Chuck Daigh: A Name You Should Know
Perhaps the best driver you’ve never heard of…
On a wall of the banquet room at Miller Motorsports Park in Tooele, Utah, is a black-and-white photo of a man with a stern expression. He’s wearing a Bell helmet, one-piece coveralls and looks more like a 1950s IndyCar driver than a sports car ace.
The last time we visited the late Larry Miller’s magnum road racing facility, we were to shoot a feature involving the faces and names on that wall. Phil Hill and Jim Clark are there in glorious black and white. So are Mark Donohue, Dan Gurney and Masten Gregory. But when the small group of TV types saw Chuck Daigh’s picture, there were blank stares.
So I told them Chuck Daigh was the man who beat our first World Champion, none other than Phil Hill, to win the 1958 LA Times Grand Prix at the late Riverside Raceway on Oct. 12, 1958 – no easy feat.
Daigh was driving one of Lance Reventlow’s Chevy-powered Scarabs. The California-built two-seater remains one of the most beautiful shapes that ever rolled onto an American starting grid. Powered by a warm small-block Chevy V-8, the Scarabs were the blood ancestors of the first Chaparral and a potent tool that Daigh used to win races.
But that autumn day in 1958 at Riverside was a big one. There was some serious money at stake. The whole notion of professional road racing was alien to what Daigh’s sports car competitors understood about the new direction the sport was heading. It was a hot topic of debate. Guys like Phil Hill, Dan Gurney and Carroll Shelby were pro. Respected folks like M.R.J. “Doc” Wylie were against the notion – as if there was some sort of frothy connection to the Olympian purity of amateur road racers. It probably went back to the unwritten rules at The Brooklands. Eventually the notion that excellence was more important that style took hold; guys like Daigh, Shelby and Gurney had honorable employment and sports cars became something more than a delicate rich boy’s toy.
When the LA Times put up a fat purse for the race some consider the first US Grand Prix all hands signed on for a shot at the cash.
Forty-six Riverside Times GP entries included such marquee names as Jean Behra, Ritchie Ginther, Ken Miles, Masten Gregory, Billy Cantrell, Max Bachowsky, Pete Lovely, Lew Florence, Johnnie Parsons, Bill Cheesbourg and Daigh’s patron and employer Lance Reventlow (in the other Scarab). In this group Daigh crushed all hands in a qualifying effort that left most timing and scoring pros looking at their watches in disbelief: Daigh’s Chevy-powered Scarab was two seconds faster than the next car. And the next car was the mighty Ferrari 412MI – a Maranello hot rod packing a V-12 from the mighty 335S – driven by none other than future World Champion Phil Hill.
The pair fought a battle that had the crowd – estimated at 100,000 (paid) – on their feet until the Ferrari quit. Dan Gurney in Frank Arciero’s muscular 375 Plus Ferrari was second, and another American road-racing ace you’ve likely never heard of (unless you’re a massive Cobra fan), Bill Krause, was third in a Jaguar D-Type. Everyone else was at least a lap down. The pros had won the day and so did American engineering, power and torque.
Daigh was a perfect match for his Scarab. “There was really no competition for us,” Daigh said much later. “There wasn’t any car in the world that I couldn’t beat with the Scarab. If we could have raced against Mercedes-Benz or the Ferraris or the ‘whatevers’ we could have beaten them easily.” With Daigh at the wheel that was not braggadocio.
When Enzo Ferrari needed a steady hand for a works Testa Rossa at Sebring the next March, Luigi Chinetti nominated Daigh to share the redhead with fellow California Dan Gurney. It went well. When Ferrari teammates Phil Hill and Olivier Gendebien parked their works TR with a broken differential, Gurney and Daigh surrendered the No. 7 TR. While some contemporary race results list only Hill and Gendebien’s names, class act Phil Hill made it gin clear in the victory lane interview that Gurney and Chuck Daigh were “ … the guys who got us here …”
The LA Times GP might have been the richest payday Daigh won but it wasn’t this best race of his driving career. The fabled Lime Rock Formula Libre race of 1959 was the event that should have earned Chuck Daigh hero status driving Lucky Casner’s ex-Fangio Maserati 250F “piccolo”. Despite the reality that his long-legged 250F was a pure Formula 1 racer better suited to places like Reims, Spa and Rouen than Lime Rock’s little bent clockwise bullring, Chuck fought wheels within wheels with ultimate winner Rodger Ward’s Kenn Brenn 12-year-old Offy midget. Daigh was second to established Indy-star Ward at the flag, and that was the best story of the weekend.
But the Lime Rock winner, the hard-living Rodger Ward who logged two Indy 500 wins, paid Daigh what must be the ultimate racers compliment. When the interviews were over Ward told a small group (luckily Chris Economaki was there) what it was like out there: “ … Chuck Daigh chews nails and spits rust!” More than a half-century one that’s an epitaph any racer can live with.
Daigh was a man cut from the same bolt as Parnelli Jones: one foot in both the then polite sporty car world and the other in the merciless realm of American speedway racing. If Ward would have seen Daigh in the outdated front-engine Scarab at Spa in the 1960 Belgian Grand Prix – the deadliest F1 race in history – it would have likely chilled even the Indy ace. Cornering with alarming opposite lock, inside front wheel in the air through a corner Chuck himself called “the scariest corner on earth…” Daigh alarmed the marshal who began waving his yellow flag every time Daigh approached Burneville in the big blue American roadster with his foot on the floor and a dirt track-dose of opposite lock on the big steering wheel.
Fangio himself said “Victory begins in the garage.” Chuck Daigh knew that fact practically his whole life. He credited his own skill as a mechanic for his racing successes. The unflappable Californian was one of those rare racers who could interpret all the messages – mechanical and dynamic – sent by his cars and turn them into speed. It’s one of the key components of the success of the Scarab. It didn’t seem to matter what sort of car he was racing. Daigh won the 1963 Players 200 (another early pro road race) at mighty Mosport in Frank Arciero’s rear engine Lotus 19, defeating Roger Penske’s “unbeatable” Zerex Special and reigning World Champion Graham Hill.
Daigh died in the spring of 2008. I got to see him once, in his natural element, at the Monterey Historics a decade ago. He was racing and wrenching the lovely Troutman and Barnes Special, a car he raced and won with at the dawn of America’s pro road racing age. I didn’t have the nerve to barge in and ask for his autograph. He was busy; tools in hand concentrating on his car. He was a serious competitor until the end. Fangio was correct.