Have you noticed how many people seem to be dropping off the twig lately?
Niki Lauda and Lee Iacocca to name two.
I got a bit worried thinking about this so I rang the old bloke to see if he was OK. “Are you alive?” I asked. “I think so,” the Sultan of Stepney replied in a croaky voice, making me more concerned. “But I had a big night at Nido in King William Street last night so I’m not sure. I only went there because John Lethlean, that motorbike-riding food critic of yours, said ‘the whole experience screams lusty, focused, with just the right level of discipline and raw yet educated culinary enthusiasm’.
“To be truthful it’s been a while since I had anything that could be described as a lusty experience but I made the mistake of getting stuck in to the tight aperitivo-heavy cocktail list after a few Coopers Sparklings.”
Michael McMichael, Lauda and Iacocca had a lot in common. They had, and Mick still has, a way with words that would put Bill Shakespeare to shame. Listen to Niki on motor racing: “You do things, you f..k people: it’s racing, you have to win. You have big rows, big arguments, you push. Anyone tells you different they’re full of shit.”
Lee was similarly robust when asked about the US: “We’ve got a gang of clueless bozos steering our ship of state right over a cliff.
“We’ve got corporate gangsters stealing us blind and we can’t even clean up after a hurricane much less build a hybrid car. But instead of getting mad, everyone sits around and nods their heads when the politicians say, ‘Stay the course’ … I hardly recognise this country any more.”
While all three had different backgrounds, they all encountered challenges on the way to the top (the top of Stepney Street in Mick’s case). While Niki came from a wealthy family, his family fought hard to keep him from racing. He put himself in debt (even taking out a life insurance policy in case he died); he pushed against the authorities and other drivers to improve safety. Ironically, it was Niki who nearly died in a crash that turned into a fireball. You can see on Youtube footage of the crash at the Nurburgring and the bravery of the other drivers, particularly Arturo Merzario, who pulled him out.
As Nico Rosberg describes it: “One of the Ferrari’s fuel tanks had ripped open, and a piece of wire catch-fencing had plucked Niki’s helmet off, leaving his head protected only by a fireproof balaclava. Following drivers tried to miss the wreck, but Brett Lunger and Harald Ertl were unable to.
“They, along with Arturo Merzario and Guy Edwards, leapt from their cars and ran to Lauda’s aid. There was no medical help immediately available, no time for worrying about possible neck injuries. Niki simply had to be got out of that fire. Lauda has always acknowledged a particular debt of gratitude to Merzario, for he it was who put his hands into the fire to release the seat belt buckle.
“It wasn’t easy,” Arturo says, “because Niki was obviously in agony, and straining hard against the belts, trying to get away from the flames. Thank God he lost consciousness. It was only when he relaxed I could free the buckle.”
Niki went into intensive care for five days because of the fumes he had breathed in. Thirty-nine days after the crash he drove again at Monza and finished fourth. Next year, in 1977, he won the world championship.
Lauda died in May.
Dave Gooding will be putting up for auction the Ferrari in which Niki won the 1975 F1 title at Pebble Beach next month. It has been beautifully restored and all mechanical components have been rebuilt. Yours for $10 million.
Iacocca’s parents were Italian immigrants. The Iacocca family started what is now a famous hot dog restaurant (Yocco’s). Lee, who died this week aged 94, started his career at Ford, made decisions by gut feel, like the Pinto and the Mustang, and became CEO in his forties. After frequent arguments with Henry Ford and the damage done to the company by the combustible Pinto, he was fired and moved to be CEO of Chrysler. A searing report by Mother Jones’s Mark Dowie describes how Iacocca argued forcefully that Volkswagen and the Japanese were going to capture the entire US subcompact market unless Ford put out its own alternative to the VW Beetle.
Former NASA safety chief Leslie Ball said: “The release to production of the Pinto was the most reprehensible decision in the history of American engineering.”
The Pinto’s fatal flaw was a fuel tank that caught fire in a rear-end crash. The car was probably only as bad as some others at the time but what caught the public attention was Ford’s legal argument about the cost benefit analysis of deaths vs the cost of making the Pinto safer. At least 27 Americans died in the $2000 compact.
Lee turned around Chrysler, started the celebrity CEO fad, starred in his own TV ads, wrote a bestseller and chaired the campaign to restore the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.