From timeless Formula 1 racecars to vintage American muscle cars and classic drag racing vehicles, motorsports boasts a host of four-wheeled legends that all classic car enthusiasts can appreciate, but it’s the prolific drivers behind the wheel that elevated the cars into true icons. Among the revered history of the sport, many names leap to mind, but five prolific vintage racecar drivers demand recognition most of all for their impact on the pastime and their dedication to the craft.
5 Racecar Drivers Who Impacted the Sport
Norman Graham Hill
Born February 15, 1929 in North London, British racing driver and team owner Graham Hill’s rise to the racetrack reflects the same need for speed drivers across the world have felt their first time behind the wheel. According to Formula 1, Hill first tried racing in 1953, taking a F3 car for a few laps around Brands Hatch motor circuit. As the story goes, he then bought a 1934 Morris, taught himself how to drive and finally got his license. He quit his job, collected unemployment and talked his way into a job as a mechanic at a racing school.
There, he eventually met Colin Chapman, an English design engineer, inventor, and builder in the automotive industry, and founder of Lotus Cars. Chapman hired Hill to work for Lotus and, in 1958, when Chapman decided his company was ready to truly test their mettle, Graham Hill became a Formula One driver.
In 1962, Hill collected a World Championship with wins in Holland, Germany, Italy and South Africa racing for British Racing Motors. He is also the only driver to win the “Triple Crown of Motorsport” : the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Indianapolis 500 and the Monaco Grand Prix
In 1973, Hill created his own Formula One team, Embassy Hill Racing, and raced with the vintage racecar Lola T370 designed custom for the team; but after failing to qualify for the 1975 Monaco Grand Prix, Hill finally retired after many years of renown.
“I am an artist. The track is my canvas, and the car is my brush,” he had said about his career.
Inspired by his uncle, a great driver in his own right, Pierre Bouillin adopted the racing name Levegh in memory of his uncle, who had allegedly rearranged the letters of his surname Velghe into a more French-sounding name.
The dedication of Levegh endured far beyond the legendary driver’s career. He had attended every running of Les Vingt-Quatre Heures, as he knew The 24 ours of Le Mans as a young man in Paris, since it began in 1923. He represented Lago-Talbot in four consecutive races (1951 to 1954), including the epic 1952 event. There, at the 24 Hours Of Le Mans, Levegh drove for the duration of the race on his own, and was well in the lead when a gear-shifting error blew his engine minutes from the finish line. Not only did the malfunction cost him the race, but also a place in the record books as the only driver ever to win Le Mans single-handed, though “close enough” has earned him eternal renown in the purveyors of racecar lore. Today, no contestant may drive for more than four hours in six, and 14 hours total out of the event, so no other driver may ever achieve that which Levegh was minutes shy of winning all on his own.
After driving Talbot for most of his career, Levegh drove the Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR, an iconic 2-seat sports race that Hall Of Fame Formula One driver Stirling Moss called, “the greatest sports racing car ever built — really an unbelievable machine.”
It was in that legendary racecar that Levegh passed away, on June 11 ,1955, during the infamous 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans automobile race, which took his life as well as 83 spectators when an accident during the race launched Levegh’s car into the air and its wreckage into the crowd.
Raised on a family farm in Goldsboro, North Carolina in the ‘40s and ‘50s, Malcolm Durham gained his mechanical experience working on tractors and later employed his skills to accelerate into a classic American rags-to-riches tale of motorsports renown.
Durham began racing in 1957 at Easy Street Dragstrip in Newton Grove with a 225-horsepower ’56 Chevy, a brand he would forever champion throughout his racing career. He even began working as a mechanic for Chevrolet, then in sales, which afforded him more time to race. He campaigned Chevy racecars under his own series of Super Stocks with the moniker Strip Blazer, beginning with a 427-cid Z-11 ’63 Chevy, one of only 57 ever built according to Robert Genat’s book, Vintage and Historic Drag Racers. Durham continued representing Chevy even after Chevrolet and the rest of General Motors pulled out of factory-supported in 1963.
Nicknamed “The D.C. Lip,” a title given to him by his public relations director, Durham was awarded before his death a Lifetime Achievement Award at NHRA’s Hot Rod Reunion, both for his prolific accomplishments behind the wheel as well as for challenging racial discrimination as drag racing’s first African-American superstar.
“Drag racing was and still is very exciting,” Durham said in a 2006 interview with NHRA months before he passed. “I am amazed at the current popularity of yesterday’s muscle cars and the level of participation in the nostalgia racing. Amazing. It says a lot about the growth of the sport.”
Even those who do not immediately recognize the name of the prolific racecar driver, anyone remotely aware of the motorsports culture has seen the lasting impact of Dan Gurney on racing everywhere with the iconic spray of champagne post-victory.
Born on April 13, 1931, Gurney first began racing when, after moving to California as a teenager, he quickly got caught up in the West Coast hot rod scene. At age 19, he built and raced a car that exceeded 130 miles per hour at the Bonneville Salt Flats, a timeless destination to set land speed records. He was discovered by Ferrari North American importer Luigi Chinetti who, after watching him finish second in the inaugural Riverside Grand Pix in 1957, invited Gurney to race at Le Mans in 1958.
Gurney was the first of three drivers to have won races in Sports Cars (1958), Formula One (1962), NASCAR (1963), and Indy cars (1967). According to All American Racers, Gurney drove in 312 races in 20 countries in 51 makes of cars (and also winning 51 of those competitions). Perhaps most enduring of all his deeds, Gurney started the motorsports trend of spraying champagne following a win in 1967, after winning the 24 Hours Of Le Mans together with racing partner A. J. Foyt. In that same year, Gurney won the Grand Prix of Belgium in a 416-horsepower American Eagle, which he had designed and built himself, becoming the first American in 46 years to win a world championship in an American car.
“Race driving is a form of brinkmanship, I suppose,” he told The New York Times in 1967. “First you use your judgment to determine where the brink is. Then you use your skill to approach the brink and stay at that point.
A self-described trouble-child from upstate New York, Shirley Muldowney has aptly earned the title the motorsports world has given her as the First Lady Of Drag Racing. Born June 19, 1940, Muldowney earned many firsts in her career, including the first woman to receive a license from the National Hot Rod Association to drive a Top Fuel dragster; the first person to win two and three Top Fuel titles, with a total of 18 NHRA national events, and Championship titles in 1977, 1980 and 1982; and more.
Muldowney began street racing in the 1950s in Schenectady, New York. When she was 16, she married 19-year-old Jack Muldowney, who eventually built her first dragster for her. She debuted her racing stripes in 1958 on the dragstrip of the Fonda Speedway, forever changing the world of racing with her fiery determination and defiance of gender expectations. She was bestowed such awards as an induction in the Automotive Hall Of Fame in 2005, as well as many more.
Though she pressed in an interview with Hot Rod Magazine in 2009 that her favorite car was the twin-engine dragster she competed in the U.S. Nationals at Indy with in 1970, fans and followers have said that her career truly launched with the purchase of her first nitro car from fellow racecar legend Connie Kalitta. Nicknamed the Bounty Hunter and the Bounty Huntress, the two competed together in the Funny Car racing class with her vintage 1972 Buttera Chassis Ford Mustang.
“A lot of competitors were ugly to me. What they didn’t realize was they were making it worse for themselves. The angrier they made me, the more pissed I was, the better I was in the car. Driving came naturally for me. I was not afraid or unready to deal with the unexpected. That’s where I think I had an edge on some other drivers, the new guys who came along every few years and many of the veterans, too. I could make a decision. Nobody held my hand,” she said to Hot Rod Magazine.