Skip to main content
Original Issue

Easy rider rolls one in

Playing it cool wins the Grand Prix title for Emerson Fittipaldi

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√ßois Cevert, the promising French protégé 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√ºrburgring 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.

The surprise of the qualifying session involved none of the above-mentioned drivers. The pole went to Argentina's Carlos Reutemann in a Brabham, at 122.83 mph, with James Hunt, the goldilocked chauffeur of Britain's Lord Alexander Hesketh (SI, May 13), a slight tick of the watch behind. Scheckter sat in the third row just ahead of Fittipaldi, who sat just ahead of Regazzoni. Perfect. It looked like a whale of a drag race.

Frustrating as this situation must have been for the principals, it was heaven for the race crowd. Super weather—Indian summer skies, Bahamian breezes—brought in a whopping throng of 110,000. The Glen management provided all kinds of goodies, including a "Shadow showdown" between leading Can-Am drivers Jackie Oliver and George Follmer, with the latter romping off with the winner-take-all $10,000 prize.

There also was a neat little carnival, replete with Ferris wheel, to keep the rowdies amused. It didn't quite work: the day before the race the Bog People, a muddy breed who occupy a slough at the Glen, demanded, captured and burned a chartered bus, thus topping their destruction last year of a nifty new Porsche. The Brazilians who were on the bus escaped unscathed, but their luggage was fried black.

An added fillip was the presence of two new American entries in the realm of Grand Prix racing. Roger Penske of Philadelphia and Detroit was on hand with the slick new machine he plans to campaign full time next season. His trusty driver Mark Donohue came out of retirement to pilot it. "I'm out of shape," Donohue allowed after his seven-month layoff. "I can feel it in my arms and shoulders." He managed to qualify no better than the seventh row.

Much quicker was Mario Andretti in Parnelli Jones" new Formula I car. On the first day of qualifying Mario was far and away the fastest, clicking off a 122.54-mph average and breaking the track record. But in the final session he lost his rear brakes and crashed into the fence. After minor repairs, Andretti came back out but the magic was gone. He could not catch Reutemann and Hunt and ended up third on the starting grid. Nor was that the end of Mario's malaise. When the green flag flapped to start the race, with half a dozen helicopters hovering overhead like so many giant dragonflies and the starter resplendent in a violet suit and smoldering cigar, Andretti could not get his motor turning. He went out on the second lap.

The great drag race proved to be something of a drag. Reutemann blew into a lead that he never relinquished, with Hunt snuggled close against his tail pipes. Lauda's Ferrari came blasting out of the fifth grid position to take a tight third, followed by Carlos Pace of Brazil in the second Brabham, and then by the new, mature Jody Scheckter. Fittipaldi, who was probably more mature the day he was born, lay comfy-cozy in the sixth slot. Regazzoni unfortunately had feet of clay: he emerged through the first hard right-hander in ninth place.

Then came a stinging and disheartening tragedy of the sort that occasionally strikes these men and their fragile machines: on the 10th lap Helmut Koinigg, a 25-year-old Austrian, crashed into the so-called catch-fence. His car sliced under it and he died instantly, decapitated. Around the course, the other drivers drew upon their reservoirs of professionalism and carried on.

Ultimately, the beauty of the race was its domination, beginning to end, by three cars that wore not a single sponsorship decal. The two Brabhams—tall, loud and white as the Australian surf—were unmarred by commercialism, no doubt to Jack Brabham's financial disgust, but nonetheless to his credit. Hunt-Hesketh wore only the red and blue stripes favored by his Lordship; the rest of the car except for an Alexander Teddy bear on the wing, was as clean and white as the good baron's conscience.

Early dropouts included Andretti, Ickx and Denny Hulme, who was driving his last race. Poignantly, Hulme broke down in the boonies and had to hike in to retirement. It was a sad end to a strong career. World champion in 1967 and twice Can-Am champion, Hulme represented the tough underbelly of the world, Kiwi fashion, better than any antipodean driver since Brabham.

Reutemann and Hunt, meanwhile, remained locked in a pristine pursuit race, with less than a second separating them during the first half. Hunt, who had done the same thing in last year's U.S. Grand Prix with Ronnie Peterson ahead of him, must have been suffering from déj√† vu. Just as he had found himself incapable of passing the surly Swede, this time he held behind the Argentinian too late and too long. The pace proved too much, in more ways than one. After Reutemann had opened up a lead of more than nine seconds, Hunt's car began to flag and Carlos Pace whipped past him with only four laps to go for a Southern Hemisphere double.

Ah, but the wonder of it all was the performance of the old coffee head from S√£o Paulo. Motor racing, in spite of events like Indianapolis, is not really a grandstand business. Calm hearts, cool nerves and clear heads prevail. Fittipaldi needed nothing more; the failure by Regazzoni and a clear view of Scheckter's tail fin secured his second world championship. He drove no more than that, and no less.

Starting from the fourth row, Fittipaldi had moved to sixth place, right behind Scheckter by the third lap, quick enough for openers. When Regazzoni's suspension problems became unbearable, and Lauda laudably dropped back to block for his teammate, the Scheckter-Fittipaldi hookup moved up a notch. Fittipaldi kept the pressure on and by the halfway point in the race was laying fifth, a good enough spot from which to sneak in or strike fast. But it all became academic with less than 50 miles to go when a fuel pickup problem caused Scheckter's car to overheat. He steamed to a halt just past the pits.

When a friend later told him that it had been a good racing season anyway, Scheckter just shook his head. Maturely. And seriously. "No, it wasn't" he said. "I should have done better." Look out, tomorrow.

Perhaps this was not the Grand Prix that America had desired all these years. There was no drama of a higher order; only an ugly death and a championship decided by control. Yet those are the poles around which the sport revolves. In that sense, it was plenty good enough.