To me motor racing is afeeling, a feeling that beguiles the soul, and captures the imagination. Writing "The Ragged Edge", was my attempt to capture that feeling.
I first became interested in motor racing in the summer of 1963, when my father introduced me to the sport's highest expression–Grand Prix. All that first summer, I followed the sport religiously, with races in a host of European countries–from glamorous Monaco, to the wilds of southeast Belgium, to the ocean sands of the Netherlands, to the champagne region of France, to central England, to West Germany, to Milan, Italy, and finally, in the fall, across the Atlantic, to upstate New York, and on down to Mexico City. There was so much I didn't understand, but was drawn in by the brilliance of Jim Clark of Scotland, who won seven of ten races, to become the 1963 world champion.
I particularly appreciated the international flavor of the sport (reminding me of the Olympics), with drivers and racing teams representing a number of nations. I had to know more, and began an all-consuming study of the sport, starting with the drivers (three of whom were not only American, but came from my native state of California). I was also interested to learn that many of these drivers were well-read, refined and cultured individuals, mostly from well-to-do families. Most were English, who began their racing career as wealthy amateurs, competing not for money or fame, but for the sheer fun of it. Indeed, there was a spirt of friendship among them, that I found very appealing.
This spirit of amateurism that prevailed in England, prevailed on the Continent as well, where, after World War Two, money was in short supply. As with the drivers, many of the promoters who managed the sport were wealthy amateurs themselves. For drivers, moving up from the amateur ranks to Grand Prix Formula One, often depended upon getting someone to sponsor them, as opposed to having the requisite driving talent. As a result, Formula One in the 1960s was very much a mixed bag of gifted amateurs and semi-professionals. The little money that financed the teams was supplied mostly by oil and tire companies. The exception, of course, was Ferrari, which built luxury passenger cars to help finance the company's aggressive racing department. To compensate teams and drivers, the track promoters would put up what they called "starting money" to guarantee a full field of cars.
If they were paid at all, drivers were allotted a rather meager monthly salary of about $500 per month. On top of this they were compensated for their travel expenses. Other income came from starting money, winning races, plus a small stipend from sponsors.
Without a lot of money, little was done to insure driver safety. Many of the circuits were located far from major cities, and away from fully equipped medical facilities. Many of the European circuits were created prior to World War Two, consisted mostly of country roads, and were little changed from that time, even though the racing cars had become much faster.
Circuits such as the blindingly fast Spa-Francorchamps, located in the Belgium Ardennes, and the serpentine Nurburgring, located in the heart of the rolling Eifel Mountains of West Germany, offered little in the way of driver protection. Should a driver be unlucky enough to go off the road on either of these circuits, the chance of survival was quite low. Indeed, even if he should survive a crash, the unfortunate driver was likely to die in the ambulance on the way to the hospital, such was the distance to get there.
This was the world I discovered in 1963, a world mostly reported on by English journalists, who, in the spirit of amateurism, played down driver safety and the inevitable accidents, even the occasional driver death. Accidents were euphemistically reported as "shunts", and should a driver be killed, it would be buried deep inside the race report. Were the drivers brave, or merely foolhardy? Neither, they possessed such superior car control, and such large egos, that they believed they were invincible.
This spirit of amateurism was captured in 1966, when Hollywood producer John Frankenheimer commissioned a script, loaded up his cameras and film crew, and flew to Europe to make the highly idealized portrait of the sport, entitled "Grand Prix." While Frankenheimer cast a number of French, British and American actors, in leading roles, he also included a number of active racing drivers in various minor roles, or as extras. One of the film's most telling scenes captures the esprite-de-corps among these actual GP drivers, at a driver's meeting held prior to the start of the Belgium Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps. Ostensibly, the fictional driver meeting was called to debate whether or not to boycott the race, as rain was threatening, a truly frightening prospect on this dangerously fast circuit. True to form, they threw caution to the wind, and decided to race anyway; to disastrous results.
"Grand Prix" was a huge international success, that prompted me to write a more realistic story in my novel "The Ragged Edge."
For the first three years that I followed the sport, no F1 drivers were killed. That changed dramatically in 1968, when the great Jim Clark went off the road at the tree-line Hockenheim circuit, in Austria. Typical of the time, there were no guardrails to prevent an errant car from crashing into the woods, as Clark's had, which killed him instantly. The racing world was stunned, as was I. Chastened, I followed the sport with less enthusiasm, but was still determined to write a racing novel.
Jim Clark was replaced at the top of the sport by a fellow Scot–the charismatic Jackie Stewart. Deeply concerned with driver safety and demanding he be paid well for his services, Stewart would push for driver safety, and usher in a new era of true professionalism. Stewart would go on to win three world championships, and retire a wealthy man.
As preparation to writing my novel, I enrolled as a journalism major in college, believing that journalism would make me a better writer, as it had for Ernest Hemingway. While it did sharpen my writing skills considerably, the detached, facts-based reporting style of journalism, proved of little advantage when it came to writing fiction.
For the story setting, I chose the 1968 season, the year technology and Big Money began to transform the sport into what it is today.
Another part of my preparation was to reread all the race reports I had devoured as an impressionable teen, and to make a detailed study of the cars and how they functioned. I also traveled to Europe to see first-hand a number of the Grand Prix circuits. A fellow student from my journalism days, when learning I intended to write a racing novel, urged me to read Jackie Stewarts' "Faster–A Racer's Diary."
"Stewart puts you right inside the cockpit and shows you what it's like out there," he said. "Don't bother writing your novel until you've read Stewarts' book, or you're wasting your time." I did indeed read Stewarts' book, which very much helped with describing the racing action from the driver's point of view.
All well and good, except that when I actually sat down to write the story, I realized that my journalistic approach didn't work with writing fiction. There is a very big difference between the two forms of writing. To put it simply, with journalism, it's the facts that tell the story. With fiction, it's the characters that tell the story. It's the difference between telling, and showing. In Hollywood, this is called point-of-view story-telling. It was something I didn't know about, but learned to do over the course of several rewrites, that consumed about five years.
Of course, to make your story appealing, you must put your character on a quest, which was easy to do with motor racing, where the goal is to win races, and championships. More difficult perhaps, is to make your main character three-dimensional, and believable. While I struggled in early drafts to make my main character come alive, in time I learned that it's conflict that reveals character and makes him believable. While plotting the story, I thought the best way to do this was to create conflict between the team owner (Edward W. Garret), and the driver (John Wagner).
However, by introducing a third person into the story–love interest and sports journalist Susan Jennings, a more complex conflict became a part of the story, which surprised me. John Wagner, being a race car driver blind to everything but winning, was decidedly strong-willed. What I didn't expect was how strong-willed Susan Jennings would become. Early on, I introduced the idea that she objected to Wagner's sport as too dangerous for her liking. When they fall in love, this becomes a point of contention–she wants him to quit and marry her, which he promises to do after the racing season is over. However, as the story draws to a close, it becomes obvious to both of them, that Wagner loves his profession too much to just walk away
In the end, I have Wagner flying to her Chicago home, hoping to win her back. Readers often would asked me if they would get back together, and I always said yes, they would. However, having recently re-read the novel and realizing just how strong-willed both characters are, I'm now convinced that Susan has been too badly hurt, and is too strong minded, to ever consider taking Wagner back under any circumstance.