THERE ARE FEW THINGS that human beings seem to love more than building complicated, dangerous machines that move very fast — and then getting inside them. Our predilection for high-speed thrills is arguably best personified in the role of the race car driver, a fantasy job that ranks up there with astronaut, president, and movie star in terms of aspirational — and seemingly impossible — career goals. In popular culture, the race car driver remains one of the most deeply mythologized and romanticized roles in all of sports, bringing to mind images of peak ’70s Steve McQueen, the global fame of Mario Andretti, or, if you are a person of a certain age, childhood memories of “Speed Racer.”
I would never think about anything else during the race. And because some of the races were long, you'd be in the car for 12 to 13 hours at a time.
There are few people as uniquely qualified to unpack the lore and talent required to sit behind the wheel of one of the world’s fastest cars as famed British racing driver Derek Bell. He has driven and raced nearly every conceivable type of car (including racing in Formula One for the Ferrari, Wheatcroft, McLaren, Surtees, and Tecno teams), and is also known as the consummate endurance sports car driver. He has won the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Daytona 24 three times, and the World Sportscar Championship twice. With a career spanning more than 40 years, Bell remains intrigued by the idea of superfast cars and the deep-rooted desire almost everyone has to try and drive one. “I think everyone in the world who drives a car, who has ever driven a car at all, would love to drive a racing car,” explains Bell. “Who wouldn’t love to have the experience? Because driving something fast — with the acceleration, the cornering power, the braking power — it’s a sheer thrill. Who wouldn’t love to do that?”
“To me, the whole thing is getting out there and doing it,” says Bell. “I never had anybody telling me what to do. Also, there's something special about racing cars which I don't think other sports have. Maybe it's because we have a machine, which we have to tame or try to understand. Whereas in other sports, it's just you running, or you hitting a tennis ball. I mean a surfer has to paddle out for half an hour before they get a wave. Now, for a driver, we're getting into some of the best and most amazing bits of machinery. The minute we put our foot down, we're at 100%, because we have to be because the car's rearing to go. You also have to be ready.”
OK, so how does one do it? And what makes a person uniquely qualified to routinely cheat high-speed death on a racetrack? According to Bell, who has spent ample amounts of time advising novice drivers, good race car drivers possess an incalculable combination of developed skills, innate instincts, and sheer nerve — an acumen that can be honed but not so easily taught. That being said, Bell points out some life skills that will serve you well should you get behind the wheel.
“In a race, you are striving for perfection all the time. To win, you have to be more perfect than you were the previous lap. You are always working out how to do that. But remember, you're coming out of one corner, and 12 seconds later, you're arriving at the next. So say you're at Le Mans doing 246 miles an hour. You’re thinking about how to get the most out of the corner at the end while also trying to get the most out of the car while on the straight. It's two things — it's you and the car. And the car has its own mind. How many people, apart from maybe somebody that loops the loop in jet planes, does this sort of a thing? You are controlling this speeding machine, but all the time also watching, ‘Has the temperature gone up on that dial?’ At night, storming down the Mulsanne Straight, at 200 plus, it's just you sitting in this sort of little cockpit of the car, with all the instruments glaring in front of you, just watching the rev meter stick at 8,200 … 8,300 … 8,400. It's a different sort of concentration. You're concentrating on the machine that you're sitting in, guiding it, and trying to get the most out of it, but there are so many things to focus on — all the instruments that are there, plus the sounds of the car. You know, ‘What was that? What did I just hear? Was that a miss? What was that? What sort of noise was it?’ And then meanwhile you're watching where the car is. And then you're worried about, ‘Why did it move to the right a bit? Is there a tire deflating?’ In my day, nobody could really tell you anything while you were in the car. It was really up to you to figure out what was happening. You were the computer, analyzing it all.”
“As a racing driver, whatever you had on the outside in your life, which obviously at times was pretty traumatic, or tough going — maybe one of your parents is seriously ill, or you've just heard about an accident on the track with somebody you knew — it doesn’t matter. As soon as that flag drops, you're in a world of your own and you don't think about it. I would never think about anything else during the race. And because some of the races were long endurance races, you'd be in the car for 12 to 13 hours at a time during a 24-hour race. But your mind never wandered because there's too much going on. You learn extreme focus, which is a good thing in life."
“I'm in my late 70s now, and when I get in a race car — and I still do — I love it. I was driving less during the pandemic, but before that, I was somewhere driving a very powerful car at least once a month, whether it was for a demonstration, or it was just a driving test for somebody. I was driving fabulous cars. Very powerful, expensive cars, but it didn't bother me. Nothing's ever frightened me, at least not when it comes to getting in a car. I still sit down and think, ‘Oh my god. Amazing.’ So I still get a thrill out of driving beautiful cars. I wouldn't say it's romantic, but there's something very colorful about it. You look at that incredible piece of machinery and get in it. And you're its tamer really. When people say, ‘Oh yeah, well it's too much car for me.’ You go, ‘Well, then don't put your bloody foot on the throttle so hard, drive it a bit slower.’ That’s fine too, you know?”
T. Cole Rachel Writer
T. Cole Rachel is the managing editor of Departures. A Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and teacher with over 20 years of experience working in print and digital media, his writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Interview, and the Creative Independent.
Josef Minor Illustrator
Josef Minor (he/him) is an illustrator and graphic artist currently based in the mountains of Colorado.