Not all were famous, but each played a role in my life

Sweet 16: I was asked to select my 5 favorite race car drivers. I couldn't limit my list to so few

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Larry Edsall (left) and fellow AutoWeek editor Wes Raynal (right) chat with John Andretti at an Indy car race in the 1990s | Larry Edsall archive photo

Before I ever wrote about cars, I wrote about sports, albeit including motorsports, and one of the first things a young sportswriter learns, at least back when I was learning, is “there’s no cheering in the press box.”

Your press pass entitled you to the best seat in the stadium or arena or whatever playing field was involved, but you sat there (or in some cases stood there on the actual sidelines), watching the games unfold, taking your notes, and afterward interviewing the winners and the losers. 

And then, while the fans and stands went off to celebrate or to drown their sorrows, you sat at a typewriter and wrote your story, with all of the objectivity your soul and your training could provide.

Nonetheless, there are times when human nature overcomes human nurture and you find yourself having favorites. 

Those thoughts are an aftermath of a conversation I had recently with our new managing editor, Tom Stahler. He also honed his early journalistic skills writing about auto racing and its participants, and he suggested we each come up with a list of our 5 favorite drivers and share them with you.

So I sat down and started my list. Very quickly I realized two things: I could not limit my list to 5 drivers, and my reasons for including people on the list had little to do with their success on the race track. 

That said, the following is my list, presented as randomly as it was compiled:

Henry Pens: Local midget racer back in Joliet, Illinois, when I covered the UARA series. He also was an Indy 500 hopeful back in the days when the route to Indy was midgets to sprints to Indy cars. He also owned a body shop, fixed my car after it was t-boned one morning as I was on my way to class. Sadly, his murdered body was discovered in that shop. My recollection is that there never was an arrest, but the leading suspects quickly left town.

Bruce McLaren: His cars dominated the Can-Am series, to the point he once told me it wasn’t so much a racing series as a means of foreign aid for New Zealand, native land of McLaren, his teammate Denis Hulme and also of Chris Amon, who didn’t drive for McLaren but at one point was third in the standings. 

One evening at a Can-Am press event McLaren and I discovered we had suffered from the same childhood hip ailment, which was reason enough for him to be on this list. Sadly, he died a few months later while testing a new car.

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Sam Sessions in action | Apologies to whomever shot this photo, which Larry found in his files

Sam Sessions: From Illinois I moved to Michigan and Sam Sessions was a local driver, a star in the U.S. sprint car series and also a multi-time Indy 500 starter. He’d come to our newspaper office once or twice a month for horrible vending-machine coffee and to chat about racing.

Ivan Stewart: The “Ironman” of off-road racing endeared himself when my youngest daughter was about 5 years old and had gone to San Diego with me to cover a stadium off-road race. She was too young to get into the pits, so Stewart suggested we meet him in a far corner of the stadium parking lot a few hours before the event. We did. 

He arrived in his race truck, put Abby inside and hid her beneath a tarp and drove her into the stadium. Years later, I’d see him from time to time and he always asked how she was doing.

Mario Andretti: He’s on this list because he saved my life. I grew up in the era before cars had seat belts and even when they did, we didn’t use them. One day I was at Michigan International Speedway for Indy car practice and Mario hit the wall. Several us jumped into the track’s pace car and raced to the scene. His car not only had hit the wall, but caught fire, yet his only injury, as I recall, was a small burn next to his nose. When I asked how he escape injury, he walked me to the car and showed me the seat belts and harnesses. 

I buckled up on the way home that day, and every day since. A few months later I was cruising along a 4-lane highway when someone ran a stop sign, hit me on the driver’s side, and spun my Mustang off the pavement. The state trooper who did the accident investigation said the only reason my car didn’t flip, and that none of the four of us in the car was seriously injured, was that the driver — me — was wearing a seat belt and was able to control the steering wheel and the car’s direction.

John Andretti: Mario’s nephew and son of his twin brother, Aldo, is still the only racer to compete at the top level in Indy cars, stock cars, Le Mans cars and in a Top Fuel dragster. John recently died after a bout with cancer in which he focused on getting others to do earlier testing.

Davy Jones: We’d gotten to know each other when I helped him with his editor-at-speed column for AutoWeek. The Jaguar team had set up a little camping village at the track for its drivers, but Davy’s car was eliminated from the race after a few hours. After doing an interview, I asked him what he was doing next. He said he was going to the amusement park and then back to the hotel. 

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Our photographer and I wanted to stay at the track but knew we needed at least a few hours of sleep to make it to the finish, and Davy offered us his camper for the night.

J.D. McDuffie: I wrote a full-page newspaper feature on the driver who may well have been NASCAR’s last true independent. It was a great interview with a real character who held the record of starting 653 races without winning any of them. Sadly, I was at Watkins Glen the day he died from injuries in a crash.

Emerson Fittipaldi: “Emmo” was a two-time Formula 1 champion before coming to Indy car racing, which is where I met him, and found him to be a calm and delightful gentleman and despite this global success to be anything but full of himself.

Martin Brundle: I used to have a backyard gathering at my home for the foreign drivers visiting Michigan International Speedway for the International Race of Champions events. One evening Brundle seemed distracted. I realized it was the fireflies (aka lightning bugs), which they apparently don’t have in England. So I sent my children out to collect a few, which we put in a glass jar with a few holes in the lid so he could take them back to his motel room. 

Rick Mears: I was in the audience at a sports medicine seminar when the doctors showed slides of Mears feet after his horrible crash. I also had dinner with him one night and learned more about the importance of tire temperatures during a race than I’d ever imagined. And then there was the day at Indy when to do an interview we sat on the wall as cars zoomed only a few feet behind us at 200 mph. I was nervous, he was not.

Danny Johnson: Another Michigan local racer who not only became a friend, but provided the muscle when my bride and I moved from an apartment into our house.

Scott Brayton: Another Michigan racer who excelled at Indy, winning the pole only to die in a crash while sorting out his backup car. I knew the Brayton family. I never liked funerals, especially Scott’s, and am forever grateful to my then teen-age daughter for going with me, for saying all the right things to people and for helping her father retain some degree of composure.

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Fireball Roberts: It was probably his name, but for whatever reason, he was my first hero racer when I was a youngster.

Richard Petty: I was sitting next to “the King” one evening at a press dinner, was supposed to be doing an interview but had a splitting headache.   So Petty reached into his sport coat pocket, pulled out a couple of packs of Goodie’s Headache Powder — he not only did commercials but actually used the stuff — and suggested I try it. Headache disappeared. Turns out he not only was the King, but a pretty good doctor as well!

Dan Gurney | AAR photo

Dan Gurney: Please bear with me here. This is the last on the list, but it takes some explanation: 

Some of you might remember my book, Ford GT: The Legend Comes to Life, which traced the development of the 2005-06 Ford supercar. The final chapter of the book was supposed to be my impressions of driving the car. 

In the late summer of 2003, Ford had arranged a press drive of GT40 prototypes at the Laguna Seca track and on Highway 1 from Monterey to Big Sur and back. I did the highway drive, but realized that the only thing I might accomplish at the track was to putter around and learn nothing about the car’s capabilities.

But then I saw Dan Gurney sitting there on the pit wall. Apparently, because of limited track time, the Le Mans winner was invited as a guest but not to drive. I introduced myself and asked Gurney if he’d drive my laps (each writer was allowed to do 3 circuits of the track). What I wanted was for him to drive, to show me what the car could do and to talk about what it was like at Le Mans in the GT40 that inspired this car.

Ford and the track had set up orange cones all around the circuit, partly to indicate turn and braking points, partly to help restrict speeds and the potential of someone damaging one of the cars.

Lap 1: Gurney uses the front of the car to nudge the cones out of the way. I asked why. “You want to see what the car will do, right?” he responded. 

Laps 2 and 3: Yee-haw! 

Needless to say, that last chapter was the best one in the book.

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A former daily newspaper sports editor, Larry Edsall spent a dozen years as an editor at AutoWeek magazine before making the transition to writing for the web and becoming the author of more than 15 automotive books. In addition to being founding editor at ClassicCars.com, Larry has written for The New York Times and The Detroit News and was an adjunct honors professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

8 COMMENTS

  1. love your article…i grew up in terre haute indiana..home of the action track…attended my first race there in 1955….used to help drivers unload and load cars after races..i was just a kid/ Johnny White and sammy session..oh yes…both…racing nothing like it today…sprints..etc..and the old indy days before the cars were jets on wheels…good job on your writing like readying about those days and times…larry adamson franklin,tn

    • They were great times… midgets on a quarter-mile, sprints on a half-mile. and if you were good enough, you earned your way to Indy and the 500, where there was a variety of cars and engines.

      • Nice memories, even if some are sad. Grew up in Indianapolis with Sprint car owning family. Always went to Indy, folks had great seats on the 4th turn exit, first Indy ’64, @ 5 yrs. Marched with Harvey Gill’s Boy Scout Band along with Purdue from ’70-’76, where I also discovered the infield (another loss- it got made “family friendly”, a PC term for “boring”). Scott Brayton, Art Pollard, Swede Savage- so many good ones gone.

  2. Like you Fireball Roberts was my first favorite driver. Growing up 10 miles from the Darlington track I was aware of Buck Baker, Curtis Turner (one of Bill France’s favorite – LOL), Cotton Owens, the Flock brothers and others, but it was something about Fireball teaming with Smoky Yunick in those Chevys and Pontiacs that captivated my attention. Probably that my name is practically the same as his no doubt helped – Robert Glenn (no ‘s’ and two ‘n’s).

  3. Fantastic article you had a lot of my favorites. My dad used to take me to the local stock car races, and liked to step on the gas because he knew I loved the thrill.
    So many great people, some are gone but will never be forgotten, with all the virus bringing us down it was really refreshing to read about the list.
    A friend had a Superbird and I wanted a ride and it wasn’t cool, to wear a seat belt. I got in all excited and he said “I always buckle up because you never know what could happen” I buckled up and always did buckle up after that, Thank you and stay safe.

  4. Thanks Larry! What a nice read.
    By the way…..I have a 1976 Cadillac Coupe Deville with 19,000 miles on it, and it looks and smells like a new car, and a restored 1973 Corvette parked in the garage next to it. The Cadillac is still running on the original belts and hoses!

  5. Great story Larry. I had nearly the same experience with Dan. It was a Supra intro at Laguna, on the old course. It was so fast past start/finish and going up the hill the track put in a chicane of cones. On the first lap Dan clipping the the lowest cone our the way by. On the next lap he the second cone went flying. After that, as you say, Yee-haw. Dan, Jim Clark, Jochen Rindt, Fred Lorenzen and Jody Ridley, who ruled Dixie Speedway outside Atlanta when I went to work at the track right out of college.

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