Most books about auto racing are lucky to find a lonely place in the garage propping up a worn piston. But The Limit deserves a spot in the library, if not — soon enough — on the DVD rack.
Subtitled Life and Death on the 1961 Grand Prix Circuit, Michael Cannell's narrative rides in the shadows of Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken in the way it introduces a fascinating cast while reviving a time and place in which death danced with glory.
Such scope surely contributed to The Limit selling pre-publication to Sony Pictures and Tobey Maguire. He has plans to produce and star as The Limit's protagonist Phil Hill, a cerebral talent from Los Angeles who, for a brief shining moment in 1961, reigned as the world's top race-car driver.
In often jaw-dropping detail, Cannell explores both Hill's triumph as well as the grizzly world that was auto racing in an age before safety concerns. (Italy's fabled Mille Miglia race was shut down in 1957 only after a driver was cut in half by his loosened hood as his car obliterated nine spectators.)
Were yesteryear's drivers brave knights on metal steeds, or just plain nuts?
Cannell makes the argument for the former, describing British ace Stirling Moss as "flinty-eyed and muscled, with almost superhuman discipline," someone with eyesight "so acute that he could … scan the crowd for pretty girls while entering a curve at 85 mph."
Given that bravado — not to mention a lack of seat belts — it's little surprise a key character in The Limit is the Grim Reaper.
Between 1957 and 1961, 14 drivers were killed. (In the modern Formula One era, no driver has died since 1994.) Everyone from newspaper editors to the pope lambasted motor racing. But what Cannell makes clear is that for a generation of young men for whom the decimation of World War II remained vivid childhood memories, racing's risks built character in a nuclear age with no dragons to slay.
Or, in the words of Hill's fair-haired, high-born rival, the impossibly named and ill-fated Count Wolfgang von Trips, "Danger and fear have become anonymous and invisible — radioactive clouds floating around us. That doesn't change the fact that there are people who thirst for action … who are born to fight."
With characters like that, Cannell could have skipped the book and himself gone straight to a screenplay. Fortunately for the literary-minded, he has sketched out a dizzyingly macho world in which humans and machines were savagely pushed to their limits. Too bad the title Mad Men was already taken.