They say never meet your heroes. I’d say they just had the wrong ones.
Last month at the Lime Rock Historic Festival, I found myself in the thick of true racing royalty. Imagine a racetrack filled to the brim with priceless vintage race cars, the likes of which you never dreamed you’d gaze upon with your actual human eyeballs. It’s thrilling just to be next to these iconic cars, but then to witness them driven in anger is so exciting that most people’s heads literally explode. We never thought we’d ever hear these exotic engines wailing at full throttle, or be allowed to smell their unimaginably expensive vintage tires melting. It’s magical. The history of motorsports brought to life, live on stage.
The cars are a huge draw, of course, but they are simply inanimate objects offering us glimpses into the heroism and romance that draw us to motor racing. The true spirit of the sport lives within the men who raced these cars to fame. And there aren’t many of them left. Given how mind-bogglingly dangerous a race car driver’s job was in decades past, hearing their stories is like hearing first-hand accounts from the Invasion Of Normandy.
So, it was with a sense of trepidation that I paced back and forth in a room inside Lime Rock’s media center, waiting to interview perhaps the greatest living legend of them all. Through some miracle of last minute scheduling, I’d been given the go ahead to sit down and have a chat with “Mr. Motorsports” himself, Sir Stirling Moss.
Much has been written about Sir Stirling’s racing accomplishments: his massive success as a Formula One driver from 1951 to 1961, his hugely adaptable driving style (a key factor of his success in sports car racing) and, of course, his near-mythical win in the Mille Miglia, the completely insane thousand mile endurance race through the Italian countryside that he won in 1955. The very car that Stirling Moss drove in that race, a Mercedes 300SL with the unmistakeable red numbers 722 painted across the back, could be seen outside the window as I paced back and forth waiting for him to arrive.
The room was suddenly feeling awfully well air-conditioned.
Finally, Sir Stirling Moss walked in, his wife Lady Susie at his side. His manners were perfect, of course – after all, he is a knight – and I was thankful for his grace fielding the questions I’d only had a few minutes to scribble down. The fact that he’s still walking at all is remarkable. Five years ago, at age 80, Sir Stirling fell down a two-story elevator shaft, breaking both ankles and damaging four vertebrae. Yet here he was, wearing Bugs Bunny suspenders, good as new. If we needed it, just another reminder that Sir Stirling is made from different stuff than you or I.
Dave Burnett: In your racing career, you won nearly half of all the races you entered. That’s an amazing statistic.
Sir Stirling Moss: Yes, I think I started in four hundred-odd, finished in about two hundred eighty-seven and won two hundred twelve of them.
DB: At the risk of being immodest, why do you think you had such an advantage?
SSM: Well, you see, I’m a racer. I’m not a driver. And to me, driving around is very nice, but when you’re really dicing with somebody, and you can corner in a certain way and close up on the man ahead of you a car length, it feels really exhilarating. If you drop back a car length, then you feel pretty pissed off! [laughs]
DB: What elevates a mere driver to a true racer?
SSM: For a true racer, the race isn’t over until he sees the final flag. And when the first flag falls, to start, you go as hard as you possibly can. You might sit behind the guy and wait [to pass] until nearer the end, or you might think “I’m going to get on with it” and catch the others and put your foot down and try and do it. That’s what I’m trying to do, because it is a race. And the dangers that come with it are part of the attraction.
DB: You bring up the inherent danger; there have been two high-profile deaths in open wheel racing recently, Jules Bianchi in Formula One and Justin Wilson in Indycar. As a result there is a renewed push towards canopies on the open cockpit cars. What are your thoughts?
SSM: I think it’s ridiculous. Motor racing is dangerous. And one does it – some of us do it – because it is dangerous. I was one of those. And I think to go and put forward things like that is absolutely ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous.
DB: Are there any safety measures that you feel should be implemented in modern racing? Or, is there already an abundance of safety?
SSM: No, I think quite honestly, most events have good flag marshaling, which is very important. The drivers know what they can do and they usually stick within their realistic limits. But of course, obviously, the sort of racing and etiquette you have on a circuit like this, or, a club circuit, is necessarily pretty different when you start talking Formula One. But, I think [danger] is part of the sport. I don’t think anybody wants to get hurt, but they’re all going to push themselves up to their limit, and that’s pretty good.
DB: We’re sitting at Lime Rock Park, watching the vintage racing at the Historic Festival. Have you raced at Lime Rock before?
SSM: I’ve driven ’round it, I haven’t raced. I couldn’t race here without a license. And the local club then has to go to the American club, and then they have to go to the RAC and so… in my racing career I haven’t raced here. I’ve raced Sebring of course, and others.
DB: Some call Lime Rock a difficult track to master. Did you find it to be challenging?
SSM: Up to a point, yes. For a course to be really challenging it needs to be very fast, right on the limit. And you haven’t got the opportunity here, obviously. It’s a cute little track, I mean, it fulfills what it needs to do really. People come here and enjoy themselves, and without spending a lot more money, I think it’s a pretty good deal.
DB: You drove many different types of cars over the course of your career…
SSM: I drove one hundred and eight different cars.
DB: Were there any particular cars that you were truly scared to drive?
SSM: Yes. One of the best cars was a Lotus, which still scares me, because wheels came off those, you see. They did in my era. And that’s, obviously, pretty bad. I had a wheel come off at one hundred forty miles an hour at Spa, and the fact that I wasn’t killed was very, very lucky.
DB: Spa is a very fast track.
SSM: Exactly. It’s a wonderful track. It’s wonderful because it’s high speed, difficult, and dangerous. It’s got all the necessary ingredients. But when the car lets you down… Thank God, now, because of the technology and better materials and so on, serious mechanical failure like wheels falling off or something is pretty limited. I can’t think of the last one, so that’s a big step forward, really. I can’t think of a Ferrari ever losing a wheel. That’s Ferrari. I can think of Lotus losing a lot of mine, however.
DB: Would the possibility of the car coming apart during the race be something you’d often have on your mind going into a race weekend in the 1960s?
SSM: Yes, it would. I remember going to Porto in Portugal with these really fast sweeping curves screwing down a hill with trees on the side. And when you’re going through there it’s difficult not to think “Christ, if a wheel comes off, I’m going to get killed here.” That’s a very daunting thought. And that’s something that as a racing driver, you have to be able to control. The good news about modern racing is that it’s very difficult now to think of drivers who have been let down by the car, dangerously, you know.
DB: So, the cars themselves were always a concern. Were there any drivers who were particularly intimidating to race with?
SSM: Yes, because you have a certain amount of people you know are pretty bloody stupid out there. [laughs] So when you’re coming up towards – not going to say their names – but you know you’ve got to be careful trying to pass this man because he doesn’t drive with same code of ethics as I do. You make allowances for that. Normally the blue flag is quite good.
DB: Would you consider Spa to be one of your favorite circuits? What other tracks rank high for you?
SSM: Oh yeah. Any driver whose been anywhere would put Spa pretty high because it’s a lovely area, the food’s good, the people are nice, and the circuit is terrific. The Nurburgring, the Norschliefe, was another one which was absolutely incredible. You’d see holes in the hedges where people had been off. But it’s up to you as a driver to try and keep it on the road. That’s one of the challenges of motor racing.
DB: What about Silverstone? That track has changed a lot over the years.
SSM: Silverstone now is a wreck. To me, it is really a boring circuit. This is motor racing. If you want something safe, you play tennis. You shouldn’t come and play in our court, you know what I mean? And it really annoys me that the important people in the clubs and organizations, they go and build something like the new Silverstone. It’s a disaster. If you go around it today, there is very little exhilaration. Every corner has spin-off areas. What the hell? If they’d put bit of wall there, that’d make racing a hell of a lot more interesting. When I started racing, remember, there were no places in England except the Isle of Man, and so you go across Europe and you start seeing really good circuits, which are so much more challenging. They really are.
DB: Do you watch Formula One races on television?
SSM: Absolutely. Yeah, someone was telling me Lewis [Hamilton] is on pole this weekend…
DB: He is. Big surprise, there.
SSM: Yeah, exactly. Well, he is good. You need a Mercedes engine, anyway, but he is bloody good.
DB: Any thoughts on why Lewis can consistently out-qualify Nico [Rosberg]?
SSM: Oh, yes. He’s better! [laughs] He’s faster. Simple as that. Nico is a good, competent, fast driver, but Lewis is justifiably the World Champion.
DB: It seemed last year they were closer. This year, maybe Lewis has even more confidence.
SSM: Yes, I think so. He’s dyed his hair white now. Apparently that’s the latest. The diamonds are getting bigger in his ears, you know! [laughs]
DB: Would the media have focused as much on that type of thing as much when you were racing?
SSM: I’ve got a hundred and ninety-odd scrapbooks this big [hands stretched far apart]. The black books are my private life, and green are racing. And I’ve got probably more in the private life than in the racing life. In my era it’s what girl are you going out with, all these things, which are related but not important actually to our sport.
DB: In those days, how much work would you have to do outside the race car? Would you have to seek out sponsorships and do a lot of media appearances?
SSM: They’d come around to see you. The organizers of various races around Europe. They’d say would you like to race in our race, in say, Belgium? And you’d say, OK, what start money are you paying? And you’d negotiate to a situation where you’d say, OK, I’ll come as long as you give me “X” dollars. And that happened every week from one to the next. Because I was doing fifty-two races a year. I’ve done something coming up towards six hundred races.
DB: Many would argue that your most famous race was the 1955 Mille Miglia. The Mercedes Benz 300SLR #722 you drove to the win in that race is just down the hill from us right now, and you’ve called it the “greatest sports car ever made.”
SSM: Absolutely. There’s nothing I can think of to criticize. The only thing we hadn’t got were disc brakes, because obviously it was a British patent and we weren’t going to give it to the Krauts. And there it was. So be it. Otherwise the mechanics of that car – it’s here somewhere – it’s quite a remarkable piece of gear.
DB: Besides the durability, from the racer’s perspective, how did the 300SL help you win the Mille Miglia?
SSM: That car is the best sports car that I ever drove. It had power all the way through the range. It’s a straight eight, you know, and when you’re doing a hundred and thirty miles an hour you can put your foot down and really start to steer it on the throttle. It was so rewarding to drive. Unless you hit something, you had a good chance of winning the race. It was extremely maneuverable.
DB: Finally, you’ve been making appearances all over Lime Rock this weekend and your wife Susie has never been far from your side. How did your marriage to her over 30 years ago change your life?
SSM: Oh God, we’ve been an item together for just about 44 years. We’re pals, that’s the thing. We’ve done an enormous amount of things together. I mean, if I have to go out to sort out the plumbing at our flat, for example, she’ll be there with me. We have a great, deep relationship, and a friendship as pals. We fit into each others pockets, you see. I’ve been amazingly lucky.