The feet of the drivers below have worked the pedals of cars that most of us dream about. Those very feet carried these iconic men to the top of the podium, time and again, across a slew of renowned series and circuits. But before those appendages helped these luminaries achieve racing glory, they learned the basic mechanics in lesser machines. (For the most part.) Here’s what the most storied drivers pushed before they made it big.
Mario Andretti – 1948 Hudson Hornet
The great’s first vehicle was a red bicycle he shared with brother Aldo while living as refugees in Luca, Italy, during the war. “We pretended it was a gorgeous Moto Guzzi,” Andretti told Petrolicious. The brothers befriended the owners of an auto garage across from their camp, and were sometimes allowed to park the cars. “Of course, we did burnouts.” After moving to America, the family owned a 1946 Ford, a 1951 Buick and then a 1957 Chevy, which Andretti modded with a glasspack muffler, fuel injector and more. Andretti’s first car was a 1948 Hudson Hornet, which was dominating NASCAR, then mostly running on dirt tracks, because it was the only vehicle with unibody construction. Andretti dropped $500 for a new Whitney and Co. engine, welded two 25-gallon barrels into a driver’s seat, and pilfered a quarter-keg beer barrel from a local distributor to use as a fuel tank because it could withstand all the hard hits.
Jackie Stewart – Austin A30
As a youth, Sir Jackie loathed school due to dyslexia. Tired of being dubbed dumb and thick, Stewart dropped out and began work at his father’s garage, pumping gas and helping with minor repairs. He thrived in the greasemonkey environment and eventually ended up in Glasgow working for a wealthy fellow with a stable of nice rides. Stewart oversaw the maintenance, and as a result of his stellar efforts, earned hefty tips. After saving up close to 400 pounds, he sprung for a brand new Austin A30, with an 803cc inline-four. “It had tartan seat covers and I couldn’t afford a radio at the time but saved up and got one installed,” Stewart told the Telegraph. “It was my pride and joy.”
Ayrton Senna – Jeep
When the former leading light of F1 was four, his father got him a kiddy car—whatever the Brazilian version of Power Wheels was back in the Sixties. By seven, he was whipping the family’s Jeep around his father’s property. He was so enamored with the Willys and learning to drive that he mastered the art of changing gears without using the clutch. His experience in unorthodox driving would later prove beneficial. During the 1991 Brazilian Grand Prix, towards the end of the race, his tranny began to fall apart and Senna found himself without third, fourth and ultimately fifth gear. Undeterred, he pushed through in only sixth gear and went on to win.
Jeff Gordon – 1950s Speedway Quarter Midget
When Gordon was four, his stepfather, John Bickford, gifted him a quarter midget. Gordon took to the tiny beast instantly and won several races and trophies that stood taller than he did. When it was time to move up to something more powerful, Bickford loaned the quarter midget to a family friend. It was never returned. Gordon was heartbroken, according to Bickford, who is currently on the hunt to track the vehicle down. Among the distinguishing characteristics: an aluminum front axle (Speedways were usually steel) that has a weld from Bickford repairing a crack, and a fuzzy frame and surface. Bickford had applied a common compound from the era to protect it, but it left the surface with a furry surface. Bickford believes it’s still kicking around, so should you come across such a machine, please call NASCAR’s biggest legend.
Tanner Foust – 1983 Honda Civic Wagon
The drift and stunt driver (and American Top Gear host) didn’t have his inaugural set of wheels for long. The wagon, “in shit brown,” was so “slow I had to switch off the A/C pulling away from every light just to keep up with traffic,” Foust told Autobytel. After an unfortunate run-in with a huge deer, Foust revived the brown beast, only to roll it the following evening. But the Honda wasn’t what he learned to drive with. Foust’s family lived in a rural Scottish town from when he was nine to 13. His bus driver would make a twenty mile trip to Foust’s house in his personal Volvo wagon before they got the bus and collected the rest of the kids. Every so often, regardless of the weather, that driver would give Foust a turn behind the wheel. By 10, he was hooked. No wonder Foust’s so good with the Scandinavian flick.
Lewis Hamilton – 2002 Mini Cooper Coupé
The F1 champion’s first car came as a surprise from his father when Hamilton was 17 and taking lessons to get his license. Hamilton’s driving instructor recalls pulling into the teen’s home to discover a Mini coupé, checkered flag on the roof, waiting for him. Equally memorable for the instructor: feeling that Hamilton, a karting champion since the age of 12, was going to kill him. The instructor had to repeatedly warn Hamilton to slow down in the corners and stop revving the engine of the Nissan Micra so hard, lest he put the aging vehicle into orbit. Hamilton always looked for the racing line, even on the bendy country back roads, drawing flinches from the instructor, who suspected that Hamilton delighted in that fact. After six hours of sessions, Hamilton took his test and passed with flying colors.
Carroll Shelby – 1925 Willys-Overland Touring Six
When Shelby was born in rural Texas in 1923, his father, Warren, was working as a rural mailman, using a horse and buggy to complete his route. The family’s first car would be a Overland Six, with a flexible L-head engine that generated 38 ponies, 37 more than Warren was accustomed to. Carroll learned to drive on the Overland. The car he first raced? A flat-head Ford V-8, in a quarter-mile drag contest back in 1952. For his first road race, a friend loaned Shelby a 1949 MG TC, which boasted a 1250cc 4-cylinder, tweaked to about double the stock 54 horsepower. That was enough for Shelby to wallop a class of faster Jaguar XK120s (which possessed 160 to 210 horsepower, depending on engine options). That very MG went under the hammer in 2015, fetching $500,000. May the new owner drive it as masterfully as Carroll did.