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Remembering ‘American Racing Hero’ Peter Revson, who left us 40 years ago Saturday

Mar 22, 2014, 5:00 PM EDT

Peter Revson

The month of March marks the start of spring, but it also has tragically figured in the deaths of a number of race car drivers who left us far too soon.

NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series driver John Nemechek, younger brother of veteran Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series driver Joe Nemechek, lost his life during a wreck at Homestead-Miami Speedway on March 16, 1997.

NHRA Funny Car drag racer Eric Medlen died after a wreck at Gainesville, Fla., on March 17, 2007.

This Wednesday will mark the eighth anniversary of the death of IndyCar driver Paul Dana during practice in 2006 at Homestead.

Formula One great Ayrton Senna would have been 54 on March 21, but was killed in a crash in May 1994.

Indy car great Gary Bettenhausen passed away last Sunday at the age of 72.

And it was 40 years ago today (March 22) that American Indy car and F1 driver Peter Revson was killed during testing for the 1974 South African Grand Prix at Kyalami.

While driving his UOP Shadow Ford DN3, Revson’s car suffered suspension failure, causing him to lose control and crash head-on into a barrier, bursting into flame.

Known in F1 as the “American Racing Hero,” Revson died almost instantly at the age of 35.

In a 2012 story in Motorsport magazine, DN3 designer Tony Southgate gave this recollection of Revson:

“Revvie was a fabulous easy-going guy, fitted in well, and a very good driver. But tragically he wasn’t with us for long. He qualified on row 2 for Argentina and row 3 for Brazil. Then he and I, our chief mechanic Pete Kerr and two other mechanics went down to Kyalami for testing before the South African GP.

“Revvie was going very well, very happy with the car, and then he didn’t come around. We rushed out to the back of the circuit and found the car buried under the Armco (barrier) on the outside of a quick corner. Peter was already in the ambulance and gone. I phoned the hospital, and they told me I had to go to the morgue and identify him. When the news got out all hell let loose, journalists banging on my hotel door, then the Revson family lawyer arrived and took over.”

The wreck was caused when a bolt on a titanium ball joint failed, Southgate said.

“We were using titanium quite a lot on the DN3, which was quite a new material then,” he told Motorsport. “Titanium is finicky, it has to be machined smooth and the surface polished, and a ball joint which had some coarse machining on it had failed.

“There was only one layer of Armco and the car, instead of being deflected or stopped, had gone right under as far as the cockpit. I felt personally responsible. It was a very difficult time. The glamour of Formula 1 had gone, replaced by a sort of loneliness.”

Revson was a dashing playboy – his autobiography, published after his death, was titled “Speed With Style” – and heir to the multi-billion dollar Revlon Cosmetics fortune.

But he was also part of what some called the Revson curse: in addition to Peter being killed in a race car, his brother Douglas died in a race in Denmark in 1967, and then Revson’s F1 replacement, Tom Pryce, died three years later (March 5, 1977) in the same South African Grand Prix track that claimed Peter.

Revson, who was posthumously inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1996, was just starting to hit his stride as a race car driver when he was tragically killed.

He was named rookie of the year in the 1969 Indianapolis 500 after finishing fifth.

The following year, he and late actor Steve McQueen joined together to finish second in the 12 Hours of Sebring.

Revson had an outstanding season in 1971, becoming the first American to win the championship of the Can-Am Series, as well as finished a career-best second in the Indy 500 (he also started that race from the pole).

He joined the McLaren F1 team in 1972 and won two races the following year: the 1973 British Grand Prix and 1973 Canadian Grand Prix (making him the last American-born F1 race winner).

He left McLaren for Shadow in 1974 and had gone early to Kyalami to practice after retiring early in the first two F1 races of the season in Argentina and Brazil.

For two excellent tributes about Revson, check out the video below, as well as click here for a pictorial remembrance from MotorsportRetro.com.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

  1. crunge4461 - Mar 22, 2014 at 6:40 PM

    Wow, this is cool to have a tribute to Revson. Good work here! 40 years ago, wow!

  2. sephb - Mar 23, 2014 at 7:06 AM

    I met Peter that fateful March. I was an 18 year old South African F1 fanatic,at the testing, and had a chance to talk to Mr Revson as we sat on the pit wall in a rather deserted Kyalami. He was so kind to me, actually engaging me in conversation. I had been around other F1 drivers, who tended to be more stand-offish, especially to a kid like me. But he was different, and made a real impression on me. So sad to hear the next day that he had passed away. I was honored to have met him.

    • crunge4461 - Mar 23, 2014 at 11:44 PM

      That is really really a cool story and experience, thank you for sharing.

      You know I think that one of things that F1 has lost these days is approachability of the sport and drivers for fans. The races are so much more expensive and the drivers seems much more inaccessible. This past October I went to the Indy race in Houston and on friday practice I paid 20 bucks and walked around the garages…I chatted with John Andretti, met Johnny Rutherford, and was right there with all the drivers. I wish F1 today were that approachable, instead at Austin you have to pay $100 to park the car on Saturday and the racing isn’t even that good.

  3. huskyfrk - May 19, 2014 at 3:23 PM

    great video. meet him several times in my youth. very charismatic i have a a wall in my garage with pic of him and the cars, its my tribute to him.

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