Those who follow motor racing can argue endlessly over such minutiae as what was the best car ever built, where the most exciting race, which the most difficult track, when the most dangerous season. But nearly all will agree that there have been only six truly grand Grand Prix drivers. Even before his retirement Jackie Stewart was one of them. And in a way, as the latest of its members, he embodies more completely than any other driver the best traits of them all. This is a cruel, tough sport, spattered with blood, reeking of oil and plumed with the orange and black feathers of cars broken and on fire. It has been peopled with men of great dash and courage, lean and elegant men who would not have shirked at Armageddon, much less the Causeway Heights above Balaklava, where the Light Brigade rode. Fools, perhaps, counterphobes so afraid of death that they had to try it every weekend to get over their fear. But they have all tested what Jackie Stewart calls "the edge of experience." By which he means the place where physical action—reflex, eye, muscle, nerve ends—blends into the realm of the immeasurable—daring, courage, skill, judgment.
The heroes came in all configurations. There was Tazio Nuvolari, The Flying Mantuan, who started racing in 1921 when he was 30. And then he raced a lot, for nearly another 30 years, compiling 49 Grand Prix victories back when that term loosely meant any road race in the biggest of cars. Nuvolari was a dink of a driver, only 5'5" and 130 pounds soaked with oil, yet he handled the heavy machines of the era like a wrestler. He was the inventor of the four-wheel drift, taking a car sideways through a corner to scrub off speed. Nuvolari never wore out his brakes; indeed, he rarely used them.
Rudolf Caracciola, despite the Italian name, was a German who drove for Mercedes Benz in the same era as Nuvolari, and his main successes came in the 1930s when Hitler was using Grand Prix racing as a stimulus for Nazi pride. A colorless, tightly self-disciplined man, Caracciola was noted for his ability to drive "in the wet," earning the sobriquet of Der Regenmeister (Master of the Rain). Until 1938, his toughest German competition came from young Bernd Rosemeyer, who also had a claim to fame: he was known as Der Nebelmeister (Master of the Mist), thanks to his dominance of early-season races at the N�rburgring, when fog usually shrouded the 17.5-mile course.
Their competition ended abruptly Jan. 28. Early that day Caracciola had set a new speed record of 268 mph on a stretch of the Frankfurt-Darmstadt Autobahn. Rather than let rival Mercedes hold the mark past sundown, Rosemeyer wheeled out in his Auto Union Special and got the streamlined car up to 275 mph. Unfortunately, a gust of wind got the car airborne. It hit a bridge abutment and the Master joined the Mists.
Juan Manuel Fangio is by common agreement the best racing driver who ever lived—and he still lives, in Buenos Aires at 62. Fangio raced Chevys in the bullrings and road races of South America until he was 38, when he undertook his first full season on the European circuit. Perhaps because he came that late to the game he was wiser, tougher and less romantic than his younger rivals. Fangio was stern and enterprising; he jumped from team to team to get the best cars—but he came out of it with 24 Grands Prix and five championships.
If ever a driver deserved to be a world champion it was Stirling Moss, who had it all: the dash, the timing, the ability to feel a race the way the car feels it. Continually experimenting, ever charging, Moss ran up an amazing also-ran record in Grand Prix and seized countless top-ranked sports car victories as well. And then came a smashup in a 1962 race: Moss was left with brain damage and though he tried to race again, his keen, quick edge was gone.
Jimmy Clark came on to be a world-beater. By 32, mere striplinghood in racing terms, he had already won 25 GPs, exceeding the fabled Fangio's total by one. In fact, had Clark jumped marques in the manner of Fangio and his fellow Scot, Stewart, he might well have won 40 Grands Prix and six world titles. Still, by 1968, with two world titles, plus an Indy 500 victory behind him, Clark's career seemed still ahead: he was so smooth and deceptively quick a driver that nobody much feared for his life. He won convincingly in South Africa, first race of that season. But the end came in a Formula II race at Hockenheim. On a track slippery with rain he slid off into the woods at 150 mph; the car shattered against an unyielding tree. Clark was dead and the racing community still has a hard time comprehending that fact fully half a decade after it happened.
Jackie Stewart, in a way, is a composite of all those earlier champions—and then some. Like Nuvolari, The Flying Mantuan, Jackie the Flying Scot is short, rather ugly and very colorful, what with his mod clothes and his distinctive black corduroy cap ($12.95 at any racetrack stand). Like Caracciola, he is a Master of the Rain, driving superbly in any kind of road conditions, fair or foul. Like Fangio he is ruthless when it comes to choosing a car, having driven for four separate marques—BRM. Matra, March and Tyrrell—in accumulating his record of 27 GP victories. Like Moss, Jackie is a splendid seat-of-the-pants engineer, aiding immeasurably in the arcane areas of design, aerodynamics, tire structure and grooving, and the like. Finally, like Clark, he is a consummately smooth and intelligent driver, perhaps not as quick as Clark was, though that difference is virtually immeasurable to the layman, but a masterful conservator of his machinery, the sort of driver who can almost intuitively feel what is going wrong with a car, and knows precisely how to keep it running to the end. It is in that realm that championships are won, not solely on quicks. "In this sport," Stewart says with hardboiled lament, "the quick are too often listed among the dead."
But where Stewart transcends the greatness of drivers past is in his ability to lift the sport of motor racing out of its bed of clich�s, out of its heroic silences, its dehumanized preoccupation with technology and high-speed technology's concomitant death. With his pipy voice and his peppy, gregarious ways, Stewart has become a supersalesman, not only for the products he endorses but for the sport itself. Who can believe in the myth of the gentleman driver any longer—the Portagos and Tripses with their monogrammed silk nightshirts and traveling wine cellars—with the evidence of Jackie around to refute it: a latter-day long-haired Harry Lauder, yet quicker and smarter than any gentleman driver? How can any driver or owner or team manager any longer fall back on the posture of stoical silence in the face of the horrors (and heroism) of racing death after Stewart's eloquent plaint in his book Faster! when he describes his reaction to the death of his close friend, Jochen Rindt? "I lay there thinking how stupid the whole business is, how futile and painful...how there is always the grief and the terrible pain that people go through when a thing like this happens. I kept seeing Jochen lying in the ambulance and I saw his left foot and I remember [his wife] Nina screaming that we were all mad when we wouldn't let her go to him and then her sitting all alone, with her eyes empty."
That was written in 1970, and since then Stewart has not only endured three full seasons of racing but won two more world championships. If courage consists of the ability to press on regardless of doubt or fear, then his career is how the word is spelled. "I've never felt cocksure," he says, "never felt overconfident. I've never gone into a race feeling I was better than the next man." That career began in 1961 when Jackie switched to motor sports after a highly successful beginning as, of all things, a trapshooter. Born in prime grouse shooting country, he was the son of an inveterate outdoorsman and sometime motorcycle racer who also ran a garage.