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Easy rider rolls one in
Robert F. Jones
October 14, 1974
Playing it cool wins the Grand Prix title for Emerson Fittipaldi
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October 14, 1974

Easy Rider Rolls One In

Playing it cool wins the Grand Prix title for Emerson Fittipaldi

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If one were to apply the most technical of measures, this was not a U.S. Grand Prix to remember. Certainly not, in the champagne country of upstate New York, a vintage year. But in terms of what motor racing is all about, there was nothing to match it.

All the elements were present at Watkins Glen. This was undoubtedly the most important U.S. Grand Prix in the 16 years that the event has taken place in this oldtime colony. For the first time in history the world championship of drivers was to be settled on U.S. soil. Moreover, real American cars piloted by real American drivers were finally fulfilling the promise offered nearly a decade ago by pioneer Dan Gurney and his Eagles, a promise that Americans could play the world's most demanding automotive game just as nicely as those effete European snobs.

As it all turned out, a tough-minded, dead-cool inhabitant of the Western Hemisphere, one Emerson Fittipaldi by name, won the championship, foiling the high hopes of the Italians and the British in the process. He did it by finishing fourth, a result that, in effect, summed up the year-in, year-out nature of the sport much more effectively than sheer excitement ever could.

This was a season remarkable mainly for its lack of definition. No single team seemed capable of securing a lock on victory. Through the nine months and 14 races on four continents that preceded the climactic weekend at the Glen, all of seven drivers representing five different marques alternated at sloshing the champagne in victory lane. The lack of consistency perhaps could have been anticipated. Almost 12 months to the day of last Sunday's race, the Grand Prix community had witnessed the end of an era—call it the Stewart Era. Team Tyrrell, which had come as close as any outfit to dominating the sport for the five years previous, took a double knockout blow-on that bleak 1973 weekend. Fran�ois Cevert, the promising French prot�g� of three-time world champion Jackie Stewart, was killed in practice, and that tragedy confirmed Stewart's own decision to retire. Road racing, like nature, abhors a vacuum. The question was which team would rush in to fill the gap caused by Tyrrell's detrenchment.

In the confusion that followed, drivers began leaping about from team to team in a mad game of musical cars. Fittipaldi, the smooth Brazilian who had won the championship for Lotus in 1972, shifted his big coffee cup over to Team McLaren, filling a place at the table vacated by Peter Revson, who had sidestepped across to America's UOP Shadow Team. Jackie Ickx, the star-crossed Belgian, left Ferrari at precisely the wrong time to replace Fittipaldi on Colin Chapman's Lotus crew. Into the Ickx gap came a slick young Austrian, Niki Lauda, who bids fair to become that nation's successor to the late Jochen Rindt.

Ken Tyrrell, the lanky lumberman who had guided Stewart's career so successfully, filled out his decimated team with two quick but raw rookies—South Africa's Jody Scheckter and France's Patrick DePailler. Everyone conceded Jody's enormous talent, but in the next breath muttered about whether his radical style would grant him survival through a full season of Formula I racing. At the start, nobody figured Scheckter would be in contention, much less alive, come the U.S. Grand Prix. But they reckoned without Tyrrell's exceptional gifts, both as a disciplinarian and as a road-racing schoolmaster.

The first half of the season shaped up as a duel between Fittipaldi and Ferrari. Fittipaldi blew off everyone in hometown S�o Paulo for his second straight Brazilian Grand Prix victory, then did it again in Belgium. Ferrari's Lauda and his heavy-footed teammate, Clay Regazzoni of Switzerland, piled up points, Niki nicking them in Spain and on the dunes at Zandvoort, and Regazzoni finishing near the top in six of the first eight races.

The new Lotus 76 proved to be a dud, thus denying much in the way of success to Sweden's Ronnie Peterson, who is clearly the best of the post-Stewart breed. But Scheckter was maturing at an astonishing rate—third in Belgium, second at Monaco, home free for his first Grand Prix victory in Sweden. Suddenly the season was a race within races, marred only by the death of Peter Revson in practice in South Africa.

France, Britain, Germany, Austria, Italy, Canada—the second and toughest half of the season ground on like the trench warfare of World War I. Bad luck dogged the Italian front, with Lauda losing the Ferrari edge through a combination of bad judgment and worse luck. A subsiding tire, changed too late, cost him the British race; dirt thrown onto the track by another car precipitated a spin-out in Canada, where Lauda was leading handily, and shut him out of the points again. It took Regazzoni to make up for those incidents, with his victory at the N�rburgring and a continuing series of high finishes. By the time the circus reached Watkins Glen, Regazzoni and Fittipaldi were tied in the point standings with 52 apiece. Scheckter lay just within grasp of the championship, at 45 points. With scoring allotted on the countdown of nine-six-four-three-two-one, Scheckter could become the world's youngest driving champion at the age of 24, but only if Fittipaldi and Regazzoni finished sixth or worse.

Stewart, on hand as a television commentator, predicted that Scheckter would win the race but not the title. "On form," Jackie said on the eve of the action, "Emerson has the experience, the cool to win it. After all, he has been champion. But my gut says that Regazzoni will prevail." Jackie should have bit his tongue. Or perhaps a piece of haggis.

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