It was July 19, 1974 that I really got to know John Young Stewart, even though I’d already met and worked with him several years before that British Grand Prix Friday practice day riding with him in a chauffeured Daimler out to Brands Hatch, a distance of some 25 miles from London’s Savile Row where we’d first made a stop at Jackie’s tailor. In the limousine with us were a cameraman and his sound recordist. Half turned to face Jackie in back, I sat up front with our driver. We were making a documentary for Trans World International, the film branch of International Management Group, better known as IMG, Stewart’s representative agents, then and still now. I was asking Jackie questions about his life in general, and more specifically of his years in racing and what he was presently doing in his then-recent retirement from Formula One, including this particular day of his providing color commentary for the BBC race weekend telecast. My recollection of that day and of how readily we were waved through traffic by Brands Hatch gate marshals, with Britain’s three-time World Champion aboard, remains vivid to the point of obsessing on the past.
Leap forward nearly 38 years to December 2011. Stewart—now Sir Jackie since knighted by Britain’s Prince Charles at Buckingham Palace in November 2001—is again riding in a chauffeured car outside of London, and I’m again about to ask him questions, not from the limo’s front seat this time but by telephone far across the Atlantic and the breadth of America. This is the way my conversation went, in this order, with the first Formula One superstar.
Guy Myram, Stewart’s personal secretary on the line in England, tells me, “I’ll patch you through. One second.” After nine British ring tones, Sir Jackie picks up.
“Hi, Bill,” says Stewart, knowing me from back when I was still called Bill, not yet Will. “What side of America are you in, New York or LA?” he asks. I tell him northern California, and we exchange hearty greetings. “I’m in a car in London,” Stewart says. “I live about an hour and a half from London, by road. So I’m being driven there. If we get cut off, because I’m on a mobile phone, just call the office back and they’ll still map you through to me.”
My first question is to ask Stewart about his Formula One career and how he thinks about that today.
“I look back with somewhat sweet and sour,” he says through a clear connection to his mobile. His voice, as bright and full of keenness and Scottish brogue as I’ve always known it to be, flows faultlessly from one sentence to the next, and to the next, in a distinctively page-ready perfection that has forever defined him and what he has to say.
Stewart continues: “There are all those good memories of, let’s say, entering the world of Formula One as a rookie in 1965 and joining up almost immediately and playing with the big players. In other words, Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Jack Brabham, etcetera, and John Surtees, who at that time I remind you was the reigning world champion. And, suddenly, I was competitive right away with them, and in fact that year three times was on the podium finishing second to Jim Clark and winning the Italian Grand Prix at Monza toward the end of the season, then finishing third in the world championship. So it was a pretty remarkable entry, if you like, into Formula One. And the people, the camaraderie, was deeper in those days. We traveled a lot together. We stayed in the same hotels. In those days there was no elaborate motor homes, so there was much more socializing with each other. And, of course, like anything else in life, you got closer to some people than you would with others. So that was the sweet side.
“The sour side was obviously the fatalities that were to later come. But in 1965 we got away pretty clean. Those so-called ‘swinging sixties’ and early seventies were by far the most glamour period of Formula One, I think, and probably had the best collection of top-line drivers, just as good as there is actually today. I would say that if you look back through this last season there hasn’t been since the mid-to-late sixties so many top-line drivers. There’s about eight really top-line either world champions or damn near world champions today. The technology, of course, changed as we went along, but that has been the story of motorsport since we’ve had the horseless carriage. The motor industry technology has led to what is Formula One today.”
Widely known for his efforts toward improving safety in racing cars and race tracks, often to the point of his being criticized for it, I ask him when and how that focus began.
“I wasn’t focused in safety in 1965,” Stewart says of his first year in Formula One. “I was just a new boy and it wasn’t for me to get into heavy discussions about that. As of that time I didn’t really know or appreciate how dangerous the whole damn thing was.
“My accident at Spa-Francorchamps in 1966 [Stewart spun his BRM P261 in heavy rain and hit a telephone pole, and was trapped in leaking fuel.—Ed.] was a wake-up call. There were no marshals to help us. There was no medical facility to help us. It was really ridiculous. There was nobody to assist Graham Hill and Bob Bondurant taking me out of the car. And God knows how long we had to wait for an ambulance. When we finally got to the so-called ‘medical center’ of the circuit I was laid on the floor in a canvas stretcher with a whole lot of cigarette ends. At that time, I was coming in and out of consciousness. Then, during the motorcycle escort taking the ambulance to Liège Hospital, because they thought I had a back injury, they lost the ambulance and the ambulance driver did not know how to get to Liège. It was a comedy of errors. So that taught me a lesson.”
The lesson at Spa lead Stewart to look deeply into safety issues in motor racing for years to come, bringing about, among other safety improvements, the extended use of full-face helmets and seat belts, and helping develop the Grand Prix medical unit that began traveling with the Formula One series. The need for better safety was a message often personally heard from Stewart, as he became more and more visible through his presence as a race commentator on television while still driving races in the sport’s most dangerous era. The mod ‘Wee Scot’ with his long hair and attractive wife, Helen, alongside was very soon a world-recognized celebrity couple.