The only Grand Prix that I have ever seen was in the summer of 1973, courtesy of the Army Special Services.
If you were off duty they sometimes arranged day trips of the local areas. The German Grand Prix was to be at a fabled course called the Nurburgring. This course, built in the 1920s, was the longest closed circuit course by far, at 14 miles or so. Fourteen miles of terrifying sharp turns, long straights, and in one area a jump through the Eifel forest.
Racing great Jackie Stewart called the course The Green Hell, and the term stuck.
Anyway, on my appointed day, the German bus driver got to the course but being so big, could not find the grand stands.
Frantically looking for the entrance to the stands, with about 10 minutes to the start of the race, he suggested that we all just pick a part of the course to stand and watch the race. I found the inside of a sharp curve – the cars had slowed down to 80 mph or so, and just watched the race. When it started it seemed that you would wait some minutes – 7-10? and then hear a sound like a swarm of angry bees as those engines were turning 12,000 RPM or so. Around that corner they’d all swarm, then disappear for another 10 minutes.
As time went on, the cars became more spread out so you would see one or 2 at a time.
I was literally maybe 5′ from the edge of the track, separated only by a Cyclone fence and Armco barrier.
Racing was a lot more dangerous in those days. It was common to have some famous drivers die in any given year. And the Nurburgring was one of the most dangerous courses.
Just 3 years after this race, World Champion Niki Lauda would have a fiery crash at this same course. I can remember the news – he was not expected to live.
A priest gave him the last rites at the hospital.
…Yet he returned to racing just 40 days later – finishing fourth in the Italian Grand Prix. By the end of the race, his unhealed wounds had soaked his fireproof balaclava in blood. When he tried to remove the balaclava, he found it was stuck to his bandages, and had to resort to ripping it off in one go.
It was one of the bravest acts in the history of sport.
At the time, Lauda played down his condition. Later, in his disarmingly frank autobiography, he admitted he had been so scared he could hardly drive.
“I said then and later that I had conquered my fear quickly and cleanly,” Lauda wrote in To Hell And Back. “That was a lie. But it would have been foolish to play into the hands of my rivals by confirming my weakness. At Monza, I was rigid with fear.”
Lauda drove that weekend because he felt it was the “best thing” for his physical and mental well being. “Lying in bed ruminating about the ‘Ring would have finished me,” he said.
It was one of the bravest things I have witnessed…
His accident ended Formula 1 at the ‘Ring.
It’s a nice write up of him from the BBC.
Update 05/23/19: For me I will always remember Niki Lauda for the unbelievable courage he displayed just weeks after a priest gave him last rites – to driving again at Monza.
Here’s a nice interview of him from 2012 with BBC’s TopGear. He describes the burns he endured.
Here’s a picture of one of his Ferraris (year unknown) at the 2006 Monterey Historic Races