It's Hard To Feel Sympathy For Grand Prix Driver Dick Seaman In A Race With Love And Death

Illustration for article titled It's Hard To Feel Sympathy For Grand Prix Driver Dick Seaman In A Race With Love And Death
Photo: Fox Photos (Getty Images)

Long before the era of British racing legends like Stirling Moss and Graham Hill came the pre-war Grand Prix era, a time whose most popular UK driver was a man named Dick Seaman. There was just one problem: Seaman raced for the Nazi-backed Mercedes-Benz team, resulting in a memory that was quickly scrubbed out of the history books by a country increasingly uncomfortable with the specter of facism. A Race with Love and Death by Richard Williams tells the story of this young driver’s life and death in great detail, reviving a legacy that had long been forgotten.

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I’m going to pause here to let y’all get your giggles out about Dick Seaman’s name. Shake it off, folks. Make your jokes and your puns and let’s get on with things. We have a serious discussion to have.

Richard John Beattie Seaman was one of Britain’s best pre-war Grand Prix drivers. Born to a wealthy family in 1913, he developed a passion for cars throughout childhood, and he had a family that was financially able to support him—which his mother did, often without the knowledge of Seaman’s elderly father, who hated the idea of his son pursuing such a ridiculous, dangerous career.

Seaman began racing seriously in 1934 before taking his skills to the European Championship in 1936. He had a natural talent for racing and, with a tidy sum stored in the family bank, Seaman was able to convince his mother to give him thousands of pounds to pour into motorsport. The ability to buy better and better equipment allowed Seaman to quickly progress up the ranks. In 1937, he signed with Mercedes-Benz, one of the top Grand Prix teams at the time.

The reason that Mercedes-Benz was so damn good was because Adolf Hitler understood racing’s importance. Not only would it improve Germany’s reputation around the world, but rapid racing development would speed up the country’s illicit rearmament plan. So, Hitler poured the equivalent of millions of pounds into state-funded racing programs through Mercedes-Benz and the Auto Union teams. And with all that money made available, those teams were unstoppable.

So, it made sense why a driver would accept an offer from a country in bad standing with his home nation. Louis Chiron, legendary French Grand Prix driver, had done the same. But it wasn’t always a popular decision, and Seaman upset a lot of people by offering the Nazi salute after his victory at the Nürburgring and by marrying a German woman. He made no friends after his early death at the age of 26; at his funeral, Hitler sent a massive wreath to commemorate the loss of one of his premiere Grand Prix drivers. In the immediate pre-war era of 1939, many of Seaman’s best admirers became uncomfortable supporting the legacy of a man who had raced for the Nazi party.

The commemorative wreath sent by Adolf Hitler. It’s difficult to see, but the ribbons were emblazoned with Nazi insignia.
The commemorative wreath sent by Adolf Hitler. It’s difficult to see, but the ribbons were emblazoned with Nazi insignia.
Photo: A. J. O’Brien/Fox Photos (Getty Images)
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My main qualm with the book is that it’s just… very hard to feel any sort of sympathy for Seaman. He comes across as the absolute stereotype of a privileged British white man. He demands money from his mother, blows up at anyone who dares to defy (or even question) him, and he lacks the levity to understand that his actions have consequences in this big, highly political world.

The farther I got into the book, the more difficult I found it to empathize, which I think was author Richard Williams’ intention. I found it difficult to feel bad for Seaman, to feel his actions were justified, to give him the benefit of the doubt. It’s a very similar feeling I’ve had while watching The Crown lately. These people are highly privileged and have their head stuck firmly in the clouds.

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In a similar vein, Seaman’s story offers a great opportunity to delve into the political complexities of the era… but it hasn’t really been taken advantage of in the same way that, say, Faster by Neal Bascomb did. A British driver racing for a German team established with the direct goal of increasing Nazi firepower is a fascinating opportunity to really dive into that very strange period of history, where the threat of war was looming but so many people wanted to believe that it couldn’t possibly be happening.

That political element is crucial. Without it, Seaman’s story would be one of tragedy, of a premature loss of life—which is, unfortunately, a fairly common one in the world of motorsport. The international relations aspect is what brings his life to a different level. Unfortunately, I didn’t really feel that Williams reckoned with it in a way that did the situation justice.

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And it feels especially crucial today in the wake of the terror at the Capitol. If you’re not condemning the people threatening the very state of international peace—if you are, in fact, reaping the benefits of their militarization program—then you’re as good as an accomplice.

I do want to hedge here: I’m likely biased. A significant part of my master’s thesis involves analyzing the intersection of literature, politics, and privilege during the prewar period in England, and I’ve spent the past two month firmly immersed in the complexities that arise in that era and in that space. I was hoping A Race with Love and Death would help me understand that subject from a sporting perspective instead of a literary one, but it didn’t.

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But as I recounted the plot to my non-reader husband, he was totally immersed in the story and fascinated by the intricacies laid out in the book. He was surprised to hear that my review wasn’t 100 percent positive because he thought it would make an incredible movie.

I don’t think my husband is wrong. I still maintain that Williams’ book is a great one—well-written, fascinating, and enjoyable. It’s a great racing story for anyone who isn’t familiar with that era of Grand Prix racing. I don’t think it adequately reckoned with the subject at hand. It felt more like a redemption story for Dick Seaman than a true reckoning with why the British public so quickly erased him from the history of sporting heroes.

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It’s still a great read, and I know I’m going to read it again. I just wish it brought together more of the strands of history that make Dick Seaman’s story so fascinating.

Weekends at Jalopnik. Managing editor at A Girl's Guide to Cars. Lead IndyCar writer and assistant editor at Frontstretch. Novelist. Motorsport fanatic.

DISCUSSION

mantistobogganmdphd
MantisToboggan

hehe...Dick Seaman