Friday, 22 October 2010

Early memories

I thought it might interest readers to hear of my first motor sporting experiences, and maybe inspire some to leave a comment of their own about early racing memories. I had a notion that one day I might write an autobiography, but as the years pass and reality sets in, this looks increasingly unlikely, so this may be as close as I ever come.

I was always interested in cars and car racing. Where this came from, I have no idea. Certainly not from my parents. My father had more of a passion for boats and the sea, having served in the Royal Navy, and Mum was just, well Mum. And my two older sisters (much older) were more into The Beatles and Girl Guiding, and occasional dinghy-sailing.

I was probably about seven years old, when I remember we drove past Silvermere Golf Club (just off the A3 between Cobham and Byfleet) and I asked my father if we could go to Silverstone one day – word association, you know.

He suggested Brands Hatch was closer and would be easier, but in those days I hadn’t heard of the place, but I slotted it away in my memory to be brought back as and when required.

It was Mum, though, who happened across someone with whom she helped to do school dinners, and whose husband happened to be a marshal, who provided the real trigger, just before my tenth birthday. I had for several years swapped the doubtful pleasures of a birthday party (which I had to share), for a birthday treat (in which the attention was heaped on me). And this other dinner lady provided my mother with details for the Race of Champions, coincidentally held the day after my tenth birthday, 12th March, 1967. So when my loving parents offered a birthday trip to Brands Hatch to see the Race of Champions, I didn’t need to think about it for too long. This was Formula 1, after all, and all the well-known names (apart from Jim Clark and Team Lotus) would be there.

We arrived early on race morning (attending practice days was far in the future for me), and Mum had prepared a picnic lunch for us. In addition to support races, there were to be two heats of ten laps each for the Formula 1 cars, to be followed by a forty lap final. As far as I remember, the only purpose that the heats served was to establish the grid positions for the following race, but it meant that we had three Grand Prix-style starts to experience. And from our initial vantage point on Top Straight (as it was then), we had that experience to the full.

Forty-something years later, it is perhaps surprising that so many memories of that day still abound. Especially when I struggle to remember who won the last Grand Prix. In fact where was the last Grand Prix?

But I can clearly remember the first car on the track that day – the Honda (number 7) of John Surtees, who drove round at what seemed to me breakneck speed to take up his slot on the 3 x 2 x 3 grid. Earlier in the day, the only cars on the track were service vehicles and occasional road cars (I later learned that these were probably marshals going out onto the GP loop to take up their signalling positions). And with such benchmarks, the speed of a Formula 1 car, even on a warm-up lap, just knocked me for six.

Jack Brabham was the reigning World Motor Racing Champion, and hence was number 1, but that day he could not keep up with the Eagle-Gurney Weslake (number 5) of Dan Gurney. Brabham was the only one to pass Gurney, though, as he unlapped himself in the final, following a pit-stop. To my eye, even then, the Eagle was a more attractive car than the functional-looking Brabham, but with so little experience, I did not fully appreciate the iconic status of Dan Gurney’s mount.

After the race, I pushed my way to the fence in order to show my appreciation as the winning car was towed round the track on a trailer, with Gurney and his mechanics waving to the crowd on their ‘lap of honour’. Dad took a photo, as I recall, which I must have somewhere.

Then there was the queue to get out. In those pre-M25, pre-M20 days, the way home was through Croydon (and over the flyover – as hi-tech as civil engineering went then). But just getting out of the circuit, let alone getting to Croydon (with still another hour to drive thereafter) sent Dad into a rage of ‘never again’. Luckily he relented, and I went again to the Race of Champions for my birthday treat in 1968. Then I managed to persuade him to take me to the British Grand Prix in July, and it all sort of snowballed from there!

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