English Driving Legend Derek Bell Visits Wellington

English Driving Legend  Derek Bell Visits Wellington

In many respects, longtime English racecar driver Derek Bell feels as if he’s “lucky to be alive.”

“When I was racing, the thought of dying in the race crossed my mind at the beginning of every race,” Bell recalled. “I just wanted to walk away alive at the end.”

Those are rather simplistic goals for a man who knew how to find the winner’s circle on a regular basis.

The 79-year-old Bell, who resides in Boca Raton, attributes his longevity to working with great people and great equipment. “I worked with the best racecar teams and the best brands,” said Bell, who remains lean and physically fit to drive.

As Bell reflects on his career in racing, he said that one of his most vivid memories in the sport was qualifying for the 1967 Italian Grand Prix.

“I qualified in the third row, which I felt was a little disappointing,” he remembered. “Then, on the day of the race, I had Denny Hulme (the 1967 World Champion) on one side and Jackie Stewart (a future three-time world champion) on either side of me. Looking back, that was pretty impressive.”

The roots of Bell’s career behind the wheel can be traced to his childhood. Bell was encouraged to start racing by his stepfather. He won his first-ever race while driving a Lotus in March 1964.

Bell’s career highlights are many, as he won the 24 Hours of Le Mans race on five occasions — 1975, 1981, 1982, 1986 and 1987, which makes him the most successful British driver in this race to date. He also was on the winning driving team at the 24 Hours of Daytona three times — 1986, 1987 and 1989. And Bell won the World Sportscar Championship in 1985 and 1986. It’s fair to say that Bell had a “love affair” with the 24 Hours of Le Mans, as he once drove the JW Gulf Porsche 917LH to a top speed of 246 mph.

Besides making a name for himself in Hollywood, Bell played a big part in the sport being seen on the big screen. He was involved in the filming of the 1970 movie Le Mans, which starred Steve McQueen. During the filming of the movie, Bell and his family lived with the McQueen family. While the film was being made, Bell was involved in a potentially fatal incident when the car that he was driving — a Ferrari 512 — suddenly caught fire. Fortunately, Bell was able to successfully escape the burning car and only suffered minor burns.

When Bell was not driving, he enjoyed playing other sports. “I enjoyed skiing, playing squash, tennis and rugby,” Bell said. “I played a little bit of rugby in New Zealand and Australia, but I had to stop playing so I would not injure my fingers, which I needed to drive.”

Over the years, Bell has received a number of honors, including one from Queen Elizabeth II. Back in 1986, she bestowed upon him the title of MBE (Member of the British Empire) for his contributions to motor sport. So, his official name is now Derek Bell, MBE — quite an honor for a man who considers himself “lucky to be alive.”