Jackie's brother Jimmy, eight years his elder, had raced sports cars with moderate success until a back-to-back set of wrecks convinced him that racing was too bloody risky. Jackie, the younger brother, had to take up the challenge. His mother would have none of it, having seen her older son hurt too often, so Jackie first raced anonymously, under the nom-de-course of A.N. Other. After a series of successes in sports cars, he was given his first test ride in an open-wheel car at Good wood in 1963, and broke the track record. Signed on the spot by Ken Tyrrell for his 1964 F-III team, Stewart was on his way. The next year, 1965, was his first full season in Grand Prix racing, and at Monza, driving for BRM, he won his first GP, ending up third that year in world championship standings. In 1966 Stewart won Monaco and then jumped over to Indianapolis—a popular move for European drivers in the mid-'60s, following Clark's success—where he was leading the race before an oil pump broke 10 laps from the end. Jackie pushed his car into the pits, a gesture of �lan that won American approbation and set him on his way to immense popularity on this side of the Atlantic.
At Spa, for the Belgian Grand Prix that summer, Stewart had his only serious accident. Following the leader of the field on the first lap, he hit the rain-slick Masta Kink (track marshals had failed to post a yellow caution flag), skidded off "through a few trees and a stone wall and then ended up in a house." Trapped inside the cockpit with a broken rib and a separated shoulder, he felt gasoline rising through the ruptured fuel tanks—up to his armpits. "The electrics were still on and I couldn't shut them off," he recalls. "I was stunned and Bob Bondurant, the American driver, came running up, along with Graham Hill, and they couldn't free me. Then I heard a helicopter and I told them, 'It's O.K., here come the medics.' But it was only a cinema chopper. They were filming the movie Grand Prix that race, and they got some splendid footage. They very nearly got a wonderful bonfire, too, but the car didn't burn. Sitting in the gasoline that long, about 35 minutes, cost me all the skin from my chest down. It was painful to sit for the rest of the season."
Not that Stewart had been distant from death during the balance of his career. "I've had maybe six or eight close calls," he says, "incidents where something failed, maybe even myself, and the car has gone where I didn't want it to go. Just last March in South Africa, the brakes failed in a high-speed corner and I went into a dirt embankment, airborne part of the way. I recall thinking in a cold flash: Yeah, this is it. But it wasn't."
In the 1969 season Stewart and his Matra blew past everyone, winning South Africa, Spain, the Netherlands, France, Britain, and then clinching the championship in the Italian GP at murderous Monza where, in a 200-mile drag race, Jackie barely nipped his teammate, Jean-Pierre Beltoise, and his archrival, Jochen Rindt, in the closest F-I finish in memory. The next year Stewart switched to a new March Ford and entered the combat with high hopes. But the season proved a disaster in more ways than one. In the Dutch Grand Prix, Stewart's good friend Piers Courage, scion of the British brewing family, crashed his de Tomaso at Zandvoort and died in the subsequent fire. Jackie was severely shaken, and his psychological state was not helped by the new March's recalcitrance: it balked at every setup and he could not coax it into a good performance. The year belonged to Lotus and Jochen Rindt, who won five GPs and had the championship virtually clinched when the GP circus arrived once again at Monza. Jochen was Jackie's best friend in racing, lived just up the hill from him in Begnins, outside Geneva, and when he died in practice at Monza Stewart was desolate. He swore never again to make close friends in the sport. Rindt won the championship posthumously, but it was small consolation.
By 1971 Team Captain Tyrrell had perfected his own F-I car, and it was strong enough to win Jackie his second championship, denying it to a resurgent Ferrari team that at the outset of the season looked like it had the prize in the bag. Stewart won six GPs that year, earned in excess of $825,000 and was awarded the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II. In addition to F-I he campaigned a full season in the Can-Am series, giving the then-dominant Team McLaren a run for the money and at the same time gaining even more fans in North America. That year he started in 21 races, won nine of them for the busiest big-time season in modern racing history. He paid the price, however, in 1972.
That year, with the Tyrrell-Ford acting quirky, Jackie developed a bleeding ulcer that kept him out of a cockpit for a full month. The championship went once again to Lotus, this time with Brazil's steady young Emerson Fittipaldi behind the wheel. Moreover, the doubts that had been growing since 1970 were now more insistent, despite a whirl of activity that scarcely gave Stewart any time for sleep, much less philosophizing. "I looked around and saw that I was no longer the young charger," he recalls. "All the faces were new, and so young. Emerson, Ronnie Peterson, my new teammate, Fran�ois Cevert. And people kept urging me to retire. I had to begin thinking about it.
"In April and May of this year, I found myself in an area of confusion, of confusion and spiritual loss. Something had started to gnaw in me, something far more painful than the ulcer. There was no way out. I was literally up against a brick wall—no way to escape something that I had engineered for myself. I knew deep down that unless I made a move I was going to become a robot with no...no...versatility? Options? Not that, quite. I had exhausted the supply, it seemed, except for the sheer thrill of driving. I'll never stop getting that pleasure. If I were driving fast only for pleasure, I'd drive until I was 110. But the rest of it, no. The ego trip had stopped some time ago. Everything around me—the other drivers, the scene, my nonexistent home life—it had all become a paler shade of white, lost its color.
"The family, that was the important thing. Helen and I had worked it out a long time ago, but things were happening to the boys. Paul is only eight and Mark not yet six, and kids that age can be cruel to one another. They attend a little school about 4,000 feet straight up from the house. Jochen's daughter Natasha attends there, and so do Jo Bonnier's kids. After Jo died at Le Mans last year, the word got around that racing driver fathers die. It was only a matter of time, the other kids said, that I would be dead, too. That knowledge was getting to be too much for my sons....
"You know, you can go a whole career in racing without losing anyone among your close friends, or maybe just one or two. But for me, everyone went. Jimmy Clark, Joe Schlesser, Lorenzo Bandini, Jerry Birrel, Mike Spence, Ludovico Scarfiotti, Bruce McLaren, Piers, Jochen, Jo (Seppi) Siffert, Jo Bonnier, even Pedro Rodriguez, and then Fran�ois at the end of this season—though I could not have known it would happen when I made this decision. You know, there's a pocket of fluid inside there, near your heart, that secretes a balm of some mysterious kind and eases the horror. But mine has run out. It can't be eased any longer. In April I made the decision to retire at the end of this season, win or lose. I decided not to tell Helen or anyone else. That would subject them to a countdown game, a horrible one. And if I were to die with only three more to go, or two more, or in the last one.... I'm not afraid of it for myself, I don't think any driver is, because it can't hurt for very long. But it is the survivors who hurt the most...."
So 1973 proved to be Jackie's greatest season. Not only did he know it was his last, but he was campaigning a car that was inferior to at least two other marques: McLaren and Lotus. Yet he scratched together his five GP wins, enough to put him ahead of Fangio and Clark in total GP victories, a fine note to end it on. Then, at Watkins Glen, Cevert died in a practice accident. "It was a motoring accident," Jackie says, "not mechanical failure. I had sworn I would never get close to another driver again, not after Jochen, but I cannot control my affections as well as I can a car. It hurt, it hurt so very much."