Ever since I read my first novel as a boy in the fifties — The Racer by Swiss veteran Hans Ruesch — I’ve been obsessed with racing and the rare people who pursue it. I loved how racing cars gleamed and swooped and sounded. But just as surely, I wanted to get to know the racers well enough to know why. Given the undeniable risk, I wanted to know how they were able to blithely ignore the menace so clearly facing them.
I even did some racing myself in search of answers. Race driving proved utterly addictive — an intense excitement unlike anything I know. I had the beginnings of an “answer.”
But it wasn’t enough. Racing on an amateur level, as I had done, certainly involved risk, but it was nothing like the pressure faced by a professional racer. In that singular undertaking, everything you are is judged by how bravely you approach mortal risk day after day, fearlessly manipulating it to gain advantage. Those who do that, I was sure, must be extraordinary people. I must get to know them better.
And as sometimes happens, I was presented with a golden opportunity. My senior year in college, Road & Track published my first two automotive stories. I went straight to work at age 23, covering pro racing for several magazines and learning from my ignorance. By 1970, at age 27, I was sent to Europe by Road & Track to cover the bitter battle between the German Porsche 917s and the Italian Ferrari 512s. To this day, these immortal racing cars are thought of with awe and wonderment by those who know racing. Their confrontation in the 1970 World Manufacturer’s Championship is still seen as the greatest season of sports-car racing since the war. Think of it as an entire baseball season, April to November, in which the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox play each other … every day.
For me, that spring was full immersion in the mystery of why racers race. I went from legendary venue to legendary venue — Brands Hatch, Monza, the Targa Florio, Spa-Francorchamps, the Nürburgring, Le Mans — in company with the racers, their wives and girlfriends. We were a tiny, intimate circle of instant friends. And as is to be expected, some of the racers I met were wonderful, while others were trouble. But good, bad or indifferent, I got to know them well. I have continued to cover racing professionally right up to the present day, but no season came close the full immersion I experienced during that 1970 season. It taught me everything I needed to know.
And years later, filled with nostalgia for that experience, I decided I should do a novel about it. I worked on Closing Speed for 15 years, off and on. It is a work of fiction, not a roman à clef, and the characters in it are composites of various people I knew. I’m happy to report that some of the drivers who survived those desperate days—now treasured friends—have read Closing Speed and given it their stamp of approval.
Either the story is good and accurate, or we’ve all lost our collective memory.
The story follows a young American racing reporter (not unlike myself) who goes to Europe to cover the series. Because American racing reporters were something of a rarity in European racing in those days, Nick Thorne is greeted with particular interest. He’s invited to a secret Porsche test session in Germany, and when a serious crash happens right in front of him, Thorne distinguishes himself by saving one of the drivers from disaster. Instantly, he is thrust into the inner circle of the racers. He becomes a close associate of the reigning Grand Prix World Champion, an Englishman now driving for Porsche, and the Champion’s exquisite wife. He gets to know a brilliant young German driver, also on the Porsche team and rising quickly to prominence. As the young German accumulates ever more stellar results, the rivalry between him and the World Champion intensifies.
And Nick Thorne is witness to it all. Unable to stop himself, he is swept up into the maelstrom that follows. In his present circumstances, like it or not, he is forced to understand more about the “why” of racing than he ever bargained for.