There are an immeasurable amount of books on motorsports. These few are a some of my favorites because they capture the dream of motorsport. Guys like Donohue, Hunt, Hill, Caracciola and Rosemeyer, Buffum, and Perry McCarthy. Guys that weren’t born into a motorsport family. Guys that found racing on their own and did great things with their dreams. So here we go.
I know you’re reading this on the internet and I’m telling you to read a book, but some of the best automotive history can only be found on paper. A few are on Kindle, but for the most part you’ll need to order a physical copy. It will be alright.
The Unfair Advantage
This is the single best story of a career in motorsport. It’s the autobiography of Mark Donohue, an engineer that competed in a local hillclimb that eventually led to him winning the Indy 500 and developing cars like the Porsche 917-30 into one of the fastest race cars of all time.
Unlike almost every other book in motorsport, this one was written by Mark himself. He took a year off from his career in 1974 to write the book and its the best account of racing I’ve ever read. Its heavy on the engineering details so it may not be for you, but if you work on your own cars or racecars you need to buy this book now.
Throughout the book Mark reminds us that he’s not the fastest driver on the grid. He wasn’t raised from birth to drive. He needed his cars to be faster than everyone else’s cars so he could be slightly slower. He need to engineer his cars to be faster.
Mark needed his cars needed an “Unfair Advantage” that could only be found through proper tuning and engineering. He was also supposed to be one of the nicest guys on the grid wearing his plaid bermuda shorts whenever he could.
The book takes you through his career and all the technical knowledge he learned from each race car to the next. The cool thing about Mark’s story is that you realize you don’t need to be an Andretti to win. You just need to understand race cars better than the next guy. Or really better than everyone on the grid.
This is my favorite motorsport story. It reads really fast. As if Michael Crichton covered the romantic era of motorsport. The book opens with Phil Hill and how he got into racing through wrenching. It quickly gets to him entering the Carrera Panamerica as a guest driver of Ferrari where meets the other drivers and the book takes off. Next thing you know you’re fully immersed in the 1961 season where drivers could jump between grand prix cars, sports cars, endurance races, and rallies like the Mille Miglia. It was an era where simply buying a race car and winning a few races was enough to get you on a factory team traveling the world. It was also a time where many of the drivers around you wouldn’t live till the end of the season so best to not make too many friends.
If you’re looking for a good read on this era with all the technical details, this is the book for you.
It’s almost hard to believe that Brock Yates pulled off the numerous runnings of an illegal cross country race on public highways. The whole thing is a great read from the discussion of the original ad that started the whole thing to the the tricks used by the teams used hoping to gain an “Unfair Advantage.”
Gas stops were a huge drag on time, so some teams had the ability to fill from two pumps at once to speed up the process. Others brought so much gas they could make the entire cross country run without stopping - yes it was a van full of 50 gallon drums of fuel!
Forget about the ridiculous movies that only really have their name in common and grab a copy of the book the covers the real races that ran illegally for years. Imagine a magazine planning an illegal, flat out race on America’s highway’s today? That would last an hour.
This book reads like an India Jones version of Grand Prix. It takes place during the 1930's as Hitler rises to power and Germany’s two Grand Prix Teams, Mercedes and Auto Union are formed and begin to dominate the world scene.
The story isn’t just about the politics, it’s more about the drivers, the misfit group of guys that were fast enough to pilot the insane vehicles of the era and their struggle as Grand Prix drivers on a German national team.
I never fully appreciated this era till I read this book. The cars had so much power and the tires so little grip. Not any driver could pilot those Grand Prix cars and the pages on the initial tryouts at the Nurburgring were horrific. The book is bit tougher to read and at times feels like someone’s thesis paper, but the stories are incredible. Hard to believe incredible. Actually I’m not sure I agree with the author’s thoughts on Rosemeyer’s death near the end of the book but in general this book is an excellent read.
One Off - The Roads, The Races, and Automobiles of Toly Aruntunoff
This story is very different than the others. This story is about having fun with cars. About what you might do if you grew up super wealthy and spent it ordering the best cars from Europe so you could enter them in the 12 hrs of Sebring or the Targa Florio.
It’s about a guy that decided to build his own racetrack and now we have Hallett. If you’ve ever driven the track I bet its one of your favorites. It has numerous blind crests. Some with corners immediately after and others with straights on the other side. You can run the track clockwise or counterclockwise and both directions are ton of fun. Anyone could build a race track, Toly built something fun to drive. And that’s kind of how is life went. Anyone could have raced cars. Toly had fun with it.
There are some parts in the book about him riding around with his friends on bikes that aren’t in your typical car books, but its all part of the story and makes for a fun read.
James Hunt The Biography
I love the 1976 Grand Prix season. I read the books long before the movie came out, but I guess that’s why they made a movie. The story is amazing, and like most stories, the book is so much better than the movie. If you like Rush, you are going to loose your mind when you read the books. There are maybe 4 now. Shunt is the most recent which was put out in 2010, but the original biography by Gerald Donaldson is the one to read.
The season was unreal. So many little factors had such a huge effect on the outcome. Things like the McLaren oil coolers which were moved without knowing the effect on the aero and it nearly changed the outcome of the whole season. You also get a much better look into James Hunt’s life. Especially the early years and how he managed to actually get into F1. If you liked Rush and wanted 100 more hours of that movie, check out the James Hunt The Biography.
Flat Out and Flat Broke!
This is a must read for anyone aspiring to a career as a professional race car driver. Its a story about a guy that risked everything and lost almost everything just to race in Formula One. He ruined relationships, bank accounts, lost houses, cars, and generally any normalcy of a regular life. All to race in Formula One.
As usual, there are some ridiculous stories involved because he wasn’t a regular driver on tour. Things that are no big deal for regular drivers became a nightmare for Perry McCarthy. Things like the team remembering to get you at the hotel on race day or receiving credentials to get into the pits and drive your race car become a nightmare. Normal things for normal drivers. Things you don’t think will be a problem when you finally make the big show become great stories decades later.
What would you do to race in Formula One? Some of Perry’s adventures are so amazing there’s no way a driver could pull it off in today’s modern day and age.
If you’re not into rally or Audi motorsport history, this book might not do anything for you, but its a favorite of mine. It’s been nearly 40 years since John Buffum set records on the World Rally stage and no one really talks about the great rally stories like they do with the 24hrs of LeMans or Grand Prix, but if they did, John’s career would be one of your favorites to hear over beers.
He’s the most successful rally driver in US history with 11 titles and 117 National wins but my favorite Buffum story is from 1969 when he was stationed in Germany and bought a 911 to drive on the weekends. When the Monte Carlo Rally came around he entered and taped his numbers to the door and “USA” to the roof. By the final day, John was in the top 10 which were all invited to have dinner with the prince of Monaco in his Palace!
While the Monte Carlo story is amazing, the majority of the book covers John’s professional career both in the US and Europe - John was the only American to ever win a European Rally Championship event and he’s won two of them! If you love rally then you’ve love John Buffum’s story and all the history from the this era.
This is only part one of my list because there are hundreds of great books on cars and racing. If you like this series, let me know and I’ll write up some more good books to read. In the meantime, you’ve got some catching up to do.