’The Limit’ revisits a great auto racing rivalry
“The Limit: Life and Death on the 1961 Grand Prix Circuit” (Twelve), by Michael Cannell
Monday, November 14, 2011
A testosterone-fueled nonfiction book about auto racing in its bloody golden age, “The Limit” provides the drama and nostalgia of “Seabiscuit” and the body count of “Gladiator.” Its riveting, guy-centric story places readers behind the wheel as two vastly different drivers compete for Formula 1 glory.
Pulling a dramatic narrative from auto racing is tougher than it might seem. Hollywood’s efforts, for example, often sputter and come up short. In spite of stunning photography, “Grand Prix” (1966) tends to throttle down with the off-track action, particularly its strained love stories. “Le Mans” (1971) fails to find a strong dramatic center to complement its documentarylike approach.
“The Limit” avoids such hazards. With vivid and straight-on writing, journalist and author Michael Cannell explores the friction between drivers and owners, drivers and drivers, and drivers and their own psyches.
The lead-up to the book’s focal point, the 1961 Grand Prix title, is a compelling history of the era and its fascinating characters. Along the way Cannell explains just enough about engines and other mechanical matters to set the stage.
Due to safety initiatives and other changes, racing isn’t the deadly pursuit it once was. When the sport kicked back into high gear after World War II, death was common.
In the 1953 running of the 1,933-mile Carrera Panamericana, stretching from one end of Mexico to the other, 11 competitors died — as did six spectators who got too close to the over-the-road action.
It did not speak well of auto racing when, in 1955, a crash at Le Mans killed one driver and 83 spectators but didn’t end the season or the event.
Into this gladiatorlike world come the stars of “The Limit”: a quiet Southern California gearhead-turned-driver, Phil Hill, and a high-spirited German aristocrat, Count Wolfgang von Trips.
Hill’s driving skills developed faster than his nerves — watching a fellow driver burn to death after a wreck didn’t help his mental game. Von Trips earned the nickname “Count von Crash” for speed and daring that could easily send his car out of control. They were teammates as well as competitors for the 1961 championship series, which climaxed with the Italian Grand Prix, a race of triumph and horror.
In prose as fast and unadorned as an early Ferrari, Cannell rolls out an entertaining and exciting story on the way to the finish line.
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