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Big Four of Grand Prix Lead the Charge at Palm Springs

December 05, 1985|PAUL DEAN | Times Staff Writer

PALM SPRINGS — They are four horsemen of the epochal years of grand prix motor racing in Europe.

Stirling Moss--virtuoso. Innes Ireland--rascal. Phil Hill--deceptive introvert. Dan Gurney--the dangerous grin.

They hold a synonymity with other name quartets of autosport in the late '50s and early '60s. Ferrari, Lotus, Jaguar and Mercedes. Le Mans, Monaco, Silverstone and the Nurburg ring. At all of these grande epreuve circuits, in any of those cars, Moss and Ireland of Great Britain and Hill and Gurney of the United States paced or chased each other for almost a dozen seasons.

They broke machines and their bones and marriages. They were called gods and matadors and gladiators addicted to adrenaline. They certainly drank their weight in Moet, shared a fraternalism that commonly rejected other drivers, mourned heavily and angrily for Hawthorne, Clark, Rindt, Collins, Trips and a dozen other young friends--while the public shook its head and whispered what was considered foregone: "If they live long enough . . . ." But they did live. Real legends will.

And they came here last week as grand past masters of the relatively new ceremony of vintage car racing; visiting lairds at a thundering two-day reappearance of their Brigadoon.

They raced through city streets. Just the way it used to be. They slipped in and out of cars that they had campaigned in 20 or more years ago. Formula One Ferraris and Lotuses in Italian red and British Racing Green because in yesteryears, wearing national colors, not John Player logos, was the dignified, nationalistic norm. Moss stroked a C-Type Jaguar--all streamlines and faired cockpit and a little Union Jack in case anybody forgot--that once was the fastest sports car on four patches of rubber down the Mulsanne straight at Le Mans.

They were slower than their primes, of course. A little creakier perhaps. So were the cars.

But no matter. Nor that this event (a first timer sponsored by the City of Palm Springs and its Chamber of Commerce and organized by the Vintage Auto Racing Assn.) was heavily cultivated and wisely constricted as a concession to community comfort and safety, ergo the future of the sport.

The course (a rectangular, six-block zip from Andreas Road to El Segundo, right to Amado and past the Deauville Fountain condos, etc.) really wasn't long enough to tire a beginning jogger towing his dog. Concrete berms and hay bales and monster plastic drums (the pear juice concentrate replaced by 55 gallons of water) created chicanes and a hairpin (more of a bent paper clip, actually) that kept entertainment to a maximum and aggression to a minimum.

"A Mickey Mouse circuit," Moss said. Ever the forthright English gentleman, never the fawning diplomat. "But fun . . . ideal for a high-speed semi-race."

No race ran longer than 15 laps. That was 10 miles. No shunt of less than a dozen bumps among more than 100 elderly cars produced much worse than a bent nose. Of car or driver.

All of which fell well within the structure and strictions of vintage car racing. Its majority preference is to run quickly and well, not brute fast and hairy. Speed is not the essential. Yesterday is. The sounds and sights and smells. The camaraderie. The characters:

Forced Retirement

Stirling Moss. There have been only two descriptions of this Englishman. He either was the greatest driver of all time, or was destined to become the greatest driver of all time. A barely survivable accident (his own pat description: "I was unconscious for one month, paralyzed for six.") in 1962 forced retirement before the world knew for sure about his greatness. But before the end, Moss had won the GP races of Britain, Italy, New Zealand, Monaco, Australia, Sweden, Holland, Argentina, South Africa, Austria. . . . Well, there were 494 entries and 222 victories, enough for immortality.

Now a successful London businessman and author, Moss, 56, continues to run cars and events he considers fun. Such as a Porsche in the recent Playboy Series of U.S. endurance races.

Innes Ireland. Despite the surname, he's a Scot who takes life much less seriously than his ladies and Glenfiddich malt whiskey. Ireland approaches driving the way most people run from a bull. Flat out, wherever there's a space, arms flailing, and escaping over the wall in the nick of time. And with yet another wonderful, hilarious anecdote in place.

Crash in the Tunnel

He drove for the Lotus works team, won the U.S. Grand Prix at Watkins Glen in 1961, had beaten Moss twice the previous year, placed fourth in the World Drivers Championship. His favorite yarn is of crashing a Lotus in the tunnel at Monte Carlo.

"I hit the wrong gear, everything froze as the car disintegrated and I went forward still strapped in the seat," he relates. With total relish. "I was the only driver ever to come out of the tunnel ahead of his car." Then the rasping laugh. "Your round, old boy."

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