Sylvia Wilkinson did something incredible with The Stainless Steel Carrot, which follows Brock Racing Enterprises driver John Morton through two seasons of racing. She presented the idea to her publisher as being a diary of a racing driver, and yet she achieved so much more than that, following the ups and downs of a championship-winning team for about 18 months. She tracked the buildup to a busy season—and then its denouement. It’s a classic in motorsport writing, and I can’t believe it took me this long to read it.
(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.)
And I have to note that, as I sat down to write this review, The Stainless Steel Carrot is coming back into print—virtually. The ebook version will be available on April 5, 2021 but is available for pre-order now at $9.99.
The Stainless Steel Carrot was published in 1973, and its title, while strange, refers to the way driver John Morton felt his team owner was dangling faster cars in front of him to keep him on the team like “a stainless steel carrot.” The carrot soon became a symbol of all the things Peter Brock used to keep the team members around, whether it was the ability to develop a more powerful engine or a chance to move up to the big leagues.
Much of the book is direct transcription from Morton, his brother, and the different members of Brock Racing Enterprises as Morton pursued wins in the Trans-Am 2.5 and, later, Continental 5000 racing series. The first is what they called a “small car” series, or a converted-for-racing stock series in which Morton raced a Datsun 510 and 240Z. The Continental 5000 was more along the lines of what we’d recognize as a prototype today: designed specifically for racing, but with the open cockpit of the era.
Wilkinson is a hell of a solid author to begin with. She received a master’s degree and studied at Stanford. She was nominated for a handful of literary awards after the publishing of her first books. And she’s been prolific, with 27 total published books. She started off with a more traditional literary bent, but she quickly determined that writing about motorsport was an untouched goldmine of content, both fiction and non-fiction. That’s how we got The Stainless Steel Carrot, her first foray into motorsport writing.
As I mentioned before, a lot of the book is dedicated to direct quotes from John Morton and his crew. That’s not normally something I enjoy, but it worked really well here—I don’t think the experience of being a racing driver would have come across as well without it. Morton muses on death and speed, the way he feels about sitting on his hands while waiting for his next drive. He’s funny, but he’s also deeply sincere in his desire to race in faster categories.
And you get some of the thoughts of the era that are kind of surprising. Morton is the second driver I’ve read about from the era who felt that endurance racing was, in some ways, bullshit (the other being A Contract with Death by Jean-Claude Hallé, François Cevert’s biography). Morton is more generous than Cevert was, noting that each discipline of racing requires certain skills and that endurance racing is, in many ways, more about the car than it is the driver. Morton and Cevert both agree that racing, to them, is about the driver. It’s a mindset that seems totally contradictory to what I’d previously understood of the era, that there’s benefit to the blend of driver and machine—but for some drivers, those two elements of racing were totally distinct.
The book also sets up a fascinating contrast between drivers. Mike Downs, Morton’s teammate at BRE, is something of a mess. Downs could never get a grip on the car and had very little mechanical understanding, which left him prone to blaming the engineers and the setup of the car for his lack of performance—even when Morton could get behind the wheel and show that there wasn’t anything seriously lacking.
And then there’s his main competition at Alfa Romeo, Horst Kwech. Ahead of the 1972 season, Kwech had a son, and it seems like his whole mindset toward racing changes, especially as he’s racing in both Trans-Am 2.5 and the more dangerous Continental 5000. He seems far more anxious, more scattered and agitated. Members of rival teams note he seems distracted, calling his son when the boy isn’t at the track, focusing on him more than the car when he is.
Morton was in fine form during the 1972 season, absolutely dominating the Trans-Am 2.5 championship, to the point where promoters didn’t provide a trophy for his final race win because fans were bored that there was no battle out front. And after all the work he and his team put into the Continental car, a sudden post-race downpour saw Morton—and several other drivers—crash into a barrier after being swept away by a stream of water. Peter Brock, team owner, wouldn’t provide more money to develop the car. Despite his success, Morton’s season ends on a low.
It’s an incredible book. Wilkinson’s writing is evocative, reminiscent of the kind of Southern Gothic style she established in her first novels but instead finds its home in smoggy Los Angeles and small town race tracks in the northeast. It’s a gorgeously written story—and with its widespread availability in April, it’s a classic that everyone needs to read.