“There was a little car in the middle of the road, and i was at about 100 miles per hour, and I thought, ‘This is it. I’m gonna die,’” says Derek Bell. It was 1973, and the champion racecar driver was hurtling down a public road through Belgium’s Ardennes forest. It was the famed 24 Total Hours of Spa race, a feat of endurance that demanded a driving team spend a solid day on a nearly eight-mile track, at speeds of more than 170 miles per hour.
Bell, driving for Gulf in a blue and orange Mirage, closed in on the track’s most notorious downhill curve, with rival racing legend, Belgian-born Jacky Ickx, in hot pursuit. “I thought, ‘This time, I’m just going to take that left flat-out,’” he recalls over Lavazza espresso brewed fresh in his Boca Raton kitchen.
With no room to maneuver past the slower car to the left, and a guardrail blocking the right, Bell braced for impact. But then a mental switch flipped. On pure adrenaline, Bell slammed the brakes, sending the car into a sideways spin. Somehow, he managed to regain control. “I got up right behind him, and at the last second turned sideways, and I got past him. I went 17 miles per hour all the way back down the pit,” he says, performing sputtering noises to illustrate the car’s crippled state.
The brush with a fiery end hardly led Bell to reconsider his chosen profession. “I just thought they should change the rules and keep these inexperienced guys out,” he says. Bell doesn’t seem to like to dwell on the past. In fact, it’s only now, at age 70, that the Bognor Regis, England native can concede that he has one of the most iconic names in European-style sportscar and Formula One racing.
“I look back and I realize I was more successful in hindsight than I thought at the time, but there were lots of us out there, and I know there were better drivers than me,” Bell says. Perhaps this is an English thing, meant to avert the dreaded tall poppy syndrome, but his résumé in various racing styles is the stuff of legend.
In the late-’60s and early-’70s, he shined on the Formula One circuit, racing cars for Ferrari, McLaren, Surtees, and Tecno, and making it to some 16 World Championships. The ’70s and ’80s were his peak decades for earning titles—racking up two World Sportscar Championships, three wins in the 24 Hours of Daytona race, and a whopping five number-one finishes at Le Mans, most of those teamed with Ickx.
The Le Mans victories remain among the sweetest for Bell. “The Le Mans is a one-off. It’s the jewel in the crown,” he says. “It’s once a year, and when you win it, it’s such a major thing to the team. It’s the thing that all the teams build up for.”
Beyond the glittering titles, though, Bell was part of a generation of drivers who were more like cowboys than the slick rock stars of today’s European racing circuit. In Bell’s day, there was little analysis about the minutiae of each lap. Engineering was done almost on the fly, and drivers sipped Coca-Cola instead of energy supplements.
“These young kids get into it now, and they ask me, ‘How the heck did you drive those cars? They had such heavy steering!’” he says, laughing. “But we grew up with it, so we didn’t think anything different of it. It’s like everything you do. People ask me, ‘How do you get ready for a 24-hour race?’ Well, I started doing a one-hour race. Then after a couple of years I was doing three-hour races, and a year later I was doing six-hour races, and then a 12-hour race.”
Besides impressive stamina, there was also a genuine gentlemanly camaraderie between Bell, Ickx, and peers like Boris Said and Hans-Joachim Stuck, and little media saturation on the track. “We used to go for qualifying, say from 3 to 4 p.m. Then we’d chat with a couple of the other guys on our team or another team,” he recalls, ‘and they’d say, ‘When are we going to play golf? Right, see you out there at 5 p.m.!’”
It was likely Bell’s signature mellowness that got him to today, injury-free. This is a feat, considering the sport’s sobering statistics during his top years. “I think if I had stayed racing in that period, at the same time and state at which I was competing in the late-’60s, early-’70s, I probably wouldn’t have been here today. I’d have been dead,” he says. “Three out of five drivers didn’t make it off the course. It was a war, really.”
Today, Bell boasts a trademark Floridian tan and a lean body he maintains through winter skiing and a daily routine of waterfront jogging. His Boca Raton home—one of two, the other is in his native Bognor Regis—is similarly relaxed, inhabited by Bell, his second wife, Misty, their 12-year-old-son, Sebastian, and seven-month-old Puggle, Duke. (Bell’s 43-year-old son Justin, from his first marriage, lives in L.A. and has also raced professionally.)
A two-car garage houses the family car, a Mercedes SUV, as well as Bell’s city car, a Porsche 911, alongside kids’ sports equipment and pairs and pairs of old sneakers. A surfboard-shaped practice balance board sits in the living room, while Bell attends to mundane tasks like taking out the recycling, barefoot.
This is a man for whom Porsche recently printed a custom celebratory biography, and whose own autobiography, My Racing Life, appeared last year to acclaim. But it is perhaps his everyman quality that has earned him worldwide popularity and a host of endorsement contracts, including an ongoing relationship with Bentley, for whom he’s an official brand ambassador. “You’ll see me at the gym, you’ll see me run down the road, you’ll see me sit on the beach,” he says. “I don’t expect a chauffeur-driven car to pick me up every five minutes. I think what happens a lot with people today is they begin to believe what they read about themselves.”
It probably helps Bell’s attitude that he’s self-made and comes from modest means. “I grew up doing a farm guy’s labor,” he says. “I cleared shit out of stables. I’m a farmer, basically.”
He started racing professionally at age 23 at the suggestion of his stepfather. Though he had youth on his side, Bell soon discovered that was only a small advantage in a sport, which, similarly to horse racing, depends so heavily on one’s mode of transport. It was a humbling discovery: “Motor racing is a very good leveler. In most other sports you’re not driving something, you’re playing,” he says. “Whatever it is, you’re part of a team. But in racecars, I’m only as good as my racecar. So if I’ve got a lousy car, then I have a lousy year, which makes me feel bad and disappointed. Then you get down on yourself, and think you’ve lost your touch.”
As an example, take one of Bell’s few regrets: to have done better in Formula One racing. Though he generally dominated sportscar racing, top Formula One titles eluded him. In over 16 races, with nine starts, he scored no championships or even wins. “I would have loved to have some full seasons with a top team,” he says. “I was with Ferrari at the time, and it doesn’t get much more top than that, but we didn’t have a good car.”
Those ego-deflating seasons kept Bell from getting too full of himself, which kept him hungry. Another large part of his success comes from being a master of focus, of shutting out the external noise, and of quickly getting into a winner’s mental state. “It’s true that you have a nervous reaction before, but [my peers] and I all agree it’s not the fear of death, it’s the fear of not doing well,” he says. “As they say, ‘Once the flag drops, the bullshit stops,’ and then you’re away.”
From the starting line onward, he explains, his focus was never broken, even during those times when the mental and physical pressures of driving at nearly 200 miles an hour nearly broke down his body. “Twice I got out and had to lay on a bed of ice. My body temperature was 104-and-a-half, and I would be put on intravenous drips for about an hour. I could barely walk, and my fingertips were white, and the blood just stopped circulating,” Bell says. “I never really thought of it, though, and over the years, I got to be one of the people who could always bring the car home.”
That once meant putting the car back together himself, on the track. It was Le Mans, the ultimate event, and Bell was driving a Porsche 956, which he took up to nearly 240 miles per hour for an early lead, until engine troubles kicked in. Some 14 hours later, as Bell took his turn, the engine sputtered to a complete stop. With sweat pouring down his face, it was impossible to even hear the radio commands from his pit crew. Remembering a quick mechanical briefing, Bell threw his helmet off and took matters into his own hands. “I picked up the body work—lifted it up and rested it on the wheel—and clack, clack, clack, got the engine back into position,” he recalls. He made it back to the pit, only to be sidelined again by a burst oil pipe, and then faulty brake pads. Getting them replaced would take a full minute, meaning a loss of at least another lap on top of the one his team had lost during the engine fiasco. Instead of waiting for a repair, Bell opted to chance it with his cracked brakes. “I was going down the straight, warming up the brakes with my left food to help them to weld together,” he says. “I broke the lap record three times in the last hour, and we ended up finishing just 26 seconds behind.”
That kind of brash risk-taking and last-minute jerry-rigging would never be found in the sport today. If anything, the loss of that carefree spirit is the only change in racing that Bell mourns. “It’s a big business now, and big sponsors are behind it,” he says. “They want the results at all costs. With money being almost no object, they want to win.”
Long gone are the days of a leisurely pre-race golf game between drivers. “Nowadays, they’re on their computers, and they’re stuck analyzing, and analyzing again—whether it’s the gear box, whether it’s the engine, whether it’s the suspension, whether it’s the aerodynamics,” he says. “Whatever it is, it’s all on a computer somewhere, and I can’t tell you how many computers there are. The guys never get a chance to leave.”
The sport does gain something from the turn towards technology and sponsor-driven business concerns, in Bell’s view. For spectators, the thrill increases, with more televised races and wins nabbed by mere tenths of a second. “There’s more audience, people are looking from all television angles, everyone wants to interview you. It’s really big-time stuff. So in a way, I think it’s great for the sport,” he says. “But we had much more fun, I think, even though it was very dangerous.”
The danger, though greatly reduced, still remains. The death of English driver Dan Wheldon last October at the Las Vegas Indy 300 forced Bell to consider retiring from racing once and for all. As he watched his wife and younger son cry in front of the television set as the crash was broadcast live, Bell had, for one of only a handful of times in his career, serious second thoughts.
“I saw their faces, and I thought, I can’t do another bloody race if they tell me not to. And in reality, it’s not fun. It sounds fun, and of course we laugh beforehand and hopefully have a laugh after,” he says. “But during it, there’s nothing funny about racing 200 miles an hour with the pressures you’re under.”
Racing keeps humming its siren song at him, though. “I’m just a normal person, but for some reason I’ve carried on, because racing is something you get in your blood system, and it’s a passion,” Bell says.
He’s cut back on his schedule, often racing shorter distances for charity with celeb pals like AC/DC’s racing-obsessed singer Brian Johnson, also a Florida resident. Bell’s identity is permanently intertwined with his sport, but even he knows it can’t last forever. “At some point you have to think, I’ve been doing this for 40 years, why do I have to do it for 50? I’ve been so lucky that so far I’ve survived, so why do I want to keep pushing it all the time?” Bell says.
“I used to go out with more women when I was younger, but I mean, that’s the only thing that has slowed down,” he concludes. “I’m not as desperate to win as I was, but I’ve still got the passion for it. I would race every weekend if I could.”