Everybody fails. We all know that. No matter how great someone’s life seems, there’s always some dark moment that lingers in the shadows. It’s a taboo to talk about, almost, especially when it comes to the motorsport world—it’s not exactly a pleasant thing to dwell on your disasters when you can just as easily talk up a race win. But that’s exactly what Will Buxton encourages racing drivers to do in My Greatest Defeat.
(Welcome back to the Jalopnik Race Car Book Club, where we all get together to read books about racing and you send in all your spicy hot takes. In honor of being trapped indoors, I’ve made the reading a little more frequent; every two weeks instead of every month. This week, we’re looking at My Greatest Defeat: Stories of hardship and hope from motor racing’s finest heroes by Will Buxton, an interview collection from some of racing’s greats.)
Will Buxton has made a name for himself as a prominent motorsport journalist in the Formula One paddock over the years, most recently serving as a presenter for Liberty Media’s revitalized efforts to draw in a younger, more digital audience. Love him or hate him (and many people have some very strong opinions based on Buxton’s own strong opinions), his idea in My Greatest Defeat is a good one: sit down with 20 of motorsport’s most successful athletes and, instead of asking them the same old questions about their successes, ask them about the periods in their lives where they questioned everything and felt at their lowest.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I cracked the cover, but it’s a fairly straightforward format. Each chapter begins with a brief introduction written by Buxton and a profile sketched by artist Giuseppe Camuncoli. Then, Buxton essentially transcribes an interview with the driver in question. It’s pretty quick and to-the-point, and you can skip around to read the passages from your favorites, since the chapters are arranged in alphabetical order.
And I enjoyed it. I did. But I was also a little disappointed.
Above everything, I think I was a little turned off by the interview format. I respect Buxton’s reason for doing it. In the introduction, he says he wanted to preserve the voice of each person he spoke to so that readers could hear those voices in their heads. The only problem is, when the driver rambles, so does the narrative. When the driver wants to change subjects, so does the narrative. It was fine for one or two interviews, but I found myself a little exhausted as I moved through the book.
I think part of that exhaustion comes from a few different sources. Yes, the interviews can jump around a lot, but I also felt ungrounded. The introductory profile Buxton provides is only about a page long, so when a driver skips around in his timeline, it can be difficult to keep it straight in your head unless you’re already familiar with that driver, in which case you might already know about his greatest defeat. I knew very little about Emanuele Pirro coming into the book, so it was hard for me to situate his forays in Formula 3, then touring car racing, then F1—both in terms of Pirro’s own biography as well as within the greater context of motorsport as a whole.
The other bit of exhaustion came from the fact that these were very much driver interviews, by which I mean they often talk around uncomfortable subjects and always return to the positive.Yes, we’re chatting with many drivers who ultimately walked away from their careers wealthy, successful, and happy, but that’s not the point of the book. The point is to root around in the darkness for a little while. But that purpose is weakened by a lack of drama, in which drivers talk about a hardship and then undercut it by saying it was actually a good thing because it made them the person they are today.
A good example is Alex Zanardi. Here’s a guy who’s gone through some tough periods—but he answers each question in such a way that it wraps up as a positive. Yes, he feels it was a mistake to drive for Williams in 1999, but it turns into a lesson about ambition versus passion, and we never actually talk about the rough patches of that season.
If this were anything other than a book, I probably wouldn’t have minded. But books are long, and they need a strong direction, a sense of purpose, and some plot direction, even if they are collections of short biographies. I think Buxton needed to have a little more of a guiding hand in crafting the narratives here. Let the drivers speak for themselves, yes—but use their quotes to augment a solid story.
(And this is a very small matter, but Pikes Peak was written as “Pike’s Peak” every single time it’s mentioned in the book. Every time. There are some small grammatical and format inconsistencies that I could ignore, but reading “Pike’s Peak” brought me physical pain every time.)
I don’t want to say that this book is by any means bad—but it can only be as good as the people telling the stories, and I don’t think any of these drivers are as qualified to write a good book as they are to win a championship. There’s no shame in that. But as overseer of the project, Buxton could have gone a different route.
Some stories are so incredible that they suck you in. Ari Vatanen recounting his recovery from his crash at the 1985 Rally Argentina, for example, is one of the moments where the book really gets its hands dirty in the complexities of distress. Not only was his body physically mangled, but it took him years for his brain to recover. He was depressed, anxious, and paranoid. He was convinced that he was going to get cancer from x-ray radiation, then that he had contracted AIDS during a blood transfusion. Neither of these things ended up happening, but it’s an incredible look into the mental aspects of what we often consider a solely physical event.
Niki Lauda’s story, too, is compelling. His lowest moment never took place in motorsport; it was instead taking responsibility for one of his Lauda Air airplanes that crashed and killed everyone on board. It’s a great moment where you get Lauda’s no-bullshit attitude while also understanding that he could be legitimately rattled.
And I loved Damon Hill’s observations about what it’s like to be a second-generation, British racer. He vehemently disagrees that his father, Graham Hill, ever cast a shadow over his career; instead, he felt that he was contributing to a longstanding family legacy. And he completely rejected the nationalism that we often see interjected in motorsport—he said he never raced for his country but instead for himself and his family. In fact, he felt more pressure to perform for Britain than for his father.
So by no means do I want to imply that My Greatest Defeat was bad. It was a good book full of stories worth telling. It just could have used a different approach.
And that’s all we have for this week’s Jalopnik Race Car Book Club! Make sure you tune in again on November 1, 2020. We’re going to be reading Driving with the Devil: Southern Moonshine, Detroit Wheels, and the Birth of NASCAR by Neal Thompson. And don’t forget to drop those hot takes (and recommendations) in the comments or at eblackstock [at] jalopnik [dot] com!