard safety belts and harnesses, removable steering wheels and a main switch for electrics. Track officials too were forced to install up-to-code safety barriers and pull off areas, in addition to crash protocols for their events. Proper tools were provided to officials to deal with crashes and rules regarding racing protocol when one occurs were enacted.
As the years have gone by, the deaths in racing have lowered dramatically as safety concerns became baked into the culture of the sport. Thats not to say racers havent perished the tragic deaths of Dale Earnhardt and Dan Wheldon being just one of those in recent years that have shocked fans.
The difference is that when a death occurs in racing now whether it is Nascar or Formula One inquiries are launched to learn what happened and how to improve drivers odds. Earnhardts legacy was improvements in neck support in the cars.
The program Grand Prix: The Killer Years is a sobering reminder of a critical period in racing history. These brave, skilled and adventurous drivers that lost their lives on the public stage united their friends, and changed the sport forever.
Seeing all those drivers I followed was very interesting. It was sad how Graham Hill survived all the racing but was killed in his private plane crashing in the fog.
I saw this last night. It was moving for sure.
On top of that they’ve turned Nascar into a into a Joke. Why don’t they just chain the cars together.
How can I watch this show? Where is it available?
It is on a channel called Velocity. I had never seen the channel before, was just flipping around last night.
I can’t get the channel
Home Viewing Bookmark.
I don't watch that much but one of the things I do is check http://www.titantv.com once a day to see if there is anything I would find interesting enough to watch.
It's free. Moreover, you can move your preferred channels to to top to look at one a day for anything of particular interest. Their 'mouse over' summaries are generally very good.
I doubt you would have seen such a passive response if these races were held in the US.
Is this the channel?
Just realized it’s the same channel as the link..
That was a gut-wrenching scene. Even though David Purley was wearing his helmet, you could clearly see his emotions as he tried to save the other driver, and then realizing that he couldn’t do it alone and no one would help.
Sounds like something I'd like to see. I don't see Velocity on my cable provider's lineup - I'll have to dig a bit and see where else I might find it.
BTW, as hair-raising as Stewart's close call was, it's the film of the infamous 1955 Le Mans crash that makes my blood run cold.
If you've never seen it, it's on YouTube. It makes a great comparison piece to this past year's Le Mans Audi crash, in terms of spectator (and driver) protection.
I have it on Direct T.V. It has some very interesting car restoration programs on. One in paticular involves this British guy and his friend who restores cars and then resells them. Each program is about each project. He has come over to the states and shipped back some classics and fixed them up. West Coast Customs is also on this channel along with Over Haul’n.
I was a kid when Jimmy Clark was killed. I can’t believe these guys were racing past trees with no barriers at all. His car was totally mangled.
The stuff about Colin Chapman and his fetish for light weight killing drivers was new to me. The car magazines at the time did not cover that.