Keith Greene: Showing 'em who's boss

Pitlanes the world over have echoed to the bark of Keith Greene's commands, and his results show why he has always been in demand. Gordon Cruickshank listens to stories from 45 years of motor racing

Remember the Alan Mann Ford Falcons? Alain de Cadenet at Le Mans? Rondeau winning at the Sarthe? Renault in touring cars? There’s one common factor – Keith Greene, team manager. He has run just about every type of racing team going, here and abroad – from privateer sportscars through works saloons to Formula One, with Le Mans his speciality. And he’s done so over some 40 years, from 1960s short back and sides to wild hair and flares, and back to today’s respectable figure of grey-haired retirement. But he’s still quick and wiry, and extremely frank…

Maybe racing was inevitable. Keith’s father was Sid Greene, whose Gilby Engineering built and raced their own cars: “By 17, I was driving too much to complete my studies, so my father bought a garage where we made a team workshop. I ran that, and raced.” From 1955 to ’63 Keith drove sportscars, then single-seaters up to Cooper-Maserati and the Gilby-Climax F1, once finishing third behind the Ferraris in the Naples GP. But one of his clients saw other material in him.

“We made shock absorbers for Armstrong, and they offered me a post as competition manager and rep servicing Cooper, Alan Mann Racing and all the others. I had everyone in F1 apart from Honda and Ferrari. Then, out of the blue, Alan asked me to manage Frank [Gardner] in the Falcon. Alan was an amazing bloke, the best I’ve ever worked with. We won the British championships, then did the Cortinas and the Escorts for the European and British championships.

“But we also did the F3L. A disaster – it had as much downforce as a Mini. I arrived at the Ring an hour after Chris Irwin had his shunt. Alan put me to look after Loti, his wife; I tried to take her mind off things while he was in hospital, but it was tough. A very good driver, but that car… Slippery as a wet rat; a lovely looking thing, but dodgy.”

When Mann switched to salmon farming, Greene ran Broadspeed’s Escorts until the phone rang. “Late one night I got a call from Bernie [Ecclestone] to come down and see him. We had a conversation in the car park, and suddenly I was Brabham team manager.

“That was tough. I ran the team in the day and the F2 shop at night. We were also building the truck, the first of the huge white whales…

“I had only 14 blokes; we were running three different F1 cars [a BT33, a 34 and a 36] and we did all the testing. I had no secretary, I did my own one-finger typing. I was doing what five people would do now. I was the engineer, too; I’d discuss things with Gordon Murray, the only one in the drawing office, but running the cars was down to me.

“The reason I left Bernie a year down the road was simple: I was doing 100 hours-plus a week, and I spent five weeks walking alongside his Merc asking for an extra tenner a week. Finally I said, ‘I won’t be here tomorrow. Adios’. He never stopped ringing me, every week… And later on I went back to set up International Race Tyres for him.”

Next he ran Ecurie Evergreen for dashing privateer Alain de Cadenet: “Alain was pretty way-out. Chris Craft took me up to meet him, and he arrived in a full-length fur coat. I did that for two years, converting a McLaren M8C to run a DFV to do sportscar races. Alain was partners with David Weir who said he was buying a Ferrari to do Le Mans.” He did too, a 512, a very good one, and they were running fourth at 4am when the clutch went.

“Then Alain bought a BT33 Brabham from Ron Tauranac. It was built from boxes of parts. It was a tiny entry into F1 – Alain, Chris, me and Keith Baldwin. We had a Transit and a trailer. That was the team. We had no tools – at Le Mans we had to borrow every roll of tape in the pits when the bodywork came adrift. That was a heroic bloody weekend. I slept for 14 hours straight afterwards.

“Things got a bit difficult towards the end, but I’m still friendly with Alain. He could sell ice to Eskimos. Not a bad driver, too.”

He and Chris Craft moved on to Crowne Racing with Martin Birrane, which expanded from a GT Porsche and Lola T294 for the European 2-litre series, before Ecclestone again took a hand.

“Bernie sold Paul Michaels of Hexagon a BT44 for John Watson to do the North American grands prix, but only if I went as the team manager. So I went, but by the time we’d got the bits from Bernie we had to finish building it in the paddock at Mosport. I found I had no spare wheels and told Bernie; he said, See Herbie.’ So Herbie [Blash] let me have four wheels – then at lunch-time Bernie took them away. Later he gave them back. It was just to make it clear who was in charge. When Paul lost his sponsor, Bernie had the car back.”

After starting International Race Tyres in 1976 for Bernie, Greene had enormous success with Gordon Spice. As well as running a sales operation, he managed a huge race programme: “We ran the works Ford Capris, and won five 24-hour races, came second in the Spa and ‘Ring 24 Hours, and won the Belgian championship.

“Then we did the deal to run the new Ford C100 [Group C car for ’83]. We tested at Paul Ricard with Marc Surer and Gordon, where it went very well. But Stuart Turner arrived at Ford and said, ‘I don’t like racing. Put this lot in the crusher’. Gordon and I were left with an empty workshop. So I got my year’s wages and that was it.

“John Fitzpatrick then asked me to run his brand-new Porsche 956 in WEC events. After John had his big shunt at Fuji ’83, he brought all his kit to Kyalami, but he decided there and then he was stopping, and said, ‘Right, you run the lead car and I’ll run the rent-a-drive car’. But I knew it was never going to work. We’re both strong people.”

Greene baled out to join one of the most successful privateer GpC outfits, Richard Lloyd Racing, with a second at Le Mans in ’85. Having been the lynchpin of so many teams, it made sense to experience being a team boss, too. In 1987, Greene started GP Motorsport.

“Dave Prewitt had Costas Los in tow, who was very rich but a lovely fella. He would bring the money and drive. So we got a C2 Tiga and gave it a shot. Dave did the paperwork and I did the car. We brought Costas on well – second in class at Le Mans, a class win at Brands – but he needed to be staightened out: I had to say, ‘We can do it, but you have to listen and try what I say’.

This personal conviction has been one of Keith’s strengths. A driver will listen to a manager who knows what he’s talking about, and in turn the driver’s feedback carries more meaning.

“I can observe people’s driving and see what’s going wrong. I did 10 years of international racing and I was not a complete lemon-head. Not Stirling Moss, but I was half-reasonable, so I have a knowledge of what a driver is telling me, which I can then do something about”

By now his reputation was widespread and, having been brought in to run Nissan’s first attempt at Le Mans in 1986, he returned for the Japanese company’s full-blown factory campaign in ’89.

“Lovely people to work with, though I had one bad experience. We had two cars at Le Mans in ’86. For the second night practice we had our race engine in, and I said, ‘Just a few miles, and that’s it. Boost at 1.2 bar, not 1.6, we’ve got 24 hours to do tomorrow’.

“Now, James Weaver had gone 2sec quicker than his Japanese team-mates, and I had a sneaky suspicion what might happen. So I’d taken the boost knob off. During one of Kazuyoshi Hoshino’s stops I happened to see his mechanic under the dash, and I knew straight away he was taking mole-grips to the boost control. I went immediately to the boss and said, ‘I don’t want anything to do with it’. Ten minutes later the big boss was there, bowing. ‘Please run the car. The mechanic has been reprimanded…’

“I had to say it. I’ve always tried to do a proper job. I won’t go and work for somebody just for the money. They have to do it my way. That’s why they’ve employed me.

“Next, Shin Kato asked me to do Le Mans for his SARD Toyota team, and then the Japanese series, running Roland Ratzenberger. That was a whole new learning curve. They have a completely different way of working – you can’t do anything without a report and a meeting. After a couple of days I said, ‘I will not waste any more hours in a smoke-filled office’. They accepted it; and my mechanics were as happy as sandboys. I spoke hardly any Japanese – I communicated by whistles and signs – but they smiled where the others were dour. And we won at Fuji and Suzuka, beating the factory cars.”

A season collaring the BTCC title for Vic Lee followed, and led to the French connection, when Renault entered the BTCC.

“I gave a proposal which got us the job, but the only car that fitted was the 19 – not a very good car. But we actually won some races – it flexed so much it was good in the wet, so we blew them into the weeds at Donington. Renault were over the moon. They knew it wasn’t a good car, but they were only learning ready for the Laguna, a much better car. Then the contract went to Williams; even they didn’t want to do it, but the money was too good.”

An attempt to turn a Corvette into a GT car for helicopter millionaire Rocky Agusta failed – “A nightmare. Too heavy, too big; just not a racing car” – and Greene went to work for his old racing companion Jonathan Palmer, but overseeing his corporate days rather than the Formula Palmer Audi single-seater series.”He asked me to run the WA cars, but the last thing I needed was 30 fathers telling me that their son’s car wasn’t right.”

Yes. There would have been fireworks. He was always forthright. Still is, about being pushed out of a team, or abandoning another: “A useless driver – always blaming the car. I couldn’t stand the bleating”.

It’s been a remarkable career, spanning a huge technology shift. A computerised turbo GpC car on slicks is a million miles on from a Climax-powered Cooper; yet Greene was never fazed.

“I used to qualify the Can-Am car for Chris Craft if he couldn’t get there; and that was an 800hp McLaren M8E. I was quicker than Costas Los in our C2 Spice, and I did systems testing on the 1200hp Nissans.

“I’ve been around so long, it didn’t matter that the technology changed, because it changed around me. My only drop-off point was when computers began to arrive. Yes, your laptop contains a lot of information, but you’ve still got to know how to use it. I was a seat-of-the-pants-flier. I should’ve been more computerised if I wanted to stick with it.” This from a man who has done 45 years in racing, still musing on what he might have been doing.

He hasn’t been to a race since retiring, but somehow an Alfa Romeo 1750GTV has crept into the garage. There are no plans to race it – but if that changes it’ll be the best-prepared one in the pits.