Skip to main content
Original Issue


Bored by a life of aimless ease, Peter Revson courted danger on the classic racecourses—and for years was dismissed as just another pretty face. Suddenly he is a champion, and a challenger of the heroes

If the Sacrilegious Order of International Road Racers ever chooses a patron saint, it might do well to consider the late French philosopher Albert Camus. More than any other modern writer, Camus recognized the transcendent exhilaration of life on the ragged edge. He himself was killed in a car at speed: totaled before his time, but not without accomplishment. Incongruously enough, thoughts of Camus bring to mind Peter Revson, a driver whose reputation has been more that of a racing playboy than a serious Dicer-With-Death. What triggers the association is the inscription on an unobtrusive but elegant little pillbox resting among Revson's trophies. It was given to him by one of his many equally elegant girl friends, and it says: EVERYTHING IS SWEETENED BY RISK.

Not that Revson's life isn't sweet enough without the risk. Money, style, adulation and now finally a major international racing championship have come his way over the years. Early in 1971, having given up on the dubious joys of New York City, Revson moved to Redondo Beach, Calif. The beach towns of Southern California reinforce the Camusian connection, bringing to mind his essay "Summer in Algiers." It is a paean not just to the city of Camus' birth, but to all those easy, pastel towns that open on the sea and the sun. "Throughout their youth, men find a life here that matches their beauty," Camus wrote. "Decline and forgetful-ness come later. They have wagered on the flesh, knowing they would the young and vital everything is a refuge and a pretext for rejoicing: the bay, the sun, games on the red and white terraces overlooking the sea, the flowers and stadiums, the cool-limbed girls. But for the man who has lost his youth there is nothing to hang on to, and no outlet for melancholy."

Yes, Algiers—and Redondo Beach. The cool, stuccoed walls take the sun through a veil of haze flung up by long Pacific rollers crashing on the breakwater. Surfers walk the waves, and the scent of grass and leather drifts out of the head shops along Hermosa Avenue. The sports cars parked along the road are draped in multicolored parachutes to fend off the oceanic dew. Revson's apartment building, where a bachelor pad rents for $300 a month, is defended as if against siege by 12-foot steel fences, tire-tearing dragon's-tooth parking-lot barriers and doormen with hard eyes and bulges on their hips under the long, frogged uniform coats peculiar to their kind. After all, this is Manson country and one cannot be too safe. In the marina next door, yachts and sport fishing boats bob at their moorings, among them Revson's own 32-foot Chris-Craft, appropriately named The Ragged Edge.

At first glance, there is nothing ragged about Revvy. Dapper, reserved, couth and kempt, he looks like a $10,000 bill must feel. His features are those of a John Held collar model: there are no lines to his face, only lineaments. Although he is now 32 years old, he looks as if he might soak himself daily in that popular Revlon product, Eterna '27', the wrinkle goop. Yet there is a hint of fury under the matinee idol's facade, and one senses beneath the cool accouterments—the Lacoste cardigans, the sockless Gucci loafers, the tasteful timepiece, all wreathed in an aura of Intimate cologne—a fault line as dangerous in its competitive potential as San Andreas is geologically. One needs only to place a mustache on Revson's upper lip, a hussar's helmet on his head, a saber in his hand and The Valley of Death before him to repeat The Charge of the Light Brigade.

Recently, Revvy has been running with the Heavy Brigade—Team McLaren. Driving the McLaren M16 wedge at Indianapolis, Pocono and Ontario, he won $127,026 and achieved national prominence by capturing the pole at Indy in a record run averaging 178.696 mph. In the Canadian-American Challenge Cup series, ostensibly driving the second car to Denis Hulme, Revvy won five of the 10 races and $155,900—$25,000 of that total from the championship fund when he became the first American to win the Can-Am title. His total take of $306,676 was second only to Al Unser's $343,471 in all of racing.

No one can follow automobile racing for long without wondering what compulsion drives the men who drive the cars, and to that end Peter Jeffrey Revson is a continuous target for pop-psych speculation. The most popular of the dime-store Freudian theories about race drivers is that they are all counterphobes, men so irrationally frightened of death that they must continually test it in order to reassure themselves of their immortality. Every close call, runs this theory, produces a peaking of those fears which, when the dust clears, is followed by high exhilaration at not having been killed. Most drivers scoff at this interpretation, arguing steadfastly that they are in racing for the money, not for any deep-seated psychological or philosophical reasons. Revson is no exception.

Though he is often described as "The Revlon Heir," an appellation that turns him pinker than Coral Vanilla, for most of his 11-year racing career Peter Revson has been heir only to a succession of inferior cars and a lot of big bills. The cosmetics company with which many fans identify him is owned by his uncle, Charles Revson, and, although Peter's own family is better than well off, he has paid his own way. His parents disapprove of his racing.

In fact, his mother has watched him run only once—in his first road race, an amateur event back in February 1960, at Kahuku Point in Hawaii. "We raced on an abandoned airstrip," Peter recalled recently. "Broken, pitted and cold. I was driving my street Morgan. We'd wheel on in there and pull the muffler and the windshield, then tape layers of newspaper over the hood to prevent sandblasting. The Morgan was a lousy car on the street—it ran like a coal cart, with a stiff suspension that took plumber's straps to keep the wood from separating from the steel. But the car really went on that bumpy circuit. I won a good few of the races that I entered in Hawaii. I remember blowing this Sprite off in one race—I put a ding in his fender and he spun out. I was all enthusiasm in those days, enthusiasm and no skill. When I look back on it, wow! The stewards called me in and said: 'You can't drive that way!' In the next race, I blew another guy off, without contact this time, and the stewards banished me. I was too rough, not in the spirit of the club. My mother probably agreed. During the first race she was standing on a sandy point where the cornering was all out of shape, and she kept saying to her friends: 'Look at that damn fool, look at the damn fool!' She never came to another race." Revson smiles with wicked contentment, like a small boy who has liberated the cookie jar.

Revson had been in Hawaii for one final stab at a college education. "I was never much into college," he says. "Having been to prep school, I felt that college was a liberation to be celebrated."

A year and a half at Cornell studying mechanical engineering with minimal success was followed by a semester of general studies at Columbia and the final semester at Hawaii. A brief, dispiriting stint on Madison Avenue ensued—"I was a deputy flunky to the assistant account executive or something"—and then Revson entered his life's work. He bought his first real racing car, an 1,100cc. Fiat Formula Junior. "Some car," he smiles. "Black and white pleated leather, chrome everything."

He entered the car in a Vanderbilt Cup race at New York's Roosevelt Raceway more easily than he did himself. "I had no SCCA license, but I did have my Kahuku Point Sports Car Club membership card. They didn't know I'd been drummed out of the club and I didn't tell them. I parlayed the card into an FIA license, and I was very sedate indeed during the driving test." Not so during the race itself. Competing against the likes of Indy winner Jim Rathmann and Mexico's up-and-coming Rodríguez brothers, Revson finished seventh overall, an encouraging omen considering it was his first professional race and only the fourth of his life.

The early years are the toughest for a racer. As if the sport itself were not complex enough—intricate machines competing within an even more intricate, Balkanized world of antagonistic sanctioning bodies—the beginning driver is confronted with an infinity of variables, any of which can break him before he has a chance to prove his worth or learn his trade. No one risks a good car on an unproved driver. During 1962, his second full season, Revson coughed up $8,000 of his own money to race a Cooper Formula Junior. "It was my most expensive season," he figures, "but by today's standards it was cheap. Hell, you can't race even a Formula V for that little these days." Despite the expense, Revson survived the year in good shape and cemented some important friendships with other beginners that would pay off in the years ahead. The most important was E. E. (Teddy) Mayer, the gnomish little wizard from Scranton, Pa., who was trained as a tax lawyer but has become racing's best team manager.

Considering himself now a journeyman, Revson packed off to England in 1963 for a season of European-style road racing. "I drove my own Cooper and served as my own assistant mechanic," Revson recalls. "I had one guy with me to do the real mechanical stuff. We went around in an old bread van, competing against other upstarts like Denny Hulme, Mike Spence, Gerhard Mitter, Jochen Rindt and David Hobbs." Revvy's stock went high enough to gain him his first Formula I ride, in a Lotus-BRM at Oulton Park, where he finished eighth despite the fact that his front brakes failed early in the race. The season was successful enough to lure Revson into another year of Europe, rather like a poker player who is encouraged by a few early pots. Britain's Tim Parnell put him in a Lotus Formula I car. Revson painted it red, white and blue—and then lost every race from Austria to Zandvoort.

Still, he was living in London, sharing an apartment with Chris Amon, Tony Maggs and Mike Hailwood. "We were known as the Ditton Road Flyers. At that time Chrissy was this pudgy kid fresh off the farm, getting rides that a European driver would have groveled for. Mike was the hottest thing on two wheels in Europe—he'd won world motorcycle championships seven times. I knew that if I was going to stay in racing, I had to make it pay. My old man was-secretly hoping that I'd fail—not maliciously, but just hoping that I'd run out of money and come home and do something sane and safe. I damn near did, but then I thought of that ad agency...."

There were other lures to European racing beyond mere money. Europe idolizes its drivers in a manner that America reserves for football heroes, and with much more style. Even so crassly commercial a figure as a rally driver is continuously surrounded, as they say, "with earls and girls." The following year, pragmatism prevailing, Revvy campaigned in the lesser formulas but with greater success. In a 60-car field at Monte Carlo, where the adept handling of brakes and gearbox separates the men from the boys, he came home first—"a big boost to my prestige." That year also marked Revson's return to North American sports-car racing. Driving in the fall races that later evolved into Can-Am, he won a two-heat event at Mosport and single heats at Laguna Seca and Kent, Wash. In the final heat of the Kent race, he found himself wheel to wheel with his younger brother Doug. "We damn near had a punch-up after that one," he says wryly. "Dougie accused me of blocking and I accused him of fraternal ingratitude." Doug Revson later was killed in a European road race.

Six seasons after he had begun racing, Peter Revson had his first reasonably successful year. In 1966 he earned about $10,000, mainly in the new GT-40s, which won the World Manufacturers' Championship that season for Ford, with Revvy contributing to victories at Sebring, Monza and Spa. Endurance racing takes grit and intelligence; Revson's rich-boy image began to erode. Revvy was quick enough—though certainly not the quickest. He was definitely steady, not a car breaker. The men who dole out rides in race cars like to see a young driver who is learning all the time, and by the late 1960s Revson was already a bit long in the tooth to be classified that way. He came to be known as a "good backup driver," the man you want to drive your second car. Insurance. The irony was not lost on its victim. Driving second and sometimes third cars, he raced for Cougar in the 1967 Trans-Am series, winning two events—"twice as many as either of my teammates, Dan Gurney and Parnelli Jones." At Indianapolis in 1969 Revvy the Rookie qualified his Repco-Brabham in the 33rd starting position, yet blasted his way through the field to finish fifth. Nonetheless Mark Donohue, who was fourth on the grid, won Rookie-of-the-Year honors by finishing seventh. That decision still smarts.

"There's no question but that Mark is a remarkable driver, a remarkable man," Revson says. "He's an engineer—the real brains behind the Penske thing. He does more for himself before he gets into a car than any driver in America. Maybe I ought to say that he does as much as any other driver. But everyone says that Mark and Mario Andretti are the best road racers in the U.S. Still, I've won more international road races over the past two years than both of them put together. Five Can-Ams. Mario won Sebring in 1970 when I was driving with Steve McQueen, and he beat us by about 20 seconds with a new Ferrari when we were driving an old Porsche. Mario won the South African Grand Prix last winter and the Questor Grand Prix at Ontario in the spring. Maybe the South African race counts for more than a bunch of Can-Ams, but the Questor wasn't nearly as demanding as a Can-Am. Still, money talks, money talks."

It speaks quite eloquently in the Redondo Beach marina where Revson parks his fishing boat. "I've owned a few boats over the years," Revvy admits. "It's like a guy who gets married five or six times. The happiest moments are when you first get it, and then when you finally get rid of it."

Right now, the honeymoon is still on. Revson checks the mooring lines and studies the tricky surge running in from the breakwater's entrance. He lights off the twin Chevrolet 283-horsepower engines and eyeballs the bilges. He shuts down the engines and stands for a moment on the fantail. The wind is backing around to the north, scouring the smog out of the Los Angeles basin and the stickum out of Revson's hair. In his buckskin jacket, with the pretty-boy contours of his head broken by the north wind, he no longer seems made of patent leather. It suddenly appears interesting that one of his nicknames around the racecourses of the world is "Revtile." But whatever there is about him that strikes his fans as reptilian is now gone with the wind. He pours a couple of bourbons and lights up a cigar for himself.

So this is life on The Ragged Edge. The talk veers with the weather, Revson relaxed and rapping on everything from politics to eyesight. "I'm essentially a conservative, like most drivers. An elitist, I guess.... I'm not that combative in the corners, not like Pedro was. Maybe Pedro had to do it because of the culture he came from—the machismo number. But if a driver has the beans to get by me, he's gonna get by. I won't shut the gate on him. If I caused a serious injury or something fatal, I'd feel, well, pretty bad. When I had that little dust-up with Sam Posey at Riverside in 1970, during the Trans-Am, it was because he bumped me at the start and again in Turn Two where we both spun out. I was really burning, and I walked on up the pit wall to where Sam was standing. He was saying, 'Now, Peter,'—you know that lockjaw way he talks—'Now, Peter, I didn't mean anything....'But I had him by the front of his lapels and he was backing up and he fell right over the pit wall with me on top of him. I never swung on him, so help me....

"It's mostly bottom fishing around here, sea bass, halibut, barracuda and that sort of stuff. What I really like is the tropical water, where the billfish run. Or fishing for bones, in the flats over the coral, where you have to really use your eyes. Driving takes better eyes than any other sport, even baseball. When you get in trouble, you react to it instantly. It all gears down into slo-mo. At Indy, when Mike Mosley and Bobby Unser got tangled up in Turn Four, I was coming up right behind Mike when I saw him leave the groove. I knew it was trouble, and I was able to steer down before he hit the wall. Bobby was right behind me and he didn't have a chance to avoid Mike's ricochet. You don't stand a chance if you think objectively at those speeds. You can't afford to reflect. If you take the time to intellectualize, you're finished.... Look at that tuna clipper over there! That's what I'd like. It's interesting—the old workboats are the luxury deals of today. What the hell does that mean?"

Revson's apartment faces north along the beach, and the wind has insinuated itself through the porous California walls. Even his golden trophies look chilly as he comes back in from the boat. Gaudy rugs are dangling in the draft, in lieu of paintings. "Harbor Cove Modern," he says, dismissing the apartment's appointments. "I left all of my stuff back in New York." Something that resembles a poodle skin lies on the floor. A memento of Revson's childhood? "No, just plastic," he says. Indeed, there is an overwhelming atmosphere of sterility about the place: the few books and records could have been purchased by a cunning sixth-grader: Hemingway and Updike; Sergio Mendes and José Feliciano: words and music to seduce lovely but low-IQ girls by. Revson apologizes: "I really don't have the time to do what I'd like to do."

Ah, but there in the midst of the trophies and the nonbooks, uttering its magnificent message in small print—in a voice much louder than a dozen Felicianos—lies the pillbox, EVERYTHING IS SWEETENED BY RISK. This is the coda not only of the counterphobe but of the existentialist as well. Revson took no risks to speak of during the last Can-Am race of the season at nearby Riverside. Realizing that he had only to finish sixth or better in the 28-car field to become the first American Can-Am champ, Revson let his teammate, Denny Hulme, run away with the race. He also knew that with this successful season behind him he would get back to where he once belonged: Grand Prix racing. On the strength of his performance in the Can-Ams, Peter Revson has ceased to be a mere backup driver. This year he will drive a McLaren on the Formula I circuit.

Of course the Grand Prix competition will be far tougher for Revson than the Can-Ams, where in 1971 only his teammate, Hulme, and Jackie Stewart in Carl Haas' L&M Lola offered any serious trouble. Formula I is currently seeded with the best brood of young drivers in any kind of racing—Ronnie Peterson, Emerson Fittipaldi, Francois Cevert, Howden Ganley—as well as old masters like Stewart and Jacky Ickx. Over the past two seasons it has also claimed the lives of many men whom Revson ran with as a beginner more than a decade ago: Gerhard Mitter, Jochen Rindt, Bruce McLaren, Piers Courage, Pedro Rodríguez, Jo Siffert. To that extent, Grand Prix has been tougher even than Indy in recent seasons. But the prospects do not leave Revson quivering in his sneakers. In experience, if not in consistency, which he has yet to prove, Revson stands in the top ranks of international road racing. Nor does he defer to the current king. In his acceptance speech during the Can-Am awards at Riverside, he said of Stewart: "Jackie's just a little feller, but he's a hard tryer."

Revson has grown too old and wise, now, to entertain those romantic dreams of instant glory that motivate many young drivers. His brother and his friends have died at the hands of the moment. He seems to be searching for the ultimate, honest matchup—the fair competition that would settle once and for all his ranking among the men with whom he shares a vocation. "It's not my idea," he said in a reflective moment, "but wouldn't it be great if some sponsor would put up, say, a dozen cars—each of them prepared the same way, with the same amount of attention. Then let the 12 best road racers in the world draw numbers from a hat for each car. Then they take off, through a series of a dozen races. Best man wins...."

Looking up through blue cigar smoke, Revson's eyes announce the ultimate victor.