Slapped wrist, red mist

It is 45 years since Pedro Rodriguez put in one of racing’s great drives, fuelled by fury after a lecture. We spoke to the official who ‘inspired’ him
Writer Ian Wagstaff

Clerk of the course Nick Syrett was “very annoyed”. Already RAC steward Basil Tye had suggested that the race, the 1970 BOAC 1000Kms, be cancelled and now Pedro Rodriguez seemed to be doing his best to run him over. What happened then has become legendary in the annals of endurance racing.

An area of low pressure had moved over south-eastern England that April weekend. The rain had been falling steadily for some time and Brands Hatch was awash. However, Nick saw no reason to disappoint the 20,000 fans huddling under their umbrellas. “Basil, don’t be ridiculous,” he told Tye. “At Sebring they were going past the pits in 18 inches of water.”

With wet Goodyears in short supply, Barrie Smith was forced to start his Sid Taylor-entered Lola T70 with hand-cut slicks at the rear.

“On the grid I told Sid that it was undriveable,” Barrie recalls. “Sid replied, ‘Just do a couple of laps and come in’.”

Smith’s resulting first-lap crash brought out the yellow flags. “I rushed down from race control because the marshal on the startline was doing a pathetic job, limply waving his flag,” Nick says. “I thought he wasn’t going to slow anyone down, so I grabbed it and marched up towards Clearways really giving it a wave. Everybody acknowledged it apart from Rodriguez. He went past me about 18 inches away, which really frightened me. Then he did much the same thing again. So I gave him the black flag, which he went past twice.”

Alan Hearn was mechanic on Rodriguez’s JW Automotive-entered Gulf Porsche 917. “Pedro and Leo [Kinnunen] were only seventh-fastest after practice, so it wasn’t looking too good for our car at the start,” he says.

Although in the best place to observe what now happened, Alan had not met Syrett until fairly recently, when the pair had lunch to talk over the incident. “Pedro didn’t come in straightaway,” Alan says, “and Nick arrived at our pit furious that he had not stopped. We had put an ‘in’ sign on the pit board as well. Pedro eventually came in, tearing down the pit road. I was assigned to open the driver’s door when he stopped. Nick was hovering right behind me. As soon as I opened the door I could see by his blazing eyes that Pedro was not happy.”

Syrett: “I couldn’t understand what Rodriguez was doing that day. I hit him three times on the shoulder shouting, ‘Don’t… do it… again’. I knew that being strapped in, he could not retaliate! I was very, very angry.”

Alan adds: “Nick dived in the cockpit with his head well down and proceeded to have a right go at him for dangerous driving, a real tongue-lashing. Pedro just kept staring straight ahead, not looking at him until he was finished, which took about 20 to 30 seconds. I could see he was fuming. All this time the engine was running. As Nick stepped away from the car I quickly shut the door. Pedro revved like mad, spun the rear wheels and shot off down the pit road at a very rapid rate. We were lucky we didn’t get our toes taken off. Pedro was now right at the back of the field.”

Richard Attwood, who finished third that day, rates what followed as one of the greatest drives of all time. Alan concurs: “We settled back to watch an amazing performance as, with controlled fury, Pedro started to climb back through the field, passing car after car in the pouring rain.” He remembers team crew running from the front to the back of the pits to make sure that he had safely negotiated the section of the track from Paddock to Bottom Bend, as it was then known.

Eventually Rodriguez caught leader Vic Elford, another hero that day. Like Pedro, he was driving a 917K, his being the one that would win at Le Mans in June. Side by side the pair raced towards Paddock, twitching through the puddles, the Gulf car on the inside. Elford was unable to hold back the Mexican, who splashed by to take a lead he retained at the end, having handed over to team-mate Kinnunen for the absolute minimum of time.

“It was a tremendous feat by Rodriguez,” Nick says. “I obviously didn’t hold him up long enough!” Had Pedro stayed out for one more lap under the black flag, he would have been disqualified. “I think Pedro was almost in awe of himself,” says Glenda Foreman, Rodriguez’s girlfriend. She, like Attwood, believes Syrett’s lecture caused him to drive beyond even his own undoubted ability. In a post-race photo, Pedro’s eyes are in a fixed, almost blank stare while a seemingly fresh Leo looks on.

Wyer was later to say, “On that day and in those conditions, Rodriguez was completely unbeatable. It is no good expecting drivers like him to behave like members of the second eleven.” However, Nick remembers Wyer calling him over later in the race to say in his patrician tone, “You were quite right, Nicholas.”

Nick was still giving Rodriguez a lecture as he drove him around on the victory lap. In Pedro’s defence, though, Attwood reckons conditions were such that, “There was no way he would have seen the flags.” Pedro was certainly incensed about being made to stop. He was later to complain to Glenda that Nick had been too far out on the track. “He was so cross that steam was coming off him like you wouldn’t believe. Pedro said Syrett just did not get out of the way quickly enough. Later Syrett complained to Pedro about what he had done to his new Burberry raincoat!”