Race Drivers and Astronauts: The Heroes That Led Us Through the 1950s

November 1, 2021

Time to take a look back at history. For me, the European auto racing scene of the ‘50s is the absolute epitome of motor sport. It was a time of incredible advancements in technology that forged legendary racers. The drivers performed in life or death conditions and were the embodiment of bravery. Their feats inspired and lifted a continent after the ravages of WWII. Farina, Fangio, Ascari, Hawthorn, Moss -- I have read their biographies and they are all heroes to me. 

In America, we knew nothing about them, because we had our own to focus on. While we had race drivers too, they barely registered. (Can you name an American racer from the 50s?) Rather, the focus of every American in those times were the test pilots, and eventually astronauts, who bravely took us into the Space Age, with names such as Yeager, Shepard, and Carpenter to name a few. They too risked everything to advance technology and the nation’s interests, but in a different arena, driven by America’s highest priority.

The historical parallels are uncanny. They didn’t share a geography or a common field of play, but there are many common threads between these seemingly disparate groups. One was made of clean-cut, patriotic military pilots. The other a ragtag crew who spent their time away from the track drinking, smoking and womanizing. (The pilots surely did that too, but that didn’t make it into Life magazine!) Yet, both groups played key roles in the post-war recovery. 

Risking It All

Undoubtedly, the danger these guys eagerly faced is the first thing we think of. Whether you strapped yourself into a grand prix car or in front of a rocket engine, there was no margin of error. If something went wrong, death was almost certain. 

Regarding motorsports, Hemingway captured the gravity of it: “There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.” (Death in the Afternoon, 1932)

Gravel traps and safety barriers at tracks? Ha! You’re lucky if there’s a hay bale. Nor were there safety belts or fire suits, and helmets were, shall we say, more decorative than functional. In Formula One alone 30 drivers died at the wheel during the decade. I couldn’t locate accurate reports for sports car races but the 1955 Le Mans tragedy and the 1957 Mille Miglia crash killed nearly 100 people in total. When you read the drivers’ biographies, it is an unceasing stream of obituaries. Yet, they ignored the risk and competed for the fame and  glory of race wins.

1957 Mille Migla - De Portago shortly before his deadly crash.

The test pilot program had an even higher casualty rate, with on average one pilot perishing each week in the 1950s. The best of the best pilots then became the first astronauts in 1959 when the Mercury Seven were named. The space program ended up having a very low casualty rate, but I can bet it didn’t feel safe when you were sitting on that launchpad! 

Danger is the tempering that forges a hero out of a mere mortal. We look at them and we must admire them. They pushed human performance to new heights, in spite of the sacrifices many of them made to get there. 

Catalysts of Industry

While we admired them, they didn’t exist in a vacuum. (Okay, maybe the astronauts did.) Race drivers and astronauts were players in a much bigger economic game. 

In post-war Europe, the countries were devastated. Rebuilding their economies was a top priority. The factories were getting back onto a peacetime footing and the automotive industry was ready to contribute. Auto racing was a big part of promoting passenger automobiles, getting the masses excited, and building the reputation of the brands. 

Racing also created aspirational consumerism. While the masses were driving in Volkswagens and FIATs, the desire to move up to a Mercedes or a Ferrari was a potent byproduct of racing too. It may not have been as direct as Detroit’s “race on Sunday, sell on Monday” mantra, but it wasn’t far off either.

Yeager on cover of Time.

On the other side of the Atlantic, it was about growing the aviation industry -- as well as the military-industrial complex. Jets, and later rockets, were not for consumers, but they did build public support for the vast military investments that were underway. The test pilots were the clean-cut lads that everyone wanted to see succeed. It was not an accident that Chuck Yeager became the most famous man in the world when he broke the sound barrier in 1947

Peacetime Nationalism

The 50s were a time to regroup for Europe, but the flames of nationalism did not just disappear. Motorsport provided a way to express national pride in peacetime. The drivers became proxies for warriors, and their battlefields were the tracks of Europe, armed with the best cars from Great Britain, Germany, Italy, and France. The hopes of the people were pinned on their drivers as folks listened in to radio broadcasts. Their wins, and that of their manufacturers, were wins for their nation, and for their people. 

Auto racing was one of the few sports that was conducted across borders. Whereas most sports competitions are performed with little regard for geography, that was not the case in the 1950s. Motorsports, bicycling, and winter sports were played across the European continent, but not much else.  Football (ya know, the game that actually uses the foot) was quite parochial then, with the exception of the World Cup. 

For America, the competition was on a grander stage, with the playing field being the “final frontier.” The U.S. needed to celebrate its military and technological prowess, and the test pilots became the vessels of patriotism and righteousness. 

They Got Us Through

Both groups of men were products of their time and helped navigate a tricky post-war period. While we celebrate the men who drove these awe-inspiring cars, their impact was far greater than just winning a few races. The same goes for the “jet jockeys” who broke the sound barrier and ultimately the bonds of Earth. They were deservedly touted as heroes for the courage which lifted nations, both spiritually and economically. 

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