Craig Murto: Say farewell to some racing legends

Craig Murto

As time moves forward, we lose the legends of our sport.

NASCAR competitor Marvin Panch died a few weeks ago at the age of 89.

Winner of the 1961 Daytona 500 behind the wheel of a Smokey Yunick machine, Panch won 17 races in his NASCAR career, 15 years of which were at the top level.

In 1963 Panch nearly died behind the wheel of an experimental Maserati in a test at Daytona. Among those who helped rescue Panch from the fiery crash was Tiny Lund, who was offered the Wood Bros. ride as Panch’s replacement and went on to win the Daytona 500. Lund was also awarded the Carnegie Medal for Heroism for his lifesaving efforts.

Following the 1966 season Panch quit racing, but later became one of the Motor Racing Network’s first color commentators, bringing the sport into people’s homes through radio broadcasts.

Panch was inducted into the National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame in 1987 and in 1998 was named one of the top 50 drivers by NASCAR.

Many readers have heard of Panch, but most probably have not heard the name Maria Teresa de Filippis. De Filippis was the first woman driver to compete in Formula One, and she died last week at the age of 89.

At the age of 22 she began her career as a race driver, after being goaded by her brothers who expected her to be embarrassingly slow. Instead, she won her first event, and went on to finish second in the 1954 Italian Sports Car championship. Maserati saw her potential and made her a factory driver, competing in hill climbs and endurance races.

Following Juan Fangio’s fifth F1 championship in a Maserati in 1957, the mark withdrew from the sport. Most of the cars remained, however, and were fielded by independent teams. One such team gave de Filippis the chance to qualify for the Monaco Grand Prix, but she failed to make the minimum speed to make the race. She was in good company, however, as another notable name to pack up that weekend was Bernie Ecclestone.

In 1958 de Filippis made the race at Spa in Belgium, and finished 10th. It proved to be her only Grand Prix finish, as mechanical woes kept her from finishing most other races. Then there was the French Grand Prix in which the race steward would not allow her to compete, announcing that the only helmet a woman should have on her head is the one she wears at the hairdresser.

It was reported that de Filippis received a lot of advice from Fangio, who allegedly told her, “You go too fast, you take too many risks.”

There was a lot of tragedy in that era of racing, and following the death of Porsche team leader Jean Behra in a support race for the German Grand Prix in 1959 — a race in which she originally was to compete — she retired from driving and left the sport for 20 years.

In 1979 she joined the International Club of Former F1 Grand Prix Drivers, going on to become the organization’s vice president in 1997. She was also a founding member of the Maserati Club in 2004 and went on eventually to become its chairman.

No other woman raced in F1 for 15 years. Lella Lombardi competed between 1974 and 1976 and is the only woman to finish an F1 race in the points. Four other women competed in the sport, most recently Giovanna Amati in 1992, but it was de Filippis who broke the mold in an era in which women racers were rare, to say the least.

Women racers are not uncommon today, though we don’t see enough of them at the top. I expect that within the next few years we will see another woman in F1, and may see a few more in NASCAR.

It would be nice to see a few more manufacturers involved in NASCAR; now we only have three. That’s anemic compared to the number of manufacturers that support motorcycle racing.

The AMA Supercross season began Saturday night in Anahaim, Calif., with factory KTM, Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki, Yamaha and Husqvarna teams in competition. Jason Anderson scored his first 450 class victory, and gave Husqvarna its first win in the division.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.