Greatness: Till Death Do You Part

Forty-two days after burning in a fatal crash, Niki Lauda jumped back on the Formula 1 track to defend his championship title against James Hunt. Single-mindedness. Insane resolve.

I wasn’t into racing, but this was my kind of story. Lauda,_Niki_1973-07-06

The film Rush opens with a portrait of Hunt as a handsome, charismatic, successful racer with the world at his feet. Popularity and raw talent smile on him. For Lauda, on the other hand, the pursuit of dreams is a battle from the starting gate. Unable to lean on his illustrious family name, he risks everything to raise support and to bargain no-holds-barred for his first contract. Lauda turns himself into an expert on auto parts and aerodynamics, and exacts the fastest race car possible out of his engineers. Both men embody greatness, but Lauda steals my attention by his response to the life-altering crash that nearly claims his dreams.

What do daredevils do with the fear? Bury it under the adrenaline? Just swallow it? Hunt, who seems to laugh at danger, throws up before every race. His eyes also betray his gnawing anxiety every time he comes across cars incinerated off the track. At the eleventh hour of the famous 1976 Grand Prix in Germany, Lauda calls a meeting to boycott the race in the face of the torrential rain, deeply uneasy about the circuit’s safety arrangements. Racing that day is obviously asking for it. But Hunt turns the room full of men who too are scared, flouting Lauda as a self-serving coward unwilling to allow others a chance at the win. In a moment that rings classically of high school, afraid of looking chicken in their terror, the guys put it to vote, and the race goes on.

Lauda punctures his fuel tank, crashing at 170 mph, the Ferrari erupting into flames. The rescuers have trouble pulling him out, leaving him trapped over a minute in the inferno.

That he lives is a miracle. Lauda resists death by sheer force of will. The graphic hospital scenes, not for the faint-hearted, depict the human spirit at some of its most astonishing heights. On Day 28, the doctor comes to vacuum his lungs and warns it’s not going to be nice. He slips a long thick metal rod down Lauda’s throat to hose grey water and blood back up through a tube. Lauda grips the bed for life. And through roasted eyes that barely open, he watches Hunt on TV shaking his trophy. “Do it again,” Lauda orders through bruised lungs. He remains captive in bed as Hunt takes race after race on the screen, gaining upon Lauda’s lead in the world championship. You cringe with him the day Lauda attempts to put his helmet on over the raw skin that is his head and face.

Ready for another victory on the tracks of the Italian Grand Prix with his rival wiped off the map, Hunt is stunned to learn Lauda has showed up six weeks after the accident. The movie doesn’t show Lauda peeling off the blood-soaked bandages he undid on site in real life. Hunt approaches his arch nemesis in one of several poignant exchanges. He admits responsibility for having swayed the vote that fateful day. Lauda responds, “Yes, I watched you win those races while I was fighting for my life. You were equally responsible for getting me back in the car.”

Lauda pushes himself to higher ground off the best of his opponent. No excuses – not the ear he’s lost along with almost half his face and head. No matter that charred lungs protest every breath and his skin screams to the touch. He concentrates on something louder, the vow to remain equal to none. Rest? Heal? Hand over to his enemy the years of his sweat and showdown with death? Lauda has fought many times over, and there remains nothing but to preserve all he has built and achieved out of nothing, the record of his undying determination. To be ruthless with his foe is to conquer himself.

Behind the wheel at the Grand Prix, the roar and smell of engines come at Lauda – trauma and inspiration. I wonder what things assaulted his mind as he waited to spring forward once again on that impossible road. The real Niki Lauda off screen was absolutely petrified that moment, as credible heroes go. Many know how extremely difficult it is to get back on the road after an auto accident.

The cars take off, one after another passing Lauda. Sluggish, he weaves onto grass before watching two drivers collide before him. He manages to clear through the alarming confusion. He surges forward. I won’t say how he places in the race but the crowd that rallies to this champion at the end reveals something of our longing to look up to, even worship, those who conquer themselves and light our hope.

Every race that follows the crash revisits the question of wisdom and foolhardiness, of fear and courage, and offers the men the chance to choose security over risk. The finals for the world title in Fuji finds Lauda at 68 points to Hunt’s 65. And it’s pouring once again. This time it’s Hunt who tries to call if off but the Forces That Be push the event forward. Drivers gun their engines at the starting line and you see Hunt and Lauda, grim inside cars that look like sleek coffins.

I rein in the eagerness to comment on the climax of this saga, but some beautiful moments that speak of relationships and character redemption sparkle throughout the edgy drama, exploring what competition does for us. In speaking of the final match where Hunt risks everything to burst through the ranks, he later says to Lauda, “Yes, I was prepared to die to beat you, and that’s what made it so great.” In a high-stake sport like racing, victory seems a triple glory: you’ve subdued your will, vanquished your adversary, and evaded death. Hunt lets us in on the thrill of live-wire living: “the closer to death you are, the more alive you feel.”

The photo above moves me to see Lauda looking into his future. There he sits three years before the accident after which doctors would give him up for lost, three years before he would find himself permanently disfigured. The picture tells of dreams, talent, hope, fortitude – a destiny. Though Rush gives us glimpses of the answers, I am left to wonder. What lessons did he take away from the years battling Hunt? Did he gain what he desired? Did loss redeem triumph? Has he ever let himself down in racing? Did victory bring joy?


100 thoughts on “Greatness: Till Death Do You Part

    • Thanks, Michele. There are some awesome lines I couldn’t catch fast enough in the dark. The acting is peerless – except with the actress who plays L’s wife. Her wonderful performance goes downhill at one point, for some odd reason. I didn’t mention, as this wasn’t really a film critique.

  1. Thank you for the review–I am now intrigued, although I had a similar lack of interest to yours before reading this thoughtful, vivid piece. I also share your deep interest in passion/aspiration/greatness…what drives people to enormous effort, sacrifice, heroism? One thing I do know is that this amazing aspect of being human is infectious, i.e. it inspires us to feel hopeful, inspired, aspiring. So, I am now going to go finish the piece I had started about passion and enthusiasm! Thanks for the continued inspiration, HW.

  2. Wonderful Diana, I also had no interest in this story until you so vividly crafted your story. Many of us are drawn toward heroes and heroism and for me the greatest is everyday heroes who help uplift their fellow humans in life.

  3. Great job. The story has the makings of a myth, a tale to carry us above and beyond ourselves, a tragedy averted through sheer will. But I agree with Brad, the person fighting alone, without fame or glory as a driving force, is equally, if not more, heroic. โ€“Curt

  4. Nick Lauda went on to become a tree-time world champion in Formula 1, which is the highest level of auto racing. Very few racers achieve such distinction.
    There is another rivalry in Formula 1 that is classic, the duel between Aryton Senna and Alain Prost. Their competitiveness was so intense that they were willing to take each other out of the race by intentionally crashing into the other to preserve their lead in the world championship.

    • Thanks for the elaboration on Lauda. His resume reads most impressively. I didn’t get into all his accomplishments for lack of time (I was beyond ready for bed by the time I finished the write-up)! As to the other rivalry, now THAT is NOT greatness.

      • Oh, but Senna was a three time world champion and Prost was a four time world champion; their rivalry was such that they would do anything to win. That is the nature of a sport that risks their life to such a degree, do anything to win. Truly, they were exceptional and as ruthless as Hunt and Lauda.

    • This might tempt you to stick a foot back out, Susan: I wish there were less sexual stuff. I know I’m in the minority on this. I do understand it was a fair depiction of Hunt’s character. And chk out my comment to Michele on the actress. But otherwise, the movie ROCKED. The parts I highlighted most definitely make it a worthwhile visit to the theater. The tension between the men remains the wonderful center of the film. Let me know when you’ve seen it!

  5. I went to see this last week at your urging, I liked it and I wasn’t sure I would, I had some of the same questions you had at the end of the movie. I must say, Helmsworth is gorgeous, Omg!!! And the other actor looked a lot like the real Lauda, that was almost creepy. Good review!!! I didn’t do a review on it because I guess I don’t know much about formula one racing to make a good assessment of what was going on.

    • Yeah, the Hunt on screen WAS gorgeous LOL – but I had to keep to my point so I didn’t go there. (LOL!) And Bruhl WAS a dead ringer for Lauda. Thanks so much for letting me know you went at my word!! I thought you’d do a review on it. =) Mine wasn’t a review – that’s why I didn’t title the post as such. It was a commentary on L’s real life as a racer. If it were a review I would’ve talked about the acting (stellar, except for L’s wife on screen who for some reason really let us down from the point of the accident). Thanks for the input, Shz!

      • Yes your right yours really wasn’t a review, but I liked your perspective, I think the movie was way more about Lauda, then about Hunt so the poster is kind of misleading I think. Anyway, I really liked what you had to say. ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. A race for greatness to the death. Lauda and Hunt exemplified well what adversaries can do for one another. Competition in every field, as long as it is fair play and taken in the right spirit (which of course is always the British spirit ๐Ÿ˜‰ ), can push us to dig deep and find the best in ourselves.
    Ultimately, the best competitors are those that realise early enough that their main adversary is themselves and there is no greater feeling than conquering something within yourself, something that for a time felt insurmountable.
    It is another great piece for Greatness, Diana ๐Ÿ™‚ I hope you will forgive my double-great in that sentence, but that seemed to be one of the few times when a double seems appropriate.
    I have a friend who works for Formula 1; it was his dream ever since he was a child. He did not care how he might do that or what position he might take, as long as he could be a part of it. He is also one of the few fortunate people (I only know one other personally) who actually grew up to fulfil their childhood dream. I’ve tagged him to the article on FB so you might get quite a few Formula 1 racers reading this piece. At least I hope they will.
    Look forward to the next piece, and thank you for the inspiring post xx

    • Oh, V. Great job elaborating on my piece. Well, well put. And thanks for putting me out there. I, actually, tried – from two diff angles – to gain access to Lauda for an interview. High jump, big hopes, little chance here: do you think you can ask your friend if he could whack the F1 network for Lauda’s contact? For an email interview with a freelance writer? I know L’s retired but perhaps if he hit up the right honcho? I would thank you before the world in that post!


  7. Excellent post. I’m giving away my age but I remember as a kid watching these events unfold. I wasn’t going to watch the film because I was guessing that Hollywood would take the story and fill it to the brim with macho one-liners and other such nonsense. After reading this I’ll give it a go now.

  8. Pingback: Rush | Musings&Rants

  9. I loved every word of this. The story is unquestionably great, but itโ€™s the way you put it that makes me want to see the movie, and I certainly will. Niki Lauda should definitely give you an interview and I hope you become a regular feature on The Talking Violin.

  10. A dramatic telling. Now I must see the movie. For some, maybe most, of us, the interest doesn’t lie in the machines but in the human story at the heart of the race.

  11. I don’t really get folks like him who deliberately defy safety 110%, etc. Anyway, I personally know a cyclist who became permanently paralyzed as a quadriplegic after he crashed onto rock face while paragliding in the mountain areas.

    Honest, to actually know someone …is not pretty life result. He does occasionally come to cycling celebration events especially for separated bike lanes which do allow motorized wheelchair riders.

  12. What a great review you offer of a very interesting and thrilling movie! I rented it on a whim last year and was completely glued to the screen while watching and feverishly googling the real story after.

    I loved your question about what daredevils do with fear, bury it, swallow it? I don’t know but this movie comes as close to answering I think as anything.

    You should consider a career as a film movie critic, you’re darn good at it! ๐Ÿ˜‰

    • Ha ha ha. I hardly watch movies – no time! – but went to see it, pen and paper in hand to write about it after hearing the PR on NPR. I scribbled in the dark of the theater. =) I so wished I could interview Lauda! What’s fascinating is that they ARE human, as hard as it is to believe. These crazy guys ARE afraid. But they DO something with that fear and defy it, even to irrational lengths. So terribly interesting, people off the bell curve.

  13. Inspiring critique of the film, and the way you retold it certainly spoke of the different kinds of desires within us and different fighters among us. Your last question on victory and joy is an interesting one. I think we all interpret victory and success differently from each other. Competition can bring out both the best and worst in us. At the end of the day, if we don’t “win”, life simply goes on.

    • That’s just the thing, M. “At the end of the day, if we donโ€™t โ€œwinโ€, life simply goes on.” For some, this is not so. I have to suppose their sense of value is bound up too closely with their work or accomplishments.

  14. I saw Lauda and Hunt race at Watkins Glen, both before and after the shunt at “The Ring”. It’s true that hunt stopped his car and helped pull Lauda from the burning wreck. My kind of story!

    • He didn’t do that in the movie!! They should’ve kept that in!! That’s AwEsome you caught them live. And I can appreciate the quote. Seems people like that live for THAT MOMENT. They stuff all of living in it.

  15. BTW – There is a great scene in Lemans where Steve McQueen explains to a drivers widow why men race… he says “to men who race, that is life, everything that comes before or after, well, that’s just waiting”. True of any passionate endeavor.

  16. I suppose the question you posed at the end is something we need tp often ponder.. Life is a race. We seek to achieve ambitions, to accumulate wealth, to accomplish something we can be proud of or more importantly to feel good about how we’ve treated others as we reflect on what we have achieved in life.

    • You’re right, Ian. Many can’t silence that hunger, men especially. It’s when they stake everything, even their breath, it becomes a fascinating question. I just hope my son knows his worth is not tied to his achievements.

  17. Reading “Gene: A Natural History.” Geneticists have found that thrill-seekers often have a genetic variation which alters how they process dopamine. They need more stimulation to feel the effects. We are fascinating creatures, especially since we are compelled to examine how and why we do things.

    Cool post. Kind of have a crush on the guy.

  18. They say the chemical rush inherent in fear or courage is essentially the same. It is just how our brain interprets it that makes the difference in our perception/experience. I have spent a lifetime trying to turn the fear factor into courage. I’ve usually succeeded–but the enjoyment is a long time coming.

    • Interesting. I’m sure the wiring comes into play esp in something as dizzying as racing. And studies have shown that naming our feelings, that is, bringing consciousness to them (the bad ones in particular), lowers our cortisol. I’m sure this is related, that we can rename our fear.

  19. This past week I called for an endorsement after waiting 3 months because of fear of rejection. After I made the call and was met with the answer, “I am so glad that you called,” I was fully ashamed for all my fear. I called my son for the guilt that I was feeling and he gave me some really good counsel. “Dad, everything I do in business fills me with fear. Fear and faith are similar in that they both believe in something they can’t see. I face down my fear by replacing it with faith. God, is this really what you want for me? In faith, I go forward for God.” I was rebuked by my son and I loved it, and pray that I will learn from his admonition.

  20. A great piece, and an interesting reflection upon a time when motor racing really was an extremely hazardous occupation. Two things which stand out for me: one was the reaction of Hunt to an insensitive news reporter in the press conference where Lauda announced his intention to race again after his accident. Hunt took the reporter at the first moment he could get him alone and beat him quite savagely. This is not poetic licence on the part of the scriptwriter, it actually happened; and exemplifies the true camaraderie that exists between exponents of the sport, no matter their competitive instincts. The other is the aftermath: Hunt, of course, with his raw talent and ‘live fast, die young’ philosophy, got his wish. He died young. Nicki Lauder is anything but retired. His rugged, iconic visage regularly attends the Mercedes Pit, where he has a senior role as an adviser.

    • That is so cool that Lauda is still going strong in that way. You just can’t live long the way Hunt went so wildly about life. L was measured in everything he did. I do love the camaraderie, respect, twisted affection between rivals in competition. Appreciate the thoughtful, informative feedback, FA.

  21. As I read through your blog post, I realized that a little craziness is definitely part of courage and being a daredevil. Maybe it can only be mustered up in the moment, although from what you shared of the story, it almost sounds like it was an “addiction” in the racing sports. I guess the definition of victory and joy reveals the most about who we are and what makes us tick.

    • Well put, Deb. Racers corner themselves into the do-or-die moment on the track but I’m sure the adrenaline helps them through. For us all, fear seems to have its way in the anticipation of the beast that awaits and the way these guys dance with the fear on the long wait to race day is definitely crazy to me.

      • I think we need moments of “craziness” in our lives, otherwise we don’t fully live. But I have to admit, I will never be so crazy as to hop in a race car and be on the edge of life and death like that!

  22. Hi, Diana! Sorry if I sound clueless (because I am, LOL!!!), but is the story based on a true story? Good review, though. Normally, this is not something that would interest me much, but it is never too late to give something another try…

  23. I don’t know these two drivers but now I want to watch the film, I like the questions you ask, what drives people on when other’s leave the race? I wonder what Lauders family thought of him getting back in and competitive driving again? Your writing is lovely to read.

    • I’m not surprised this one piqued your interest, Charlotte, given the excellence you seek in your craft. The film was historical and in it, L’s family had disowned him or he’d parted with them as he set out on his path. But who knows. Fame is a magnet and I wouldn’t be surprised if his family sought to restore connections when he’d attained it.

  24. I wonder what it must have been like in an F1 car of that era.

    As far as outright speed, those things equal or even surpass the modern (and ultra intimidating) modern versions. So imagine those same 320 km/hr emergency stops and get rid of the carbon fiber crash cells. Get rid of the 10,000 dollar ultra high tech race slicks and replace them with tires that would be a downgrade on your grandma’s minivan. Erase 40 years of brake technology and wrap yourself in a thin, flexy aluminum cigar. Huge power, primitive suspension and miniscule weight.

    I sometimes feel like a badass doing track days in my street car but, man, thinking about those guys in the 60s and 70s makes it massively clear just how much farther people can go. I’m not worthy …

    • This is way off track (pun intended) but I am not keen on all the synthesized sounds that pass for music nowadays. When it was just the fiddle in the fields or the busking sax on the gray street, it had to come through – and often those guys who went for it did. They had no fancy props to mask for talent – just the raw acoustics borne of sure fingers. So yes, the older generations that went without always have one up on us – if not more.

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