The horrifying wreck that claimed the life of two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon during a race in Las Vegas last month serves as a grim reminder that auto racing and the possibility of death go hand in hand. But risk is an important part of what has always made the sport irresistible to drivers and fans alike. As humorist Dave Barry once put it, “Auto racing is boring except when a car is going at least 172 miles per hour upside down.’’
Michael Cannell’s exhilarating new book “The Limit: Life and Death on the 1961 Grand Prix Circuit’’ chronicles that risk through the lives of two legendary competitors vying for supremacy beneath the jealous eyes of a dark automotive overlord. Its pages are filled with tales of nationalistic ardor, devil-may-care bravura, and gallows humor. And there are wrecks. Grisly, spectacular, pyrotechnic wrecks.
Cannell begins his story at the penultimate and deciding race of the 1961 season at Monza, Italy, with German Wolfgang von Trips and American Phil Hill locked neck and neck in their quest for the Grand Prix Championship. The two were well acquainted as rivals and maintained a chilly friendship off the track. But Cannell wonderfully draws the rise of each driver over the proceeding chapters to illustrate how, temperamentally, the two men could not have been more different. “Like any great sports story, it was a pairing of opposites,’’ he writes.
The aristocratic, dashing von Trips was a bon vivant who Cannell says “drove with his nerves.’’ He felt most comfortable away from the track where men worshiped him and women - well, you know. Von Trips raced to feel brave, and although he was capable of brilliance behind the wheel, he was so inconsistent that he earned the nickname “Count von Crash.’’
Hill on the other hand was a solitary, anxious man, haunted by the estimated 33 percent survival rate Cannell claims Grand Prix drivers faced. On the track, however, he “drove with his head,’’ finishing about 80 percent of races he entered. “Most drivers,’’ Cannell says, “finished only half.’’
Although they started their careers on different continents, by 1961 Hill and von Trips were both members of the legendary Ferrari racing team headed by Enzo Ferrari. Compulsively clad in dark sunglasses and a trench coat, Ferrari had a reputation for building muscular, screaming race cars. Cannell writes, “Winning, Ferrari believed, was 80 percent ENGINE strength. ‘I build an engine,’ he told Der Spiegel years later, ‘and attach wheels to it.’ ’’ But Ferrari also had a black-hearted reputation for valuing his machines more than his drivers. Informed that one was killed in a race just shy of his wedding day, Ferrari casually replied, “What a pity. What about the car?’’
Cannell, a seasoned sports writer and a former editor at The New York Times, doesn’t reveal who wins until the end (and I won’t spoil it for you here) so “The Limit’’ reads like a thriller. And his breathless depictions of disaster will have you white-knuckling your armchair. “The hood spun loose and sliced through the crowd like a giant scythe, decapitating a row of spectators. The engine, suspension, and brakes followed in a hundred parts. A fireball of burning gasoline sprayed through the scene. Entire families died in a second.’’
But perhaps the biggest reward of “The Limit’’ is the insight Cannell provides into the mentality of racers. Let’s give the last word to Hill. “They try to put order into their lives by taking something dangerous, potentially chaotic, and imposing their order on it. It gives them worth. A racer believes he can make his deadly machine safe. He is playing God.’’John Wilwol, a writer living in Washington, can be reached at jpw1922@gmail .com.