I never had a contract – you can’t do that now. Rob even had ‘Gentleman’ down as his occupation in his passport! Mike and I got up to all sorts of jokes and larks with the other drivers, we had a great time.”
Crashes and fatalities of drivers and spectators were all too common in Stirling’s day. In the 1955 Le Mans race, a staggering eighty spectators were killed. “We used to lose two or three top drivers a year. The only way to deal with it was to get behind the wheel and forget everything else except what you were doing. Concentration is one very important ingredient in a racing driver. One has to have confidence in one’s ability, otherwise it’s best to get out. In every race, I reckon I left myself a certain amount of leeway.”
Stirling was well known for having extraordinary peripheral vision as well as incredible powers of concentration, but he still had his share of crashes. In those days, it was often due to the cars falling apart! “I’ve had fuel tanks split, twice had the steering sheer, seven wheels have come off plus eight complete brake failures. Cars in my era were not like they are today; many cars I raced in had production line parts.” Indeed it has been said that Stirling’s insistence on driving British manufactured, privately owned cars (rather than factory owned models) severely handicapped his progress.
In the 1950’s at any rate, British cars were no where near the fastest in the world. Grand Prix driving was by far the most dangerous sport at that time. According to Ken W. Purdy, in Stirling’s biography (1963), the mortality rate amongst racing drivers was twenty-five per cent, whilst the number of drivers killed between 1946 and 1963 was approximately 175. About fifty of these were relatively well-known drivers.
In 1950, Stirling had a particularly lucky escape in an HWM (Hersham & Walton Motors). He collided with a tree at over 80m.p.h. breaking his kneecap and four top front teeth. Fortunately, being a dentist, his father was able to quickly make a bespoke denture for him.
In June 1960, Stirling suffered major injuries in a crash at Spa in Belgium, when a wheel came off at 140mph. Despite breaking his back and legs, he was sitting in a car again just four weeks later. After each crash he always made a point of looking forward to his next race. “I was always thinking, I must get out of this bloody hospital. The crashes didn’t do anything to stop me. My only thought was when I could get back behind the wheel. I was a young man; the danger and excitement was a very important ingredient, like cooking with salt, it could be very dangerous. At that age, it’s an important, integral part of the thing. People would ask, ‘What do you do for a living?’ and I loved telling them. Bravery and stupidity are so closely related.”
The final crash, at Goodwood in 1962, forced the end of his career. Stirling was aged 33. It took three quarters of an hour for him to be cut free from his blue Lotus. He was alive but unconscious, choking on a piece of chewing gum. One of his worst injuries was a shattered eye socket. He remained unconscious for a month and was paralysed for six months. “It took me five years before my concentration came back,” says Stirling. “There’s not a bone in my body I haven’t broken. I’ve done my nose about six or seven times, but the 1962 crash was the worst, purely because of the damage it did to my brain.”
That wasn’t all that was different. Stirling made a brave bid to return to racing, but it wasn’t to be. His instinct had gone. “What I used to do was automatic to me. If I wanted to go a bit faster, I’d just drive harder. After the accident, it wasn’t like that anymore.” In his 1963 biography, Stirling told Ken W. Purdy: “Motor-racing has given me a wonderful life. I’ve seen the world, I’ve met hundreds of interesting and pleasant people I shouldn’t have known otherwise, I’ve made a good deal of money and, most of all, I have enjoyed myself.”
Rebuilding his life after the crash and accepting that his career was over, proved to be the biggest test of his life. “I took a very great deal out of motor-racing, but I put a lot back, too. I do feel that I gave it all but my life.”
Interview: Ruby Speechley
Photography: Stan Thompson