While today’s drivers benefit from decades of safety advances that make racing less of a death-defying stunt, when Vic Elford was driving, a pilot he could only rely on his skill, and a lot of luck, to stay alive.
I didn’t go running because from danger,” he said. “But being able to look so closely into the eyes, yeah, that was part of it.”
Elford died on March 13 at the age of 86 in his adopted state of Florida after a long battle with cancer.
“Quick Vic”, as his fellow drivers called him, got his start rallying in his native England, initially as a navigator.
“Eventually I moved to the right side,” he said.
He started out driving a Mini he bought in 1962, then a Triumph TR3A and a TR4, and finally a series of Ford Cortinas. His success there led to Porsches, and in 1967 he was European Rally Champion in a 911. It was the start of a long and productive association with the brand.
The following year, 1968, was simply incredible, beginning with a great victory on the snow of the Maritime Alps at the Monte Carlo Rally. From Monte Carlo he immediately flew to Florida and won the 24 Hours of Daytona.
The following month he took second place at the 12 Hours of Sebring, then flew to Italy and captured a remarkable win from behind at the Targa Florio: a tire failure caused him to jump out of the car, convincing the local Sicilians to lift your car off the ground so he could change the tire and return to the pits, all of which he did, but with the loss of a full 18 minutes of the first of 10 laps of that winding island road. His tremendous victory with nothing to lose in that still very dangerous event stands as one of the great boosts in racing history.
He ended that year scoring points in Formula 1, driving a Cooper-BRM T81C without sufficient funding or engineering.
From there he went on to a career that included everything from Can-Am, Trans-Am and even NASCAR, where he drove in four Daytona 500s. He drove every version of the Porsche 917, from the first, dangerously tail-happy, to the each of the subsequent dazzlingly fast successive cars.
He also drove Porsche 906s and 908s, living up to the performance potential of those cars, as well as all manner of 911 race cars. In a relatively short active period of his career, he would drive: the Chaparral 2J, the famous goofball; a factory McLaren 7A and BRM P160 in F1; a 1970 Camaro in Trans-Am; and various Lolas, Shadows, Lancias, Chevrons, and even a Subaru.
He also won Le Mans twice in eight attempts, first in a Porsche 906 in 1967 and then in a Ferrari 365 GTB/4 in 1973.
He was not only brave behind the wheel, but also extraordinarily brave outside the car. Driving an Alfa Romeo 33TT3 at Le Mans in 1972, he came across a burning Ferrari Daytona. He stopped, mid-run, and opened the door to the burning wreckage, only to find an empty car, the driver having already escaped.
He did not know that he was empty when he entered hell. For this he obtained the French National Order of Merit, which was presented to him by none other than French President Georges Pompidou.
When Elford retired from racing, he could often be found at various motorsports heritage events, where he was a sought-after speaker. I met him myself at a fundraiser at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles in 2010. The event was a huge celebration of slot cars and the Quick Vic team, of course, won it.
“Today I discovered that the best way to win was to go as fast as possible on the straights and slow down in the corners so as not to go off the track,” he told me. “And believe it or not, this was exactly the same kind of philosophy that I used to use, particularly when driving at Le Mans.
How close was it to the real races, I asked.
“Well, I guess it’s the same thing,” Elford said. “Two or three times, I was running very close to someone and I found that you have to be very careful because you get a little excited and you crash. And then you lose half a lap.”
Which would have different results at Le Mans, of course.
“Oh, so you’re done,” he said. “In my day.”
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