Brian Redman Remembers Racing's Deadliest Decade

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Marion and Brian Redman at Oulton Park. (Brian Redman Collection)
Marion and Brian Redman at Oulton Park. (Brian Redman Collection)

Brian Redman is now 80 years old. He's charming, with twinkling eyes and a full head of silver-white hair.

He laughs easily — sometimes a bit too easily. But we'll get to that.

During his racing days, Redman's nemesis wasn't another driver or, say, the owner of a rival racing team. It was a race course called Spa.

"Spa-Francorchamps is the name of two villages in the Belgian Ardennes, which is where the Battle of the Bulge was in World War II," says Redman. "It was 8 miles, but these were public roads. It wasn't a track. And we were doing tremendous speeds. And the very first time I went there, in a privately-owned Ford GT40, a great car, I nearly retired from racing on Friday. I couldn't believe, you know, how fast we were going and how fast the corners were."

Between 1966 and 1975, 28 Formula 1 and top professional drivers died. That’s one in three.

"Almost every year that I went to Spa, the night before the race, Saturday night, I'd lie in bed with perspiration running down my head and thinking, 'I'll be dead tomorrow.'"

But the next morning, Redman would climb into his car and drive.

'It's All I Knew What To Do'

At the beginning of his career, Redman was paid $60 a week. Later, he'd get $1,000 per race, or $10,000 per year.

"It wasn't the money," Redman says. "It was the fact that it's all I knew what to do."

Brian Redman had been searching for something he could do — and do well — since he was 16 years old. He had been attending a boarding school in the north of England, until one day, when the headmaster called him into his study.

"And he said, 'Redman, I suggest you leave school. We can't teach you anything.' And I left school at 16," Redman says.

Redman spent three years at catering college, but that didn't work out either. So, he went to talk to the army recruiter.

"And he says, 'What can you do?' Well, I'm not going to say, 'I can cook.' He said, 'Can you drive a three-ton Bedford truck?' I said, 'Yes!' Of course, I'd never been in a truck in my life. Anyway, I drove it around, and I did alright."

After his two-year stint was up, Redman returned home, and took over his grandfather's mop-head business.

"Mop heads," he says. "The things that you clean the floors with."

Along with the business, Redman acquired a Morris 'Woody' — a station wagon that he used to transport his goods.

Marion Redman's husband, Brian Redman (right) faced broken bones, fires and near-death crashes in auto racing.
Many of the races were set in urban areas, with thousands of spectators. (Porsche-Werkfoto)

"And I delivered mop heads all over England at high speed in this Morris 1000," Redman says. "And I thought, 'I'd better get off the road and on the track.' And that's how I started racing."

"And you weren't terribly successful at first, right?" I ask.

"No, hopeless," he laughs. "My very first race was at Rufforth, we're talking 1959. And when the race started, a car comes past me on the inside, a very fast Morris Minor. And on the outside, a Riley 1.5 passed on the other side. I'm in the middle."

This, by the way, is how Redman tells all his stories. He remembers every make, every model of every car that passed him, every corner that challenged him and the smallest details of every time he lost a tire, lost power or almost lost his life.

But back to that very first race.

"So, I'm going down the straight. And my right leg was shaking so much that to hold the throttle open, I had to put my hand on my knee and force the throttle open," Redman says.

Redman finished the race — nowhere near the front. But …

"At last I'd found something that I could do reasonably well," he says.

A Memorable First Date

Soon after Redman fell in love with racing, he fell in love with something, well, someone else.

"I met her in 1960, at which time I had a Mini Minor," he says.

Brian first spotted Marion at a local tennis club dance. His brother, Christopher, was dating Marion's sister, and Brian asked if he could arrange for a double date the following weekend.

"So we get there, and I'm in this hotted up Mini Minor — noisy, low — I mean, terrible," Redman says. At this point I hadn't spoken a word to Marion, not one word. She gets in the front. I'm driving. My brother and Doreen, Marion's sister, are in the back. Within ten minutes, we were chased by the police. I did a runner and got away. So that was our very first date."

A couple of years later, Brian and Marion were married. He still talks about how beautiful she is. But it's Marion's strength that Brian seems to admire the most.

"Underneath, there's a very strong streak," he says. "She was the daughter of a grocer. And if you've heard of Margaret Thatcher, she was the daughter of a grocer."

So, Marion, daughter of a grocer, and Brian, catering college dropout turned Army truck driver turned mop head salesman turned race car driver, started a life together.

'Mr. Redman, It May Not Be Possible To Save Your Arm'

"In the early days," he says, "Marion came with me quite a lot. But as soon as our first child was born, James, in 1965, she really didn't come to many races."

Marion was back home with James in June of 1968, when Brian Redman entered his third race at Spa.

(Brian Redman Collection)
(Brian Redman Collection)

"On the seventh lap, my suspension broke coming into one these fast corners," Redman says. "So I put the brakes on. I'm going 160 mph -- nothing much happened. I had no brakes. And I'm heading for the barrier big time. So I tried to spin, because it's better to go in backwards rather than forwards — you can't see what you're going to hit. Anyway, I had an enormous accident. I hit the barrier, rolled over, my arm got trapped between the car and the barrier. And I hit a parked car, which was thrown on top of another parked car.

"So it was a big drama, huge," he continues. "And about six hours later, I'm on the operating table at the University of Liege teaching hospital. And Professor Ferdinand Orban, he got me on the table and he looks down and says, 'Mr. Redman, it may not be possible to save your arm.' I smiled, and I said, 'Thank you, Professor.' And he says, 'Why are you smiling?' I said, 'Because I'm here.'"

The arm was saved. Redman says this was the first time his wife would learn of his injuries from a TV broadcast.

It would not be the last.

In 1970, Redman found himself back at Spa, teamed up with his friend and co-driver, Jo Siffert. At these long endurance races, drivers would compete in pairs — switching out during pit stops.

Redman and Siffert won the race.

After the awards were handed out, Siffert suggested the pair should go out and have a drink with the mechanics.

"So I go to my wife, and son James was there, and I say, 'Just going for a drink with the mechanics, darling. I'll drop you off at the hotel.' There was a look of grave suspicion. She says, 'What time will you be back?' I said, 'Twelve.' So, anyway, four o'clock, we arrive back at the hotel, and she wouldn't let me in the room. The manager had to come because everybody's being woken up. Anyway — I won't go into the gruesome details — except to say that Porsche were banned from the hotel from then on."

"Did you realize at the time that a lot of the celebration was just because you were alive?" I ask.

"Yes. I think so, yes."

'I Looked Like The Invisible Man'

In 1971, so many of Redman's friends and fellow drivers had died, that he decided he should try something else. He took a job at a car dealership in South Africa. But that only lasted four months. He got an up-close look at apartheid and moved his family back to England.

Brian Redman wasn't without a job for long. Gulf Porsche asked him to join Jo Siffert at the Targa Florio — an endurance race in Sicily. Redman and Siffert had won the race the year before in front of 400,000 spectators. A single lap of the course was 44 miles long — with 800 corners.

"And I thought it's a great opportunity, you know, to get back into the big time," Redman says.

But that's not how things turned out.

"Well, the day before the race, my co-driver, Jo Siffert, crashed the car," Redman says. "So they work all night on it. And right from the start, the handling wasn't normal, you know, the steering wasn't normal. And I got 22 miles around the 44 mile track, and the steering broke. And I hit a stone kilometer post right in the fuel tank, and it exploded. And I somehow got out, and I was burning from head to foot. I was soaked in fuel. It was 45 minutes before any attention came."

Redman calls this his "Joan of Arc" moment -- as he and his car burn at the Targa Florio. (Brian Redman Collection)
Redman calls this his "Joan of Arc" moment -- as he and his car burn at the Targa Florio. (Brian Redman Collection)

"I mean I heard somebody screaming, you know, after the accident," he says. "And it must have been me because there was nobody else there. It was a difficult time, but what do you do?"

The team chartered a plane and flew Redman home the next day.

"I looked like the invisible man — I'm absolutely covered in bandages from head to foot. A friend of ours, Howard Lowcock, had brought my wife to meet the plane. And the door opens and I'm, sort of, being led out. And I heard this thud. And I think, 'Oh, my wife fainted.' And anyway, it was our friend Howard who'd brought her who'd fainted."

Four weeks after being released from the hospital, Redman drove in another race. But his helmet rubbed against the skin grafts on his face, and the doctor told him to take six more weeks off. So he took his family down to the South of France in a travel-trailer. That's when he learned that his good friend, Pedro Rodriguez, had been killed.

Eight weeks later, Brian was back in England, watching a race on television.

"And here, the most disastrous sight that you can see on any circuit, and one we have seen all too often. Cars creeping through on the inside of the fire, fuel all over the road, and we know that it is Jo Siffert's BRM which has crashed."

"The BRM broke something and he hit a banking and turned over," Brian says. "And it caught fire. And all he had was a broken ankle. He was asphyxiated, you know, by the lack of oxygen."

"And what do you do in moments like that? How do you keep doing this job?" I ask.

"Well, I don't know, you just carry on."

'My Heart Had Stopped'

"Did you and Marion ever talk about all these dangers and all the risk you were putting yourself at?" I ask.

"Once," he says. "After I had the accident at Belgium in 1968. And I got back home eventually. She said, 'Darling, I'd like you to stop racing.' And I said, 'I'm not doing it.' And that's the only time we discussed it."

Marion never really expected her husband to quit the sport. He'd fallen in love with racing before she met him, and she knew he wouldn't be the same man if he gave it up.

But Brian Redman's most horrific crash was still to come.

It happened in 1976 at St. Jovite in Canada. Redman was testing a new car in practice and thought it might handle better with a slight modification. His team complied.

"And on the next lap, at 170 mph, it took off," he says. "Went 40 feet in the air, turned over and came down. And that broke my neck, C1, smashed my shoulder, split my breastbone, broke my ribs, the roll bar broke and my head went down on the road. My helmet was worn away at each side. But as it rolled off the track onto the surrounding land, it landed on its wheels, which was a good job. Because my heart had stopped and the track doctor was a heart specialist — he got that going again. And then on the way to hospital, the ambulance blew a tire."

"So when Marion arrived from England the next morning, the headline in the Montreal paper was 'Redman a mort,' — Redman is dead. And it showed the ambulance with the two guys working on the wheel. And the back doors were open and I'm in the back, not looking too good."

"But, of course, you were not dead," I say.

"I was not dead," he says, laughing.

All of Brian Redman’s stories, no matter how horrific, have a punchline. Maybe that's because he's been asked to tell them so often. Or maybe it's just another way he's insulated himself from the dangers of his sport.

But the real punchline to this story would take four decades to reveal itself. Because around the same time as Redman's accident at St. Jovite, the sport started to become safer. Cars were improved. Tracks were improved. Fatalities became the exception, not the rule.

But on that day in 1976, when Brian Redman broke his neck during practice at St. Jovite, Marion Redman was riding a horse back home in England. A wasp stung her mount's nose. She was thrown. But in the aftermath of Brian's accident, she hardly thought it was worth mentioning.

Forty years later, doctors discovered that she had broken her neck that day, too.

Read more about Brian Redman in his memoir, "Brian Redman: Daring Drivers, Deadly Tracks."

This segment aired on October 28, 2017.


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Karen Given Executive Producer/Interim Host, Only A Game
Karen is the executive producer for WBUR's Only A Game.



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