Death-defying adventures of Jacques Grelley

ARLINGTON RESIDENT Jacques Grel-ley never walks with a limp, but fate tells him he should. As a boy growing up in France during WWII, he came too close to the bombings, as a European race car driver he endured too many accidents, as a spectator during the worst racing accident in history he survived against too many odds, to walk away unscarred. Yet he did.

When Grelley talks about the LeMans or the Grand Prix or any of the many races he has won, he leaves out the broken bones, smashed skull, cracked vertebrae. He talks even less about the months of hospitalization and the times doctors gave up on him. Whether it’s fate or a fluke, Grelley is sure of one thing: He has used up the luck of several lifetimes.

As a spectator during the 1955 LeMans, Grelley escaped, death by mere inches when several race cars vaulted off the track. The accident killed 105 spectators and injured 150 others. Grelley, who bent forward just as a race car, going 150 mph, sailed over his head, walked away without a scratch. “The binoculars I had just asked to borrow were still hanging around his neck,” Grelley says. “But his head was gone.”

Stunned, Grelley left the race with his friend’s blood splattered across his suit. Later that night, a friend noticed Grelley’s blood-stained shirt and assumed that Grelley had been injured in the race. The observation quickly ballooned into a rumor and by the time Grelley arrived home, his mother, who had been told that her son was dead, had placed a burning candle in the window.

Thirty years after the race, Grelley is still haunted by the images of that tragic event. As one of a few survivors, Grelley plans to talk about his experience as a spectator during a segment of 60 Minutes.

“I suppose it wasn’t my time to die,” says Grelley, of the experience at Le Mans. “I’ve had some very close calls, but I believe there’s a good star shining above me.”

Grelley has survived against impossible odds, says his friend Margaret Mence, because he trusts what he is and what he does. “He doesn’t quite trust his survival to anyone else. He is so very determined to succeed that he doesn’t know there’s any other way to view life.”

After years on the race track, Grelley says he has developed a survivor’s instinct. But caution takes a back seat to the gut feeling Grelley says he has once he’s behind a steering wheel. “Before a race, I’m always nervous,” he says. “But as soon as they drop the flag, I don’t have any time to worry about anything except making it to the finish line.

Even today, the 47-year-old Frenchman contends he has always been a safe driver who has sacrificed his own safety to save the lives of others. Grelley remembers the race that he forfeited when he sped off the side of the road to avoid a child who stood in his path. A few feet to the right and he would have taken the child’s life, and a few inches to the left and he would have plunged down a 120-foot ravine. He chose the ravine.

Fate turned sour in 1955 when at 95 miles per hour his car wheel slipped off and Grelley overturned his car six times. Grelley suffered such severe injuries that doctors told him he would never drive again, much less race professionally. Determined to prove his physicians wrong, Grelley ignored doctor’s orders, developed his own rehabilitation program, and returned to the race track eight months later.

Such cockiness and determination is typical of the dry-humored Grelley. “He has great strength and will and he really believes that there’s always a way to win,” Mence says. “He doesn’t give up on anything. He believes if he can’t get out through the door, then there’s always a window.”

Long before he ever got behind a steering wheel, Grelley developed a knack for seem-ingiy miraculous recoveries from accidents that were usually fatal. At 5, he fell, head first, off a 12-foot wall. At 7, Grelley was thrown 30 feet by an angry cow. And at 8, Grelley, who was walking through the fields near his home in the war-ravaged French province of Normandy, watched helplessly as a playmate, just a few feet away, tumbled into a land mine and instantly died.

Each time, doctors shook their heads in disbelief, then patched Grelley up and sent him on his way. Despite numerous blows to the head, Grelley says he has never had a headache. The only side effect that lingers, he says, is an occasional twinge in his bones that anticipates a thunder storm.

Grelley grew up with the violence of World War II just outside his door step. “I stood right in the middle of the war and with everything going on all that time 1 didn’t realize it,” Grelley says.

“I stood on a cliff about 100 yards above the Omaha Beach with a perfect view of the water,” he recalls. “When I looked at the English Channel, I never saw that the water was full of mines.”

His family, which was forced to flee from its fishing village near Omaha Beach, escaped just as the skies turned black with the first bomb blasts.

When Grelley’s grandfather spotted the advancing troops around 4 a.m., he raced inside to alert the rest of the family. Grelley, who has been identified as the only Frenchman living in the United States to witness the invasion, says he could not believe his eyes.

“They fought heavily with cannons from about 4:30 to 7:30 that morning,” he says. “Then my grandfather decided that for the safety of everyone, it was better to move inland.”

The thunder of German tanks followed the family to their new inland refuge. The German officers invaded the small 50-year-old farm house and forced Grelley’s grandmother to cook meals. Just as she was putting dinner on the table, Grelley says, the Germans looked out and saw the sky covered with British bombers. The Germans left the table while the bombing continued, and the young Grelley scampered to a bomb-proof steel bunker tucked underground.

“I was the first of my family to reach the bunker,” Grelley recalls. “And there were 12 Germans already there.”

He ran back to the house and for the next 20 minutes he hid under the staircase in the 500-year-old farm house as bombs blasted outside. “The bombs hit all around the house, but nothing touched the house,” he says.

When the bombing ended, Grelley walked outside and saw bodies stacked on top of one another. “The next morning I walked through the fields and found one German with half his face blown off,” he says. “And the bunker I had tried to get into was totally destroyed.”

The Grelley family survived the bombings. Fearing more attacks, Grelley’s grandfather led his family to a second retreat, located yet another 90 miles inland. It was there that Grelley spotted General Patton and his tank troop as they rolled through the small village. When we saw the troops, says Grelley, we knew we were free.

When the war ended, Grelley and his family returned to their farming community in Normandy, which by then had been leveled by the bombs.

WHEN HE WAS 16, Grelley forged a driver’s license and began racing through the winding mountains near his home. By the time he could take a driving test, the 18-year-old Grelley was already a seasoned racer, primed for competition. A passion for racing was in his blood, he says, thanks to his grandfather, who raced from 1901 to 1909 in a car with wooden wheels covered with rubber. The elder Grelley taught his grandson the joy of racing, but he failed to magnify the dangers.

The day after his 18th birthday, Grelley entered his first race, and his career took off. Within months, word of the fast young driver had reached European car manufacturers such as Porsche, a company that from 1954 to 1956 paid Grelley’s way to some of the biggest racing events in Europe. For a time, each race led to another top finish, yet for nearly a year, Grelley’s success went unnoticed by his family in France. Grelley, who raced under the nickname Jaeger, says he kept his risky career a secret because he didn’t want his mother to worry.

For the same reasons, he has never married. “Jacques was in every way married to racing,” says Mence. “He didn’t have time for anything or anyone else in his life and he didn’t expect any woman to put up with the lifestyle he had to live. He had seen the faces of the wives of race car drivers after a fatal crash too many times.

During the 1955 crash that nearly took his life he could not spare his mother that sobering experience when she received a late night phone call with the news that her son had been seriously injured at Silverstone, England. Believing that her son was away on business, Mrs. Grelley refused to accept the caller’s story. Meanwhile, Grelley was in intensive care with injuries so severe that doctors did not expect him to live. By the time Mrs. Grelley unraveled the story, doctors had already performed lifesaving surgery.

During the next eight years, there were other wins and during his racing years, Grelley broke 16 bones and suffered dozens of minor injuries.

“The doctors said I wouldn’t make it that time,” Grelley says. “But that was like a slap in the face to me and it made me all the more determined to drive again. I was young and greedy then, and I knew there was only one way to be successful in racing, and that was to go faster.”

After recovering, Grelley couldn’t wait to prove his doctor wrong. He drove to his doctor’s office and blasted the horn until the man finally came to the window and acknowledged Grelley’s recovery. By then, the secret was out and Grelley knew he could no longer hide his aspirations from his family. Grelley finished among the top three places of the Le Mans in 1959 through 1961. He won the l,000K in Nurburgring, Germany two years in a row, won the 12 hours of Rheims and ended up placing second in the 1.000K in Monza, Italy.

He came to race in the United States, but the company he was representing went bankrupt and Grelley found himself stranded in, of all places, Macon, Georgia. Although Grelley could not speak English, he liked the country and decided to stay.

He brought the same driving determination to a career that he brought a decade earlier to racing. For a while he managed nightclubs in Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C. He gave up nightlife, Grelley says, to go into the wine business. In the United States, his knowledge of wine and a determination to succeed led to a position as manager for a wine company. Later he was transferred to Texas, where he was named the manager of the Southern region of for Nicolás Wine and Remy-Martin Cognac. For a time he raced and worked, but the two became too time consuming and Grelley retired. A year later he returned to the track for another spin. After retiring three times, Grelley finally decided to permanently call it quits in 1976.

Retirement lasted until 1979, when he restored a vintage race car and again hit the track, this time in exhibition, rather than professional competition races. Since then, his collection of vintage race cars has grown to 14, including a 1962 Lotus he restored and the first prototype Alpine Renault built in the world. Today, he thinks nothing of flying to France to buy a rare race car, or spending what few free hours he has, tinkering with his collection.

But gone are the days of whizzing around the track at 160 miles per hour. Instead, the confirmed bachelor prefers the somewhat less demanding pace of the DB Panhard vintage car he drove in the Dallas Grand Prix featured event last summer. The challenge may not be as great as it was when he raced in the pouring rain at LeMans, but the odds of surviving are much better.

“I had so many close calls that it seems not even fair that I’m still alive,” Grelley says. “All but six of the 20 men I raced with when I was younger have been killed. At some point, I suppose, you have to realize that you can’t go on forever at that kind of speed.”


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