The Journalist Who Broke the Biggest Story in Motorsport History

·9 min read
Photo credit: Robert Daley/Klemantaski Collection - Getty Images
Photo credit: Robert Daley/Klemantaski Collection - Getty Images
Photo credit: Robert Daley/Klemantaski Collection - Getty Images
Photo credit: Robert Daley/Klemantaski Collection - Getty Images



Robert Daley is 91 years old, a highly-successful writer living quietly in Westchester County, New York. He’s written 31 books, many of them best-selling novels. Once the deputy commissioner of the NYPD, he's revered for many things. But for motorsport fans, one thing should stick out. It was Daley who first turned on Americans to what is today the most technologically advanced, richest, and globally popular form of motorsport—Formula 1.

His story starts in 1954, when he went to France as a tourist. He met a French woman on the first day. They married three months after (and still are, 67 years later). At the time, Daley was the publicity director for the New York Giants, and in those days, he could take the off-seasons off. So in 1956, he went to France to visit his in-laws. While he was there, he thought he’d try to sell a couple articles to American newspapers.

“I asked the New York Times if they’d let me cover the 1956 Winter Olympics, in Cortina, Italy,” he says, looking back. “The Times didn’t have the money to send someone from New York. So they said they’d pay me $50 a story, but I had to pay my own way—hotels, travel, everything.” Money was tight, but one could live cheaply in Europe at the time.

At the Cortina Olympics, Daley met the bobsledder and racing driver Alfonso Cabeza de Vaca y Leighton, the Marquis de Portago of Spain. If ever a man was a walking emblem of charisma and testosterone, it’s Portago. He was fabulously wealthy, married and famously also dating the Revlon fashion model Linda Christian. “I remember him at the top of the bobsled run at 6am, in between runs,” Daley says. “He talked to me and said the most outrageous things. I knew Portago was a racing driver, and I was fascinated with him.”

Photo credit:  Louis Monier / Gamma-Rapho - Getty Images
Photo credit: Louis Monier / Gamma-Rapho - Getty Images

Portago talked about racing constantly—a subject Daley knew nothing about. “Every curve has a theoretical limit,” Portago told Daley. “Let’s say a certain curve can be taken at a hundred miles an hour. A great driver like Fangio will take that curve at ninety-nine every single time. I’m not as good as Fangio. I’ll take that curve one time at 97, another time at 98, and a third time at maybe 101. If it take it at 101 I go off the road.”

The following year, when the Giants season ended, Daley and his wife left for Europe again. He was going to try to sell a profile of Portago to a fourth-rate magazine. “I would take anything I could get,” he recalls. Portago was competing for Ferrari in the Mille Miglia, and Daley got an assignment. He filed the story on Friday, May 10, 1957. The next day, Portago crashed his Ferrari in the race. After the accident, as Daley later put it, Portago was found twice. His body had been severed in two.

“My story was killed, and so, I believed, was my writing career,” Daley says. But by this time, he was hooked on Grand Prix racing—the beauty, the danger, the glory. It was a fabulous world that most of America knew nothing about. So he set off in 1958 to introduce the European scene to mainstream America.

Photo credit: Robert Daley/Klemantaski Collection - Getty Images
Photo credit: Robert Daley/Klemantaski Collection - Getty Images

Daley’s first F1 race was the 1958 Grand Prix de Monaco. When he wrote his story, he used the term “Crown Prince of auto racing” to describe Stirling Moss, which must have surprised readers of the New York Times, because almost none of them knew who Moss was. Daley had to describe to Americans what the Monaco Grand Prix was, because few readers of the Times would have heard of it. “The race…twists through the streets of Monte Carlo,” he wrote. “The noise is explosive as the cars hurtle through the narrow and at other time sedate streets of the principality.”

All that spring of 1958, Daley moved from Grand Prix to Grand Prix—Zandvoort, the Nurburgring—introducing American readers to F1 and its skilled gladiators. “It was a deadly business and for me as a writer, it was a supreme challenge,” he says. “How do you interest Americans in grand prix racing when they’ve never heard of it before, aren’t a bit interested, and don’t know any of the drivers or cars? How do you make it as fascinating to read about, as it appeared to my eyes in person?”

Photo credit: Robert Daley/Klemantaski Collection - Getty Images
Photo credit: Robert Daley/Klemantaski Collection - Getty Images

Daley found a Trojan horse in the Californian Phil Hill, who that very season became the first American to break into the ranks of Ferrari drivers. “Phil was never that warm of a guy but I spent a hell of a lot of time with him and I deeply cared for him,” Daley remembers. “I always said if anything ever happened to Phil I’d never go to a race again. He was the one who gave me all the information. I realized as a journalist…. You need one informant to take you inside. The same thing is true in detective work.”

That spring, Hill brought Daley through the threshold of Enzo Ferrari’s office, so that Daley could write the first profile ever to appear in the mainstream American press of Ferrari, the man. Daley remembers feeling awed by this riddle of a man who made cars that cost $15,000—an unheard of fortune. Daley had learned enough about European racing to know that Ferrari drivers perished with surprising regularity; two of them (Luigi Musso and Peter Collins) would be killed that very F1 season. Daley remembers seeing photos on the wall of these dead drivers, in Ferrari’s office. One of them was the Marquis de Portago.

Photo credit: Robert Daley/Klemantaski Collection - Getty Images
Photo credit: Robert Daley/Klemantaski Collection - Getty Images

“Every question I asked Ferrari, he answered so vividly,” Daley remembers. “He was known for never talking to journalists. I have no idea why he talked to me.” The one question Daley remembers most was why Enzo Ferrari never went to races. Was it because he feared for the lives of the drivers? Daley recalls: “He said, ‘If a man builds something from scratch, something precious, and then he goes to the races and he sees the thing that he built dying, because in a race the cars are always dying, it hurts me here.’ And he placed his hand over his heart.”

The Ferrari profile ran in the New York Times on June 8, 1958, under the headline “Ferrari: Speed-Bewitched Recluse.” “To say that Enzo Ferrari makes cars is like saying that Rubinstein plays the piano,” Daley wrote. “For Enzo Ferrari’s Italian-built cars are the fastest, sleekest, and sometimes the most costly that the world has known… He is afraid of many modern inventions. He will not, for instance, ride in an elevator.” Few Times readers had heard of Ferrari cars. Fewer still had ever seen one.

Photo credit: Robert Daley/Klemantaski Collection - Getty Images
Photo credit: Robert Daley/Klemantaski Collection - Getty Images

Just days after that story ran, Daley went to Le Mans for the first time. He remembers standing all night in the Ferrari pits, “being assaulted by the amazing volume of the noise. I loved it.” That Sunday afternoon, Phil Hill became the first American to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans, in a Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa. Daley’s dispatches opened the eyes of countless American readers to the beauty and the importance of Le Mans, for the first time.

Photo credit: Robert Daley/Klemantaski Collection - Getty Images
Photo credit: Robert Daley/Klemantaski Collection - Getty Images

In his subsequent stories, Daley captured the lives of the Grand Prix drivers and the races themselves in riveting prose. He himself was riveted, amazed by the drivers: “They were young men like me, and they talked of getting killed all the time.” By the races: “By the beauty of the cars. By the spectacle of men trying to master these sleek, deadly machines. Machines they had created but could not fully control.” By the iconography of these men who risked everything to bring glory to themselves, to their teams, and to their nations: “Grand Prix racing has hundreds of men and girls of all ages who follow the cars and drivers everywhere and who worship openly at the shrine. Drivers see themselves in the eyes of these people. There is awe and the most naked kind of admiration there.”

Photo credit: Robert Daley/Klemantaski Collection - Getty Images
Photo credit: Robert Daley/Klemantaski Collection - Getty Images

Daley’s adventures in motorsport ended sadly, despite his success. At the Italian Grand Prix in 1961, Phil Hill arrived at Monza with a chance of clinching the F1 world championship. He was locked in a rivalry with the West German nobleman Count Wolfgang Von Trips—two Ferrari drivers with one title at stake. The atmosphere at Monza was beyond intense. Daley was there.

The day before the race, he interviewed Von Trips, known as Count Von Krash for his aggressive style behind the wheel. Von Trips said to Daley, “The line between maximum speed and crashing is so thin, so thin. It could happen tomorrow. That’s the thing about this business. You never know.”

Photo credit: Robert Daley/Klemantaski Collection - Getty Images
Photo credit: Robert Daley/Klemantaski Collection - Getty Images

The next day, Phil Hill won the Italian Grand Prix and became the first and only-to-this-day American-born F1 world champion. However, Von Trips was killed in a crash that also took the lives of 15 spectators. On the morning after the crash—which made international headlines, Daley’s own among them—the writer was sitting in his Milan hotel when he saw his friend Phil Hill descend the stairs into the lobby. Footage of the crash was playing over and over on a nearby TV. Daley asked Hill, “What are you going to do, Phil?”

Hill paused, then answered, “When I love motor racing less, my own life will be worth more to me, and I will be less willing to risk it.”

Photo credit: Louis Monier/Gamma-Rapho - Getty Images
Photo credit: Louis Monier/Gamma-Rapho - Getty Images

Daley moved on from writing on motorsport. By the mid-1960s, the Ford versus Ferrari rivalry and the movie Grand Prix made European racing a massive international phenomenon, with live television cameras, international superstar drivers, and packs of journalists from all over the globe.

For me, however, there is a rawness to Daley’s prose that sets it apart, even after all these years. His book The Cruel Sport represents some of the best writing on the subject even to this day.

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