Just six weeks after his horrific fiery crash during the 1976 German Grand prix at the Nürburgring, where he had been given last rights, Formula One World Champion Niki Lauda walked through the pits at Monza after the second practice session. Back racing, he was seeking one person.
The bandages on his head covered severe burns and a missing ear, together wearing his Ferrari driver’s suit were a grim reminder of the horrors of getting it wrong and the fragility of life. But he was alive and driving again. Lauda saw the man he was looking for and approached him from behind. Tapping him on the shoulder, Lauda was now face to face with Brett Lunger, an American racing driver who was in his first year at Surtees, his second in F1.
“Thank You,” said Lauda and before Lunger could even respond, he was gone, back into the swarms of people in the pits.
The recent Ron Howard film RUSH was based on the epic battle between Lauda and Englishman James Hunt. The most tragic moment of the film - and of that season - was Lauda’s spectacular crash at the Nürburgring. That young second year American driver, also a former Marine who saw action in Vietnam, was first on the scene as his Surtees crashed into Lauda’s burning Ferrari. Lunger jumped out of his car and heroically lunged into the 800 degree inferno, pulling Lauda out of the car and saving the Austrian’s life.
Brett Lunger had a relatively short but successful career in racing. Despite coming from a very privileged background, one of the heirs of the DuPont fortune, his foray into the world of big-time motor racing was largely a self-made plight.
“I had gone to private boarding schools and left Princeton to join the Marines. My parents were pretty unhappy about that,” says Lunger. While at Princeton, a friend took him to a race. A jock growing up with interests in baseball, hockey and football, the racing bug bit Brett. He did a few races, but the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, which led to the US entry into the Vietnam War inspired him more.
By 1970, he was honorably discharged and decided to look at racing seriously. “I bought a used car and decided to give it one shot for one year,” Lunger recalls, “It turned out to be pivotal and I was very fortunate.” The car he bought was a Lola T-192 Formula 5000 car from Carl Haas’ shop in Highland Park, IL. This particular car had some pedigree as it was previously owned by Roger Penske and raced in the 1970 Formula 5000 season by Mark Donohue.
As luck would have it, a special one off race, The Questor Grand Prix, was announced and the top F5000 drivers and teams were invited to compete against the Formula One teams at Ontario Motor Speedway in California. Lunger was not invited, but Penske and Donohue were--and needed their car back!
“(Penske) insured the car and allowed me to participate in all the testing with Mark. That was invaluable just to see how they went through the testing process, have a car that was well sorted and allowed me to use his garage at Ontario for the entire season. I was very lucky in that regard.” In the 1971 F5000 Championship, Lunger completed the season third which included a race win at Brainerd International Raceway.
Citing Malcom Gladwell’s book Outliers: The Story of Success, Lunger exclaims, “The premise is you need 10,000 hours to learn your craft. I knew that running just eight races in 12 months was not going to get the job done. I needed to learn my craft.” Luckily, he knew veteran Public Relations man Rod Campbell, who set Lunger up with the Liggett Formula 2 team in Europe as he continued to race F5000 in the United States. Wins and podiums followed.
By 1975, things had stalled. Lunger was low on racing budget and was without a ride. Fortunately, Lunger’s brother Dave, a stockbroker, put together a sponsorship deal that allowed shopping for a ride with European teams. “At the time the Hesketh F1 Team was bumping up against some financial realities. They had spent so much money on champagne and parties, that they had cut into the budget. We were able to do the last three races of the season.” James Hunt was again his teammate.
Lunger moved into the John Surtees Racing team for 1976. Though not scoring a single World Championship point during his Formula One career, Brett Lunger will go down in history for that mixed weather day at the Nürbugring and his actions in rescuing Niki Lauda from the burning wreck.
A driver’s meeting was called right before the start and the issue was whether to race on that day. The complicated 14 mile, 170 turn Rhinelander circuit, known as “The Green Hell” was difficult in good weather - and an absolute nightmare when the rains came. “I love wienerschnitzel, but I came to race. It never dawned on me not to race - that was my vote.”
Lunger tells the story from memory: “We were on the second lap, the track was drying. Those of us who were on rain tires were slowing and Niki Lauda on dry tires was really clipping. There is a long downhill going towards the Adenauer Bridge and there are a series of switchbacks. I think he passed me at the top.”
“There is a hard right hand turn followed by a flat out left hand turn - absolutely flat even in the damp. As I committed to the turn at about 145-150 miles per hour, I saw this dirt go up in the air and I didn’t know what it was. But that was Niki going off the track. I don’t think anything broke, he just overcooked it.”
“He was sideways, on fire in the middle of the track. I was committed to the corner. I tried to slow down, but there was no way I was going to miss him. When my car went into him, it set off my fire extinguisher and it might have dampened the flames down a little bit.”
Lauda’s helmet had come off in the impact and his head - only in a balaclava was fully exposed. “I got out and climbed on top of the car and couldn’t undo the belts. The Ferrari belts were a different design. (Arturo) Merzario reached in and undid the belts otherwise I could not have gotten him out of the car.”
Lunger commiserates a bit, “It was a tragedy that it happened, but I wanted to be known for winning races - not for crashing cars. But thanks to Ron Howard, I guess this is going to follow me forever...”
“The funny thing is during my Grand Prix career, my teammates all went on to win World Championships.” James Hunt 1976 World Champion (WDC) at Hesketh, also Alan Jones 1980 WDC at Surtees and three time WDC Nelson Piquet at Ensign. “So if you want to win the lottery, sit next to me and it might rub off.”
Thanks to Brett Lunger and Rod Campbell for sharing this slice of motorsports history.
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