How does a man find his calling?
You’ve got to find out early in life what you’re good at and follow that. I got out of the Air Force in 1945 and kept trying to go into business — trucking, chickens, ready-mix cement. Finally a friend from high school had an old MG and he says, “Let’s go to a car race.” When we got there, he says, “Let’s put a seat belt in this thing.” And I raced it and won. I was driving home that night and said, “This may not be a way to make a living, but this is what I’ve always wanted.”
What should every man know about women?
Take them as they are and don’t try to figure them out. I’ve been married six times — though two brides I brought in just to become citizens years ago when I was racing. I’ve lost two — the last one in an automobile wreck right outside of the place where I am now. I’ve got a good one from England now. Been together 14 years.
What should every man know about money?
The most unhappy people I’ve met in my life — and I’ve driven for a lot of them — are billionaires. Money has never been my objective in life. Like now, there’s some mediocre car I could build that would make a lot of money, but I’ve turned it down because I’m interested in my brand, and my brand is to build ass-kickers.
What’s the best way to motivate men?
Pick the person who is capable of what you’re hiring him for, then let him do it. Don’t be a boss — be a leader.
Who’s the toughest guy you know?
My father. He was a postal clerk. My mother was a difficult woman — she had anxieties — and so my father had sky-high blood pressure by the time he was 20. His ambition was to get me and my younger sister through high school. She graduated June 1, 1943, and he died that October, at 46. He had to fight in life to reach that, and that impressed me more than anything.
Have you ever cheated death?
I’ve been close a helluva lot of times. I died for six or seven minutes when I had my first bypass. The doctor had to jump on my chest. Then when I had a heart transplant, they said I’d had 40 heart attacks. I’d thought it was angina. They had my heart pickled in a jar at Cedars-Sinai, it was so bad.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
I was poppin’ off to my father when I was about 14. He says, “Well, son, you don’t know what I’m talking about now, but you remember what I’m going to tell you: You’re not ever so slick you can’t be greased.” Every time I want to criticize somebody, I think of that: You’re not the smartest thing; respect other people’s opinions.
What role does religion play in a man’s life?
I was raised a southern hard-shell Baptist. Worst whippin’ I ever got was for going fishing one Sunday. I’m not a hard-shell anymore. But I know there’s something stronger than we are that’s put all this together.
What adventure most changed your life?
I went to Africa in 1968 to see some friends and wound up staying there nine months a year for 12 years. All the long-tusk elephants left in the world were in the Congo — they came across the river there into central Africa — and we had a hunting company. I don’t really like to talk about it, and I’ll tell you why: I’m sorry I ever shot an elephant. It was stupid. I wish I’d spent more time just driving around Africa, seeing what most people never get to see in a lifetime.
What advice would you give the younger you?
Get a law degree and an accounting degree. What I love is building cars, but I spend half my time talking to attorneys and accountants. That’s life.
What’s the most scared you’ve ever been?
Sitting upside down at 125 mph, waiting for my head to hit the concrete. All you can do is yell, “Oh, shit!” and wonder how bad it’s going to hurt. Happened a couple of times back in the ’50s during my racing career. In the Grand Prix days, we’d sometimes lose three guys to a race. At the Dutch Grand Prix in ’59, I blew the engine going around a curve 175 miles an hour. Oil got on the rear wheels and I started sliding toward a cliff. Ten feet from the edge, the car swapped ends and went right back on the road. I can tell you one thing: I had to clean my shorts.
This story first ran in the August 2011 issue of Men's Journal.