Peter Revson: Revlon heir, race car driver

Peter Revson. Peter Revson. Photo Credit: Photo illustration by Greg Perry / Wheelbase

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We could have taken the easy road in life. He could have stayed in his native New York, remained committed to a family fortune and perhaps even appeared in one of those luscious ads.

Could you imagine it?

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    Peter Revson, world-class race car driver, Formula-One legend, pushing red-hot lipstick for Revlon?

    Not a chance.

    Certainly, Revson was an heir to a cosmetics fortune, but he was much happier hanging it out on a hairpin than creating new ways to use one. He could have been content to stay committed to an easier life, but, instead, he died pushing the edge of the envelope. There haven't been many Americans who have made an impact in Formula One, what many view as the ultimate racing series. Revson was one of the best.

    "I really feel he was one of the top six drivers in F1," former Formula-One McLaren team manager Teddy Mayer once said.

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    He was know as Revvie. Revvo. The "speeder with style," as his autobiography proclaimed.

    Born in 1939, Peter Jeffrey Revlon Revson had it all: looks; charisma; wealth; and driving talent. He had a will to hang it all out and determination to not hold back.
    While growing up, he attended several prep schools and colleges, which had little effect on his path. Revson had always been interested in sports and racing and that's where he was heading.

    His career began in 1960 at age 21.

    An utterly restless young man, Revson was living in Hawaii and, while attending the University of Hawaii, he competed in several local events. He won in just his second race, but after his third - also a victory - he was banned for being too aggressive. That didn't stop him.

    The next year, Revson would compete in Formula Junior. One season after that, he was racing in Europe, doing it all on his own with $12,000 from his business earnings and living out of the back of the transporter that carried his car.

    It wasn't easy. Revson tried Formula Three and Formula Two for a few years, and did well, but returned to the United States in 1966 after failing to land a job in Formula One, the top class. After a couple of years driving in endurance races for Ford, Lola and McLaren, and racing in the Indianapolis 500 (where he finished fifth in 1969 after qualifying 33rd), his career finally began to blossom.

    The scrutiny became just as intense as his desire to win. The U.S. press called him the "rich kid from New York." Some said that racing was just a hobby for a kid who was bored sitting on a fortune. Revson bristled at media characterizations that he was just a playboy heir to a fortune.

    "I'll do it my own way," he would say. "Just because someone walks around with a famous name doesn't mean there isn't hard work involved."

    And he would prove it. In 1971, Revson took the pole at the Indy 500, the May event that begins the season for top-tier open-wheel racing in North America, and backed it up with a second-place finish. He also won the CanAm endurance racing title.

    But, with Revson driven, committed and passionate to his only goal - Formula One - the future seemed inevitable.

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    With his mix of solid showings in '71, Revson was named to the 1972 McLaren F1 team and finished fifth overall. He scored his first pole position - starting the race from the front - that year and five times in nine races he began from the front. The 1973 season would get even better. Revson won the British and Canadian Grand Prix races and, with skill and a stoic demeanor, drove to another fifth-place finish.
    However, with his career barely under way, it was close to the end.

    The addition of 1972 World Champion Emerson Fittipaldi to the 1974 McLaren team, Revson was out. Undaunted, he would set out to prove himself on his own.
    He signed with the Shadow Formula One team, a move that would ultimately prove tragic.

    In the beginning, Revson was pleased with Shadow's cars and became involved in developing a new racing machine with the intent of taking the team up a notch. On March 22, 1974, with his spirits high and the solid finish from the 1973 season under his belt, Revson took a corner at the Kyalami race track in preparation for the South African Grand Prix, and never came out. The front suspension snapped and Revson crashed into a guard rail. He was instantly killed.

    In a tough-hearted fraternity filled with various forms of royalty, Revson was unique. He made it on his own merit, and not on his name or the family fortune.
    The dashing, handsome, heir to it all, left this world the same way.

    Steven Reive is a feature writer with Wheelbase Media. He can be reached on the Web at www.shiftweekly.com by using the contact link. Wheelbase supplies automotive news and features to newspapers across North America.
     

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