Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Best Unknown American Grand Prix Driver

Paul Richard "Richie" Ginther (picture: BARCBoys)

Stirling Moss's tribute to Tony Brooks, "the best unknown racing driver there has ever been," reminded me of Richie Ginther.  He had only one Grand Prix victory, Mexico in 1965.  But he had lots of high finishes and drove for factory teams from 1960 through 1967.  He drove at LeMans from 1957 through 1960 (in privately-entered Ferraris).  He drove Ferrari factory sports cars in 1961 and GT 40's for Ford 1964-1966.

Ginther grew up in Santa Monica, CA, and went to work in Douglas Aircraft's tool and die shop after high school.  He got into racing through his older brother's acquaintance with Phil Hill.  His first race was in a Ford-engined MG TC in 1951.  After two years in the Air Force as a mechanic during the Korean War, he was Phil's riding mechanic in Ferraris in the Carrera Panamerica in 1953 and 1954. They were DNF in '53 when Hill crashed the car and 2nd to a factory Ferrari in '54.

Ginther's success in his own race cars got him rides in Johnny Von Neumann's Porsche 550 Spyders and Ferraris, which in turn brought him to the attention of Luigi Chinetti, Ferrari's representative in the States, and rides with Chinetti's North American Racing Team.  This filled in his resume from 1955 through 1958.

Ginther won a lot of races for Johnny Von Neumann's Continental Motors, the California distributor for Porsche and
Ferrari, in the mid-1950's.  Von Neumann's competition numbers were always 11 or some three-digit variation of it.
(Von Neumann usually took several cars to a meet and often drove himself, as did his step-daughter.)  Above: an early
version of the Smiley Face on Von Neumann's Porsche 550 Spyder; below, Ginther in Von Neumann's Ferrari 250 TR.

Ginther in the Ferrari 156 at the French Grand Prix at Reims, 1961.  Reims was notorious for its July heat, which caused
the tar in the pavement to bleed to the surface.  The organizers' solution to the problem was to sprinkle gravel around,
which the cars' tires threw at those following.  Cracked goggle lenses and facial cuts were not uncommon at Reims.
Ferrari's standards of preparation were high, but any Formula 1 car looked pretty used up after a weekend there.

Ginther had a one-off drive for Ferrari in Formula 1 in 1960.  In 1961 he was the Number Three  factory driver, behind Phil Hill and Wolfgang Von Trips.  By this time, he had a well-earned reputation as a development driver based on ten years of experience wrenching and driving his own and Von Neumann's cars.  When Ginther left Ferrari, he was picked up by BRM as their Number Two driver (to Graham Hill) for Formula 1 and by Ford for their GT 40 program.  In 1965 Honda hired him as Number One for their new Formula 1 team.  Here are Ginther's finishing positions in the World Driving Championship for his five full years in Formula 1:

                                           1961   5th   (Ferrari)
                                           1962   8th   (BRM)
                                           1963   3rd   (BRM)
                                           1964   5th   (BRM)
                                           1965   7th   (Honda)

Daytona 1965: Phil Remington (left) and Ginther (center) confer with Bob Bondurant (in car) during practice.  In the
race Bondurant/Ginther came third behind the other Shelby GT 40 (driven by Ken Miles and Lloyd Ruby) and a Cobra
Daytona coupe driven by Schessler/Keck/Johnson.  Ginther drove for the GT 40 program from 1964 through 1966.  

Honda hired Ginther as their Number One because he was an excellent development driver with a team-player approach and experienced on the European courses.  Also because he was American, a market where Honda was getting ready to sell cars as well as motorcycles.  (Ronnie Bucknum, another American, was Honda's Number Two.)  Despite its power, the Honda RA-272 was uncompetitive at first. By season's end, Ginther had helped develop it into a car that was on pace, if not a winner.  They won the last race of the season, in Mexico.  It was Ginther's only Grand Prix victory and Honda's first.

Above and below: "Hmmmmmmm...." and (finally) victory in the Honda RA-272 1.5 liter V-12 in Mexico in 1965.

Ginther retired from racing in 1967.  He was working on qualifying a Gurney Eagle for the Indianapolis 500 when a fuel line let go, soaking him.  Earlier in his career he had been burned, painfully but not seriously.  And, like all drivers of his era, he had lost plenty of associates to accidents.  He pulled into the pits and walked away.

In the modern era, since the advent of carbon fiber, fuel cells, and h.a.n.s. devices, "front-rank drivers never die, they just slowly fade away" (to borrow a quote from Douglas MacArthur).  Well...they rarely die, and usually give TV interviews after spectacular crashes.  They lose a step to their younger competitors, or they get bored, or other things become more important to them.  But in Ginther's era, you picked your time to quit when you just couldn't justify the risk any more.  Or an accident picked it for you.

Ginther died of a heart attack in a Paris hotel in 1989, on vacation with his family.

Counting the cost: Ginther (back to camera, in Goodyear jacket) turns away from the wreckage of Walt Hansgen's Ford
GT 40 Mark II at the LeMans Test Days, April, 1966.  Hansgen, ten years older and even more experienced in big-bore
sports cars than Ginther, lost control in the rain in the fast Dunlop Bridge sweeper and hit a bank nearly head-on.  He
died a few days later of internal injuries.

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