Looking for a book to add to your summer reading list? How about a racing novel? Chances are you’ve never read one before, and yet a number of very good authors have written one, from Robert Daley--whose books have made the New York Times’ best seller list--to Nora Roberts, the queen of romance novels, to Sci-Fi writer John Tomerlin, to ex-Grand Prix driver Hans Ruesch.
What is a racing novel? A racing novel is any story with motor racing as a backdrop. Below are 12 that have my stamp of approval, in four categories: adult fiction, mystery, romance, and juvenile/young adult. All are available via the internet as new, used or e-book. I’ve listed alphabetically by author’s last name.
THE FAST ONE, by Robert Daley (1978) Adult Fiction -- Competition becomes personal as Alex Cavelli and Jack Blakemore compete for an 18-year-old American girl--Cavelli for her body and Blakemore for her affection. The more restrained Blakemore resists Cavelli's on-track challenges until the 24 Hours of Le Mans, where Cavelli pushes him too far in the wee hours of the morning. Before becoming America's foremost cop novelist, Robert Daley covered international motor racing for the New York Times (1958-63) and wrote two fine nonfiction books about the sport, "Cars at Speed" and "The Cruel Sport," the latter featuring his dramatic black-and-white photography. Not surprisingly, Daley's only racing novel is set in this time (ostensibly 1960), and the main characters bear strong resemblance to drivers he knew personally and wrote about: Cavelli to Marquis Alfonso de Portago of Spain, and Blakemore to America's first world champion, Phil Hill. Daley has had over ten books on the New York Times’ best-seller. (available as e-book)
FEVER HEAT, by Henry Gregor Felsen (1954) Adult Fiction -- Cynical stock car driver Ace Jones arrives in a small midwestern town and faster than you can say “hoodwinked” he takes over the local garage and the local speedway. But the rubes are on to him and in no time he’s up to his elbows in trouble. He wins the heart of an attractive widow whose husband died in a mysterious crash at the speedway, only to discover that she plotted her husband’s death and may be plotting his. If this sounds like another cheesy dime store novel, it isn’t. The author understands small-town life where the darkest secrets are public knowledge. He does a masterful job of drawing the reader into the fractious world of jalopy racing where on balmy Saturday evenings the air is thick with the stink of gasoline fumes and the sweat of desperate men spending money they don’t have on cars that don’t have a prayer of winning. It’s a world that still exists today in small towns across America, of three-eights-mile bullrings that produced the likes of A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti and several of today’s NASCAR champions, including Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. A prolific writer, Felsen wrote over 60 books, many of them juvenile/young adult fiction. (available as new paperback)
SUNDAY’S DUST, by William Campbell Gault (1966) Juvenile/Young Adult -- It's 1929, and straight-eight Millers and Duesenbergs reign supreme on dirt tracks across America. Enter the four-cylinder Conte Comet, driver Tony Conte, and "pit monkeys" Denny Dugan and Greg Ludington. Fresh out of high school, they barnstorm the MSRA circuit and learn the price of winning is high indeed. Written for juvenile/young adult readership but more realistic and down-to-earth than some adult racing novels I've read. William Campbell Gault, better known today for his Brock Callahan Mysteries, has a genuine passion for cars, as evident by the words he put in the mouth of one of his characters: "I love automobiles. I love the way they move, the way they sound, the way they look, the way smell." Amen to that. (available as used book)
OUT OF CONTROL, by Dan Gerber (1974) Adult Fiction -- Roger Swain has reached the top: he drives for a world-class racing team, he has a beautiful wife named Carrie and, as the story begins, he's just won his first big-time Can-Am race. But he's not a happy camper. He hates life on the road, he no longer loves his wife, and his dream of becoming a champion race car driver has been replaced with dreams of hunting and fishing in upper Michigan. An old college buddy named Frank shows up, and while Roger is out testing cars his old college buddy beds down Carrie. Roger finds out, goes on a drinking binge, and while suffering from a world-class hangover, is seduced by a lovely blonde Englishwoman. The story concludes at the roller-coaster Mosport circuit near Toronto, where Roger is favored to win the Can-Am championship. Author Dan Gerber once raced Mustang GT350s and Cobra-Fords for the legendary Carroll Shelby, which his writing conveys in masterfully drawn racing scenes. Today, Gerber is better known for writing poetry. (available as e-book)
GRAND PRIX MONACO, by Jeffrey Ashford (1968) Juvenile/Young Adult-- Before becoming one of England’s foremost mystery writes, Jeffrey Ashford (real name: Roderic Jeffries) wrote a series of racing novels of which “Grand Prix Monaco” was the first. Written for adult readership in England, Jeffries’ American publisher released the books in the States as juvenile/young adult fiction. The main character in the series is Dick Knox. In “Grand Prix Monaco” Knox is a rising star whose career nearly ends when he tangles with defending World Champion Guido Paradusa in a Formula 2 race, and winds up convalescing in a hospital. The two meet again at Monaco where Knox drives a clapped-out Cooper while Paradusa drives the latest Ferrari. The heart of the story is not the inevitable showdown between the two, but the race weekend itself: ceaseless preparation of the temperamental machines, the endless quest for more speed, and nerves frayed form pushing the envelope on Monaco’s mean streets. (available as used book)
THE BOONDOCKS, by Desmond Lowden (1972) Mystery -- Formula One team owner Howard Bickford, a 40-something womanizer and boozer, is put on the run by a strange man with a burned face who is trying to kill him and is somehow connected with his driver Frank Riley. “The boondocks,” Riley tells Bickford, “is that grey bloody desolate country beyond the track. You spin off in the boondocks, and it’s just a few yards from where you should be, but you’re in dead trouble out there.” It’s soon familiar territory to both. Atmosphere, humor, in-your-face racing scenes, and characters that walk off the page. Desmond Lowden, a British screenplay writer for both television and film, knows his racing stuff. While working on a first-draft of “The Boondocks” he spent the summer traveling the F1 circuit with Team McLaren. His description of driver Frank Riley’s attempts to master the blindingly-fast, downhill Burnenville curve in the Belgian Ardennes is spine tingling. (available as used book)
STAND ON IT, by William Neely and Bob Ottum (1973) Adult Fiction -- The life and bizarre times of racer Stroker Ace. "Stand On It" has little plot and is really only a series of funny stories and anecdotes about a redneck Indy racer and his two pals--his chief mechanic and a tire engineer--who head south to take on NASCAR and discover their brand of carousing and womanizing, fisticuffs and rental-car abuse meshes perfectly with the good old boys' brand of hard-charging and harder-playing. Read Bill Neely's 1983 biography of A. J.Foyt ("A. J.: My Life as America's Greatest Race Car Driver") and you'll run across many of these same stories and anecdotes, told here almost verbatim. "Stand On It" is wise in the ways of the racing world and very funny. William Neely worked for Goodyear’s racing division as public relations director while Bob Ottum wrote for Sports Illustrated. They laughed themselves silly writing this novel. The fact that the stories are all true makes it even funnier. (available as new paperback)
LE MANS 24, Denne Bart Petitclerc (1971) Adult Fiction -- A cloud hangs over Chris Breslin as he prepares for the annual Le Mans 24 Hour race. He’s still recovering from an accident, he has a new girlfriend with problems he’s only now learning about, and he’s driving an untested car against the reliable and extremely fast Porsches and Ferraris. And he keeps trading sullen looks with the German driver who’s a tad quicker and favored to win. In the race, Breslin finds himself three laps down with four hours to go. When he pits for a splash of fuel and fresh tires, he learns his girlfriend has left him. Novelist/screenwriter Petitclerc writes passionately about the annual French classic: the slow days leading up to the start, the prevailing carnival atmosphere during the 24-hour event, and the sights and sounds of brutal five-liter machines pushed to the limit around the 8.4-mile Le Mans circuit. Petitclerc wrote the original screenplay for “Le Mans” which actor Steve McQueen rejected in favor of his own plotless script. “Le Mans 24” fills in the gaps and tells what became of the McQueen character after the race. Petitclerc was a protege of Ernest Hemingway and spent most of his career in television. “Then Came Bronson” was one of his creations. (available as new paperback)
HEART’S VICTORY, by Nora Roberts (1982) Romance -- Having written 80-plus romance novels, published in 19 languages, who's to say Nora Roberts can't try her hand at motor racing? As far as the racing goes, "Heart's Victory" is pretty much spot on, and more believable than several racing novels I've read over the years, with plausible action at Indianapolis, Monaco, Monza, and Watkins Glen. The main character, Cynthia Fox, who answers to the name of Foxy (don't you want to choke?), is drop-dead gorgeous, and madly in love with rich, handsome, mysterious Lance Matthews, but she won't admit it to anyone, least of all herself. Matthews owns the team for whom Cynthia's--I mean Foxy's--dutiful older brother Kirk is employed as racing driver. The first half of the novel follows the trio from race to race, Foxy photographing races for a New York magazine, Kirk dutifully winning races, and Lance appearing every so often to set Foxy's young and confused heart all a flutter. At Watkins Glen, Kirk is seriously hurt in a crash. Foxy's young and confused heart is confused even more. To make sense of things, she weds Lance in a rushed ceremony and spends the second half of the novel wondering if she made a mistake. Sorry, but you'll have to read the book to find out how the story ends. (available as e-book)
THE RACER, by Hans Ruesch (1953) Adult Fiction -- The opening race scene, of the Mille Miglia, may be the best ever written. It’s the early 1930s, and the author puts the reader in the hard, cramped seat of a Alfa Romeo 6C, half-flying down narrow roads of loose gravel, jarred to the bone by potholes and bumps, numb from endless hours of wind, noise, and fatigue. Erich Lester wins Italy’s grueling 1000-mile road race but discovers it means nothing to the factory teams that control the destinies of drivers. No matter. Lester has determination that would make A.J. Foyt blush. He signs on as a reserve, disobeys team orders, double-crosses friends, wins a string of races, and discovers it’s lonely at the top. When it came to international motor racing, Swiss-born Ruesch knew his stuff--he won the 1936 British Grand Prix. After retiring from racing, he wrote several books before becoming the world’s leading spokesman against vivisection. “The Racers” motion picture starring Kirk Douglas is based loosely on Ruesch’s novel. (available as used book)
CHALLENGE THE WIND, by John Tomerlin (1966) Adult Fiction -- California racer Pete Langley signs with Emile Volante--France’s answer to Enzo Ferrari--wins lots of races and moves in with Marcienne Herschell, a European society woman 10 years his senior. After a while he becomes disenchanted with the controlling and manipulative Emile Volante and life among Europe’s idle rich. When his friend and teammate is killed in a violent crash, he blames Volante, quits the team, and walks out on Herschell. He signs with an independent team and sees his career spin off course. “Challenge the Wind” is the type of novel Ernest Hemingway might have written had he attended motor races in the Ardennes instead of bullfights in Madrid. Author John Tomerlin spent a year in Europe researching the sport, traveling to all the circuits, from colorful Monaco to frightful Monza. His resume includes screenplays for the Twilight Zone television series and the original Star Trek series, and a seat at the table of California science fiction writers. (available as e-book)
ON THE 7th DAY GOD CREATED THE CHEVROLET, by Sylvia Wilkinson (1993) Adult Fiction -- Footloose Tom Pate leaves behind the North Carolina farm where he was raised, abandons his illegitimate son, endures setbacks and indignities that would break a less-determined man, all to become a stock-car racing hero. The real hero of the story--and I'm not certain this was the author's intent--is Tom's kid brother Zack. Zack is the responsible one in the family, who cleans up Tom's messes and becomes surrogate father to his older brother's son. This is a novel with grease under its nails, with a supporting cast of mechanics and garage owners who tell off-color jokes, deliver moonshine whiskey when money runs out, and exhibit a wonderfully brutal and touching humanity. It was after writing the non-fiction “Dirt Tracks to Glory” that Sylvia Wilkinson got the idea to write the novel. The characters and the terrain are in her blood. She was raised in North Carolina, the heart and soul of NASCAR racing. (available as e-book)
I would be remiss if I didn’t include my novel:
THE RAGGED EDGE, by Richard Nisley (1999) Adult Fiction -- John Wagner is running after the Grand Prix world championship he seems destined not to win, and away from a bad marriage he’s been trying to forget. At the age most racing drivers are planning their retirement, he wins a string of races and falls in love with a magazine journalist named Susan, who’s writing a story about him. Then, like a race car that spins off course, he’s fired for disobeying team orders, Susan leaves him, and he’s confronted with the wife and son he left long ago. That’s the plot. What do critics say? “A remarkable job of writing, and a pleasure to read. I didn’t want the story to end.” -- Robert Daley, author (“Prince of the City,” “Target Blue,” “To Kill a Cop,” “The Fast One,” etc.). “This is bloody good stuff and absolutely authentic. Nisley has accurately captured an era: the cars, the circuits, and the drivers. A fabulous book.” -- Derek Bell, five-time winner Le Mans 24-Hour. “The psychological make-up of the main character is intriguing. ‘The Ragged Edge’ is a winner.” -- Lynn Wineland, editor emeritus, ROD & CUSTOM magazine. “I enjoyed the experience, and I was entertained.” -- Danny Ongais, race driver (F1 and Indy Car driver). “I like the way the romantic relationship turned out. We are left to draw our own conclusions. That way the story is like life, it doesn’t really end.” -- Linda Gebhardt, business consultant and airplane pilot. “I’ve tried and failed writing a racing novel, so I know all the pitfalls . . . you’re story rings true.” -- Michael Keyser, race driver and author (‘Steve McQueen and the making of ‘Le Mans’”). (“The Ragged Edge” is available as new paperback or e-book)