A Moment with Chris Amon

I woke up this morning to the sad news that former F1 driver Chris Amon had died.

I never met him. His final F1 race took place eight years before I was born. Still, I had a heavy heart reading the various obituaries.

Last year, I had the privilege of interviewing Chris—a brief, wonderful shared moment.

In the course of researching a story on Jim Clark’s final F1 race, the 1968 South African Grand Prix, I was trying to track down the eight surviving drivers from the race to hear their memories. Somewhere in the bowels of the internet, I found a phone number for a C. Amon in the town I heard Chris was living in back in New Zealand. I had no idea if the number was his, if it was current or if he would want to speak with a writer he’d never heard of.

One afternoon, I called and the C. Amon answered. Obviously, he had no idea who the hell I was, but I explained what I was doing and he could not have been more gracious. He said he was waiting for a plumber, but was happy to chat about his memories of Clark and that race (where he finished fourth, two laps behind Clark, Graham Hill and Jochen Rindt).

He could have easily brushed me off, but he never rushed me and tried to answer all my questions, digging through his memory for details about a single weekend from half-a-century ago. At the end of our conversation, he offered his email address for any follow-ups and we wrote back and forth a few times. In one of those emails, he mentioned he was sick and undergoing treatment, but I didn’t know how bad it was.

There was nothing too spectacular about that 1968 race itself. Just another in a long line of wins for Clark—although he did break Juan Manuel Fangio’s record for career victories. At the time, no one knew it would be Clark’s grand prix.

Chris laughed about the long flight to New Zealand (shared with Clark and some other drivers) immediately following the race for the start of the Tasman Series. He was uncomfortable sitting on the plane because he had burnt his back and butt as his Ferrari struggled to cope with the South African heat.

He also talked about the time he spent with Clark that year in New Zealand and Australia, where Clark nipped him for the title. The two farm boys went fishing in the Tasman Sea and spoke about their agricultural pursuits, reminiscing about a simpler time in their lives.

“I sensed that [Clark] felt an inner peace when he talked about his farming and his life on the farm and, had he survived, I feel he would have probably gone back to farming,” Chris told me.

It is often said that Amon was unlucky because he never won a world championship grand prix, despite coming close so many times, but he did outlive 20 of the 23 other drivers originally entered in his first F1 race, the 1963 Belgian Grand Prix (eight of whom would die behind the wheel, though not all in F1). Unlike Clark and so many others, Chris got to return home and enjoy some peace and quiet after the years of speed and noise.

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