If you’ve listened to our podcasts for a while, you may know that I currently live in St. Louis which is a city in the great state of Missouri. It’s in the middle of the US map for our readers from around the globe. Missouri has a unique history all its own but I do not hail from St. Louis, no that distinction, whether they would want to admit it or not, goes to Kansas City. I am a Kansas City boy raised on Missouri agriculture and the world’s best BBQ—real BBQ sauce is made with molasses in case you’re wondering. Go Chiefs! Go Royals!
Why am I telling you this? Well, it’s rather odd to find a Formula 1 fan born in the middle of America and perhaps even more odd to discover just how important Kansas City was to F1 in general. Kansas City (KC) is important to the sport of F1? How could Kansas City Missouri possibly be important to Formula 1 in Europe and the UK? Well, it was.
There are two reasons KC was important to F1 and both happened around the same time.
If you’ve watched F1 for any length of time, you’ve heard commentators and journalists as well as drivers and teams refer to the crash barriers—those metal guard rails you see around the streets of Monaco—as Armco or Armco’s.
Back it the 1960’s the mortality rate for F1 drivers was becoming completely out of hand. While some deemed danger and the possibility of death as one of the key elements in European road racing, others like Sir Jackie Stewart and Jo Bonnier were adamant that safety measures needed to be installed.
Those battles over safety are already well documented so I won’t repeat the details for you but the result of their critical work was the installation of more and more crash barriers. A company called Sheffield Steele designed these Flex-Beam barriers and while that sounds all very British, it wasn’t. In fact, when Sheffield Steele moved into the industrial area of Kansas City in the 1920’s, other mills followed and were named Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester. The area was located near the Missouri River and is still there today.
Sheffield was purchased by Armco back in the early 1930’s and continued to manufacture the rails both in the US and by 1954, in the UK. The first circuit to sport the new Armco was Monza in the late 1950’s on the iconic banking of the track.
Armco has become a foundational safety device for circuits all around the world and while there are new systems intended to be even safer and dissipate energy more effectively, Armco was the first. While Armco has been blamed for some driver deaths in F1, it was always intended to protect spectators and prevent the type of issue we saw in 1955 at Le Mans.
The second reason Kansas City was important to F1 is this:
The Kansas City Flash
One of my favorite F1 and sports car drivers has always been Masten Gregory. I won’t rewrite his history because our terrific Tony Greene did me the favor when I requested a F1 Bio piece on him a few years ago. Here is that piece:
“Suddenly there was an almighty howl of sound, a blast of wind, the whole car shook, and Masten went steaming past like a bat out of hell. He was well out in the lead with the Lister-Jaguar all sideways, his arms crossed up and fighting the steering. I remember having a sudden twinge of shock and thinking “To heck with this, if this is motor racing I’m going to give up now.” It really put me off. I didn’t think anyone could drive a car as quickly as that.” – Jim Clark, Spa 1958
“He was the fastest American that ever went over to drive a Grand Prix car. Hell, he scored more points than anybody did in their first year. And he couldn’t see shit. His glasses were as thick as Coke bottles.” – Carroll Shelby
As a child, he not only had weak eyes, but he was also short, slight of build and spoke with a lisp, not to mention the fact that he was also from the American Midwest. Hardly physical and geographic traits one might consider in the makeup of the United State’s first great Formula One driver. Had it not been for his talent of jumping from his moving car moments before impending accidents, Masten Gregory could very well have become the first North American World Champion.
Masten was born in Kansas City in 1932, the youngest of three children. His father died when Gregory was only three, leaving a considerable inheritance from his insurance business to all three children upon reaching their twenty-first birthdays. But as Masten was married at seventeen, he legally became an adult at eighteen by Missouri state law, so his inheritance was quickly put down on a sportscar, followed by a Mercury powered Allard, which he intended to race.
In 1953, Gregory bought another competitor’s C-Class Jaguar on the spot following just his second race. He finally won in his third race in the Allard and then moved into the Jag, with which he continued winning or finishing on the podium in Sports Car Club of America events throughout the season. By the end of the year, he was considered the best Jaguar driver in the States, so he was invited to take part in his first international race in January of 1954 in Buenos Aires. He performed well in the event until water pump problems dropped him to 14th. However, he promptly bought the event winning Ferrari 4.5 and it was with this car that Gregory first took on Europe.
Masten finished 2nd in class in that first European race in Dundrod, then went to Le Mans for the first time, only to have a piston break before he even got behind the wheel. Later in 1955, he was back at Dundrod, winning the Tourist Trophy race with Carroll Shelby in a Porsche 550 Spyder.
Gregory came to the notice of Formula One teams by winning the 1957 Buenos Aires Grand Prix sportscar race, earning him a F1 seat in the privateer Scuderia Centro Sud team’s aging Maserati 250F. Making his Grand Prix at arguably the most difficult circuit, Monte Carlo, Masten became the first American to score a podium in their Formula One debut when he finished a brilliant third. He followed this up with an 8th in Germany, before two successive 4th place finishes at the Pescara and Italian GPs. As a rookie who had only raced in half of the season’s eight GPs, Gregory placed 6th in the 1957 championship standings.
While taking part in a sportscar race at Silverstone early the following year, Masten had a small Porsche move into his line, causing him to take evasive action and get onto the grass. He lost control and, as the car was heading quickly and uncontrollably towards an earthen embankment, Masten stood up in the cockpit and bailed out moments before the inevitable impact. The decision quite possibly saved his life, but the resulting injuries put a brief halt to Masten’s burgeoning F1 career and kept him out of a seat for the bulk of the 1958 season.
For 1959, Gregory was given his best F1 opportunity by way of a third works Cooper behind Jack Brabham and Bruce McLaren, finishing 3rd in Holland in just his second start with the team. He was running 2nd in France in the next race before retiring due to exhaustion and was leading two races later in Germany before his engine blew. He followed this, however, with a fine 2nd in Portugal, in what would be his best Formula One result.
With two races remaining in the 1959 F1 season, Masten again was forced to bail out of his car during the Tourist Trophy sportscar event at Goodwood. While sitting 6th in the Driver’s Championship, rib and shoulder injuries forced him to miss the final two GPs of the season, dropping him to 10th in the standings as his teammate Brabham took the title.
For 1960, Cooper dropped the American and Gregory spent the next five years car hopping among four different teams, running with two in a single season on more than one occasion. He would score a final WDC point at the 1962 U.S. Grand Prix while driving a Lotus for the UDT Laystall team, but a win in the Non Championship Swedish GP would be the remaining high point in his F1 career.
Le Mans once again beckoned when Ford called in 1964. With the new GT40, Gregory ran as high as 2nd with Richie Ginther before transmission issues ended their race. For 1965, Masten was teamed with a young Jochen Rindt in the NART Ferrari 275 LM. The two took victory in the first non-factory Le Mans win in eight years. This would also be the last time, to date, that a Ferrari won Le Mans overall. That same year, Gregory took part in his first and only Indy 500. Though he started on the last row in 31st, Masten passed FOURTEEN cars on the opening lap, only to have engine problems end his day while he was running in 5th. Gregory & Rindt’s Le Mans winning Ferrari currently resides in the Indianapolis speedway museum.
Masten Gregory would continue racing in various sportscar events until 1970. Following the death of his close friend, Jo Bonnier, Masten decided to put an end to most racing efforts. Having grown to love the European lifestyle, Gregory continued living overseas. While sleeping in his Porto Ercole, Itlay apartment, Gregory died of a heart attack in 1985, leaving behind four children. Following years of lobbying from motorsport fans, the relatively unknown local hero known as the“Kansas City Flash” was finally inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in 2005.