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If the Sacrilegious Order of International Road Racers ever chooses a patron saint, it might do well to consider the late French philosopher Albert Camus. More than any other modern writer, Camus recognized the transcendent exhilaration of life on the ragged edge. He himself was killed in a car at speed: totaled before his time, but not without accomplishment. Incongruously enough, thoughts of Camus bring to mind Peter Revson, a driver whose reputation has been more that of a racing playboy than a serious Dicer-With-Death. What triggers the association is the inscription on an unobtrusive but elegant little pillbox resting among Revson's trophies. It was given to him by one of his many equally elegant girl friends, and it says: EVERYTHING IS SWEETENED BY RISK.
Not that Revson's life isn't sweet enough without the risk. Money, style, adulation and now finally a major international racing championship have come his way over the years. Early in 1971, having given up on the dubious joys of New York City, Revson moved to Redondo Beach, Calif. The beach towns of Southern California reinforce the Camusian connection, bringing to mind his essay "Summer in Algiers." It is a paean not just to the city of Camus' birth, but to all those easy, pastel towns that open on the sea and the sun. "Throughout their youth, men find a life here that matches their beauty," Camus wrote. "Decline and forgetful-ness come later. They have wagered on the flesh, knowing they would lose...to the young and vital everything is a refuge and a pretext for rejoicing: the bay, the sun, games on the red and white terraces overlooking the sea, the flowers and stadiums, the cool-limbed girls. But for the man who has lost his youth there is nothing to hang on to, and no outlet for melancholy."
Yes, Algiers—and Redondo Beach. The cool, stuccoed walls take the sun through a veil of haze flung up by long Pacific rollers crashing on the breakwater. Surfers walk the waves, and the scent of grass and leather drifts out of the head shops along Hermosa Avenue. The sports cars parked along the road are draped in multicolored parachutes to fend off the oceanic dew. Revson's apartment building, where a bachelor pad rents for $300 a month, is defended as if against siege by 12-foot steel fences, tire-tearing dragon's-tooth parking-lot barriers and doormen with hard eyes and bulges on their hips under the long, frogged uniform coats peculiar to their kind. After all, this is Manson country and one cannot be too safe. In the marina next door, yachts and sport fishing boats bob at their moorings, among them Revson's own 32-foot Chris-Craft, appropriately named The Ragged Edge.
At first glance, there is nothing ragged about Revvy. Dapper, reserved, couth and kempt, he looks like a $10,000 bill must feel. His features are those of a John Held collar model: there are no lines to his face, only lineaments. Although he is now 32 years old, he looks as if he might soak himself daily in that popular Revlon product, Eterna '27', the wrinkle goop. Yet there is a hint of fury under the matinee idol's facade, and one senses beneath the cool accouterments—the Lacoste cardigans, the sockless Gucci loafers, the tasteful timepiece, all wreathed in an aura of Intimate cologne—a fault line as dangerous in its competitive potential as San Andreas is geologically. One needs only to place a mustache on Revson's upper lip, a hussar's helmet on his head, a saber in his hand and The Valley of Death before him to repeat The Charge of the Light Brigade.
Recently, Revvy has been running with the Heavy Brigade—Team McLaren. Driving the McLaren M16 wedge at Indianapolis, Pocono and Ontario, he won $127,026 and achieved national prominence by capturing the pole at Indy in a record run averaging 178.696 mph. In the Canadian-American Challenge Cup series, ostensibly driving the second car to Denis Hulme, Revvy won five of the 10 races and $155,900—$25,000 of that total from the championship fund when he became the first American to win the Can-Am title. His total take of $306,676 was second only to Al Unser's $343,471 in all of racing.
No one can follow automobile racing for long without wondering what compulsion drives the men who drive the cars, and to that end Peter Jeffrey Revson is a continuous target for pop-psych speculation. The most popular of the dime-store Freudian theories about race drivers is that they are all counterphobes, men so irrationally frightened of death that they must continually test it in order to reassure themselves of their immortality. Every close call, runs this theory, produces a peaking of those fears which, when the dust clears, is followed by high exhilaration at not having been killed. Most drivers scoff at this interpretation, arguing steadfastly that they are in racing for the money, not for any deep-seated psychological or philosophical reasons. Revson is no exception.
Though he is often described as "The Revlon Heir," an appellation that turns him pinker than Coral Vanilla, for most of his 11-year racing career Peter Revson has been heir only to a succession of inferior cars and a lot of big bills. The cosmetics company with which many fans identify him is owned by his uncle, Charles Revson, and, although Peter's own family is better than well off, he has paid his own way. His parents disapprove of his racing.
In fact, his mother has watched him run only once—in his first road race, an amateur event back in February 1960, at Kahuku Point in Hawaii. "We raced on an abandoned airstrip," Peter recalled recently. "Broken, pitted and cold. I was driving my street Morgan. We'd wheel on in there and pull the muffler and the windshield, then tape layers of newspaper over the hood to prevent sandblasting. The Morgan was a lousy car on the street—it ran like a coal cart, with a stiff suspension that took plumber's straps to keep the wood from separating from the steel. But the car really went on that bumpy circuit. I won a good few of the races that I entered in Hawaii. I remember blowing this Sprite off in one race—I put a ding in his fender and he spun out. I was all enthusiasm in those days, enthusiasm and no skill. When I look back on it, wow! The stewards called me in and said: 'You can't drive that way!' In the next race, I blew another guy off, without contact this time, and the stewards banished me. I was too rough, not in the spirit of the club. My mother probably agreed. During the first race she was standing on a sandy point where the cornering was all out of shape, and she kept saying to her friends: 'Look at that damn fool, look at the damn fool!' She never came to another race." Revson smiles with wicked contentment, like a small boy who has liberated the cookie jar.
Revson had been in Hawaii for one final stab at a college education. "I was never much into college," he says. "Having been to prep school, I felt that college was a liberation to be celebrated."
A year and a half at Cornell studying mechanical engineering with minimal success was followed by a semester of general studies at Columbia and the final semester at Hawaii. A brief, dispiriting stint on Madison Avenue ensued—"I was a deputy flunky to the assistant account executive or something"—and then Revson entered his life's work. He bought his first real racing car, an 1,100cc. Fiat Formula Junior. "Some car," he smiles. "Black and white pleated leather, chrome everything."