DAVID PURLEY: WHAT BRAVERY REALLY MEANS

A Biography by Klaus Ewald

> Man is given a wide road. He only has to use it <

( Niki Lauda)

This is the story of a man I am remembering always with highest respect. In his life being really not so long, he became only 40 years of age, he had shown so extraordinary performances without getting sufficient praise for it. Surely, Queen Elizabeth already had him honoured with the George Medal, but long before the end of the 20th century he had been a personality, only remembered by a few people in the still tradition-conscious British society. As well the cultivation of tradition is not only an essential part of existence on the military sector but also in motorsport. This is also a story of tragedy, death and terrible defeats at the limits of human life.

Tom Wheatcroft is an inventive ghost. In Donington Park the building contractor from Leicester had founded the biggest racing car museum in the world, the Donington Grand Prix Collection. And in the seventies he had given a new life to the famous Grand Prix circuit in the Midlands, partly under very turbulent circumstances and at the beginning against the hard resistance of the authorities. Later also the heavy metal freaks of the Monsters of Rock festival had arrived at Donington, but that I had not considered that being very comfortable, of course. Here Ayrton Senna had driven the greatest race of his career at the Easter 1993 Grand Prix of Europe. Before World War II Dick Seaman, Bernd Rosemeyer, Tazio Nuvolari and Hermann Lang (who had attended the official re-opening on 6th March 1977) had entered the winners´lists. There are more then one hundred famous racing cars on exhibition, a lot of accessoires of historic meaning, but also a wreck: Many years ago I stood, more unbelieving than shocked, in front of the remnants of David Purley´s Lec Ford, when a young mother tried to explain her little daughter, may be three years of age, the incomprehensible to a child. "That man had sustained the same as it once had happened to Niki Lauda, but he is dead now." She could not imagine, that David Purley had been in best health condition again after intensive medical treatment. Later the Donington administration put a board in front of the wreck explaining everything.

Bruges on the Belgian side of the Strait of Dover is a sea voyagers´ town with a tradition of centuries, the lot of canals make it to the Venice of the West. Here David Purley had spent some time in a special hospital to cure his leg injuries. How rubble fractures can be treated that way to regain most of the legs´ moveability, that explained to me a young female surgeon from a the region of Stuutgart. At that time I had to stay in a special clinic myself, less hurt, but because of the pain I had not been able to sleep for some nights inspite having taken heaviest medicine. Simply expressed, the single fragments of the bones are drilled and fitted with pins made out of steel. After that the pins are fixed by wires for the bones to be completed again. It is self-evident, that this can be done only done step by step. Each operation makes a general anaesthetic and blood transfusions necessary, it also contains the risk of fat-embolism. This way Didier Pironi had been under surgery twentytwo times and for this reason Patrick Depailler had been out of sleep for 42 days.
Even from the hospital David Purley had written a letter to me, shortly before the 1979 British Grand Prix , that he had attended as a guest of honour, a race bringing the first ever victory for the team of Frank Williams with Clay Regazzoni in the cockpit.
Two years before there had been, also in Silverstone, an accident very similar to an air-crash. During Friday´s free practice session there had been a very small fire in the engine section of the Lec Ford to be wiped out by a conventional fire extinguisher without any problems. A fact not to be known those days was, that the extinguishing substance mixed with fuel makes a chemical reaction to become a mass like concrete also drying very fast. During pre-qualifying, by the way won by Grand Prix novice Gilles Villeneuve in a McLaren Ford M23, when David Purley had been on full speed for Becketts Corner, the throttle, blocked by the hardened substance, got stuck on full opening. Purley crashed against a sand bank, the monocoque was pushed together like an accordion and a post of a catch fence also destroyed his helmet. It took 30 minutes to free Purley from the car, because electrical drills and saws had to be used. Like being a miracle, he had sustained no head injuries, but the fractures of legs and pelvis were bad enough. To learn by experience often is the worst form to develop yourself, but from this point on at every car a fire extinguisher had been used at, the engine had to be changed. Halon, as a gas leaving no rests, is bad for the environment and so it´s use is only allowed in the case of lives being in danger.
In the middle of the seventies Grand Prix teams had not been in the need for so big factories like being necessary in the 21th century. Also the infrastructure had been much more moderate and testing sessions being neccessary had taken place at Goodwood or the Circuit Paul Ricard. Ferrari (at Fiorano) and Lotus (at Hethel) had got test tracks of their own, not at last, because both were producing cars for road use in contrast to most of their rivals. In 1977 David Purley had established himself as a constructor in his own rights, in the same year as the French state owned group Renault. Mike Pilbeam, earlier being responsible for the excellent chassis of the B.R.M. types of P160E and P201, today producing sportscars and single-seater for hillclimb racing under his own name, had constructed him a solid car. On the first sight, there had been a certain similarity to the Japanese Kojima Ford appearing around the same time not to be denied. That Purley had been able to survive his accident not at last could happen because of the phantastic work of Pilbeam. Already at the debut of the Lec Ford CRP1 at the Race of Champions David Purley had finished 6th position and in the rain chaos of the Belgian Grand Prix, he even fought for the lead against Niki Lauda´s Ferrari. There also had been a collision with the Austrian, but Purley was able to take the first place for a short while and when he came in for a tyre change in lap 22, he was on fifth place after all.

If you drive along the coast road from Dover to go to Goodwood, after some time you come, via the famous seaside resort of Brighton, to the little town of Bognor Regis. There David Purley was born as the son of a middle-class enterpreneur during the last days of World War II. We are belonging to the family was the advertising slogan of Siemens for many years. The same can be said for Lec; refrigerators and freezers from Bognor Regis are standing in most British households and also in the Commonwealth the market share is enormously high. In the Iceland branches, that are selling both froozen food and fridges as you can see from their name, Lec products are those of the higher demand and for this reason they are not really cheap in comparison to that ones of their competitors. Lec Refrigeration Ltd. spent the biggest part of the advertising budget on their domestic made Grand Prix car as it was done by German Guenter Schmid at his light metal wheel factory ATS and in Brazil by the sugar group Copersucar at the Fittipaldi team. The step from the simple sponsor to being a constructor did not bring enormous prestige, know how and above all publicity, but the company also saved a lot of taxes.

David Purley was a man of a lot of talents and enormous involvement in many sectors. For six years he had served in the armed forces of Her Majesty as an elite soldier at the paratroopers. He was an enterpreneuer and a son of the chairman of Britain´s Leading Refrigerators, one of the biggest electronic companies in the whole United Kingdom. He was driver and team principal in personal union. Both as a sportsman and as a citizen he was respected. And he was a pilot of extraordinary quality. Best his life and work can be compared with that one of famous Swiss Jo Siffert, who had been killed in a B.R.M. on the climax of his career at Brands Hatch in October 1971. As a patriot Purley nearly exclusively drove British Formula One cars, not always of best quality, but there has to be a clear differentiation between performance and success, often does not happen in modern media society. Surely, the Connew Ford of 1972 was the worst car of it´s time by far, but the March Ford 721G, the vehicle David Purley had given his debut in Formula One at the Rothmans 50 000 at Brands Hatch, also was driven by Mike Beuttler beside Ronnie Peterson and Niki Lauda. The March Ford 731G, for costs saving reasons also on the base of a commercial Formula 2 chassis, was a good car for the middle of the field. The Token Ford of 1974, that had gone through so many hands, could have become good, if Ron Dennis had not stopped his involvement so early. The Lec Ford of 1977 could not show it´s true potential, for that reason the accident had come too early. With the exception of Brabham and McLaren, already being smaller groups of companies, the driver-constructor teams had got the problem of the whole structure collapsing for the case of the central figure being forced out of the business. When David Purley had recovered so far two years after the accident, that he had been able to work again, there had been no chance to start, where he once had to stop before from one second to another. The system, that he had built up until 1977, crowned by the title of a European Formula 5000 Champion of 1976, did not exist any longer. At least he was able to buy two older Shadow Ford from Don Nichols. At that time he was 34 years of age, and that was no real reason to retire from active competition. The people in motorsport, no matter, if they are drivers, technicians or journalists, are involved in this sport, because they love it more than anything else, not to strive for money or prestige. Motor Racing People ever have been one big family, everywhere in the world; television and later the internet only had made them much faster communicate. If you are beaten, no matter caused by which reason, the greatest moral duty is to stand up again. Only loosers are withdrawing from this duty and in some rare cases disloyalty is tried to be hidden behind open displayed sloppiness. That is reckless and also primitive. Already shortly after his recovery David Purley had accepted the challenge again. With the Shadow Ford he took part in the rounds of the British Formula One Championship with serious competitors racing, many of them supplied with Grand Prix experience. Guy Edwards, Kevin Cogan, Eliseo Salazar, always charming Spanish count Emilio de Villota and South Africa´s sweetheart Desirée Wilson, by the way the only woman ever winning a Formula One race, were one of the people to beat. But with the old American car there was not much to be done against the rivals using well prepared British equipment. Responsibility cannot be shared, it is not collective, but individual. David Purley had the choice between conflicting rights, between his ambitions as a professional racing motorist, also his duty for his country and his responsibility he had got as an enterpreneur. There had been a family owned company with a certain tradition with a lot of employées and their families, competing on the world market, more and more determined by the big international companies, on the electronic field more and more the aggressively attacking Asians. The examples of AEG and Grundig have shown, that also brands of international reputation are not sure against being shattered. To decide for his company and against motor racing was a resolution of great wisdom and extraordinary rationality of David Purley, who also was a husband and a father of two children. To withdraw from this kind of competition emotionally is nearly impossible.

When we are learning the Latin language when being pupils, and I can only advise to do that also in the 21st century, we are learning so much more than vocabulary and grammar (I conceed, that this makes a certain amount of work neccessary). Above all we are learning a lot about man, his nature and his way to react in different situations. Rome had been an agricultural society with only a few intellectuals (they had been taken as slaves from Greece). And they had been a military superpower, that can be called imperialistic using a modern definition. Virtus, bravery comes from vir,man. Modern society, often dominated by cheap amusement, not to forget money, also abused as a good, has already forgotten that fact. But for knowing it we only must have a look into a dictionary.
The seventies had been the Vietnam in international motorsport. Most of the fatal accidents already had been able to be prevented by means available at that time. But often incompetence, thoughlessness or a lack of professionalism caused a chain reaction of circumstances with fatal consequence. At Jochen Rindt in 1970 it had been not different from Ronnie Peterson eight years later. But if the described reasons are added by cowerdice of those persons being responsible, also God is not able to protect from the worst.

David Purley, the man from the South coast, and Roger Williamson from the Midlands were friends. They had much in common from the pretty hard early days of their careers they shared, in spite of the fact, that they had to be rivals, especially in the tough British Formula 3. Like Tom Wheatcroft Williamson came from Leicester, where the building contractor was running a company for the restauration of historic racing cars. During the middle of the seventies Wheatcroft also had competed pretty successfully in Formula 2; also the Wheatcroft Hart had been designed by Mike Pilbeam. Incidentally the driver had been Brian Henton, who later had become European Champion with Toleman, before he had got the difficult task of pioneer work in Grand Prix Racing for the Whitney based team. Henton is living in the little town of Donington as a motorcycle dealer. Tom Wheatcroft is more than a commercial sponsor, as a real enthusiast he is more likely a patron, we had known from music or art in the past (and today we can rarely find such persons). While Purley had found financial backing from his family owned company Lec, this part at Williamson had been taken by the wealthy Tom Wheatcroft. Their cooperation once had begun at the most important Formula 3 race of those days, the little Grand Prix of Monaco, and their way lead directly into Formula One.
At March Engineering Ltd. in Bicester´s Murdoch Road money always had been short since the days of the company´s foundation. That had developed to a permanent affair until the bitter end at the beginning of the nineties. In 1973 the financial means only were enough for the entrance of a single Grand Prix racing car of the 731G type (that had got it´s basis in the commercial Formula 2 chassis of the same year as it´s predecessor) inspite of the main sponsor STP Oil Treatment from the USA. This car was driven by Jean Pierre Jarier from France, who should bring the Formula 2 European title to Bicester and especially to Munich with a March BMW works car, and he really did it in a convincing way. With Formula One and Two at the same date, the lower category had got priority, making the 731G works car available for another driver. Jarier was supported by the French furniture manufacturer ARNOLD, with whom he shared a close friendship, as his personal sponsor, but that money should go directly to the cashdesk of March. Before the 1973 British Grand Prix there obviously some difficulties had existed with the payments from France. Max Mosley, the managing director of March, and Tom Wheatcroft pretty fast came to an agreement making Roger Williamson taking part already in Silverstone and not only in Zandvoort, where he should replace Jarier regularly. Before Wheatcroft had tried hard to make Williamson enter the third Tyrrell Ford at the side of Jackie Stewart and Francois Cevert, but Uncle Ken had not been depending on additional sponsor money, particularly he had refused an attractive offer of Marlboro becoming the title sponsor of his worldchampionship winning team some months before. Roger Williamson did not come to far at his maiden Grand Prix; he stranded as the other novice Jochen Mass (in a snow-white Surtees Ford) in the mass collision shortly after the start caused by Jody Scheckter.
At March they had decided to make their Grand Prix cars, of nearly the same standard as their works entry, available for some private entrants also in 1973. Lord Hesketh founded his private team at Towcester near Silverstone and received a 731G on a leasing base, soon modified by Dr Harvey Postlethwaite by his own ideas and being driven, completely in white livery, by James Hunt. Mike Beuttler was supported by the stockbrokers Clarke, Mordaunt, Guthrie & Durlacher and the car of the Cairo born and in 1989 at the age of only 45 years in San Francisco died Briton was yellow like a lemon. The Lec colours, dark blue with a white and red stripe each, were represented for five races by David Purley. His sponsor contract, that is reported by reliable sources, should have got a value of £ 20.000, in today´s purchasing power about EUR 400.000 . At their Grand Prix debut in Monaco Hunt and Purley showed pretty good performances for being novices.

The East Tunnel at Zandvoort is no street underpass like in Monte Carlo or Detroit. At this 230 km/h fast section the armco barriers are pretty close to the track. In most cases the circuit of the Dutch seaside resort is secured by catch fences with massive wooden posts, because the sand in the dunes makes the construction of crash-barriers extremely difficult. The East Tunnel is the place, where Frank Williams had lost his first Grand Prix driver back in 1970. Why the de Tomaso Ford, that had been designed in Italy by the young engineer Gianpaolo Dallara, had left the track to trigger a giant fire inferno, never had been detected. Purley had not been able to be on the grid at Silverstone because of an accident in practice (there had not been a spare car for each driver available at that time), and because of that fact, the Dutch Grand Prix had been the first common race in Formula One for him and Williamson. Then destiny had tied up the friends forever.
If the seventies had been the Vietnam in motorsport, the Dutch Grand Prix 1973 was the same as the massacre of My Lai. Behind leading Ronnie Peterson (who was classified only 11th position caused by a defect gearbox six laps before the end of the race, then Tyrrell Ford 006s of Stewart and Cevert won) Williamson and Purley had been fighting in the middle of the field. At the beginning of the race they had been able to overtake the Shadow Fords of Graham Hill (in the colours of his private Embassy team) and George Follmer (of the works UOP outfit). In lap 8 Williamson already had been on 13th position, Purley had been close behind. During this lap the man from Leicester had sustained a technical defect, a puncture or a broken suspension and the corresponding traces had burnt into the asphalt. The red March Ford turned over several times at high speed, then it stopped upside down. From the engine section flames came, but at that time it was not the fire catastrophe with Courage as the victim three years ago. Williamson had survived the high speed crash nearly unhurt and he also was conscious, but without any assistance from outside, he was not able to free himself from the cockpit. David Purley had stopped at once, but the marshals did not make any real trials to stop the threatening danger. Purley himself had taken a fire extinguisher, then he tried to turn up the car alone, what caused injuries for himself. From second to second the fire became worse, the smoke became thicker. The marshals and three firemen refused to help Purley turning up the car. The race direction neither wanted to stop the race nor to make a fire engine, being only 50 metres apart from the accident, come into action. Purley gave signs to the other drivers still competing to make them stop and help him turning over the car. But in the growing curtain of smoke they had to be extremely careful not to get in danger theirselves. And they were not able to notice, that there someone was in extreme danger for loosing his life; it was also impossible, because from the race direction there was no information available for them. Finally Purley asked some spectators (who are in fact never allowed to intervene, as you can read in all race programmes) to help, but the police with their dogs drove them away from the place of the crash. After nearly four minutes, when finally the fire brigade appeared, no rescue was needed, but only a recovery. Denny Hulme, who was called The Bear, as the president of the GPDA (Grand Prix Drivers Association) he had twice tried to make the race direction stop the event by giving signs with his hands at start and finish, but they did not react in any manner. After the race Hulme spoke of Murder. Jackie Stewart, who had definitely beaten Jim Clark´s record with his 26th career victory, was taken away any happiness about his own performance. And young Niki Lauda, even burdened with the giant debts of his year at March in 1972, made a mistake when being asked, why he had not stopped and helped: " I am paid for driving, not for parking." But at that time, he was not even informed, what really had happened in lap eight of the 1973 Dutch Grand Prix at the East Tunnel. Lauda had, when knowing the terrible truth, corrected his statement at once and lasting. At the end of August 1991, when Michael Schumacher was on the way to start his unique Grand Prix career in a Jordan Ford green like a frog, I was sitting with some young people at a camp fire in Burnenville, not far away from the place, where Graham Hill and Bob Bondurant had rescued Jackie Stewart from a bent and fuel flooded B.R.M. cockpit. Two of them had been direct eye-witnesses standing as teenagers absolutely near to the place of the accident and they were able to describe me every detail. After checking the all the sources I have got no doubts, that all the things they have reported to me, are real facts. But not only reverence, but also human decency demands, that I will not give you here further details. In Zandvoort there had been lied, hushed up, disguised. The German ONS rescue team, at that time the most modern institution being available for motorsport safety in the world, supplied with doctors, rescue equipment and already with halon fire extinguishers, had not been employed by the organizers, not because they wanted to save the DM 2600 (today about EUR 5000) salary. It had been the national egoism, that had prevented the employment of the German crew in the Netherlands.

David Purley had been decorated with the George Medal, he also received the Siffert Trophy, the Prix Rouge et Blanc. Everybody lived that through, knows, what he just had been doing, when John F. Kennedy had been shot at Dallas in 1963, when Jochen Rindt had died in Monza 1970 and when Bin Laden´s suicide terrorists had destroyed the World Trade Center in 2001. At these shocking opportunities you remember also trivial details like the clothes you had worn or what food you had had. The life of the Grand Prix driver, constructor, enterpreneur, soldier and pilot David Purley, G.M. ended in the summer of 1985, where it had begun fourty years before during the last winter of World War II, at the South coast of Great Britain marked by extraordinary beauty. Like Ron Flockard, Graham Hill, Tony Brise, Carlos Pace and Harald Ertl he lost his life in a crash of an aircraft, in his case it was a historic plane. When I received the news of his death, I took part in an event about US-American politics in the Middle East at Goettingen, a prominent expert from the USA had been engaged for.

David Purley was a man of extraordinary bravery and enormous charisma. Therefore he is an special enrichment for the history of international motorsport. For this reason he should earn, like Masten Gregory by the way, a little more attention by the public. This is, as I had mentioned it, a story from reality. David Purley is no hero from a novel written by Ernest Hemingway or Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, in spite of fitting well into it. I am absolutely sure.

 

 

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