Peter Revson: Remembering an American hero, 40 years on

Peter Revson: Remembering an American hero, 40 years on

Formula 1

Peter Revson: Remembering an American hero, 40 years on


America’s Peter Revson was killed in a Formula 1 testing accident 40 years ago. Handsome, intelligent and from a moneyed family, he had it all – and for 13 years had to battle those very same “advantages.” Only after two Formula 1 grand prix victories, a Can-Am championship, a pole position and second place at Indy, a heroic performance at Sebring alongside a Hollywood legend, and victories at Lime Rock and Monaco – in muscle car and dainty junior single-seater – was he judged on talent alone. By 1974 – even though a Ferrari deal had run aground – he had positioned himself for a final F1 push, 10 years after his first.  -Paul Fearnley

Clothes and manners were important to Peter Jeffrey Revlon Revson. Hence the title of his excellent book: Speed with Style. But that’s not to say he lacked substance.

A useful athlete – he won the swimming and tennis, clocked 12.9 for the 100 and cleaned 140lb on ABC’s Superstars show – he could handle himself, as Sam Posey discovered at the 1970 Trans-Am finale; revved-up Revvie “had him by his lapels” as they tumbled over Riverside’s pit wall. Let’s put it this way: Sebring’s long-standing chief steward Charlie Earwood was lucky Revson only knocked his hat off during their heated exchange about overtaking under yellows in ’72.

Don’t be lulled, either, by Revson’s groovy description of racing as “jazz.” Glib journalese – millionaire, jet set, playboy – also punctured his cashmere carapace. That’s because the man who had looks, brains, (sufficient) funds and a naughty-two-shoes Miss World partner was for too long denied the tag he craved: racer’s racer. Respect for this well-connected, (usually) polite, preppy, Delta Upsilon frat guy was often little more than grudging. Although not cast as the baddie as such, nor was he in the running for “Captain Nice;” friend, house guest and rival Mark Donohue beat him to that particular PR punch. Jibes that he’d had it easy were what drove Revson to earn it the hard way.

“Peter often felt he had something to prove,” says Gordon Coppuck, understated designer of the McLarens that provided Revson’s greatest triumphs. “He put £100 on himself to win the 1973 British GP. Though he had yet to win a GP at the time, he was offended by the odds. He was also conscious that he’d missed the previous GP because of his Indycar commitments with us, and that young Jody Scheckter had taken his place and done well.”

Revson’s McLaren M23 won on that slate-gray July day at Silverstone, thanks to a measured performance that had been 13 years in the making. That the occasion is better remembered for its race-stopping pile-up – triggered by Scheckter – and runner-up Ronnie Peterson’s jaw-dropping slides in the Lotus 72, however, illustrates the American’s “problem.” Almost 35 at the outset of 1974, he gave himself a year to convince those who had him marked as a 14/1 outsider. Tellingly, he had placed his Silverstone bet each-way. Be it that caution was due to acumen or self-doubt, he admitted now that second and third places were no longer of use to him. The stakes were raised.

“It would have been different had he stayed with us,” says Coppuck. “I’m confident he would have added to his tally of GP wins.”

Fate instead cast its shadow.

TOP Revson throws his McLaren M23 around Silverstone on his way to victory in the 1973 British Grand Prix. This was his first Formula 1 triumph, and came nine years after his grand prix debut.
BELOW Accepting the plaudits for winning the 1971 Can-Am race at Watkins Glen. LAT photos

Revson and Teddy Mayer had been niggling since the formation in 1962 of their Rev-M Formula Junior team. Though there existed mutual respect, there was no sentiment. Hard-nosed Mayer – he regularly played backgammon against Bernie Ecclestone! – had been the boss of McLaren since founder Bruce’s death in ’70. He considered racing a science, and winning his business. Twice he dispensed with Revson’s services, each time mere days after triumphs (the ’71 Can-Am title and that British GP victory), each time to make way for a world champion – Jackie Stewart and Emerson Fittipaldi, respectively.

“Peter was a forceful driver,” says Coppuck. “If he was happy with a car, he would show great commitment. He was particularly good in fast corners. So were we – we complemented each other. But he was also a forceful character. Stewart [prevented by a duodenal ulcer from racing for McLaren in Can-Am] tested with us at Goodwood. When Peter heard about Jackie’s lap times, he went half a second quicker. He was very determined.”

And very marketable. Ferrari, seeking a teammate for Clay Regazzoni, came sniffing for 1974. Contracts, proposed and amended, were telexed to and fro before an ominous silence descended. Regga and Revvie was not to be; Niki Lauda got the gig.

A third Formula 1 McLaren M23, an offshoot operation in the old Yardley livery rather than that of new headline sponsors Marlboro and Texaco, was also on the table. But Revson wanted, needed and deserved to be a number one. After all, hadn’t he also won the 1973 Canadian GP? Studious lap-charters in the tower above Mosport’s mist were in no doubt that he had. The meek, however, were mobbed that day, and although the result stood, the debate runs.

A proven winner with something to prove, therefore, Revson signed with Shadow for 1974. And his brand-new DN3 rode “like a Cadillac” – until a titanium piece in its front suspension suffered a catastrophic failure.

TOP Formula Junior at Silverstone in 1963; Revvie is in car No. 11 on the far left. It didn’t go smoothly, as shown BELOW, but he was determined to do things the hard way and learn his craft in Europe. ABOVE It took a decade for it to pay off with an F1 win, but appropriately it came at Silverstone. LAT photos

Revson the urbane Grand Prix racer about town – New York, London, Redondo Beach – was keenly aware that sudden death was a career ‘option’. He skippered a 32-foot cruiser called The Ragged Edge and owned an objet d’art inscribed, “Everything is sweetened by risk.”

Revson the Columbia-and-Cornell dropout was perhaps not so attuned in 1960 as he slung his Morgan sports-job around windswept, potholed Hawaiian airfields – much to the consternation of his mother and a genteel organizing club; he was banned for spinning out a rival. He was blissful still when he hustled an entry for June’s Vanderbilt Cup, and there ranged his fickle, Fiat-engined Taraschi – portentously listed as ‘Traschi’ in one program – against quicker Formula Juniors driven by seasoned pros and touted hotshoes. But certainly he was starkly aware after fellow Ivy Leaguer Timmy Mayer, his SCCA championship-winning Rev-M teammate – and therefore ahead in “the game” – was killed at Longford, Tasmania, in February 1964.

Revson, however, was undeterred and spent that season in Europe learning harsh lessons in an outdated F1 Lotus 24-BRM on carburetors; its anticipated fuel-injected Coventry Climax V8 never materialized. Run by Reg Parnell (Racing) under the Revson Racing (America) banner to ensure more start money, Peter watched mildly askance as his hard-partying apartment buddies and “teammates,” New Zealand’s Chris Amon and British bike ace Mike Hailwood – known collectively to their local emergency services as the Ditton Road Flyers – received the better equipment.

The glamour of Continental racing had, however, always been the hook for Revson. After his season with Rev-M, during which he took his Cooper to victory at Mosport, he turned transatlantic for 1963. Timmy Mayer was going, too – as a works Junior driver for Ken Tyrrell; Revson, his Morgan now sold, was paying his own way.

“He was living in Weston, Connecticut, and I had a shop in nearby Westport,” says mechanic Walt Boyd. “He asked me to work on his Taraschi and then his Morgan. There was a lot of wood in that car and I’d tease him by waving a saw around: ‘How the hell are we supposed to beat Donohue with this?’”

They didn’t. Revson’s long-term East Coast rival dominated the SCCA National Production E Championship of 1961 in an Elva Courier.

“I didn’t go to many of Peter’s races because I was racing a Midget at the time, but I could tell he had talent,” Boyd continues. “I wasn’t involved with Rev-Em, but one day Teddy came to my house to say they needed a mechanic to help Peter in Europe. It sounded like an adventure. There was even talk of doing F1 which sounded like a pipe dream – yet it’s precisely what Peter did.”

Revson Racing consisted of a Cooper-Austin, an asthmatic Austin A40 runabout and a hard-pressed bread van/transporter called Galloping Gilbert. The team rented space at Parnell’s West London HQ in Hounslow and a small flat on nearby Richmond Hill.

Boyd: “Once, we returned from a trip abroad and our landlady said, ‘Hello, Mr Revlon.’ Peter said, ‘Oops. Looks like the rent’s going up.’ But the Revlon thing never seemed important. The next race was all that mattered. Peter had sufficient money to run the car and fuel the transporter. We weren’t living high on the hog. We slept on the beach at Monaco, for example! Although he and I had long conversations, I realize now that there was a lot I didn’t know about him. Not so long ago somebody asked me if Peter was Jewish. I didn’t know. Not a clue. It was another non-issue.

First time around, Revson didn’t really give himself a decent chance at F1, with a two-year-old Lotus 24 powered by an outdated BRM. In Britain TOP he was disqualified for a push start, while in Germany BELOW the race ended in an accident. But Peter was now hooked on Continental racing. LAT photos








“Peter was a cut above most drivers,” Boyd continues. “He cared about how well he did, was annoyed if he hadn’t done his best, but he wasn’t one-dimensional. He wasn’t your typical American rich kid. He enjoyed the European lifestyle. A Belgian local took an interest – Peter attracted lots of attention – and invited us to his restaurant; raw beef with raw egg was its specialty. I was gagging on mine when Peter, who’d wolfed his, ordered two more.”

Engine and gearbox problems, when allied to general inexperience, meant good results were hard to come by – until August.

“Enna – ‘A Cowboy in Sicily’ was the local headline! – was basically a clockwise oval around a lake,” says Boyd. “Peter said, ‘You’re the oval expert!’ So I set the Cooper up like a Midget, changed its camber and cross weights – and, boy, was he fast.”

Having won his heat from pole, he missed out on victory in the final by 0.2 seconds despite setting the fastest lap in this 1-liter category’s history. He put matters right the next weekend, albeit in very different circumstances at Roskilde’s Danish GP.

“He’d never raced in the rain,” says Boyd, “and nor had I, so when he asked if I had any ideas, I just guessed. Having loosened everything up, I told him to drive it like a Sprint car, to be aggressive with it. He did – and won. He was so adaptable.”

Revson’s reward for his persistence and promise was an entry for September’s non-championship F1 Gold Cup at Oulton Park, a fast, challenging and undulating provincial circuit in northwest England.

“Peter’s money never came into it,” says team manager Tim Parnell. “He wasn’t precious, far from it. My father [Reg] was a good talent-spotter and he felt Peter had a future in the sport. You’d have to say he was right.”
Revson qualified the Lotus-BRM in 15th and finished ninth, four laps behind but there were extenuating circumstances.

Boyd: “I was unfamiliar with how its brake balance worked and the team had no time to help when Peter came in after a few laps to say he had too much rear brakes. You couldn’t see the adjuster, you had to feel for it. Only later did I discover I’d turned it the wrong way. Peter didn’t complain. I don’t remember him bitching ever. I’m not sure if it was right or wrong for him to do that race; it just happened. The thought of him turning it down never occurred. He could drive anything.”

Reg Parnell died that winter, but Tim agreed to run Revson in Formula 1. His five GP appearances in 1964 brought him a DNQ, a DSQ – for a push-start after qualifying 10th at Spa – a retirement, a crash at the Nürburgring and a distant 13th place at Monza. Several non-championship outings resulted in a best of fourth place at Germany’s demanding Solitude road circuit. His start in F1 was steady then, rather than Gurney.

“We planned another season together, but he was offered a works Formula 2 seat with Ron Harris–Team Lotus and rightly took it,” says Parnell. “A brilliant driver with a good understanding of engineering, Peter was a good friend. The most wonderful guy I met in racing.”

Third in line behind F1 stars Jim Clark and Mike Spence, Revson endured a frustrating season with Harris. When he wasn’t lumbered with BRM’s P71 engine, he finished second and set joint-fastest lap at the Nürburgring’s Sudschleife (in the rain), and was fourth at Solitude (from pole) and Enna.

That he reckoned his meeting at Lime Rock with successful car dealer and enthusiastic sportscar entrant Bill Kay to be his big break in the same year that he won the prestigious Monaco F3 race shows that Revson was ready for a regroup, if not a total retreat.

TOP Gentleman driver John Cardwell is about to be lapped by Revson, as the American drives his Ron Harris-run Lotus 35 to his most prestigious success yet – victory in the Formula 3 Grand Prix support race at Monaco. BELOW Peter was fast in F2 cars, as well, but couldn’t do a lot to overcome the deficiencies of the BRM P71 engine in the back of his Lotus 35 here at Reims. LAT photos

Revson piloted Kay’s Brabham BT8 with verve to class successes on both sides of the Atlantic in 1965. The same was true of Essex Wire Corp’s Ford GT40 in ’66: thirds at Sebring and Spa, with co-driver Skip Scott. Having also caught the eye during the inaugural Can-Am series in a mid-grid McLaren-Elva – sixth at Riverside, fourth at Las Vegas – Revson formed the Dana Chevrolet team with ex-Shelby Racing general manager Peyton Cramer and drove its McLaren-Elva and troublesome Lola T70 during ’67.

His best results that season, however, stemmed from an unexpected source: Trans-Am. Having divined that Bud Moore’s NASCAR-sourced team was from a different world – champagne meets ’shine – the aesthetic Revson stepped back (from hefting tires filled with sand) and concentrated on maxing Mercury’s new Cougar. No expense had been spared on this model’s launch: Dan Gurney, Parnelli Jones and David Pearson were among its other drivers. Yet of them all, only Revson scored more than one victory in the Merc: at Lime Rock, his category debut in May, and at Bryar, New Hampshire, in August.

Nice car, the McLaren M15, although not quite cutting edge in 1970. Still, it got Revson in the door at McLaren. IMS photoWhat’s more, the latter result was secured directly after the funeral of younger brother Doug, who had been following Peter’s wheel tracks without quite matching his style, speed or success. Doug was killed during a wet Danish GP and Peter was devastated. Career-wise, however, he didn’t blink. He could, according to sister Jennifer, “concentrate like a statue since he was a kid.”

It was the same at Road Atlanta in 1972. Revson was parked repairing his Can-Am McLaren’s ignition when the sister M20 of Denny Hulme passed at 175mph – upside down, above head height. Having sprinted over to orchestrate a fiery rescue and see Hulme off in an ambulance, Revson started his engine, having lost 23 laps, and trundled to the pits for a confab. Neither he nor his team could be sure of the accident’s cause, yet he continued and set fastest lap before retiring with fading oil pressure.

“I saw no difference in Peter after Doug’s death,” says Tyler Alexander, Revson’s one-man army at Mosport in 1962 and later his McLaren crew chief in Can-Am and USAC. “It didn’t slow him any. He enjoyed being a racing driver and got on with it.”

“Getting on with it” involved Trans-Am Ford Mustangs for Carroll Shelby, and AMC Javelins, alongside Donohue, for Roger Penske, plus McLarens and Lolas for Shelby and Carl Haas. He also co-drove Steve McQueen’s unfancied Porsche 908/2 to second place at Sebring in 1970. The Hollywood star, clutch foot in plaster as the result of a motorbike fall, stole the headlines, but Mario Andretti knew the truth. Having worked his ass off to catch Revson, Ferrari’s inspired winner was full of admiration for his rival’s speed, smarts and stamina.

TOP Peter partnered Essex Wire team founder Skip Scott to third place in the 1966 Sebring 12 Hours in Scott’s Ford GT40…
BELOW …Rather more famously, he shared a Porsche 908 with Steve McQueen to take second there, four years later. LAT photos
At last Revson the racer was in demand, the money and the limelight. It would have been easy for him to continue in the same vein had F1 not been in his blood. Monaco and Monza was where he yearned to be – and he realized that Indycars would have to set the first bricks in that return road.

After three false starts in so-so machinery, he joined Jack Brabham for the 1969 Indy 500. His BT25, Brabham’s first monocoque chassis, was hampered by its Repco V8 and he scraped onto the grid dead last – yet finished fifth. That the Rookie of the Year award was handed to seventh-placed Donohue, impressive all month in a 4WD Lola, admittedly removed some of the sheen, but an unexpected yet excellent victory while substituting for the injured Brabham at Indianapolis Raceway Park’s 100-milers in July reaffirmed Revson’s single-seater aptitude.

When Hulme badly burned his hands testing the first McLaren at Indy in 1970, Peter was an obvious replacement.

BELOW Revson, designer Gordon Coppuck and the McLaren crew with the M16 Indy car, one of the marque’s greatest and longest-lasting designs. Peter would get a taste of its brilliance, but it would be Mark Donohue and Johnny Rutherford who drove it to “500” glory and tasted the milk. LAT photo

“Teddy went up to him toABOVE and BELOW The M16 was the car to have at Indy in ’71 and Revson beat Donohue to pole position. However, inexperience of how the USAC system worked caught him out on race day, and the by-now slower Colt of Al Unser Sr won for a second consecutive year. IMS photos ask if he’d like a few laps in our car,” says Alexander. “It was as simple as that. When Peter pitted he said it might be difficult for us to get him out because our car was so much better than the ‘other thing’ [a Morris Marauder-Ford] he’d been driving. That was the start of our association.”

Revson did a solid job in a solid car, the M15, qualifying 16th and running inside the top 10 until a faulty magneto sidelined him approaching mid-distance. His return in 1971, in Coppuck’s sensational hipster wedge, M16, was at an entirely higher level.

The back-story to his pole position at Indy differs depending on the source: face-to-face or overheard on the PA; too much push or too loose; a bit more wing or a little less on the nose. What’s beyond debate is that Revson’s setup was rapidly and beneficially altered in response to Donohue’s failure to run as fast as anticipated in Penske’s M16.

“If Peter says he didn’t feel instinctive at Indy, he did a pretty good job of hiding it!” says Alexander. “He was doing just fine as far as we were concerned. Good in tABOVE Four top-threes in McLaren’s M19 in ’72 helped Revson to fifth on the F1 points table. Here he heads for third at Kyalami. LAT photoerms of feedback, he always seemed successful whenever he asked for a change. Perhaps Donohue was a little bit better at it – but, if so, it can’t have been by much. Anyway, the guy was still interviewing Mark when he clocked Peter’s quicker first lap, at which point Mark went a little gray.”

Donohue, in cahoots with the Eagle of Bobby Unser, got his own back at the start by running slow-fast-slow before blowing by on full boost while Revson was off-throttle.

“That was a lack of experience,” says Alexander. “The worst bit came at the end. Peter was second, about 15 seconds behind Al Unser but catching him steadily, when the yellows came out – and Unser began to pull away. Teddy asked the stewards if it would be okay for Peter to catch up, and Denny gave him signals to that effect. But he didn’t. When we asked him why, he admitted he didn’t trust the officials. He felt he would have been penalized.

“I never heard people being pissed off with him. Perhaps there was some mumbling from those who thought him a New York rich kid and never bothered to find out his true circumstances. I’m sure he wasn’t taking anything from Revlon…not that we ever talked about it. I suspect that Mr Donohue was stirring it up; friends away from the circuit, it was different when they were racing.”

Revson contested three USAC races – Indy, Pocono and Ontario – each season from 1971-’73. He did so with great speed, annexing poles at all three, but rarely with the best of luck or reliability. Can-Am was kinder. Paired with series benchmark Hulme, he won the 1971 title, via wins at Road Atlanta, Watkins Glen, Elkhart Lake (from the back of the grid), Donnybrooke and Laguna Seca (despite a late black flag for dropping oil).

“I wasn’t surprised,” says Alexander. “Perhaps Denny wasn’t as keen as he had been, perhaps he was thinking about it a bit harder, being more careful. Peter, in turn, just wanted to take his chance. He drove the wheels off the thing – literally, on occasion.”

Coppuck: “Denny had a bit more finesse about him. There was never any question of Peter being a softie, though. He was tough.”

Hulme, the Bear, couldn’t out-psyche Revson anymore. Nor could Teddy.

Alexander: “As he grew up in the world of motorsport, Peter gained confidence within himself, with the ladies, and in business. We did a test after Riverside and he asked Teddy if he’d like a ride. This was no passenger trip; he lapped within a second of his qualifying best. It was a lesson, more like.”

BELOW The mighty McLaren M8Fs won eight of the 10 races in the 1971 Can-Am series, and Peter took five of those and the championship title. Here he leads Sam Posey’s Ferrari at Watkins Glen. LAT photo


It was still Teddy and Denny’s team, though. Although Revson got his fervent wish – an F1 seat with McLaren for 1972 – it was he who had to compromise his campaign to meet the team’s Indycar demand. It was Denny, meanwhile, who got first call on the excellent M23 of ’73, who got an extra set of qualifying tires at Silverstone, and who got a stay of execution when Fittipaldi joined. Recalls Coppuck: “I was aware of Emerson having a preferred partner…and it wasn’t Peter.”

There are, of course, two sides to every story: Revson had not done enough to topple the incumbent. He outqualified Hulme at the first time of TOP A second F1 win, at Mosport, ensured Revvie was top non-Tyrrell /Lotus driver in 1973, but it was teammate Hulme who McLaren retained, Revson who was shown the door when Fittipaldi became available for ’74. LAT photos asking – a superb third fastest at Argentina in ’72 – but it was Denny who finished second and who won the subsequent South African GP. Revson finished third that day at Kyalami, a result he repeated in Britain and Austria (where Hulme was second.) Despite strong race results and despite ending the year as the faster man – second, from pole, in Canada – his card was marked by the time Hulme had outqualified him at the first seven grands prix of 1973.

He knew by July that he was out and, by October, where he was going: Don Nichols’ Shadow in F1 and Penske Racing, where he would replace the recently retired Donohue, at Indy. With number one status at both teams, 1974 was shaping up to be the most important season of Revson’s career.

At its first corner, jousting for third place of the Argentinean GP with Ferrari hard man Clay Regazzoni, Revson came off second best – and retired on the spot when his unsighted new teammate Jean-Pierre Jarier piled in. He considered it, however, a risk worth taking. And when his DN3 overheated in Brazil, he was cool with it because he knew his young team was pushing the envelope.

It helped that Revson felt appreciated; Nichols purred about Peter being the best development driver the team had ever had. The speed was there. The reliability would come. To that end the extended test at Kyalami in late March would be crucial and near-GP distances would be covered – but there’d still be time to pick up that never-ending tennis match with Carlos Reutemann

Reutemann – speedy, stylish and often misunderstood, won that South African GP for Brabham. Although it was his first world championship GP victory, he took no joy from it because his charismatic hitting partner was dead: killed the moment his car plunged beneath a barrier during the test just eight days earlier.

“Peter was very personable,” says Coppuck. “Always entertaining company. Interested in most things, he could have earned his money in lots of ways and no doubt would have done so after retiring [Rev-Up vitamins, RevsonTurbo, you name it!]. It is to his credit, therefore, that he made a living from racing cars, something his family didn’t want him to do.”

Revson’s father Martin quit family firm Revlon in acrimonious circumstances in 1958, regrouped and became independently wealthy. That was Peter’s inheritance: determination and acumen. The speed and the style were his own and of an order that couldn’t be bought – but for which he paid the ultimate cost.

BELOW Peter looked on course for more wins in ’74, despite UOP Shadow’s limited budget compared with McLaren, Lotus and the like. For both the opening two races, Revson qualified top six. LAT photo 

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