18 February 2019

A reluctant hero. Fascinating F1 Facts: 81

On paper Brett Lunger didn’t have a great Formula 1 career. He raced 34 times between 1975 and 1978, with Hesketh, Surtees, BS Fabrications and Ensign. His best result was a seventh place in Belgium in 1978

Many in the sport thought he was just a rich kid, a member of the Du Pont family, with money to spend. It wasn't exactly true. Yes, he was one of the seventh generation of Du Pont heirs, but he didn't inherit his fortune until his mother died in 2001, when he was 55 years old.

It's true that he grew up in a world of privilege, the fourth of five children of Harry Lunger and Jane Du Pont Lunger. The family lived in a spectacular mansion on a large estate in Wilmington, Delaware. His mother was the heiress, best known for breeding racehorses, while his father was a Wilmington attorney, who was also a board member of the Du Pont-owned All American Aviation (which would ultimately become US Airways). He went to the right schools and ended up at Princeton, studying political science, although he dropped out at the end of his penultimate year. A friend took him to a motor race one day and he was bitten by the bug and so he raced a few times in sports cars and then jumped straight into CanAm. By then he was also running a car dealership…

And then he did something that shocked everyone. He believed in serving his country and so joined up and became a US Marine. Unlike many rich kids of that era, there was no draft-dodging. He did his basic training as an anonymous private soldier. No-one knew he was a Du Pont and no-one knew he had been at Princeton. After a year as an enlisted soldier he was idenitified as being officer material and was sent to Marine Officers Basic School in Quantico, Virginia. He was soon a Second Lieutenant on his way to Vietnam. He wasn't just any old Marine either, but rather a member of an elite reconnaissance force, known as Force Recon, which was in action in Quang Tri province, where much of the heaviest fighting of the war took place, notably around the US Marine base at Khe Sanh. Force Recon was involved in perilous missions against the Viet Cong forces up to (and indeed over) the border with Laos, where North Vietnamese troops were using the so called Ho Chi Minh Trail, which was used to send weapons, manpower, ammunition and other supplies from North Vietnam to the Viet Cong fighters in South Vietnam.

After 13 months he was wounded (and received a Purple Heart) and went back to the United States, where he was promoted to Captain and taught at Quantico for a while. He was on the verge of returning to Vietnam for a second tour of duty, when he decided that he wanted to see what he could achieve in racing and quit the  service. He had done his bit. He started in Formula 5000 with backing from the tobacco company Liggett & Myers, through which he met marketing man Rod Campbell, later to become best known as the head of  Ford's primary motorsport agency, not to mention the father-in-law of IndyCar driver Townsend Bell. Campbell and Lunger's brother Dave did deals to find money for him to race. He himself developed some good connections when he married the daughter of Leonard Crossland, a former chairman of Ford of Britain, who was then Deputy Chairman of Lotus.

All this enabled him to land a ride with Hesketh in August 1975, as team-mate to no less a figure than James Hunt.  He didn't achieve much but for 1976 money was found from the Chesterfield brand of cigarettes and Lunger was able to sign a deal with Surtees.

It was at the Nürburgring that his name was cemented into the F1 history books when he was one of the four drivers who waded into the flames to save Niki Lauda. He climbed on to the Ferrari and heaved Lauda out of the cockpit, while Arturo Merzario fought to get the seat belts open. What Lunger never mentioned after the accident was that he was racing that day under the shadow of his father's death the previous day.

In 1977 he drove a year-old McLaren M23 run by BS Fabrications, but the car was no longer really competitive. In 1978 he tried an Ensign but it was clear he was wasting his time and at the of that year he went back to the US. He did occasional journalism with CBS  while completing his degree at Princeton. He also discovered flying, starting with a single-engined propeller plane and gradually trading up until he inherited his fortune and was able to buy an executive jet. He did a number of jobs but gradually turned to charitable work and became a pilot with the Angel Flight Network which provides free air transportation for people in need of medical treatment and also to help injured military veterans. This led to him founding an organisation called Responsibility Today.

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