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Local racing fan recalls era of 'Rush'

In a photo by Red Wing’s Dave Riley, legendary Formula One racer James Hunt speeds down the track at the 1973 U.S. Grand Prix in New York. The race, one of Hunt’s first, also helped spark Riley’s love of the sport.

In October 1973, at the Watkins Glen Grand Prix Race Course in New York, Red Wing’s Dave Riley, then a 24-year-old sailor in the Navy, watched as the number 27 Formula One race car narrowly missed first place by less than a second.

The driver, no more than a couple years older than Riley at the time, was James Hunt.

That year saw the start of Hunt’s Formula One career, which included a 1976 World Championship victory. It also marked the beginning of Riley’s life-long interest in the sport.

Hunt’s storied — and sometimes notorious — life is the focus of “Rush,” the latest film by director Ron Howard. It stars Australian actor Chris Hemsworth as the legendary British racer.

Riley said watching the movie recently with his wife brought back fond memories of the 1970s racing scene he was so passionate about.

“I think they did a good job casting for Hunt,” Riley said, flipping through stacks of Formula One books and photo albums spread across his kitchen table.

One of his photos shows Hunt, background a blur, zipping by in his March 731 racing chassis at Watkins Glen in 1973. At the time, no one gave Hunt much respect, Riley recalled.

Riley said his love of Formula One started earlier that June while stationed aboard a ship docked in the Mediterranean Sea.

“We just happened to be in port when the 1973 Monaco Grand Prix was going on,” he said. Although he wasn’t much interested in Formula One, Riley said he wasn’t about to turn down the possibility of a good time. From then on, he was hooked.

Riley went to several more Formula One races after that, including the 1976 U.S. and Canadian Grand Prixes referenced in the movie.

Returning to Watkins Glen in 1974, Riley snapped a picture of Austrian racer Niki Lauda sitting in his car before the race.

“Sports were different back then,” Riley said. “You could get up closer.”

Lauda’s intense rivalry with Hunt, as well as his nearly fatal crash at the 1976 German Grand Prix, forms the basis for much of the plot of “Rush.”

As a longtime fan, Riley said the movie gave him an insight into the lives of the two racers he followed so closely in his youth, both at their highs and lows.

“The sad part for me is I was always looking at these people as doing something they loved,” Riley said.

He also added the movie does a good job showing how dangerous a sport Formula One can be — an aspect he witnessed.

Prior to the 1973 race in Watkins Glen, Riley said he took a photo of what he believes to be the car of French racer Francois Cevert, who died later that day in a crash during qualifying sessions.

“That was common back then,” Riley said. “People died a lot.”

But for Riley, what attracted him to Formula One was the overwhelming spectacle of color and noise as cars whipped around corners. “Before each race, the anticipation gave me goose bumps,” he said.

For him, it all was just part of the rush.

Michael Brun

Michael Brun joined RiverTown Multimedia at the Red Wing Republican Eagle in March 2013, covering county government, health and local events.  He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls journalism program.

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