This column might present a bit of a stretch, but I’m going to write it anyway and let you decide.
When I see old racing drivers, I see similarities with aging rock stars. Given the plodding evolution of safety equipment in racing and some of the hazards of rock ‘n’ roll, some racing drivers and musicians weren’t lucky enough to get old, but when I look at those who were lucky enough to enter their golden years, I still see the vigor of youth.
Even though I’m still six months away from my next birthday, my mind wandered to the thought when I was reading about the health benefits of using a sauna. According to studies reviewed by Found My Fitness, an internet newsletter by Dr. Rhonda Patrick, regular sauna use has been shown to improve endurance and insulin sensitivity, prevent muscular atrophy and increase neurogenesis, the growth of new brain cells.
That made me think of the heat inside a racecar and those youthful old racers. Even though Carroll Shelby and Dan Gurney are no longer alive, those guys didn’t leave us till they were in their late 80s, and they were lucid and active all the way to the final finish line. A heart transplant helped Shelby along the way, but you get the idea. When I think about Richard Petty or Mario Andretti, who is in his mid 80s, I still see the spark of youth.
When you compare old racers and rock stars with people who work in other professions, you can see a clear distinction. Well, I can. At least, I think I can. Careers that have people mucking about in other peoples’ misery — like politics or law — seem like toil and a pitiless source of decay.
I think it’s a stretch because those sauna studies focused in Finnish men who used a sauna two or three times a week — no one races that much —but I can’t help but think the heat of a racecar is similarly good for a driver, as long as he or she is hydrated. Yes, the theory applies to women, too, of course. When I look at Janet Guthrie or Lynn St. James, who made her first Indy 500 start at age 45 in 1992, she still exhibits that joie de vivre that you only see in old racecar drivers and rock stars.
Obviously, there’s more to it than the heat of a cockpit. I think racing keeps people sharp and young because of the challenges it presents, because of the never-ending nature of it. As racers, we’re always seeking more, never resting, always challenging. If they’re any good, rock stars are always creating, always putting it out there, and I think it has a positive effect on the people who do it. As Sir Jackie Stewart put it so succinctly, “It is not always possible to be the best, but it is always possible to improve your own performance.”
We’re always engaged and striving, and I think that is part of the secret of a racer’s longevity and exuberance, and I’m reminded of a man our own Gary Faules has written about a few times in his “First Gear” column in Speed News. Hershel McGriff was born in 1927 and raced regularly all the way up to 2012 and had a race start at Tucson with Bill McAnally Racing in 2018. Do that math. It’s impressive.
Back in 2014, at the NASA Western States Championships, I interviewed Ralph Bush, who finished third in Thunder Roadster at Sonoma that year. He was 81 years old at the time, and one of my newest heroes.
In all honesty, I can’t really say for sure what it is that makes old racers and rock stars stay young. It’s probably not just the heat and it isn’t just the constant striving, and the joy and cognitive stimulation that can only come from wheeling a racecar. It might even be due in part to the lows of racing, which can be benthic at times. Like so many other things in life, it might stem from a combination of all those things. That seems like less of a stretch.