James Hunt is a man who is remembered for his passions. He is revered for his competitive spirit, his immense skill behind the wheel, his devil may care attitude, and his hard-partying, womanizing ways away from the track (and sometimes right before a race.) But Hunt also had a passion for social justice that isn't quite as well-known.
Hunt, the Formula One champion whose battle with Niki Lauda for the 1976 title is now immortalized in the Ron Howard film RUSH, was also a vociferous opponent of the racist Apartheid policies in South Africa, and he used his position as an F1 broadcaster to speak out against it. It's not something people really think of when they remember Hunt, but maybe it's time they do.
First, a little backstory. Hunt's F1 career stretched from 1973 to 1979, during which time he raced for Hesketh, McLaren and then briefly for Wolf. Aside from a few occasional comeback attempts, Hunt transitioned into F1 broadcasting for his second act, calling races on the BBC 2 program "Grand Prix."
But being on TV didn't mean that Hunt stopped being the guy who famously once bummed a cigarette during an interview and became some soulless, buttoned-down automaton. Far from it. He frequently battled with legendary broadcaster Murray Walker and never hesitated to share his opinion on things, no matter how blunt or obscene they may be. In one famous instance, he called out a driver's comments about non-turbo engines as "bullshit" on air.
In other words, Hunt kept his swagger, and that's why racing fans loved watching him. He was never afraid to say what he thought on the air, and that included his political opinions, especially when it came to Apartheid in South Africa.
Before we talk about Hunt some more, it's important to note what was going on in that country in the 1980s. By then, opposition to Apartheid both within South Africa and internationally had reached its zenith. The nation dealt with protests, riots and immense outside pressure targeting the system that legally segregated races and provided inferior services to non-whites.
Most sports had abandoned events in South Africa by the mid-1980s. F1 was one of the last to do so, although as F1 Fanatic notes, several teams did boycott the 1985 South African Grand Prix. Today that race remains a less-than-shining footnote in F1's history.
Hunt vehemently opposed Apartheid, and he once let it be known on the air, much to the consternation of BBC officials. Here's a story Walker recounted to the UK's Daily Mirror recently:
“We were once covering the South African Grand Prix during the days of apartheid. All of a sudden, and for no particular reason, he launched into an attack on apartheid.
“It was nothing to do with the Grand Prix, nor would it do British-South African relations any good. Our producer pushed a piece of paper across saying: ‘Talk about the race!’
“And then James blurted out on air: ‘Thank God we’re not actually there!”
The last line is especially funny because Murray and crew didn't like to let on that they often weren't calling races live, but from a studio in England.
But simply calling out Apartheid on the air wasn't enough for Hunt. He sought to have his race commentaries blocked from being broadcast in South Africa, but was unsuccessful. When that didn't work, he instead — and secretly — gave financial support from his income as a race broadcaster to groups struggling to end Apartheid in South Africa.
Here's what a reader from The Guardian said about Hunt recently:
"During the South African apartheid years, I organised and chaired a discreet meeting in central London for wealthy individuals and foundations wanting to support black-led groups working for change there. The meeting had just started when the doorbell rang. A vaguely familiar-looking chap apologised for being late and asked if he could park his bike in the hall. It took me a while but eventually the penny dropped. Hunt was by then commentating on grand prix racing, alongside Murray Walker. He didn't want his commentaries broadcast in South Africa, and when they were, he channelled his fees towards groups struggling for change there."
In the end, Hunt, who died of a sudden heart attack at age 46 in 1993, was much more than just a gifted racing driver who could drink like a fish and bang three stewardesses at a time. He was a guy who stood up for what he believed in and put his money where his mouth was, even if it wasn't the popular thing to do.
Maybe we ought to remember him for that too.
Photos credit AP/Getty