Sport isn’t fair. Never has been. You can devote hundreds of hours of your youth and early adulthood practising, training, striving to be one of the very few who make it to professional level, forsaking friendships, nights out and relationships along the way, and even then most young aspirants won’t make it, will be discarded at the side of the arduous path, unknown and unlamented by the world at large.
Even for the few who do succeed, it’s entirely possible – after all the work and sacrifice – to carve out a moderately successful career, become competent and gain the respect by your peers, but then have your reputation ruined forever by one event. In short, it’s all too easy to achieve sporting infamy.
Take for example, a golfer who finished in the European Order of Merit Top 20 twice, who won 7 pro ranking events, and who represented Europe in the Ryder Cup. A pretty respectable career, eh? Not if you are Jean Van De Velde, who is remembered pretty much solely for one of the most spectacular collapses in sporting history, when he arrived at the 18th tee in the 1999 Open at Carnoustie, needing only a double bogey six to win. He had birdied the hole at his previous two attempts, but this time managed to card a seven, after hitting all of a wall, a water feature and a bunker, and went on to lose the playoff.
What if you were an NFL placekicker? What if, within 2 years of your arrival at your franchise, you had become your team’s record points scorer in history? What if you had a perfect post-season in 1992, as your team swept to the AFC Championship, and you played in not one, but two Superbowls? Well, not much use if you are Scott Norwood, and your name is synonymous with the missed 47-yard field goal you attempted at the end of Superbowl XXV in 1991, costing your side – the Buffalo Bills – the game, and the title. Are any of your other achievements ever now remembered by the casual fan? Or are you doomed to be haunted forever by two short words: “wide right”?
There are many others. Don Fox – rugby league’s “poor lad”. Scott Boswell, with his seemingly interminable 14-ball over in the 2001 cricket C&G final. Bill Buckner, and his dropped catch in the 1986 World Series….the list of perfectly competent sportspeople known only for one spectacular failure is frighteningly long.
And if F1 has an equivalent, it is probably Victor “Al” Pease, a Canadian driver of the 60s, who was nonetheless originally born in Darlington. His list of achievements, by most standards, are quite impressive. He had raced in his adopted nation throughout the 1950s and 1960s, racking up several national championships. Indeed, he joined the likes of Gilles and Jacques Villeneuve as members of the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame in 1998, his induction being marked with the words: “’It is doubtful that any other driver in history of Canadian motorsport has collected more trophies than Al Pease, winning a steady stream of regional and national championships in a variety of cars for almost 30 years”.
But for dedicated F1 fans, these achievements are not the first thing brought to mind on hearing his name. Instead, Pease joins the likes of Van de Velde, Fox and Norwood on the list of sporting infamy for one reason alone: during the 1969 Canadian Grand Prix, Pease became the only driver yet, from the over 700 to have started a race in the 60+ year history of the sport, to be disqualified during the course of a race for being dangerously slow.
How did this happen? Well, as noted above, Pease was a well-known name in Canadian national racing in the 1960s, and had also taken part in a handful more internationally-oriented events on North American soil over the years, including a credible 8th place at a non-championship “Canadian Grand Prix” in 1963. So when, the expanding Formula One Championship announced that it would hold its first ever full world championship Grand Prix ‘proper’ on Canadian soil in 1967, Pease saw his chance to compete with the true greats of the sport had come at last.
In those days, teams and drivers would enter races on an individual basis, rather than being contractually locked in – as they are now – to competing in every Grand Prix during the season. The ‘long haul’ races, then usually held in the likes of South Africa or the USA, were thus very costly exercises for smaller teams and privateers, most of whom were based in Europe, and as a result many of the ‘regulars’ who competed in the then-predominantly European Grands Prix would choose to skip these races so as not to incur excessive transport costs. To fill the grids, therefore, race organisers encouraged local drivers to enter – this, of course, having the knock on effect of providing the crowd with ‘one of their own’ to support.
Hence it was that the inaugural 1967 Canadian Grand Prix featured not just the stellar likes of Clark, Stewart, Brabham and McLaren, but 4 North American amateur racers making their championship debut in a motley assemblage of machinery. One was the American Mike Fisher in a Lotus, another the Canadian Eppie Wietzes, who would later go on to become the fantastically incompetent driver of the first safety car in F1 history, at the farcical 1973 Canadian race (surely a blog story for the future). A third was an American called Tom Jones (no, not that one), who for many years had a reputation among Grand Prix anoraks as the most obscure, unknown driver ever to attempt to qualify for an F1 race, until he was eventually tracked down, in 2005, to a fabrications plant in Ohio. The fourth, in an Eagle T1G, was Pease.
Again, the bald facts of Pease’s first race on the big stage don’t look too impressive. After qualifying 15th out of 17, he finished last, some 43 (in the manner of the football videprinter when a team scores a hatful, that’s FORTY-THREE) laps down on the winner, Jack Brabham. But this far from tells the whole story of his race. Pease, by this time 45 years old, had 20 years’ experience of competing at grassroots level behind him. So unlike, say, Jackie Stewart, if his car had a mechanical issue, he wouldn’t have a team of mechanics to repair it – he’d usually have to do it himself. This turned out to be quite handy on the day.
In appalling rainy conditions, Pease’s Eagle developed a battery problem on the grid, and 6 laps went by before it could be changed by his tiny support team. Finally getting the car started and off the grid, already six laps adrift, to a cheer from the soaked home crowd, Pease at last got racing on the Mosport circuit he knew so well. Unfortunately, with a sodden track and a car that had more power than he was used to, after a few laps, he spun at the far end of the track. The excursion onto the grass and resultant spray had the effect of waterlogging the engine, and once again flattening the battery. Undeterred, our hero ran virtually the length of the 3-mile circuit in the monsoon, back to the pits, picked up another battery, ran back and installed it entirely by himself, before getting going again. All the while, of course, the leaders were lapping the Canadian as he tinkered about under the engine cover, and getting further ahead, so that by the time the chequered flag fell, Pease had completed less than half the distance that they had.
Later asked why he hadn’t just given up, Pease replied: “I never considered that at all, I just thought about finishing. It would have never occurred to me to quit – not at all – because I was so used to that circuit and loved driving there. As long as I could keep going I did. To be quite honest I was so happy when it was over, but was glad to have finished.”
That’s the spirit.
The event, despite weather conditions, was considered a success, and the Canadian race was back for 1968, this time moving to the twisty Mont Tremblant facility in Quebec. Pease, by now 46, and getting rather past his prime, decided to have another crack. Finding sponsorship from Castrol, Al once again entered his now two-year old Eagle for the race, and was, along with 32-year old debutant Bill Brack, one of two Canadian drivers competing at their home Grand Prix.
Once again, the record books look worse than the full story. For they show that Al failed to qualify, dead last in qualifying, some 15.8 seconds off Rindt’s pole time of 1 minute 33.8, and over 8 seconds slower than the ‘next slowest’ competitor who, unsurprisingly, was Brack. Pease, had, however, been complaining about the car being down on power from the get-go, and when the engine was later stripped, an Allen key was found to be jamming the crankshaft….
And so, we come round to the year of infamy: 1969. By now, of course, neither Pease nor his car were getting any younger, and the Eagle – first introduced in 1966 – was pretty much obsolete. Indeed, the car had literally become a museum piece as prior to the event – now held back at the 1967 venue of Mosport – it had been on display in Montreal in an exhibition called “Man and His World” for 3 months. Pease only just had time to strip down the car and get it running again before race-day came round.
In fact, Al had never intended to enter in 1969, thinking two F1 entries would be enough for his CV – but having failed to qualify through no fault of his own the previous year – he had decided to give the top level one last go. Qualifying went OK, and he made into into the race, despite being over 11 seconds slower than the polesitter, Jacky Ickx. Indeed, he actually qualified ahead of 3 other drivers, indicating a pretty decent effort in the elderly car.
His race, however, will live on in the annals for all the wrong reasons. Pease maintained that the 4-year old, hardly race-ready, car was the problem, but in those days it was not too unusual for backmarkers to drive outdated machinery, and few did so in quite the way the Canadian did that day. Put simply, Pease seemed to adopt the tactic that simply finishing the race would be a triumph. His entry into corners was so slow and on such an unusual racing line that if any other competitors were near him at the time, they were all on just trying to avoid the tardy Eagle. Indeed, on the very first lap, an unexpected manoeuvre by Pease caused the Swiss driver Silvio Moser to swerve violently, clout the Armco, and retire on the spot. By the second lap Pease had been caught by the leaders, but far from letting them through easily – as would be expected today in the era of blue flags – Al seemed to see this as an opportunity to entertain the crowd and ‘have a race’ with them, and stories abound of frustrated frontrunners being held up, baulked and at times, nearly taken out, by the journeyman Canadian.
When a chop across the bows of Jean-Pierre Beltoise – then running third – damaged the Frenchman’s suspension; when a five-car battle for that third place was disrupted, and ruined by Pease refusing to yield and getting in-between the competitors; and when Jackie Stewart had to run clean off the track to avoid running into the Eagle when it braked miles too early for a corner, many onlookers had seen enough. Stewart’s boss Ken Tyrrell was never the most placid of team owners at the best of times – former mechanics and drivers talk of being on the end of a ‘froth job’ when Ken was having one of his apoplectic rages at something or other – and after witnessing the incident involving his star driver, he stormed down to the stewards.
Whether the stewards of the race received a ‘froth job’ has not been recorded for posterity, but one can imagine the scenes. The bald facts of the matter, however, showed that by the time the leaders were on lap 43, Pease was starting just his 21st tour of the circuit– even without a flat battery, or a 6-mile run to and from the pits, he was already more than half the race distance behind. The stewards deemed that the Moser, Beltoise and Stewart incidents proved that he was indeed, a mobile menace out there, and black-flagged the hapless Canadian, disqualifying him from the race there and then.
Thus, the first and so far only time an F1 driver has been flagged for being dangerously slow, entered the annals of sporting infamy. At least Pease could later look back on the race with magnanimity, saying: “In the race the car just wasn’t fast enough so they disqualified me and I don’t blame them”. In truth, it wasn’t just the car. By this time, Pease was in the twilight of his career, and pushing fifty. Success at national level fifteen years previously may have been one thing, but trying to gently nurse a car to the finish at an elite international level, against the best drivers in the world, at that age, in a machine that simply wasn’t up to the standars of the day, led to the horror show that was the 1969 race.
Inevitably, after that humiliation, F1 wasn’t troubled by Pease again, although he did go back to national racing briefly, earning a single-seater redemption of sorts by winning the Formula A event at the last race ever held at the Harewood venue near Jarvis, Ontario in 1970 in an ex-F1 Brabham. After that, he moved into historic racing, and was regularly seen competing or showing cars at circuits across Canada well into the 1990s. To his great credit, he was always happy to talk to fans about his hapless F1 forays, and he remained an avid motorsport enthusiast until he passed away in May 2014, aged 92.
On paper, with his 3 Grand Prix results of: “Finished Last, 43 laps behind winner”; “Last and did not Qualify” and “Disqualified from race – too slow” Al Pease would present an excellent case for being number 1 on my list of ‘worst drivers ever’. But in the same manner as Jean Van De Velde, Scott Norwood and Don Fox, Al Pease wasn’t that bad. After all, like them, he had been a multiple winner in smaller events, and showing talent and determination, had reached the very pinnacle of his sport – but when his big moment in the spotlight of the world came, the sporting gods, as they are wont to do at times, chose not to bestow triumph and glory, but simply humiliation.