Over the summer, I sent out a question on Twitter from our @RACERmag account, asking our followers to name their favorite auto racing books. Then, last week, SPEED's Robin Miller listed 10 of his favorites. And now here we are at a great time of year to catch up on reading – as well as rummage around second-hand book stores or, to be more 21st century, scour the internet. Here are some recommendations, although it's by no means a comprehensive list.
Nor is it a series of book reviews, either. If the book gets mentioned, it's because I like it and this may spur you into researching it online and grabbing some good reading material for long flights or long evenings when there are, to quote Bruce Springsteen's ode to lame TV, 57 channels and nothing on.
It would seem I had a gaping void in my (wait for it) racing book collection by not having The Stainless Steel Carrot by Sylvia Wilkinson, and its recent re-publishing – with an added chapter – has made this much more readily available. It's the tale of John Morton's racing exploits but also offers an insight into both the typical struggle of a racecar driver and the racing scene in general in the early '70s. I've been told by many that it is an all-time classic; thanks to Robin, I now have a copy in my possession but I promised him I wouldn't open it until Christmas Day.
That goes too, for Fast Lines by Pete Lyons. His Can-Am book is as entertaining as it is comprehensive and gets regularly used in the RACER offices as a reference work, too, but in Fast Lines, Lyons gets to write about several racing series and drivers because it's a collection of 55 of his regular columns for Vintage Racecar magazine. That alone should be recommendation enough; His take on people and events is always interesting.
So I've started this column with recommendations for books I haven't read. Apologies. Moving on…Lyon's colleague at Vintage Racecar – and of course a former editor of RACER – is John Zimmermann, and he has to be commended for his book Dan Gurney's Eagle Racing Cars. If it's amazing that it took until 2007 for this topic to be covered properly, it was absolutely worth the wait, because JZ and Dan The Man have made this a must-have. David Bull Publishing, source of so many great racing books, has to take credit for the beautiful production. I hope Bull will also be the publisher of Mr. Gurney's forthcoming biography…
If Lyons' Can-Am is the essential book on that topic, its equivalent in sports car racing is Time and Two Seats by Janos Wimpfen, while in Indy car terms, read the work of Dick Wallen. Wallen has produced several publications – as well as some great DVDs – but his books on 1950s. '60s and '70s Indy car/Champ car racing are essential for those who want a race-by-race breakdown of each season. A contrasting approach is the anecdote-driven Trans-Am: The Pony Car Wars 1966-1972 by Dave Friedman. While there are results tables in the back, Friedman's text comprises mainly first-person quotes and stories from the participants themselves, and illustrated with great quality photos of wonderful cars and charismatic people. Any muscle car or sedan racing enthusiast will love this book.
The Autocourse annuals, both Formula 1 and (from 1993 until 2006) the CART and Champ Car ones, are comprehensive record books of the seasons. But let's bring to your attention two other books from the same stable. CART: The first 20 Years by Rick Shaffer, and The Official History of the Indianapolis 500 by Shaffer and IMS historian Donald Davidson, are treated with Bible-like reverence around here. Partly it's because they're well written, but partly it's because we've never found a factual error in either book. Shaffer and the increasingly legendary Davidson know what they're talking about and have a great eye for detail. I understand the “500” book is about to be re-published in updated form, which is a blessing because our office copies are looking increasingly tatty from use.
This column could have been dedicated entirely to racing biographies, for those make up a large part of my racing library – the real one and the dream one. And two titles released this year that I haven't yet seen are Bones Bourcier's Parnelli Jones biog and the autobiography of '50s Formula 1 ace Tony Brooks. People whose views I trust assure me that both books do justice to their topics, which is to say, they're both excellent. So if I wasn't writing this feature, I'd be writing my “Dear Santa…” letter for these two publications.
Brooks' rival and former teammate, Sir Stirling Moss, has been well documented in book form, but for my money, the most informative ones are My Cars, My Career which Moss produced with Doug Nye, and All my races with Alan Henry. Moss drove a vast array of cars in a vast array of categories – and of course, drove them to their limit – so if you only recently became a fan of racing, these books will multiply your knowledge of not only Moss himself, but racing in general. That is a good thing.
Gerald Donaldson's biographies of Gilles Villeneuve and James Hunt are utterly engrossing, well-researched and full of quotes and little details that were either not generally known at the time or had been forgotten. The same applies to Bob Gates' books on Bill Vukovich, Jim Hurtubise and Troy Ruttmann. Gates' ability to track down and extract informative quotes from his subjects' families and friends is quite unparalleled, in my opinion. Which is why I've sent him notes urging him to write about Rodger Ward and Jimmy Bryan.
If you're going to buy a book on Jim Clark – and frankly, I think you must – make it Jim Clark: Racing Legend by Eric Dymock. Unlike some biographies that have occurred with the cooperation of either the subject matter or his family, this book portrays a hero who was also very human, with idiosyncrasies, faults and failings. You'll find you respect Clark (and Dymock) even more by the end.
Same thing goes for To Hell and Back, Niki Lauda's biography. As you might imagine, he is painfully and often hilariously blunt about everyone and everything in his life – you wonder if former McLaren principal Ron Dennis needed therapy after he read it – but The Rat holds himself to the same standards, and always owns his screw-ups. This is the best racing autobiography I've ever read.
Mario Andretti, of course, is similarly forthright and, given that his career encompassed so many different categories of racing (like Moss, only more so), was so long and was so successful, his biography with Gordon Kirby is essential for every race enthusiasts' bookshelf. Not only is it beautifully illustrated, it is fastidiously researched. I believe it's a true story that, in the course of their archival archaeology, Kirby and Andretti “discovered” three wins that Mario himself had forgotten about!
Andretti, though, has long been regarded as Mr. Quotable in the racing world, and those around Mario want to talk about him, so I suspect the actual writing side of his biography came easy to Kirby. “All” he had to do was link together anecdote after anecdote. So perhaps GK's more admirable effort was extracting so many memories and so much information from Rick Mears to produce a similarly wonderful book – Rick Mears – Thanks. Given Rick's active role within Team Penske, he usually prefers talking about the present, but this book is a sharp reminder of why his views are still so relevant to every racer in every series. Throughout his career, Mears analyzed every situation in order to improve himself and he developed race smarts seemingly every race weekend. Little surprise that he is still so highly valued by Roger and the team: he's the absolute master.
Similarly smart, and a hell of a driver with a deep appreciation of the history of the sport was/is Bobby Rahal, and his biography by Kirby is full of interesting tales. But I'd love to see it updated with Bobby's take on the CART vs. IRL war and also his team ownership post-retirement. Come to think of it, I also hope Gordon can update his book about the Unser family. The last version (by GK, at least) ends in 1986. The family has had three more Indy 500 wins and two more Indy car championships since then!
The Unfair Advantage by Mark Donohue – co-written with Paul Van Valkenburgh – is one of the all-time classic racing books because it's so revealing about the mindset of an engineer-driver and is so matter-of-fact. But Michael Argetsinger's book Mark Donohue: Technical Excellence at Speed is such a great and comprehensive book too, I feel compelled to recommend both. I wonder if Argetsinger could be persuaded to do a similar job on the guy I always regarded as Donohue's spiritual successor, Al Holbert. Here's hoping.