Profile: Peter Ryan

Nationality Canadian
Date of Birth 10th June 1940
Date of Death 2nd July 1962
Car Lotus (1961)
Races Entered 1
Races Started 1
Best Result 9th (USA 1961)

Canadian driver. Young. Inexperienced. Prone to errors. Rich parents. Father owns property in Mont Tremblant. Lance Stroll, right? Normally, yes. On March 26, he made a rather mistake-riddled début in Australia, but became the first Canadian F1 driver since 1996 world champion Jacques Villeneuve walked away from his stranded BMW Sauber at the 2006 German Grand Prix and the youngest ever to race under the Maple Leaf at the age of eighteen years. But the opening description does not only apply to Lance Stroll. In fact, it harkens back to one of Canadian motorsport’s great pioneers: Peter Ryan.

Peter Ryan is a tragic figure in racing akin to Don Beauman, Chris Bristow or Tony Brise in that he met his maker just as he was beginning to make his mark. Although technically the third Canadian to attempt to qualify for a world championship race after 1950s Indy 500 non-qualifiers Allen Heath and Hal Robson, Peter was the first to race in a world championship round in an F1 car, pitting himself against the likes of Brabham, Moss and Brooks at only twenty-one years of age in 1961.

Before Formula One

The story of Peter Bondurant Ryan begins with his father, Joseph Bondurant Ryan. Joe was an American of wealthy extraction who visited Mont Tremblant in Quebec in 1938. Together with Harry Wheeler and famed broadcaster Lowell Thomas, he climbed the mountain using skis wrapped in seal skins and there Joe proclaimed “This has to be the most beautiful sight in the world. There is only one thing wrong. It is too difficult getting up here. I have to fix that!” And so he got to work fixing that. On February 12, 1939 he made good on his promise and opened Mont Tremblant Lodge, a ski resort which was one of the first in the world to use chairlifts. In April that same year he met Mary Rutherfoord Johnson at a reception in New York; they were married just a few months later. One year after that their son Peter was born in Joe’s native Philadelphia. Joe would continue to lead the development of the Mont Tremblant resort into a world class alpine village (thanks largely to Lowell Thomas’ radio broadcasts from there) before his sudden and tragic death at the age of forty-four after falling twenty-two stories from his New York hotel room on September 12, 1950. He left behind Mary and their two children, Peter and Seddon, as well as three children from an earlier marriage.

It would come as little surprise then that the teenage Peter did not first make the papers as a racing car driver but as a skier and quite a talented one at that. He first took to the slopes as a three-year-old under his father’s watchful eye. In 1957, he won the US National Ski Association’s junior downhill championship at Mount Rose, Nevada, which upset the establishment; being of Canadian upbringing, Ryan’s victory was protested on the grounds that he was ineligible on account of his nationality. However, as both of his parents were Americans who never actually naturalised as Canadians, Peter was legally an American citizen, so the result was allowed to stand. Suddenly it seemed as though young Peter would go all the way to the 1960 Olympics in Squaw Valley. Under the mentorship of legendary Canadian skier Ernie McCulloch, Ryan finished third in the Vermont Olympic Trials in 1959, although he was not entirely comfortable representing the star-spangled banner. He may have been of American parentage with an education from the prestigious Eaglebrook School in Deerfield, Massachussetts and Hotchkiss in Lakeville, Connecticut, but Ryan identified more with the great land north of the border. In an interview with The New York Times he said “To be honest, I would be happier on the Canadian team. The American fellows are great but I grew up with the Canadian skiers.”


Two years on from his New York Times interview, there’s still no doubt over which country Ryan prefers to represent

In the end, Ryan opted not to participate in the Olympics at all for exactly those reasons (though some sources dispute this and make mention of an injury he sustained) and he decided to get his fix for speed elsewhere: motor racing. Ryan began racing at a time when the sport was only truly beginning to find its feet in Canada. Unlike the United States with its by now well-established Indy 500, along with scores of oval tracks and road courses, Canada never quite took to motorsport in the same way and it was only after the Second World War that this really began to change. In a way, the rise of motorsport here was somewhat reminiscent of the similar post-war boom in Britain, with most races being held on airfields, beginning with a small spectator-less sports car meeting held at Abbotsford Airport in 1949. Over the next decade, more airfield circuits would spring up, such as those at Edenvale and Harewood Acres. The nation’s first purpose-built facility, Westwood, was completed in 1959 – the year Peter Ryan made his début as a racing driver – by which point Canadian motorsport had a decent national base and no shortage of enthusiasts.

With the purchase of American racer Bernie Vihl’s Porsche 550, Peter Ryan traded one dangerous sport for another. He took driving lessons from sports car ace John Fitch at Fitch’s own Lime Rock Park circuit, then practiced what he learned on the twisty roads back home on Mont Tremblant. Ryan made his proper entry into motorsport in a Libre event at Green Acres on May 30, 1959, where he over-revved the engine, blowing it up. He was quite upset at this, later recalling “I nearly cried, sitting there watching the other cars go around.” He made up for this somewhat only two weeks later at St. Eugène, where he won in the 1.5-litre class and finished fourth overall. In eight races spread throughout the year Ryan won six in his class, which included two overall second places at Green Acres and Harewood. He also finished second in class in his first endurance race – the inaugural Sundown Grand Prix – a six-hour race at Harewood where he shared his Porsche with Dick Hamilton.

Porsche was impressed by the young Canadian’s speed and gladly sold him a brand new 718 RS 60 for the following year. With additional backing from the Yonge Volkswagen dealership in Toronto, Ryan dominated the Canadian sports car racing season in 1960. Out of twenty events in which Ryan competed that year he won eleven; whenever he didn’t win, it was mainly a result of a lack of experience as opposed to a lack of ability. For example, in the Midsummer Trophy races at Green Acres in July Ryan held on to win the first race after a duel with fellow Porsche RS 60 owner Francis Bradley. In race five he spun out twice in a similar situation. In race eight he won again from Bradley, bringing the lap record down by a full ten miles per hour in the process. A real all-or-nothing character.

That same year, Ryan also made his first appearances south of the border in a number of USAC sports car meetings at Road America, Riverside and Laguna Seca, where he struggled against larger-engined Maseratis, Ferraris and Listers, though in all three he was one of the top finishers in his class; his results among cars with an engine displacement of less than two litres were second, third and fifth respectively. But the key race that put Ryan on the map was actually his first of the year, one that he didn’t even win: The Carling 300 Formula Libre race at Harewood Acres. This event somewhat demonstrated how Canadian motorsport had matured over the previous decade, as it attracted an international presence in the form of Belgian sports car legend Olivier Gendebien. Winner that day was another figure of mythical stature in Roger Penske, though this was long before said stature was attained as America’s most successful team owner. Roger had a tough time holding onto the lead, as he was being pursued uncomfortably closely for the whole race by an eighteen-year-old Canadian: Peter Ryan. They finished first and second (Penske ahead), but Roger was so impressed by his adversary that he agreed to share the former skier’s Porsche in the Sundown Grand Prix, where Penske was the defending winner. The two would remain close friends for the rest of Ryan’s life.


How close was the Ryan-Penske battle? This close

The second annual Sundown Grand Prix was defined by an intense battle between the Ryan/Penske Porsche and a similar model used by Francis Bradley and Ludwig Heimrath. Ryan led for the first six laps before Heimrath found his way in front, where he would remain until about half-distance, spinning while trying to avoid the scene of an accident at the esses. This handed the lead back to Ryan, but Heimrath re-joined, he and his teammate doing their best to regain the lead only to finish a minute down in second. Ultimately, it was the pit stops to change drivers which made the difference, with Ryan’s car spending three minutes in the pit lane when he handed it over to Penske, Heimrath’s taking five minutes when he swapped with Bradley. With Ryan’s victory, Canadian Racing Drivers’ Association president Tommy Gilmour remarked “[Ryan] shows, without qualification, the greatest potential of attaining international status of anyone we’ve ever seen in Canada.”

Ryan garnered more attention the following week at the Watkins Glen International Grand Prix, which was held to Formula Libre, making it something of a precursor to the F1 race that would later put The Glen on the map. With names like Brabham, Moss, Bonnier and Salvadori, and machinery that included F1 cars built by Cooper, Lotus and Connaught, this was a bit more sophisticated than anything young Ryan had experienced before. His own cockpit was that of Bill Sadler’s Formula Libre Special; Sadler was a driver-engineer who has since been hailed as Canada’s own answer to Colin Chapman. His Special, liveried in a patriotic red and white colour scheme, was a rear-engine design fitted with a big 300 bhp Chevrolet engine. Ryan impressively qualified sixth and ran as high as fifth, but unfortunately his Chevy powerplant blew up after fifty-six laps of the hundred-lap event.

Ryan’s 1961 season began with the famous 12 Hours of Sebring, where he shared a Porsche with great rivals Bradley and Heimrath; they took third place in the 1.6-litre sports class. Months later on June 24 would be a historic day in Canadian motorsport, as the first international-level motor race in the country was due to be held on the brand-new Mosport Park circuit in Bowmanville. This was the Player’s 200 and the entry list included the likes of Moss, Gendebien and Bonnier. Sadly, Ryan would not be a participant, despite a Lotus 19 being bought especially for him to race by Comstock Racing, effectively a Canadian national motorsport team set up by cigar-chomping business magnate Chuck Rathgeb. Ryan was forced to withdraw his entry at the last minute after the SCCA – of which he was a member – threatened to ban its drivers due to the fact that starting money was being awarded, thus making it a professional event; the SCCA was strictly an amateur organisation.


The Ryan/Bradley/Heimrath Porsche in action on the famous Sebring airfield

Even if he couldn’t race in the Player’s 200, Ryan got some use out of the Lotus with wins at St. Eugène in July and Mosport in August. He still achieved success elsewhere, nearly winning the Meadowdale Grand Prix at the eponymous Illinois road course in a Sadler Mk V before Penske shunted him from the rear; Ryan spun and had to settle for second place. He also tried his hand at the relatively new Formula Junior category, winning the Vanderbilt Cup at Bridgehampton in a borrowed Lotus 20, which turned a few heads.

The inaugural Canadian Grand Prix was held at Mosport in September. This was not a Formula One race at this time and would not be for another six years; instead, it was held to Canadian Sports Car Championship regulations. This time, the SCCA had no qualms about allowing their drivers into professional events and so Ryan was present in the Lotus 19. He qualified in a superb third place alongside similar UDT Laystall Lotuses driven by Moss and Gendebien. He spent much of proceedings in his starting position while the two more experienced European stars thrillingly swapped the lead twenty-six times. Eventually, both Moss and Gendebien ran into reliability troubles, which handed the lead to Ryan. He had a scare when he made his only mistake of the race by spinning five laps from the end, forcing him to pit for bodywork repairs which took a minute. He emerged behind Pedro Rodríguez’s NART Ferrari and the two young guns battled side-by-side to the line. Ryan completed the hundredth and final lap just a second in front of the Mexican, but what he hadn’t realised was that they weren’t battling for position, he’d lapped the Ferrari! Thus, Peter Ryan became the first Canadian to win an international motor race. It was, needless to say, a popular win. Ryan was mobbed by crowds of ecstatic spectators after the race, and he received a standing ovation at the victory banquet. Chuck Rathgeb later said:

We knew we had one heck of a driver in young Ryan, but we were facing some of the biggest name drivers of the era, people like Stirling Moss and Olivier Gendebien. There was no way we were expected to win. We were ecstatic.

1961 Canada GP
The ecstatic reaction Rathgeb is referring to (photo by Terence Semple)

Formula One

Colin Chapman, ever attentive to whomever was driving his cars, was suitably impressed by Ryan’s Canadian GP victory as well as his earlier win at Bridgehampton. He had an old Lotus 18 shipped over from Britain for Ryan to drive in the upcoming United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen. Peter was “thrilled” in the words of his sister, Seddon Ryan Wylde: “He wanted to go to Europe because he knew that is where the best racing was taking place, and he wanted to see how he could do against the best.” For F1’s first visit to The Glen, Ryan qualified thirteenth, ahead of six other cars, including similar Lotuses driven by Gendebien, Jim Hall and Lloyd Ruby. Race reports say little of Ryan’s performance, with the focus either on the front-runners or on the more unusual incidents, such as Walt Hansgen leaning forward in his Cooper to avoid flames emitting from his Climax engine. What can be said is that Ryan enjoyed another close battle with his good friend Roger Penske, the two separated by only two tenths when they crossed the line eighth and ninth (Roger ahead), four laps down. Chapman found the Canadian to have potential and within hours of the race’s conclusion he made his offer to Peter: A three-year contract with Team Lotus.


Ryan probably didn’t even need to put on this smile for the camera, given that he was about to race in his first world championship Grand Prix

After Formula One

To finish 1961, Ryan raced the Lotus 19 in the Pacific Grand Prix at Laguna Seca. While Moss and Gurney were stealing the show up front, Ryan quietly finished sixth in the first heat and made a tenacious effort to climb from the back of the field in the second heat after a lock-up on the second lap to finish eighth, earning him sixth in the overall classification.

Ryan had hoped to be racing in F1 full-time in 1962, but was disappointed to learn that he would be spending the first year of his Lotus contract in Formula Junior. Chapman saw that Ryan, while in no way lacking in speed, was very prone to rookie errors and felt that he could benefit from a year or two in a lower category before getting a proper bite of the F1 cherry somewhere further down the line. Seddon Ryan Wylde recalls:

He thought he belonged in Formula One. Despite his young age he… thought that Chapman was making him waste a year by not allowing him to run Formula One… It was no doubt a wise decision, but Peter didn’t see it that way. He was very impatient.

But Chapman’s position was clear, for he felt that Ryan

was using his skill to get himself out of dangerous situations… A year or two in Europe would give him experience he could not gain elsewhere. He will then be able to use his experience to keep him out of tight spots and his skill to win races.

Another man whom Ryan had impressed was NART boss Luigi Chinetti, and through him Peter landed a drive in the Daytona 3 Hours, a precursor to the famous 24-hour race that now joins Le Mans and Sebring as part of endurance racing’s informal Triple Crown. Driving a Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa, Ryan competed with fellow rising star Ricardo Rodríguez as his co-driver. Unfortunately, their chances of winning evaporated quickly, as Rodríguez suffered a blow-out early in the race; they finished fifteenth overall and second in class. That was not the end of it though, as he also had a drive with NART for the 12 Hours of Sebring, where – this time partnered with John ‘Buck’ Fulp – he finished third in class in the new Ferrari Dino 248 SP.

While Ryan was racing for NART, he was also waiting for the call from Lotus for his European Formula Junior début. Unfortunately, the works team was all booked up, so Ryan was loaned to the semi-works Ian Walker Racing Team. Walker himself was quite happy to have such a hot prospect in his outfit, saying “If Colin thought highly of him, that was good enough for me. It was obvious that Peter had great talent from our very first test with him but he would throw caution to the wind.” Ryan would receive a shock when his brand-new Lotus 22 arrived unassembled, as Chapman firmly believed that his drivers should know their cars inside and out. Nevertheless, Peter put the pieces together in two weeks and he was finally ready to take on the best young talents in Europe.

His European début was not in a Formula Junior race but at the 1000 km Nürburgring in May, where he shared an Ian Walker Lotus 23 with Paul Hawkins; they lasted twenty-six laps before overheating stopped them in their tracks. Only a week later, Ryan finally got his FJ début in the Monaco Grand Prix support race, impressively winning his heat by half a second from the works Lotus of Alan Rees. He started the final on the front row alongside Peter Arundell and ran in second place before he bent a wishbone on one of the high kerbs; he limped home in eleventh. Ryan made up for his Monaco errors with a storming performance a little over a week later in another F1 support race, this time for the non-championship International 2000 Guineas at Mallory Park. He spent twenty-eight of the thirty laps on Arundell’s tail, before a calculated move on the penultimate lap allowed him to win, also coming within 1.5 seconds of the F1 lap record set by John Surtees that same weekend! Not a bad way to celebrate his twenty-second birthday, which occurred the day before the race.


Ryan leads the pack up Beau Rivage

Two weeks later, Ryan made his Le Mans début with NART. Reunited with Buck Fulp, they shared a Testa Rossa, when fifteen hours and one-hundred-and-fifty laps into the race Ryan – in the midst of an enthralling battle with Ricardo Rodríguez and struggling with a faulty gearbox – entered the Mulsanne hairpin at too high a speed and ploughed into the sandbank at fifty miles per hour. Refusing surrender, he spent a rather worrying amount of time (a few hours by some reports!) trying in vain to dig the Ferrari out, before reluctantly walking back to the pits.

Ryan’s next Formula Junior race was to be the Coupe Internationale de Vitesse des Juniors in support of the Reims Grand Prix on the famous high-speed French circuit. In the first heat, which began at 10 am, Ryan fought an exciting duel with Bill Moss’ Gemini and Frank Gardner’s Brabham, but disaster struck on lap five and, this being an era before mandatory seatbelts, there would be dire consequences. Ryan and Moss tangled at the tricky right hander that marked the first turn of the circuit; Ryan’s car was flipped over and he was thrown out. Moss was lucky to escape with only minor injuries, but Ryan sustained a broken leg, a crushed hip and he was knocked unconscious. In hospital in Paris, medical authorities said that it would be “touch and go” whether he would live through the night. He did, but after thirty hours in a coma he eventually succumbed to his injuries.

Peter Ryan’s death sent a shockwave through the Canadian motorsport community, Chuck Rathgeb stating “It’ll be a long time before the sport sees another man of his calibre again.” Indeed, it would be a full fifteen years before the similarly tragic figure of Gilles Villeneuve would succeed Ryan as Canada’s gift to the F1 world. Canadian motorsport historian David A. Charters later summed Peter Ryan up as a “natural, untutored, undisciplined talent. At the top ranks of the racing world, that could take a driver only so far.” Writing for Autocar, Peter Garnier said “During his all-too-brief spell on British and Continental circuits, he had proved himself to be extremely skillful and fast, with just that touch of fire which can often indicate the makings of a great driver.” Formula Junior rival Frank Gardner called him “the fastest driver I saw”. Peter Ryan is now buried alongside both of his parents in the cemetery of the St. Bernard Chapel in Mont Tremblant.

With tributes like these and with such an impressive record built up in the space of just three years it looks as though Peter Ryan certainly had the raw talent to become Canada’s first motor racing superstar long before Gilles Villeneuve captured people’s imaginations with his similarly fearless style. The thought that Ryan, with a healthy Formula Junior experience, could realistically have been a worthy partner of Jim Clark in the invincible Lotus team of the mid-1960s makes it all the more tragic that he was taken from life at such an early age. He is still remembered in the motorsport community of the country he called home and he was one of the inaugural inductees of the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame in 1993. The Circuit Mont-Tremblant, built in 1964 to attract more summer visitors to the resort and to offer a home for motorsport in Quebec, is also dedicated to Ryan’s memory, and its branch of the Jim Russell Racing School has allowed drivers of a similar age to him (including such talented Canadians as the Villeneuves, Greg Moore and Bertrand Fabi) to hone their abilities to perfection before taking on the world stage. The circuit is of course now owned by Lawrence Stroll, father of F1 débutant Lance. Fitting, then, that Lance Stroll has a fire within him that burns just as brightly as that within Pete Ryan, whose flame was extinguished too soon.

Sources: Autocar; canadianracer.com; The Chequered Past: Sports Car Racing and Rallying in Canada: 1951-1991, David A. Charters, University of Toronto Press; Chicago Daily Tribune; The Crittenden Automotive Library; The Globe and Mail; The Goderich Signal Star; historicracing.com; jimrussell.com; Motor Sport Magazine; The Nostalgia Forum, Autosport; peterwindsor.com; racingcircuits.info; Racing Sports Cars; Small Torque; tremblant.ca

All photos courtesy of the Revs Institute unless stated otherwise.