An Interview With Sir Jackie Stewart: The Legend Opens Up

We sit down with the 79-year-old Formula 1 champion to talk emotions, dyslexia, and jumping cars three feet off the ground at the 'Ring.

The Quail, A Motorsports Gathering
Tom O'Neal—©Rolex/Tom O'Neal

Even if Sir Jackie Stewart were fictional, his story would still be worthy of Scottish mythology. He was a 15-year-old school dropout who matured into a three-time Formula One world champion, global TV commentator, and household name among racing fans and "normals" alike. An undiagnosed dyslexic, scolded in school for being "thick," the utterly insecure young Jackie became a mechanic at his father's service station in Dumbarton, Scotland, before getting his first taste of success as a globally-competitive clay pigeon shooter. His racing career kicked off at 23; just 11 years later, it was over. The "Flying Scot" retired at the height of his powers, having survived the deadliest years in F1 as one of the sport's winningest drivers, and became an unyielding advocate for motorsport safety. 

In 1973, Sir Jackie was named Sports Illustrated magazine's "Sportsman of the Year," edging out both O.J. Simpson and the Triple Crown-winning Secretariat. As a commentator on ABC's Wide World of Sports, Jackie added color to everything from motor racing to figure skating, covering the 1976 winter and summer Olympics and the Indy 500. As a Formula One team owner in the 1990s, he and his son Paul assembled the F1 team that would later become Red Bull Racing. 

Now 79 years old, his well-hewn mischievous streak and no-nonsense approach to repartee—particularly regarding the sport he loves enough to be brutally frank with it when he needs to—remains intact. I sat down with Sir Jackie during Monterey car week to talk racing, mind control, and his toughest challenge yet.

M.S.: What was your first time at Laguna Seca like?

Sir J.S.: I think I first came here in 1964 to drive a Lotus Cortina.

Oh, the white with the green...

Yeah, and then I came back in 1970 to drive a Lola Can-Am car.

Well, those are two very different experiences.

Yeah, and I also, I think the first year I came with Rolex here, I drove Nuvolari's Alfa Romeo [P3] that he won all the races, 1930 or '31 car, and [F1 legend Juan Manuel] Fangio drove in front of me and Phil Hill drove behind me.

Wow, that's…

It was just one of these great events that you get to do. But we were going on. We were moving. And this car of the late '20s, early '30s, Nuvolari's car was just one of the best cars I've ever driven.

Really?

Of any type.

Of any era?

Absolutely. The handling I'm saying, the balance of the car.

Lothar Spurzem / Wikipedia

An Alfa Romeo P3 Grand Prix car, driven by Alain de Cadenet

Going back to the beginning. What happened when the first Jaguar came to your parents’ dealership in Scotland?

Yes, we had to enlarge the showroom. My dad started the garage and my brother and I were in it, and when we got the Jaguar dealership, we had to improve the facilities, so we had an extension of a bigger showroom, a lubrication bay area. That was my job. The lubrication bay. I was serving petrol to begin with, then I did the lubrication bay, and then I became a mechanic and six years I became a journeyman mechanic and it was then that I started to drive racing cars. Not until I was 23 years of age.

By standards now, that's kind of late.

Yeah, because now kids are, you know, Lewis Hamilton's currently leading the world championship. He started racing at the age of eight, karting. His father took four jobs to keep enough money to get this boy through the best possible engines, gearboxes and tires, and here he comes today, a multiple world champion. Before karting, it was Formula Ford. I didn't do Formula Ford either, there was no Formula Ford in my day, so you started with sports cars.

One of our customers had a Porsche Super 90 and I was the mechanic who serviced it and looked after it and other people raced it. And an AC Bristol also, and once or twice they damaged the cars, and this young man [Barry Filer], who was not allowed to race himself—he was an only son and he had a lot of money, the family had a trust that would not allow him to race—and he said, "Well, as a little reward for all your hard work, somebody else bashed the car around a little bit." He said, "Why don't you do it?" And I finished second in this Porsche.

In the Super 90?

Yes, in the Porsche Super 90. And then, the second race I won.

At the time, you were shooting competitively.

Shooting for Great Britain. Shooting for Scotland to begin with, and then Great Britain in trap shooting. Went 'round the world doing it. Shot against the Americans quite a lot in the World Championships, European Championships. Didn't win the World Championships, finished sixth. Won the European, Mediterranean, the British, the Scottish, the Irish, the Welsh, and the English.

And then I got married to Helen in 1962, and marriage is a very expensive business, so I couldn't be an amateur shooter and a husband with a wife. So I retired from shooting and just worked in the garage and it was then that I started to race.

Lothar Spurzem / Wikipedia

Jackie and Ford Motorsports head Michael Kranefuss at the Nürburgring, 1973.

It seems you took to racing cars naturally. Is there anything about shooting that helped you in racing?

Oh yes. I've got a big thing about mind management: Don't get angry. Because when you get angry, you say things that later you wish you had never said. You make bad decisions. I removed emotion and I learned to do that from shooting, because when you got up in the morning and you're shooting in the world championship or the European championship, or just any event you are on lock tight. If you removed emotion, you're more relaxed, and you didn't miss the first target, because in shooting, if you miss a target, you never get it back. 

If I made a mistake in a racing car, I could always make it up. So, I learned a lot from my shooting and I did that until my marriage and, honestly, I couldn't afford them both and I was lucky enough have Barry Filer, and then the Ecurie Ecosse saw me race and got me…

The Scottish racing team ...

Yes, and then Ken Tyrrell saw me racing, saw me winning in difficult circumstances with sometimes not the most modern car. So he got me into single-seaters and took me all the way through until I retired.

National Motor Museum/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Jackie and team owner Ken Tyrrell circa 1969.

Was there a moment you knew driving was something that you were going to excel at or had a natural ability?

I never, never really thought that. I've never...nothing that I've done I can think of that I've ever thought I was particularly good at. I'm a severe dyslexic, I can't read or write, even to this day. I've got a mobile phone in here, somewhere, here it is, and that's where it is, that's my communications.

I can't use an iPad or an iPhone because I can't find my own name in a keyboard. So, when you're like that and then you find something you're good at, you focus and that's the only thing. "My God, I'm not an idiot." So you give so much more to your life. So my dyslexia, in a funny sort of way, unquestionably motivated me to do things.

But then, you see, how can I beat the other guy? Now emotion is one of the most dangerous things. If you have emotion control then you don't make the mistakes, you don't have the big problems and you don't say things that later you wish you had never said.

So, I learned that and that was one of the big things. Mind management removed the emotion, allowed me to be a much better racing driver and won most of my races in the first five laps, because everybody else was uptight.

Your driving was always very methodical, it seemed…

Well, no. Methodical maybe suggests that you're only doing it in place, one way or another, and that's not probably the right word for it. I had a very good focus. Because if you got overconfident, you made mistakes. I have to say I think I was very fortunate to live in an era. Because I had Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Jack Brabham, François Cevert, Jochen Rindt, some of the greatest drivers in the world. It was a wonderful time.

GP Library/UIG via Getty Images

Jackie driving a Tyrell 003 at Nurburgring, German GP 1970.

Was there anything about dyslexia that made you a better driver?

I don't know, I'm not so sure. There's a lot of very successful dyslexics. I mean Steven Spielberg's dyslexic, Leonardo da Vinci's dyslexic, Einstein was dyslexic. In those days I didn't know these people were dyslexic. I just thought I was stupid and dumb and thick, because that's what the teachers told you because you couldn't do exams and so forth. But dyslexics think out of the box because they can't think like the clever folk, so you think how you can get something done in a different way, and my sport saved my life in that respect. But I think the creativeness is something that's of benefit. Because you're looking at how you can do things by creating different ways of doing them. I learned that a car doesn't want to be abused. I learned to drive a car very smoothly and gently.

So therefore, as a dyslexic...I'm very good at cleaning windows and I'm very good at cleaning forks, because I'd hate to see a carpet out of shape or a dirty mark on a carpet or a window that hasn't been cleaned properly. Dyslexics tend to be good at simple things and that's what I was good at.

I used to watch Wide World of Sports quite a bit, and you were a very vivid color commentator. It seemed like a natural progression for you, from racing.

Again, a little bit, the dyslexic thing. That you assume everybody is as dumb as you are, and you have to explain things in a way that are simple to understand. So if I were talking about a motor race, for example, at Daytona with Jim McKay beside me...who was the ultimate, best in the world sports commentator. I learned so much about broadcasting from him...but I would be able to describe [the race] more fully, because he wasn't a racing driver. I got that side of it. But I learned the skills from him and then I hosted the Indianapolis 500 once, so I was in the studio doing the legs and so forth, rather than [the color].

I think [Jim McKay] was the most brilliant man in sports television history. And I worked with the best people, not only that but the best directors, Chet Forte and a whole lot of other people like that, Doug Wilson and…It was the best, it was the best television sports channel in the world. The "thrill of victory and the agony of defeat." [That was the ABC's Wide World of Sports tagline, kids. —Ed.]

Mike Brenner/The Enthusiast Network/Getty Images

Interviewing Richard Petty for Wide World of Sports, 1974.

So, back to racing. What was your favorite circuit?

The favorite track, well, the one the driver needs to, as a Formula One driver, needs to win, is the Monaco Grand Prix.

Tough one to win.

I won four times there. It’s the most colorful, glamorous and exciting race track in the world. Big crowds, Princess Grace. And if you won the Grand Prix, you sat next to Princess Grace in a black tie dinner that night. 

Victor Blackman/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Jackie and wife Helen after Monaco Grand Prix win, 1966

I loved Indianapolis, I didn't win it. In 1966 I went to Indy, my first Indy 500. [He won Rookie of the Year. —Ed.] And with eight laps to go I was two laps in the lead, and an oil scavenge pump seized. The car came to a stop. I pushed it for a while thinking that was the thing to do. But I was so far ahead I finished sixth because I had two laps in the lead. I came back the next year, I was ahead of AJ at the time, and again, ironically, the same component went bad. So I didn't win that one, either. But my motor racing is what's made my life, my shooting made me as a man. Because as a dyslexic, I was a disaster, my broken nose happened because I was hanging out with the wrong people at the wrong time. Got set on by...

That was the pool hall incident?

Yeah, just knocked about, broken rib and all. That cleared me up from being with the wrong people but because you're the dummy in the class, the clever folk never wanted to talk to you, so you were exiled, so you went to the wrong side of the street. That's why people sometimes, with dyslexic and learning disabilities, go to drugs and alcohol. I was lucky, I found sport, my shooting, to begin with. I loved my time, I've now been 50 years with the Rolex watch company. I've been 49 years with Moet Chandon, I was 40 years with Ford. I've had long term relationships. I've had how many years married with Helen, I've been married 56 years on Tuesday.

Wow, congratulations.

But sadly Helen's got dementia now, and that's the biggest challenge I've ever had in my life, to try and find a cure for dementia. I'll have to do that outside the box as well because the establishment for 30 years haven't found a cure.

It's true. My father had dementia.

Well, you know that he needed a lot of care and it was a sad event, degradation. How can that not be fixed? The brain is by far the most complicated piece of kit in the world, but I am sure we can find a cure for it.

I think that's true. Favorite race car to drive?

The Matra [MS80] in 1969. If not the Tyrrell. Ford, the Ford [Cosworth DFV] engine was the best engine, the cars were…

But the Matra chassis.

The Matra was a beautiful marriage that we had. [Jackie won the Formula One World Championship title in 1969 in the Matra MS80. —Ed.]

Lotha Spurzem / Wikipedia

Jackie Stewart in the Matra-Ford MS80 (1969)

There’s that famous photo of your car in mid-air on the Nürburgring. How many jumps per lap were there back then, say, mid, late 60s.

About 28.

28?

Off the road. But, real flying, I would say four or five.

Wow.

But I mean, this high off the ground.

That's a meter, meter plus?

Yeah.

Incredible.

Racing cars took off very well, but they didn't land very well.

Lotha Spurzem / Wikipedia

Halo. The right solution for F1?

Yes.

Why?

If it saves one life. It's that or die. Any number of people have died unnecessarily, so the Halo...It's not the most popular decision, but it's the right decision.

It seems like it's taken a long time to find that decision.

Tradition is difficult to change.

Is motorsports still relevant?

Of course it is. Because it accelerates knowledge. In England, we are the capital of motorsports technology. The Germans had it for a long time. The Italians had it for a long time. Britain? Most of our universities have got motorsports courses, and we employ, in the United Kingdom, 143,000 people in the motorsports industry.

Wow, it's that many?

So, that's why we are so good.

But it's in the future that everybody is sort of looking at. Autonomous cars and taking people out of the driving equation. Motorsports will always have a place?

I think people want to see exciting things. They want to speed. People get excited by racing. They quite like seeing accidents. They don't like seeing death, that's ugly. But, if there's close racing, and people driving at the absolute limit of their ability and that of the machinery, than it's a hugely exciting sport. It's the technology, it's glamor, it's colorful, it's exciting. And it's global.