I’ve owned an awful lot of strange things in my time, yes sir! But the one thing that probably looks to be absolutely the strangest is really the most natural thing in the world for a kid to hang on to. It’s a little half-inch square of metal sheeting. One side is scorched black, and the other is painted bright red, with the paint flaking off a little on the very edges. To keep any more from coming off, it’s been dipped in clear varnish. In one corner there’s a little hole drilled so’s I can wear it on a string around my neck. Lots of people ask me what it is, and why it’s so important to me, and so on. I’ll tell you just what I always tell everybody – starting at the end and working back to the start. It’s quite a tale.
This little square of metal was given to me by the ace F-1 driver, Paul da Silva, when I met him at a race meet in Colorado. He’d carried this thing as a lucky charm ever since he picked it up by the trackside in Rome. Along with the charm, Paul gave me the story that belongs to it, which is just as valuable to me.
Once upon quite a while ago – say about spring of 1980 – there was a big car race; the Grand Prix. Drivers came from all over the world to compete. Well, in races like this, all the cars are going pretty darn fast; they’re designed to. Sometimes they reach speeds of 198 miles an hour, so it follows that a driver or so will crash from time to time. At this particular race in Rome, there was only one crash, but it wasn’t just your run-of-the-mill loss of control or aquaplaning or anything like that. It was dirty. Paul saw the whole thing, from his position just behind the vehicles going around the hairpin turn. One car sideswiped another, sending it into a crazy spin. The driver of the second car was young and couldn’t regain control fast enough to stop himself smashing into a third car. Shooting off the track into the tyre wall, totally out of control, the third car rolled once, and shivered into bits all over the track. The driver was killed outright.
As races tend to, the race went on. Paul didn’t know who won that day, only that it wasn’t him. After the race was over, he went out to the crash site to take a look around, and found one little bit of the car lying right smack in the middle of the turn’s sweet spot. That’s the best line for taking the corner, and you can tell it by the build-up of rubber from all the tires passing it. He took it for an omen that he wasn’t going to crash next, or maybe not ever. Paul’s the most superstitious guy I know, but then so are a lot of drivers. In one of the world’s most dangerous sports, it pays to be. Putting the scrap of metal in the pocket of his driving overalls, Paul thought no more about it – until he won his next race. And the next. As an experiment, he left the charm behind in a race in Sydney, Australia, and came ninth. However, with the charm back in his pocket, Paul resumed his winning streak, and it never let up. Not once. Nuh-uh.
So, why did Paul give me his lucky charm that guaranteed him a win every time? For one, he was planning to retire soon anyhow, so he didn’t really need it any more. And for two, Paul da Silva’s lucky charm is a piece of my father’s Formula One racing car.