The Story Behind Rush Part 1: James Hunt, One of A Kind.

As many of you know  the movie “Rush” premieres on September  27th.  The movie tells the story of the two men who made the 1976 Formula 1 season arguably the greatest ever.  James Hunt and Niki Lauda’s World Championship fight was simply put, extraordinary.  They were as different as they were fast and their rivalry defined the decade.  Over the next 2 weeks I will dive into the season to tell their story up to and through the 1976 season.  Since the movie is based on real events consider this your 1 and only spoiler alert.

Part 1:  The Men Behind the Rivalry, James Hunt.

Frank Sinatra’s classic “My Way” might have well been written about James Hunt.  No matter what he was doing he was going to do it his way and everyone else was simply going to have to deal with it.  On several occasions Hunt got into fist fights with other drivers and Marshalls.  Hunt only knew one speed in life and racing and it was fast.  Good looking, big personality, charming and prone to unconventional behavior Hunt was hugely popular among the general public.  He was a commanding presence anywhere he went.  Hunt was well spoken, had a deep voice and that British accent that you women seem to go gaga over.  Hunt was always the life of the party.  He smoked 40 cigarettes a day, drank heavily, and did drugs on occasion.  Hunt went from one beautiful girlfriend to another.  Eventually Marrying one, a Fashion Model named Suzy who would eventually leave him for an actor named Richard Burton.  Through it all one thing remained constant, his will to win, will to be the best, will to fulfill his dream of becoming Formula 1 World Champion.

early days james huntBorn August 29th 1947 James Simon Wallis Hunt was the 2nd of 6 children born to Sue and Wallis Hunt.   Wallis, a stockbroker and Sue were both raised in strict Victorian environments and strived to raise their children in a similar manner.  Unfortunately for them James was prone to great fits of anger and rebellion.  According to his parents James started smoking at the age of 10.  They tried to make him stop but their efforts met staunch resistance and ultimately failed.  In his teenage years James was an excellent athlete, playing Cricket, Soccer, Tennis and Squash.  The latter 2 he taught himself to play and perform at a high level.  James was actually quite sensitive as a child expressing compassion for animals, dogs and birds in particular.  This would lead to a desire to be a Doctor.    Could you imagine a man like Hunt as a Doctor?  How would he deal with patients, especially if it was a good looking woman?  Couldn’t

you just see him saying, “Well miss you are in good health, but just to be safe I recommend you start smoking a pack of cigarettes a day and wash it down with a bottle of gin.  Though not entirely necessary we should also sleep together right now.  Again, just to be safe.”  It seems utterly ridiculous, and would have deprived the world the chance to see him do what he was born to, drive a race car.

James said his life “really began” 7 days after his 17th birthday upon passing his driving test.   1 Year later James was invited by a friend to a club motor racing event at the Snetterton circuit in Norfolk England.  This was an event that would forever change the course of James’ life.  He would later go on to say, “It was instant commitment.  Motor racing was something impossibly remote… but here was something within reach of a mere mortal.”

lauda and hunt

James almost immediately cancelled all plans to become a Doctor to peruse the dream to become World Champion.  This once again disappointed his parents, but James would not budge.  His parents flat out refused to support James’ “foolish” Formula 1 dream.  James bought a beat up old Min, then spent the next 2 years began saving all of his money to prepare it for club racing.  On the day James had planned to be his first race he failed pre-race inspection for having a lawn chair for a driver’s seat.   Undeterred James soldiered on, eventually finding himself in the seat of a Formula Ford.  James had an extremely aggressive driving style, constantly on the limit and often times past it.  This driving style lead to him being extremely fast, briefly, often crashing out of races.  In one instance James crashed his car into a nearby lake.  Many think he would have drowned had he been wearing the required seat belts.  Always the Rebel James was racing without any seat belts as he couldn’t afford to purchase them.  See kids not wearing seat belts saves lives.  Ok, so not really, but could you imagine one of the greatest racing drivers of all time dying before it all began because of a seat belt?

Crashing was not an uncommon event in Hunt’s early racing career.    In those early days he really did have the Ricky Bobby mantra of “If you ain’t first, you’re last”.   The frequency and spectacular nature of his accidents while driving Formula 3 cars earned him the dubious “Hunt the Stunt”.  Eventually Hunt began to crash less and win some races.  Weirdly Hunt would often throw up before races, and was known to shake in the car so violently he would shake the very car itself.  This lead to an extremely dangerous mixture of adrenaline and testosterone .  Hunt was among the hardest chargers but his races would either end in victory or in another accident. In addition, James Had a reputation as a wild man.  For these reasons many believed he would never have a future in Formula 1.  It took a man equally as brash as himself to get Hunt through the door and into Formula 1.  A man Hunt would call “The Good Lord”.

hesketh and huntLord Alexander Hesketh was a young, wealthy British Aristocrat who spent enormous amounts of money for his own personal entertainment. Hesketh was almost completely ignorant to the mechanical side of cars and motor racing in general yet despite this he decided to amuse himself by starting his own racing team (Sure why not, its only money right?).  Hesketh then hired Hunt to be his driver and the partnership that would get James Hunt to Formula 1 was formed.  Hesketh Racing had limited success in Formula 3 and Formula 2.  They were more well known for outlandish parties and living in excess.  They were said to consume as much champagne as their cars consumed fuel.  They seemingly had more beautiful women in the garage than mechanics working on the cars.  An environment that must have seemed like heaven to Hunt.  Though they weren’t the most successful outfit and they were seen as a joke by the Formula 1 community Hesketh decided to make the jump to formula 1, taking his team and Hunt with him.

James_Hunt_with_Hesketh (1)Though originally seen as nothing more than a traveling party Hesketh Racing and Hunt earned begrudging respect of their peers when Hunt defeated Ferrari and their ace driver Niki Lauda in the 1975 Dutch Grand Prix.  The victory however did not launch Hesketh Racing into a real World Championship contender.  At the end of the 1975 season “The Good Lord” decided he no longer wanted to go motor racing and pulled out of the sport, leaving Hunt without a ride and seemingly no prospects.  At the final hour just before the start of the 1976 Season, Emerson Fittipaldi unexpectedly decided to leave McLaren.  With a seat open and almost no time until the start of the season McLaren took a chance and hired the mercurial Britt James Hunt to be one of their drivers.   Hunt and McLaren, a partnership that seemed like it only end badly eventually went on to win one of the most famous World Championships in the History of Formula 1

Coming Next Monday, Part 2:  Niki Lauda The Ultimate Tactician.

Coming Next Friday, Part 3:  1976 F1 season, Down to the wire.

Written by Chad Kennedy

Chad burst from the womb wearing a racing suit and a helmet. Chad's passion for cars is in his very DNA. His father was a gear head and passed on the tradition through owning such classics as a '66 Mustang and a '59 Corvette all while taking him to various race tracks in the area. Chad likes to wrench on his rides whenever possible, forgoing the stealership. Chad is an avid motorsports fan with particular interest in endurance/sports car racing. When not online writing for Shifting Lanes, you can find him working at the local golf course teaching people how to swing or hooning a golf cart at impossible speeds.


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