Throttle-Back Thursday: Remembering Jean Behra, French racer and Autoweek muse

Jean Behra drives a Maserati 250F at the 1956 French Grand Prix in Reims. The race was held July 1; Behra took third place, behind the Ferraris of Peter Collins and Eugenio Castellotti.

On Aug. 1, 1959, French racer Jean Behra died while driving a Porsche RSK in a support race for the German Grand Prix at AVUS circuit in West Berlin. He was just 38.

Behra’s career had him racing motorcycles, and then, from 1952 on, driving sports and open-wheel race cars for Gordini, Maserati, Ferrari, BRM and, finally, Porsche. In fact, had he not died in the RSK, he would have entered one of his own Porsche-Behra cars in the German GP.

His was not an easy life: Competition cost Behra part of his nose, an ear and, eventually, his life.

Though Behra was highly regarded by his contemporaries, there are many other racers whose lives had a similar tragic arc. And despite his capability, which earned him more than a few wins in his time, he never managed to take first in a Formula 1 World Championship-qualifying race. From a distance, and looking only at the numbers, his career isn’t all that impressive.

So why are we still talking about him today? In Autoweek’s case, it has something to do with his helmet, or casque in his native French. White with a black checkerboard pattern circling the brow, it was the direct inspiration for Competition Press’ logo — in an inverted form, of course. It’s still all over everything Autoweek does to this day; you’ll find at least a couple instances of it here on this web page.

To commemorate Behra and his time, we’re featuring a wonderful column by Denise McCluggage that ran on July 16, 2008 — Autoweek’s 50th anniversary issue. The story looks at an era many still refer to as motorsport’s golden age, or one of its golden ages anyway, through the lens of its apparel.

What passed for protective gear is quaint-bordering-on-horrifying today, but it says a lot about the individuals who strapped on helmets, checkerboard-patterned or otherwise, climbed into their machines and made history. Read on below.  

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