LONDON, July 11 (Reuters) - When triple Formula One world champion Jackie Stewart thinks of the Olympics, it brings back memories of the biggest disappointment of an otherwise glorious sporting career.
It also raises the intriguing question of how motorsport history might have been re-written had the eagle-eyed young marksman, who would go on to become Britain’s most successful grand prix driver in terms of titles, been a shooting star at the 1960 Games in Rome.
The Scot, now a sprightly 73 years old, had his Olympic ticket as good as booked that year when he stepped up on his 21st birthday for the final day of the British Olympic trap shooting trials.
Part of a four man British shooting team, he was competing for one of two places in Olympic trap - “The Formula One of trap shooting” - with clay targets moving at anything up to 130mph at different angles and different heights.
He was in the form of his life, had won competitions around Britain and was a racing certainty. At the key moment, however, his timing deserted him and he suddenly found himself struggling.
“Out of 200, I missed it by one target,” Stewart recalled in an interview with Reuters. “And that was the cumulative score. So it was one target out of probably 1,000.
“I think it’s the biggest disappointment of my sporting life,” added the Scot, the names and details of that day pouring out and still as fresh in his mind as if they had happened yesterday.
Stewart would go on to become one of the greats of Formula One, winning a then-unprecedented 27 races from 99 starts and most importantly surviving one of the deadliest eras of motor racing.
He retired in 1973, after the death of French team mate Francois Cevert at Watkins Glen in the U.S. Grand Prix and began an equally successful career in business and then as owner of his own race-winning Stewart team.
Champions Red Bull trace their lineage back to that same team, sold to Ford and renamed Jaguar before being bought by Austrian energy drink billionaire Dietrich Mateschitz.
Unthinkable nowadays, with the likes of Spain’s double champion Fernando Alonso starting go-karting at the age of five or six, Stewart went seamlessly from clay pigeon shooting to racing driver.
Profoundly dyslexic, and hating school, his prowess with a gun had given him a sense of worth and achievement. It had taught him discipline and how to carry himself.
“Shooting was my whole focus. I left school at 15, I had won my first shooting competition at 14 and a half and then until I was 23 my life was shooting.” he said. “It was just my life.
“I was a total disaster at school. School was the unhappiest and worst period of my life because I wasn’t identified or assessed. Nobody knew about dyslexia so you were just stupid, dumb and thick.
“Sport saved my life, as it has a lot of people.”
Stewart, whose later sporting celebrity would bring him into contact with 1960 Olympians like Muhammad Ali, hesitated when asked how his career might have panned out had he gone to Rome.
His mother, as he relates in his autobiography “Winning is Not Enough”, never wanted him to go into car racing like his older brother Jimmy. Throughout his entire F1 career, she never once acknowledged what he did.
“It’s a question I don’t know the answer to,” said Stewart.
“It wasn’t the Olympics that ruined my enjoyment of shooting and the satisfaction, because I went on that year to win most of the championships I entered into.
“It was still something I knew I was good at but I was furiously disappointed that I myself had let myself down. In shooting, you can’t blame the car, it wasn’t any of the cartridges and it certainly wasn’t the gun.
“I think I exhausted my shooting window,” he added.
In all sport, timing is everything and the hand/eye coordination required is equally fundamental in motor racing. So too is poise and balance.
What Stewart also learned in shooting were the life skills that would stand him in good stead in Formula One and in his later business career.
He had travelled widely, competing in European and world championships at a time when overseas holidays were still a rarity for much of the population. To help pay for it, he worked in a garage.
Being away from home, in a competitive environment against opponents often far more experienced and older than him, did not faze him.
“I have always said that my shooting had a huge amount to do with the success that I achieved in motor racing,” said Stewart.
“By the time I had got there (F1), I had had the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat with my Olympic experience.
“I started off with a huge advantage over almost any of the other young ones coming along because I had been through all of the absolute necessity for total focus, for commitment, the ‘how can I do this better and improve myself?’.” (Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Toby Davis)
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