Among the world’s greatest drivers, there are soloists and all-rounders. England’s Vic Elford, who died on Sunday at the age of 86 after a prolonged fight with cancer, will be remembered as possibly the most talented artist to delight crowds on tarmac, sand, gravel and ice.
The man nicknamed “Quick Vic” had a penchant for racing and taming some of the fiercest cars and circuits the sport has known, all done in a seemingly endless list of series and disciplines, and all throughout an era where primitive safety standards were the norm and driver deaths were common.
Of Elford’s many feats that added to his European World Rally Championship title and class win for at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1967, the incredible week in 1968 where he won for Porsche at the Rally Monte Carlo in a 911S and traveled to Florida and won the 24 Hours of Daytona in a factory 907 prototype is upheld as one of the Londoner’s matchless achievements. From dancing and sliding in peril on snow in the hills overlooking Monaco to rocketing around the high banking at NASCAR’s hallowed home, Elford was never out of his element. The big win for Porsche at Daytona also opened the brand’s endurance racing account with its first overall triumph in a major 24-hour race.
The rigors of Italy’s Targa Florio — a widowmaker of an event — were endured and met with victory by Elford and Porsche in the same year. And in yet another expression of his diverse capabilities, he made his Formula 1 debut as well in 1968, placing fourth in his first race for the Cooper team at Rouen in France — in the wet, no less.
It was there at the French endurance classic in Le Mans where all manner of Porsches, most notably the terrifying 240mph 917 which maimed a number of unfortunate drivers, became his muse. Tales of harrowing passes at Circuit de la Sarthe and controlling 200mph drifts coming off of Daytona’s Turn 4 in the 917 only served to elevate Elford’s status as a giftedly brave practitioner of speed.
He drove booming Chevrolet Camaros in SCCA’s Trans Am series, winning for Jim Hall’s Chaparral team, and continued with Hall in Can-Am, racing the incredible 2J “vacuum car” along with McLarens, Lolas, and Shadows for other Can-Am entrants. A regular winner at the Nurburgring, Sebring, and all the most renown tracks, Elford was hired by Alfa Romeo after his departure from Porsche, and more outings for Shadow in the marque’s crazier Can-Am creations followed into the early 1970s.
From 13 sporadic F1 starts spread over four seasons, three teams and four unique car and engine combinations, Elford placed inside the top six on four occasions, earning eight world championship points. As if Elford’s CV wasn’t already full beyond measure, he raced in the Daytona 500, producing a best finish of 10th and two 11ths in four tries.
On nearly every continent or principality where motor races were held, for auto manufacturers hailing from America, Germany, England, Italy and Japan, in cars with and without fenders, with and without roofs, powered by boxer engines, naturally-aspirated monstrosities and turbocharges missiles, Elford won or ran at the front and made it look easy.
F1, Rally, Can-Am, Trans-Am, and NASCAR all bear his name with prominence in their record books.
“Absolutely one of the all-time greats,” Elford’s friend Dario Franchitti told RACER. “In ‘68 he won Monte Carlo rally then a week later 24 Hours of Daytona — mind-blowing enough, but later that year, he won the Targa and scored F1 points in a fairly average car, that really showed what he could do. He was one of the few to tame the 917 in its original spec — he was special behind the wheel. When I asked him about it, he didn’t see it as a big deal.”
Considering the vastness of diversity and accomplishment generated by Elford, one might assume he spent 30 to 40 years filling his CV with entries, but it’s here where another remarkable aspect of his career is revealed. Outside of a few modest one-off race appearances in the early 1980s long after he retired, the majority of Elford’s professional career was completed between 1964 and ’75. So few have done so much in such a short time span.
In Elford, many of the modern stars found a hero whose talent and tales went beyond the other legends of motor racing. Take a famous driver with numerous championships and hallmark wins in a single discipline, and respect is given by those who followed, but in Elford, there was a palpable sense of wonderment and worship for a driver who thrived in areas and disciplines that even the best drivers knew were beyond their skills.
After stepping away from active racing, Elford poured his immense knowledge into educating future generations through driving schools, with Porsche, and assisted the company with developing its road cars. In his later years, a persistent fight with cancer emerged in the 2000s, and despite the challenges he faced, Elford was active in attending numerous vintage racing events and speaking engagements where new waves of fans were born as they listened to his incomparable stories.
A tearful Patrick Long, America’s longest tenured Porsche factory driver, shared his love for Elford, who served as an ally and mentor for the larger portion of his career.
“What an era to be a legend, to be a king, but it’s just the softer side of Vic, that is the most important part for me,” Long said. “The impact he had, hearing his tales, and seeing his face light up as he told stories of being in Corsica and defying odds, his love for his partner Anita, and all the excitement he brought to festivities around Porsche. It’s just the light that he brought into the room. How could he be such an icon, but with so much humility, so much love? He just touched people differently than so many icons of any sport. And that’s the part that’s in my thoughts today.”
Never short on strong beliefs, to sit with Elford — even for a few moments — was an opportunity to make lasting memories.
“I loved his very forthright opinions!” Franchitti added. “When I was still driving, I enjoyed our email exchanges in the days following a race. If it went well, there was a ‘well done,’ if it didn’t, he’d certainly let you know what he thought of it all! I will miss getting to sit with him at the historic racing events we both attended. Such a special man. Unfortunately, another of the greats from that golden generation is gone.”
The roster of today’s greats who learned finer aspects of driving from Elford is long and includes a certain Colombian with two Indy 500 wins, an IndyCar and IMSA championship, and wins in F1 and NASCAR.
“Vic was really, really special,” Juan Pablo Montoya said. “He taught me a lot of stuff at the Skip Barber school. He was probably the first guy that really gave me an idea of what I needed to do. He gave me very basic understandings of the car. He simplified it for me. He was really nice and we always had a great relationship.”
Told through his eyes, the nourishing and sustaining aspects of racing were ever present within Elford. A full eight decades into his life, passion for the sport he loved was instantly accessible and shared freely with an audience of one or hundreds of adoring listeners.
“That still keeps you in awe,” Long added. “He was just someone that you always looked forward to sharing time with. He never ever had a bad day, and never had a day where he didn’t feel like talking with or spending time with a complete stranger. That’s such a remarkable and unique blend for someone who is so unprecedented.”
Through Long’s Luftgekühlt shows which celebrate Porsche’s many air-cooled road and race cars, he was reminded of how the incurable spark that drove Elford into countless victory lanes — the last coming more than 50 years ago — raged without end.
“Back in 2018, with the help of Porsche, we brought Vic out to our Luft show in L.A.,” he said. “During the event, we did a moment of loudness and we had a such a crowd around him on stage in his 908 he won Daytona in back in 1968. We started it up and he revved it up and you could just see him light up to hear and feel that car running again.
“When I helped him out of the car and I asked him when the last time was he sat in that car, he looked over at me and he said, ‘Well, 50 years ago.’ You know, he hadn’t been near that car since he raced it ‘68, and there was so much joy to be back in the 908, all the sensations going. Maybe some guys wouldn’t be moved by something like that, but he loved every second of it. I learned so much from him and he meant so much to us.”