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The Saga of Gunnar Nilsson

Gunnar Nilsson, at the wheel of his Lotus 78, during the 1977 U.S. Grand Prix West at Long Beach. Nilsson went on to finish 8th, behind teammate and eventual winner Mario Andretti. Photo: Bob Tronolone

I would rather be remembered as somebody who did some work against cancer than the driver who won the Belgian Grand Prix,” said Gunnar Axel Arvid Nilsson. Nevertheless, he should also be remembered—in the words of Nick Jordan, mechanic to Gunnar’s rival Tony Brise in Formula Atlantic—as “one of the best to come out of Sweden.”

Gunnar was born on November 20, 1948, to Arvid and Elisabeth Nilsson in Helsingborg, “the pearl on the Oresund coast.” The infant Gunnar, fascinated by cars, hummed engine noises as he clung to Elisabeth’s vacuum cleaner. Arvid encouraged this interest by allowing him to sit on his lap and steer the family car. By age 12, Gunnar was driving the car in and out of the garage and would throw tantrums if prohibited. He acquired a moped at 15 and “terrorized” elderly ladies with his wild driving. When watching the Monaco Grand Prix on television, he announced to his parents: “One day, I’ll drive a racing car down there.”

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