It's trivia time: Who was the very first American to podium in F1? The answer is Masten Gregory (on his F1 debut, nonetheless). When did Ferrari last win Le Mans overall and who drove? Masten Gregory and future World Champion Jochen Rindt in 1965. Those weren’t flukes, either, as Gregory amassed quite the impressive palmares during his 20-year career in both Formula One and sports car racing.
His American contemporaries carry names familiar to most fans, and include greats such as Phil Hill, Carroll Shelby, Dan Gurney, Peter Revson, and Richie Ginther. Sadly, Gregory is never mentioned among these legends. Shelby said, "Gregory was the fastest American to ever go over and race a Grand Prix car."
The more I learned about the driver in the Coke-bottle glasses, the more unfair that sounds for such a groundbreaking driver who was the first American-born driver to regularly compete in Formula One. (Plus, he had a habit of jumping out of cars at speed right before they crashed. So there’s that.)
Born in the depths of the Depression in 1932, Masten’s dad died when he was a toddler. As he reached adulthood in Kansas City, Missouri, he dropped out of school early to marry his sweetheart at age 19. Being independent and married allowed him to claim his inheritance from the proceeds of the sale of his father’s insurance business, which was a tidy sum.
He had a passion for racing, which he shared with his older brother. In 1952, he immediately went out and bought a race car at just 20 years of age. In November 1952, he drove his first race, an SCCA meet in Oklahoma. His second was at Sebring, and both ended in DNFs. His breakthrough came early on in Oklahoma. It was only his third race, and he was in his Chrysler-powered Allard.
Gregory switched over to Jaguar in 1953. He won the Guardsman Trophy race in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in an XK120. The next day, the headline read: “Kansas City Unknown Cops Big Car Race.” Next up, he took his Jag and beat Carroll Shelby, who was in a Ferrari 340 ‘Mexico’ at another SCCA event in Omaha.
He continued to finish at or near the top, which earned Gregory an invitation to fly to Argentina in January 1954, and race in the 1000km of Buenos Aires. He was among a who’s who on the grid filled with champions of the day. Remember, this is only 15 months after his first race! (Unfortunately, his water pump failed, so he only ended up in 14th.)
His meteoric rise got the attention of European teams. Off he went to Europe, and was immediately competitive with his fearless style of racing, primarily in Ferraris. Not long after his arrival, Masten Gregory won the prestigious RAC Tourist Trophy, and later placed first at the inaugural Nassau Speed Week.
He came back to the USA in 1956 and racked up plenty of wins. On his return to the 1000km of Buenos Aires in January 1957, he came out on top of a star-studded field that included Moss, Fangio, Behra, Collins, and others. (Even my friend, the Argentine Nestor Salerno!)
Masten Gregory was invited to join the notable F1 privateer team Scuderia Centro Sud, which was running a Maserati 250F. His first race was the 1957 Monaco Grand Prix, and what did he do? He qualified tenth and then (with a helping of good fortune) finished right behind Fangio and Brooks for an out-of-the-blue podium. As the F1 season continued, Masten Gregory acquitted himself well with two fourth places, ending up sixth in the Driver’s Championship after entering just half of the races.
Masten Gregory had a lot of close calls. Remember, in that era, tragedy was commonplace. In fact, after his big win in Buenos Aires, his co-driver, the famed Italian Luigi Musso, perished just six weeks later.
Gregory was a driver who raced without fear, and pushed lesser equipment to its limit -- and often beyond. While it earned him admirers, he was fortunate to have survived this portion of his racing career in one piece.
In November 1957 at the Venezuelan Grand Prix, Gregory was running the newly introduced Maserati 450S. This was the most powerful car of its day, but it was rough around the edges due to an accelerated development timeline. Against tradition, Gregory insisted that the team install a rollbar. As the race opened, Gregory passed Mike Hawthorn’s Ferrari, and while in the lead on the second lap, he clipped a protective sandbag. The car flipped over on its top, but he was able to crawl out from under the wreckage with a few cuts to his face.
His trademark move was the “high-speed bailout” in which Gregory would stand up in the cockpit (remember, no pesky seatbelts in those days) and leap out right before impact. Gregory performed this maneuver when his steering broke during the 1959 Tourist Trophy, moments before his Ecurie Ecosse Tojeiro-Jaguar smashed into an embankment and burst into flames. Gregory was hospitalized with a broken leg and shoulder, but it would have been fatal had he stayed put.
Over time, his aggressive racing style settled down. Gregory moved to the innovative Cooper-Climax team for the 1959 season, alongside his antipodean teammates Jack Brabham and Bruce McLaren. He raced well that season and scored his best F1 finish, with a second in Portugal and another third in the Dutch GP. However, the team did not renew his contract. After that, he bounced around to smaller teams, and his F1 career waned until finally ending in 1965.
Masten Gregory went back to his sports car roots, entering Le Mans in Jaguar D-Types in both 1958 and 1959. In 1960 and 1961, the Maserati ‘Birdcage’ was his weapon of choice. In 1962, he and co-driver Bob Holbert took a Porsche 718/4 RS Spyder to a class win at Le Mans.
Shifting back to Ferrari, he co-drove the famed 250 GTO in the subsequent edition of Le Mans, and scored a third-place finish for Luigi Chinetti’s North American Racing Team, better known as NART. The Ford Motor Company team lured him away to join the Ford GT40 team in its debut year of 1964. Gregory and Ginther teamed up, but they only made it to the sixth hour before the gearbox went kaput.
While he was successful at Le Mans, and in other sports car races, he had not yet won the "big one" -- overall at the Le Mans 24 Hours. In 1965, Gregory was invited by Luigi Chinetti to race the NART 250LM, the first-gen mid-engined prototype from Ferrari. It was cutting edge, with a 3.3L V-12, double-wishbone independent suspension, disk brakes, and all wrapped up in a tubular space frame.
The race got off to a terrible start for the #21 car of Gregory and Rindt. After only four hours, and being left in the dust by the Fords, the Ferrari was badly misfiring. The problem was tough to diagnose, so the car sat idle in the pits for 30 minutes during which they changed the distributor. Surely, the #21’s race was over. In fact, Rindt had changed into his street clothes and was ready to leave. However, when the car was ready, they both agreed to go all out to the finish.
When back on the track, the NART Ferrari was in 18th position. The competition started to implode while the NART Ferrari steamed ahead. At mid-race in the dark of night, they were in second place and were lapping 5 seconds quicker than the leading car, another privateer Ferrari.
In the morning, the leader blew a tire on the Mulsanne Straight. By the time they got back on the track, Gregory and Rindt were five laps clear. Close to the end of the race, the differential was letting go, but Gregory nursed it home. It was Ferrari’s ninth overall win, and sixth in a row. Sadly (and somewhat surprisingly), it is also the last time Ferrari won the overall at Le Mans.
Masten Gregory continued racing for a while longer in sports cars. He ended up making 16 starts in Le Mans -- still a record for an American and is one of ten Americans to win. Gregory is also in the select club of 19 drivers that has raced in the Triple Crown of Motorsport and been victorious in at least one race.
After racing, he moved to Amsterdam and worked in the diamond business. He died of a heart attack in 1985 at the age of 53.
Masten Gregory was a true pioneer. He was the first to lead Americans into the top echelons of European racing. He was there before Hill, Shelby, and all of his other contemporaries. Had things worked out a little differently (like Enzo Ferrari rating him a bit better to offer him an F1 seat), it is realistic to believe he would have been the first American to win an F1 race, and perhaps could have even won a World Championship.