Remember Harry Schell, the forgotten American F1 star



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We remember men like Phil Hill or Mario Andretti, often crediting them with achieving some of the most important American “firsts” in Formula 1. But there is one man we often neglect to mention: Harry Schell.

Maybe that’s because Schell’s origins are a bit murky. He was born and raised largely in Paris, France, but his parents were American expat Laury Schell and American heiress Lucy O’Reilly Schell. Laury himself was an occasional runner while Lucy, you may remember, invested heavily in the Delahaye company and used their cars to found his own team and lead the Jewish driver René Dreyfus. All of their children were well positioned to make a splash in motorsport, and Harry Schell certainly looked set to make it happen.

The path, however, was not easy. Just before World War II, his parents were involved in a traffic accident that killed his father and seriously injured his mother. They went to America in 1940, where Schell took charge of his mother’s team, the Blue Stable, at Indianapolis 500. He had volunteered with the Finnish Air Force during the British War. winter in 1939, joining the United States Tank Corps was a smart next step.

He was ready to cash in on the post-war thirst for adventure by opening Action Automobile, a sports bar in Paris, before finding himself competing in the all-new Formula 1. He raced under the American banner. , making him the first American to compete in the sport.

Its first outing was, it must be admitted, a disaster. He made his Cooper debut in Monte Carlo, then caused a crash at the harbor chicane that wiped out most of the field. However, he was competing well so far.

It was a bit representative of his track career as a whole: he never won a race, and he built a solid reputation as a womanizer. But as he progressed and started racing in more competitive cars. His first score came in 1956, when he finished fourth at the Belgian Grand Prix. He has finished on the podium twice: once third at the 1957 Pescara Grand Prix and again second at the 1958 Dutch Grand Prix. He has also performed well in endurance races such as the 12 Hours of Sebring.

One of the most interesting information about his career came during the Race of Two Worlds, an exhibition race held in Monza. In it, American teams from USAC and European F1 teams were sent to compete on the Inclined Oval to see who would emerge triumphant. In 1958, Schell was one of three American drivers to have competed on the F1 side, competing directly with their American counterparts. The other two pilots were Masten Gregory and Phil Hill.

But his competitors loved him. Despite its abysmal beginnings, it became known as a staunch contender with a growing voice in promoting safety gear that would protect drivers and potentially save lives.

In 1960, Schell was aging outside of motorsport. He was 40 years old and he was running out of prospects. So, he borrowed the name of his mother’s Ecurie Bleue team and used it to lead a private Cooper in the F1 world championship. This past season didn’t start off very promisingly – he retired in Argentina, the season opener – but things were about to get worse.

During practice for the International Non-Championship Trophy event at Silverstone, Schell was traveling at nearly 100 mph when his car slid through the mud right next to Abbey Curve. He lost a wheel and subsequently control of the car. Her Cooper raced through the air, passed through a security fence, and saw a brick wall collapse on impact. Schell was of course not wearing a safety harness, so he was halfway out of the car by the time all was said and done. His head had hit the wall, breaking his neck and killing Schell instantly.

His team owner, Ken Gregory, recalled the moment later, as reported in Motorsport magazine: “There was this big man with the barrel torso, not a mark on him, lying on the slab. The strangest thing, however, other than the fact that I had never been near a corpse before, never even seen one, was that I could absolutely swear he was smiling. I can still see it now.

It was a difficult time, when deaths like Schell’s were common. In fact, Schell had been seriously hurt by the death of his friend, the Marquis Alfonso de Portago, in 1957. Schell was the one who learned to drive from the Spaniard and was torn apart after Portago was killed in the last. Mille Miglia. The wreckage claimed the lives of de Portago and that of his co-pilot, both of whom were severely disfigured after hitting a concrete bollard on the highway. He also killed nine spectators, including five children.

Schell used the accident to reassess his priorities and began to search for better racing gear, which resulted in him concluding the best F1 season of his career. It also served as inspiration for him to start asking European open-wheel cars to adopt roll bars, which were standard in America.

Harry Schell was probably at the end of his career when he died, so it wasn’t like he was going to break records or set the world on fire. But it’s a shame it’s been remembered in motorsport’s collective memory when it comes to thinking about the impact Americans have in F1. He wasn’t a world champion – he wasn’t even a race winner – but Schell’s place in the sport is one that American fans should be aware of.


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