David Purley: Fearless
David Purley is a hero. Some would say an unsung one, but just a quick look at his life, and it will take you less than two minutes to realise this guy was like no other.
In brief: Paratrooper, F1 racing driver, George Cross Medal recipient, stunt pilot, Guinness Book of World Records holder… And so much more. We are only scratching the surface there. I think one word sums him up. Fearless.
Where do we start? Purley is mostly remembered for his futile attempts at rescuing Roger Williamson from his burning car at Zandvoort in 1973. It was a vain attempt caught live on TV. It was a tragedy that would stick with Purley, who stopped his car, ran across the track and tried to tip the car over on his own. He could hear Williamson screaming in the fire, and had little help from the marshals. His desperation, frustration and emotions are clear in the video and photos. For his efforts he earned the George Cross Medal for bravery.
Then there is his F1 crash at Silverstone in 1977. After a fire in the morning session, fire extinguisher fluid stayed in his Lec F1 car. Entering the old Becketts the throttle stuck open, and – this is where the Guinness Book of World Records comes in – he hit the wooden sleepers head on at 108mph and went to zero in just 26 inches. The car folded around him, and the remains are on display at the Donington Motor Museum. There was not a lot left of the front end of the car. “Miracle” is not a strong enough word to describe his survival.
He made the Guinness Book of World Records, as – at the time – the impact was the largest survivable recorded at 179gs. He broke most of his ribs, pelvis in multiple places, and both legs very badly. But he came back to race again.
Once more, ‘fearless’.
There was fun too. At Zolder in 1977, a wet/dry race saw Purley lead while others pitted for dry tyres. The Brit resolutely stayed out, and refused to let Niki Lauda back into the lead. The Austrian Ferrari driver was not happy, and in very few words let his feelings be known after the race, calling Purley a “Rabbit”. Lauda finished second behind Gunnar Nilsson – the Swede’s only Grand Prix win.
At the next race Purley’s Lec had a white rabbit logo on it. The following race, Lauda had a “Super Rat” sticker on his visor… They may have been angry words in the heat of the moment, but both saw the funny side.
Sadly, Purley’s injuries meant that racing was not really an option – although he tried. To keep his adrenalin flowing he took up stunt flying aerobatic competitions in a Pitts Special. In 1985, he crashed into the sea, and lost his life.
He was the cat with nine lives that ran out. As a paratrooper, his parachute failed to open, and he landed on the shoulders of a colleague. In racing he went for it 100 percent. His attitude with Roger Williamson’s accident was exemplary. “Forget the race, that guy is dying”. He was first on the scene. He waded into the fire and tried his very best to rescue Williamson, to no avail – but he did more than the marshals that day.
Then there was his crash at Silverstone. The car was almost half its length after the impact, but despite severe injuries, there was no thought of giving up.
So he took up aerobatic flying, and that is what claimed the “Rabbit”.
He may have only started 11 Grands Prix, but David Purley will be remembered for many things, and top of the list is “hero”.