James Hunt, who lived life at 200 miles an hour, died in June 1993 after a quiet evening of playing snooker in his home here. He was just 45.
In contrast to the drug-, alcohol- and adrenalin-fueled life he had led as a racing driver, Hunt died clean and sober. And alone.
Hunt was found on the floor next to his bed. He was still in the dressing gown he had worn while playing snooker for several hours the night before with his friend and housemate Mike Dennet. Apparently, around midnight, Hunt experienced chest pains which prompted him to telephone for medical help; while on the phone, he seemed to recover, and rang off.
Dennet, who had gone to bed, discovered Hunt, lifeless, the next morning. It was determined he had died sometime in the night. Foul play was ruled out. There were no traces of drugs or alcohol in his system.
Signs are that Hunt – still boyish looking, Greek god handsome, with long blond locks – died at peace with the world. He had just proposed, on the phone, to his girlfriend Helen Dyson, who was vacationing in Greece. He had given up his worst vices some years before, and was newly devoted to living a healthy, sober life.
Despite having earned millions driving racing cars for Hesketh, McLaren, Wolf and others, Hunt was in dire financial straits when he died. Far from squandering his wealth – as might have been expected, given his helter-skelter lifestyle – Hunt had thought he’d been responsible investing his money with the prestigious insurer, Lloyd’s of London.
But Hunt, along with many other Lloyd’s investors in the late 1980s and early 1990s, were swindled out of more than 21 billion British pounds. Hunt himself lost at least 200,000 pounds – most of his nest egg.
In the final months of his life, Hunt drove around in a battered van, instead of the luxurious limos and sports cars to which he had become accustomed during his salad days on the grand prix tour.
Hunt, beset much of his career by blinding headaches and stomach-wretching nausea, finally retired as a driver in mid-1979. He left behind an illustrious driving career that included 10 victories over 93 starts, and the 1976 World Championship. He crashed so frequently that he earned the nickname “Hunt the Shunt.”
But his off-track shenanigans with fashion models, beauty queens, waitresses, secretaries, stewardesses and many other available and unavailable women (by his estimate more than 5,000!) gave him a well-deserved reputation as a larger-than-life playboy.
My first meeting with Hunt personally was at the Glen Motor Court in Watkins Glen, N.Y., on the eve of the 1973 United States Grand Prix there. Most of the drivers were staying at that popular motel, which had a busy bar downstairs. Hunt, Clay Regazzoni and several others became involved in a huge fight with two men who came into the bar and started to engage in displays of affection to which the drivers objected. Drinks, food and fists flew.
I left shortly after Regazzoni jammed the head of one bar patron through the glass cover of the jukebox. I believe the fight continued for some time, and I don’t recall any police intervention. I don’t know the exact outcome. But the door to the bar was boarded up in the morning.
Hunt, who had to be at least somewhat hung over that next morning, went on to finish an astounding second in an uncompetitive car, just .688 of a second behind winner Ronnie Peterson, in the race.
The result earned Hunt recognition, for the first time, that he was a force to be reckoned with in grand prix racing.
As my beat was confined mostly to the Americas, I saw little of Hunt again until (I believe) April 1976 at the new Long Beach Grand Prix. I remember a disheveled-looking Hunt showing up very late for a mayor’s recognition luncheon; he was wearing a hat that said “Airport Limousine” on it. And he was accompanied by an apparently intoxicated (as was Hunt) young blond in short-shorts and a dirty t-shirt, who he introduced as “Miss Hot Loins.” Hearty applause ensued. A smile from James was usually enough to win forgiveness for the most outrageous behavior.
That 1976 season, which unfolded as Hunt’s finest – from the standpoint of racing achievements, anyway – is chronicled in the 2013 movie, “Rush”. (He is portrayed, convincingly, by Chris Hemsworth, despite the fact the actor is a bit more boy-next-doorish than the chiseled Hunt.) Official site: http://www.rushmovie.com
Hunt’s career continued at a high pitch through 1978, then seemed to taper off after his friend Peterson died from botched medical care after a crash at Monza. Hunt and Regazzoni had rescued him from his burning car. Uncompetitive and depressed, Hunt quit F1 in mid-1979.
His chief rival and former roommate in their lower Formula racing days, Niki Lauda, would ironically also quit F1 in the middle of that tumultuous 1979 season. Regazzoni would be paralyzed from the waist down in a 1980 crash in Long Beach.
The thrill was well and truly gone.
Although Lauda returned for a second F1 career, in 1982-1985, Hunt turned down all offers – some of them for many millions of dollars – to resume his career. He did, however, accept a job as a commentator on BBC broadcasts of F1 races.
After he stopped driving, his profile with American audiences diminished almost entirely. He was seldom seen in the U.S. again, and if his name surfaced there it was usually in the gossip columns. The actor Richard Burton rather infamously dumped Elizabeth Taylor in during the same wild year of 1976 to run off with Hunt’s wife Suzy. (For some reason, Hunt had to pay more than $1 million to divorce her; Burton, sportingly, agreed to pay the sum.)
In 1982 Hunt married Sarah Lomax, with whom he had two sons. They divorced in 1989 over Hunt’s continued womanizing. After that, however, he seemed to settle down and face his life – and health – with more sobriety.
For much of his F1 career, Hunt lived in Marbella, Spain, in an attempt to dodge steep income taxes in England. But he returned home in 1982 and bought a house in Wimbledon. His Tudor-style house here, not far from the famed tennis venue, passed through a couple of owners after his death; it was offered for sale again in 2012 for 6.45 million pounds.
The racing community generally remembers Hunt with a combination of awe, respect and incredulity. He was an astonishing talent.
Hunt was a candle that burned brightly – but too often at both ends.
July 18, 2013