Story by Paul Blaufuss. Photo courtesy Good Old Valves.
The party is about over. Here I am, sitting in my comfy chair. In a state of a ‘too much turkey – tryptophan induced’ semi coma. Most of our guests are in a similar state and headed home. Also I am regretting that second Manhattan. I am tired and ready for bed. But we are still not done talking racing.
One of the remaining tweenies at the party hit me with the ultimate poser: “Mr. Paul….who was the greatest driver of all time?” Not so simple of a question.
As the lovely Queen B. and I ushered all the guests out the front door, the embers still crackled in the fire place. I knew I could not sleep again until I solved this puzzle.
Who is the greatest driver of all time?
It is perhaps a bit of an impossible question to answer. My racing consciousness began sometime around 1970. So I cannot judge those who came before. I cannot judge Fangio, Jo Bonnier, Jack Brabham, John Fitch, Stirling Moss, John Surtees, Jim Clark, or Graham Hill. I never saw Phil Hill and Hans Stuck the elder. I was not yet on this earth to see Ray Harroun, Eddie Sachs, Gaston Chevrolet, Louis Meyer, Wilbur Shaw, Maury Rose, nor Bill Vukovich. I wish I could have seen them all wheel it around Indy.
And I wish I could have been there for the greats of the early years of NASCAR. Lee Petty, Fireball, Ned, Junior, and the Flock brothers.
There have been so many greats. How can one decide who was best?
I can only judge by those I have seen. I have no choice but to begin when my memories started, and that narrows down the list. But it is still not an easy question.
How do I judge the various racing disciplines against each other? Formula 1 vs Indy? Oval trackers vs. road racers? Endurance vs. sprint drivers? Open wheel vs. sedans vs. stockers vs. sports cars? And how do drag racers figure in to the ‘best of all time’ recipe?
How do we judge the old vs. young, and competing in vastly different equipment? I would love to see a 1970s Can Am era driver in his prime take a modern prototype around Le Mans. (What kind of movie could Steve McQueen have made about that?) I would love to see Jackie in a modern McLaren, or Lewis in an Auto Union. I suppose we could only compare if there should someday be an ultimate IROC in the great beyond, where all the greats could display their talents equally.
And the decision cannot be based on personal preference. We all have favorite drivers. Personally, I always was drawn to drivers who were analytic; who let their driving do their talking. I have never cared for show boaters. However I cannot always honestly admit that my favorite drivers would qualify as greatest of all time.
My head is spinning and I am getting sleepy. The Manhattans are taking their toll.
So again, I fall back to the basic question: how do we measure drivers from different eras, in different styles of racing, in different levels of equipment, to determine who was the best there has ever been? What criteria can help decide this puzzle?
Is it longevity? (Think of Kinser, Force, and Petty.) That certainly may be one major factor. But is simple length of a career, sometimes hanging on for a long period, achieving average results while being provided top level equipment, a fair indicator of ability? I do not think that alone can quality one as the greatest of all time.
Should race wins be a primary test? That is certainly a valid measure as well. But again, how much weight should that be given? I don’t know. Many current F1 stars have broken records for race wins. However, can I say that any of the current crop of F1 drivers are top drivers of all time? In my mind, no. All too to many times today, winning drivers are not the best drivers on their own team. The greatest drivers of all time should not be routinely bested by their teammates. And in the current state of technologic racing, often times drivers have to compete against only one or maybe two other teams.
Back in my day, 20 drivers or more had legitimate shots at winning any given F1 race. Modern race records are often diluted. So sorry Lewis, Nico, and Sebastian; you do not come close to making the cut. I’ll take Jackie and Niki any day.
It’s really getting late. I am really tired; my head is hurting….sleepy.
Drivers who drove and won in various types of cars and competition should be considered- Donohue, Foyt, Andretti, and Montoya, for example. But does simply having the opportunity to compete in various racing formats in top equipment qualify one for consideration as the greatest of all time?
What about the showmen who always wanted to put on a great spectacle for the fans? Jungle Jim? Or those who treated fans with so much class and respect? Petty, Holbert, Force? How should the ‘entertainers’ get consideration?
Should we measure greatness by those who exceeded the ability of their cars? I think of Senna, David Pearson, Villeneuve, Rick Mears, or Kyle Busch in the modern day. Drivers who subjectively seemed to meet and exceed the limits of their cars’ ability should be considered somehow.
Really feeling sleepy now …. Too much partying……
Or perhaps those drivers who approached racing with an analytic perspective; who seemed to out think or out strategize their opponents? I think of Lauda, Prost, Kenseth, or Waltrip ……
Can we measure greatness by the ‘eyeball test’? Which drivers simply appeared to possess skills beyond that of their competition? Those drivers who simply inspired awe? Villeneuve (Gilles not Jacques), Cevert, Richmond, Senna?
Everyone has now gone home and gone to bed.
I am really, really feeling sleepy now. I finally think I have it yawn all figured ….yawn ….yawn …… ok here it is …….
……the greatest driver of all time is……..