We lesser mortals look to others for inspiration, we call them heroes, but often, they just have extraordinary talent or a work ethic, and they happen to be in the right place at the right time. The movie by Ron Howard, “Rush” brought this idea of heroes a little closer to home for me.
I was a little late viewing the movie, Rush, it came out in 2013, (I watched on TV; since, I quit paying for movies at the theaters, years ago, because of the lack of quality and the pathetic attempts at political messaging, commonly known as propaganda.) but I saw Rush the other night, and consider it to be a classic. The movie allows a brief glimpse into the world’s ultimate sport of excess, Formula 1 Racing. Although the movie captures the excitement and visceral feelings of driving period cars at 180 mph, the contrast between two antithetical friends and competitors, Jim Hunt and Niki Lauda, defines the movie as a classic for me. These two best friends, with their polar opposite personalities, were playing the characters of Narcissus and Goldman in the Hess novel of the same name.
James Hunt was the ultimate irresponsible playboy and lived the hedonist role at full throttle, but in reality, his hedonist personality was probably a mask and a means to hide insecurities and fear. He was a fun-loving character, who was hard not to like or at least cause the casual observer to smile. He liked to show up for press conferences bare-footed, wearing jeans and a t-shirt. The patch area over the right chest is usually leased out for serious advertising money, but Jim Hunt had his own team patch over this area, it read “Sex, Breakfast of Champions”; a logo he later cleaned-up to read, “Sex is a High Performance Thing”. He claimed to have slept with over 5,000 women, although he married twice. One of them a fashion model, Suzy Miller, left him for the actor Richard Burton after Burton ditched Elizabeth Taylor for the second time. The two men remained on amicable terms and Burton paid Suzy the one million settlement she was rewarded from Hunt in divorce court. Burton was surprised that Hunt was so reasonable about letting his beautiful wife leave, but Hunt told him, “Relax, Richard. You’ve done me a wonderful turn by taking on the most alarming expense account in the country.”
He retired early, admitting that he didn’t really enjoy racing (he was known for vomiting before races and qualifications and he sometimes shook so hard while driving he caused his cars to vibrate). Although, he worked as a commentator after his retirement from racing, providing spirited and in-depth knowledgeable commentary, he consumed two bottles of wine during his first race as a commentator. Sex, drugs, alcohol, and an outrageous personality helped keep him ahead of his demons, while he was racing, but a few hours after proposing to his latest 24 year-old girl friend, Jim Hunt died of a heart attack at 45.
We have all known Jim Hunts; their supposed strengths are often their weaknesses and many of us have watched them like moths who fly too close to the flame, their lives often end too soon; although, few achieve the fame and excesses of the Jim Hunt of Formula 1.
Most people consider Jim Hunt to be the most interesting man of this duo, but for me, a frustrated car guy who has owned a long line of German cars since a 190 SL in the 60’s, and continues to enjoy keeping them tuned for mountain driving at just over the legal limits, while logging astronomical mileage on these overloaded and overworked vehicles, in pursuit of perfect lines (the fastest route around a curve) on the memorized mountain roads of several states and in two countries. Of course, it is done under the pretense of making a living, since it is always done on the way to another job, and all the expenses are tax deductible, but realizing the capabilities of a car against the technicalities of a particular turn is exhilarating for a few of us.
Niki Lauda is the hero to the poor man’s road racer. The guys whose times are never recorded, except by the Highway Patrol, but who find satisfaction in choosing the right tires to grip the road or by analyzing the suspension requirements or by tracking down a minor horsepower robber. Niki personally did all these things and much more to make his extremely fast cars faster and more competitive, he was relentless in trying to improve his cars, but he maintained an offbeat humor that only a few of us can appreciate. Yet, his humor was often eclipsed by his Austrian frankness and brutal honesty; i.e. after hiring on with Ferrari in 1974, Niki told Enzo Ferrari, (the proud owner of Ferrari) after his first test drive of the Ferrari 312 on the owner’s private test track, that the car was a “piece of shit,” but promised that he, Niki, could make the car race worthy.
Ferrari had not had a championship since ’64 with John Surtees and fortunately, Enzo admired the work ethic of the young Austrian, and he was allowed to continue as a driver. Niki managed two victories in ’74, in Spain and Holland, and won the world’s championship in ’75 with victories in Monaco, Belgium, Sweden, France, and the United States.
The glory and the cups meant almost nothing to Niki; he complained that his home was becoming cluttered and traded the trophies to a garage in his neighborhood in exchange for free car washes. To me, this is excellent humor and humility from the ultimate sporteman.
In 1976 by mid-summer, he had won five races and expected to repeat the previous year’s championship; however, on the second lap at Nurburgring, Lauda’s Ferrari flipped and burst into flames. Four drivers and a marshal withstood the flames and pulled Lauda from his car.
In the hospital, Lauda was determined to have sustained several broken bones, scorched lungs from inhaling the toxic fumes, and severe burns to his head and wrists. Lauda was barely alive and was given almost no chance for survival. Six weeks later, he finished fourth in the Italian Grand Prix. Jackie Stewart, another racing legend and personal hero of mine, said it was the most courageous comeback in the history of sport. Niki said the loss of half an ear made using the telephone much easier. He wore a signature red ball cap to hide much of the scarring and rented out the space on the front of the cap for a hefty price; a true businessman can see opportunity and will capitalize on a market niche. These are examples of Niki’s offbeat humor.
Enzo Ferrari had his doubts and was making plans to replace Niki, but this was the catalyst that drove Niki to clinch the championship in ’77 with two more races to be run that season. In a classic move of revenge, Niki quit Ferrari and joined Bernie Ecclestone’s, Brabham team. Enzo called Niki a traitor for leaving.
Nicki quit during the ’78 after the first practice session in Canada. He said he was “tired of driving around in circles” and would start his own airline.
Lauda Air was his new airline and he was one of the pilots. Eventually, he needed more capital and returned to racing to secure the money. In 1984, Niki won another championsnip and in ’85 he won one Grand Prix and retired from driving.
Niki continued to work in the sport as an advisor to Ferrari, a Jaguar principal, and as a TV commentator. Niki continued on to become Non-Executive Chairman of the Mercedes F1 team, board member of Mercedes AMG Powertains and special advisor to the Board of Daimler AG.
Now, few of us will have the opportunities or the physical skills of Lauda or Hunt, but we can all use the courage, honesty, and relentless work ethic of Niki Lauda to serve as an inspiration, and even the wreck less hedonism of Jim Hunt serves as a role model for avoiding the weaknesses of our personalities.
I like both these men, but I admire Niki Lauda. He fought back when the doctors had given-up and competed in one of the most grueling forms of racing six weeks later. I wish I could vote for leaders with his intrepid courage and honesty.