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.
If there's a theme developing here, it's that I appear eager to spend other people's time writing books that I want to read. Very generous of me. But I feel safe in the assumption that there are thousands out there who'd agree with me. Similarly, I'm sure there are thousands who'd agree that Nigel Roebuck is motorsports' finest writer. Back in 1978, he wrote an excellent book with Mario Andretti at the end of his championship season, but the publication that defines Roebuck's ability to write memorably is Grand Prix Greats. As a 12-year-old kid who received the book for Christmas, I read it in one sitting, and literally overnight changed my foolish dreaming of becoming a racecar driver to dreaming of becoming a motorsports journalist. Still hoping.
Inside Formula 1, a compilation of Roebuck's “Fifth Columns” from the pages of AUTOSPORT magazine, cover 1980-'88, a period when there was even more political unrest within F1 than there is currently. But it also contains plenty of columns about drivers – Jones, Villeneuve, Prost, Rosberg and Senna are major touchstones – and they're beautifully sewn together by the author putting each one into context with an intro. Roebuck writes like Rick Mears drove and Nat King Cole sang: both supremely and also – and this is annoying for those in a similar trade – apparently effortlessly.
David Tremayne's Racers Apart is like Roebuck's Grand Prix Greats – portraits of heroes – but has a wider brief, incorporating Indy car stars as well as Land Speed and Water Speed Record heroes. It's excellent, but maybe Tremayne's greatest work is The Lost Generation. This is the heart-rending account of three British drivers of the '70s – Roger Williamson, Tony Brise and Tom Pryce – who made it to F1 but who each died (in grisly ways, you should be warned) over just a four-year period. All had World Championship-winning potential, and their deaths partly explain the UK's 16-year wait between James Hunt's and Nigel Mansell's title-winning seasons, hence the title for this remarkable book about a remarkably dark time for UK motorsport fans.
A truly great driver who was lost in the same era is Ronnie Peterson, and the book Ronnie Peterson – SuperSwede is an excellent book by Alan Henry. Make sure you get the later edition, that includes the '77 and '78 seasons. Henry, as well as editing Autocourse for many years was a prolific author, and in '81, produced a fine book called Flat-12: the racing career of Ferrari's 3-litre [sic] grand prix and sports cars, which gets j-u-s-t technical enough to intrigue without getting bogged down in cylinder head surface area-type detail. But Henry is the author of the longest racing book that I've ever read in one sitting: The Turbo Years: Grand Prix Racing's Battle For Power. I confess partly this is due to 1977-'88 being my favorite period of Formula 1, but it's also because the book has such an easy flow to it. Henry is one of the absolute best at dropping in a revealing anecdote that you'll remember for all time. His Fifty Famous Motor Races is a good read, too, one that you can dip in and out of. It also contains better grammar than that last sentence of mine.
One author who requires a bit more concentration is Chris Nixon, but you're rewarded because he was – and will likely remain – the absolute English-language authority on the Silver Arrows era of grand prix racing in the 1930s. (His biography on Bernd Rosemeyer is excellent too.) Nixon also always went to great lengths to ensure his books are full of great photographs, often previously unpublished. The legendary Denis Jenkinson, by contrast, never thought pictures should get in the way of his prose in Motor Sport magazine but, given who he was, he was probably right! If you want to know about “Jenks” who was, for almost two decades, Formula 1's most informed reporter and most candid writer, read Jenks: A Passion for Motorsport. But if you want to read his work, then three good places to start are The Racing Driver: The Theory and Practice of Fast Driving from 1959 and his books on the Maserati 250F and also Juan Manuel Fangio. But the great thing about Jenks is that he always stayed on top of the sport right up to his death in 1995, so pretty much anything by him is worth checking out.
Doug Nye is cut from the same cloth and his History of the Grand Prix Car volumes are authoritative works, simple as that. His BRM books are fascinating, too, but… Put it this way: if you know the basic outline of the BRM saga, there are times when you find yourself lurching between happiness, sadness and incredulity as you read Nye's comprehensive tale of the victories but also the wrong turns taken within that team.
One of RACER magazine's regular contributors, Mark Hughes, has become the journalistic authority on modern Formula 1. That's why we and AUTOSPORT use him. He has his arms around the human and technical aspect of the sport – and he understands how they're interwoven. But he also has as comprehensive a knowledge of the history of grand prix racing – right back to the original city-to-city races at the turn of the 20th century.
There are several good books to come from Hughes, I'm sure, but for now his prose is best highlighted by (the also beautifully photographed) Speed Addicts and also Crashed and Byrned. The latter is the sometimes hilarious, often frustrating, always fascinating tale of Irish racer Tommy Byrne who in junior formulas in the 1980s clearly possessed an Ayrton Senna-like talent. Unfortunately this potential was never realized because Byrne also had the social skills of Nell, the self-discipline of Charlie Sheen and avoided trouble as successfully as Laurel & Hardy.
Before this column becomes a book itself, let's wrap up by saying Preston Lerner's books on Scarab and Paul Newman are particularly good; Ed Hinton's Daytona is my favorite book on NASCAR because it lives up to my high expectations of his writing; Piero Taruffi's The Technique of Motor Racing is nostalgic yet still startlingly pertinent; Adam Cooper's Piers Courage biography is beautifully written and well researched; Smokey Yunick's Best Damn Garage In Town is a must-have, as are Eoin Young's biography of Bruce McLaren and Mike Lawrence's Colin Chapman, Wayward Genius; Peter Higham's International Motor Racing Guide is the best racing statistics book for covering several series; Burt S. Levy writes entertaining novels about the most evocative period road racing; Erik Arneson's tale of Mickey Thompson is grimly enthralling; and it's damn hard to pick my favorite Maurice Hamilton books, but let's go for his biogs of Ken Tyrrell and Sir Frank Williams, as they are hugely significant figures in F1 history. Speaking of Tyrrell reminds me – there have been several books by or about Sir Jackie Stewart, and all have their high points, yet Faster!, the tale of his 1971 season, is still the best.
The truth is, any of the authors mentioned in this article are the real deal as far as I'm concerned, and therefore all their books are worth at least investigating. The same is also true of certain photographers. Personally, I'm a big fan of pictorial books that have any of the following names on them – Rainer Schlegelmilch, Jesse Alexander, Karl Ludvigsen, Dave Friedman, Bernard Cahier and Pete Lyons.
I started this piece thinking I'd just draw attention to a few of my favorite books for those who want to delve into the history of the sport. Yet, as alluded to earlier, merely highlighting the best biographies/autobiographies is worth a column twice as big as this. I've also deliberately steered clear of marque histories or car-specific titles too (Michael Oliver's Lotus 49 book is fabulous) because I needed to have some parameters. Still, it would be to everyone's benefit if you add any worthy titles you feel I should have mentioned via the "add a comment" option below.
As a buyer, the websites of David Bull, Haynes and Veloce publishing houses are good starting points. For older titles, simply surf the net. And if you received money or Amazon.com vouchers in your Christmas stocking, I trust this piece has been of some assistance in how to blow it all…
Happy Holidays and thanks for reading RACER and RACER.com.