Letter from France

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From D.S.J. to the Deputy Editor

Dear M.L.,

Can you imagine it being too hot, 1986 summer came while the Formula One “circus” was in Detroit and it was long overdue. The race in Montreal was reasonable enough and with five days to cover 600 miles I took the opportunity to make a deviation south into Indiana. Now the state of Indiana has a lot of interesting things in it, but the real hub is the town of Indianapolis and the suburb of Speedway, where the famous track lies. I have never been to the Indianapolis 500 Mile race, nor to the build-up to it, and I am not sure I want to, for various reasons. However, it was a nice opportunity to drift around the Speedway and its surroundings and soak up a little of the atmosphere that makes the Indy 500 so farnous. It is like motoring across France and coming across the Le Mans 24 Hour circuit. Everything may be quiet and still and the world around is going about its daily business, but you can’t help being aware that you are somewhere special. The Indy 500 and Le Mans only happen once a year and one of the great things they have in common is that they are still run to the format with which they began. Cars, people, conditions, facilities and so on may change, but Le Mans still and the world around is going about its daily business, but you can’t help being aware that you are somewhere special. The Indy 500 and Le Mans only happen once a year and one of the great things they have in common is that they are still run to the format with which they began Cars, people, conditions, facilities and so on may change, but Le Mans still runs for 24 Hours and the Indianapolis race still runs for 500 Miles, and for me that is something special. The only other venue that has this same effect on me is our own little Shelsley Walsh hillchmb. It was started in 1905 by the Midland Automobile Club up the 1000 yard farm track near Worcester and today is just the same hill, run by the same club. Not many racing venues can claim that distinction.

With nothing moving at the Speedway it was possible to stand and drink in the atmosphere and the enormity of the place and to try and visualise the speeds 225 mph down the straights and qualifying laps of 217 mph. It was Impressive just to look at the place. In the middle of the track is a superb museum in which the history of the Indy 500 is covered by actual winning cars, photographs and trophies and to anyone interested in the development of the racing car and the racing engine, it is all there and you can see for yourself how the lap speeds went up from 100 mph to 120 mph, on to 130, 140. then on up into the 170 mph mark, on and on, never stopping 180 mph, 190 mph, 200 mph, 210 mph and 220 mph is in sight, and always on the same basic 2 1/2 mile track with its four gently banked corners. If you like speed then this place would satiate you very quickly, except that it never stops.

My mentor and guide for the three days I spent in Indiana was Donald Davidson, the archivist and historian for the United States Auto Club (USAC) and while having a beer together he just happened to mention that there was a USAC Midget race on the one-fifth of a mile tarmac oval on the edge of town. It was due on Thursday evening, so I promptly postponed my return to Formula One, in order to watch some super cut-and-thrust racing with forty Midget cars in the final, after some really exciting heats. The amount of things I saw and learnt during my brief stay at the town of Speedway would fill these letters lor the rest of the year. but to add to the joy a real Indiana summer came to town while I was there and headed me up north to Detroit, which is where we came in.

Back home in England a weekend off from Formula One saw me having a splendid vintage-car weekend, in real summer weather at last. Borrowing a friend’s 4 1/2 litreLagonda I had a sweltering run up to Silverstone for the VSCC testing afternoon on the Friday before their race day as they are totally relaxed, there is no organisation, no schedule to keep to, no gates are marshalled or locked, all you have to do is behave sensibly and drive round the circuit with intelligence, if you happen to be testing your old racing car. 95% of the cars there are pure racing machinery, some very old, like John Walker’s 1908 Panhard, much of it vintage, like Bugattis, some PVT like ERAs and some post-war like Connaughts. There really is something for everyone and you don’t have to worry about who is winning or why some-one has stopped, its just a relaxed day of testing with all manner of cars making all manner of noises. Not all the cars were truly old, for the Vintage Sports Car Club members are great ones for making “brand new old cars” but even Tony Merrick’s ERA that he has made from new parts and some old spares, and Rodney Felton’s Alfa Romeo that he has built from scratch making 90% of the parts himself, make “vintage like” noises that sound like the real thing, even though the cars are pure “facsimiles”. At one end of the paddock Neil Corner had a collection of cars that was almost embarrassing to stand amongst, they were all so real. He had his 1914 Sunbeam, which his son Nigel was about to learn to race, his 250F Maserati which Charlie Lucas was going to have a go in, his V12 Dino Ferrari which Uncle Enzo himself built for Pat Hoare way back in the dark ages, his Type 59 Bugatti that was originally bought by Earl Howe, and his Type 57S sports Bugatti which he recently acquired from Ronnie Symondson. Any one of these cars would be described by an ‘old car’ auctioneer as a ‘collectors item’ to be bought as an investment and kept shiny and polished in a heated garage and gloated over until the value increased. Corner certainly keeps all his cars shiny and polished, the Type 59 looked a picture, and I believe he keeps them in a heated garage, but he really uses them and is not afraid to let his family and friends use them as well.

Just as enthusiastic and just as much part of the VSCC scene were the chaps at the other end of the paddock with the Riley Special they had just finished building. Everything is relative and all things are equal in the real world of ‘old car fun’ and fortunately the Vintage Sports Car Club encourage this attitude and anyone seen to be taking themselves too seriously soon has the ‘mickey’ taken by all and sundry, which makes for a splendid leveller. Most important of all the VSCC does not get carried away with meaningless Championships. You try and win the race for which you are entered. and that is it, each race is taken on its own merit so nobody becomes neurotic as they see THE CHAMPIONSHIP slipping from their grasp. After the racing you will hear someone who has finished 21st saying “By golly, I really enjoyed that”.

The day after saw a visit to the Brooklands Industrial Estate on the site of the old Weybridge track, and an appreciative look at the progress being made with the Brooklands Museum in and around the old Clubhouse, by the Elmbridge Council. I met many old friends at the Brooklands Society re-union held in the vicinity of the Byfleet Banking. Sadly, the Brooklands Society seems to have fallen out with the local council and appear to be trying to “go it alone” holding their gathering in a tent on what is nothing more than the end of a disused airfield. The hub of Brooklands was and still is, the clubhouse, the paddock, the Members Hill, the Test Hill and the tuning sheds, and they are all within the designated historical area that is being preserved so well by the Council, backed by Gallahers and British Aerospace.

Ater these three days of glorious summer weather and shirt-sleeve motoring in an old car, it was bag-packing time and off to the south of France for the Grand Prix at the Paul Ricard Circuit. Now, there it was hot. As I said at the beginning, too hot, though it all suddenly disappeared on race day, but returned on the Monday. I only wish I could find a way of storing up some of this heat, to tide me over the winter months.

On the way to the Paul Ricard Circuit I saw numerous big signs outside mobil petrol stations reading “En avant les Williams” with a big painting of Nigel Mansell in an FW11 Williams powered by Honda Mobil brew up the regulation fuel for the Honda engines and the team obviously paid heed, for Nigel Mansell really was ”En avant” on race day. On leaving the circuit after the race I needed some petrol in my hired “little whizzer” so guess which petrol station I stopped at?  Dead right, a Mobil station I am very easily psyched!

 Yours D S J

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