Lunch with... Tom Wheatcoft

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The father of the modern Donington tells Simon Taylor how his love of the sport grew from humble beginnings to an all-embracing passion

Photography: James Mitchell

Larger than life: that well-worn phrase might have been coined especially for Tom Wheatcroft. His presence fills any room with energy and bonhomie. Tom likes to laugh, and finds much to laugh about. Actually, ‘laugh’ is too paltry a word to describe the process that begins deep inside the man as a rumbling, whirring noise, like some giant starter motor winding up a large capacity engine of mirth, and then erupts and engulfs everyone within earshot.

As well as the laughter there is the passion, an all-consuming love of motor racing machinery and motor racing people. It still burns as brightly as it did more than 70 years ago when Tom, a penniless 13-year-old, bicycled 30 miles from his home in Leicester to Donington Park, found a hole in the hedge, and crawled through to see, hear and smell racing cars for the first time. It is the stuff of legend that some four decades later Tom Wheatcroft bought the long-derelict track, surmounted apparently insuperable obstacles to bring it back from the dead, and made it the scene of the European Grand Prix.

As well as circuit owner and promoter, he has been a Formula 1 entrant, team sponsor, and benefactor of young drivers. And his passion has also benefited countless numbers of enthusiasts through his extraordinary Donington Collection, the finest and most complete historic display of racing cars in the world.

Childhood wasn’t easy for Tom. His father died when he was two, and at four he was badly injured playing in a timberyard when a pile of huge logs fell on him. There were worries about brain damage, and he was kept off school. “The doctor said I’d never be able to take any pressure,” Tom remembers. “He were wrong about that!” – and the laugh begins to rumble, rrrrrr rrrrrr.  So he filled his time searching rubbish dumps for discarded wood, which he chopped up and sold as kindling for a shilling a bag. He finally went to school for the first time when he was 12. 

“I did a lot of fighting. Fighting is a weakness. If a lad’s fighting, he’s missing something and it makes him want to fight. My weakness was I’d never been to school, and my mother couldn’t give me the chances I thought I should have. Four of them at school took the piss out of me, and I give them all a hiding. We were friends after that.”

But Tom only stayed at school for 18 months. He was still 13 when he “went on the buildings” as an apprentice plasterer. He had an insatiable appetite for hard work, and by the time he was 16 he could plaster an average 1000sq ft house in a day. Soon he was riding to Donington on his own 350cc Rudge. He never missed a meeting, and of course he saw the famous German onslaughts in 1937 and 1938. “You had to be there to know what it were like. The W125 Mercs and the V16 Auto Unions were doing 170mph by halfway down the straight. The noise and the smell and the speed – we’d none of us seen anything like it before. The nitro made your eyes water. And when they took off over the Melbourne hump, two foot off the ground, you just didn’t believe what you were seeing.”

Then came World War II. At 19, having barely ever left Leicestershire, Tom found himself posted to Burma, then India, Iran, Iraq, North Africa, Italy, Belgium and finally Germany, driving tanks. His hair-raising war stories underline the toughness of the man – and his ever-present willingness to challenge authority. After several narrow escapes he was back in Leicester in 1946 with a German wife, Lenchen, and the first of his seven children. With his £50 gratuity he set himself up as a jobbing builder, sowing the seeds of a giant business that, within less than a decade, would be riding the post-war boom and completing a house every day. 

Donington was no more, of course, but in 1950 Tom took a rare day off to go to the British Grand Prix at Silverstone. Since then he’s never missed an F1 race on British soil. In 1956 he made his first foreign foray, driving his smart red Daimler Conquest roadster down to Sicily to watch Fangio lead home a Lancia-Ferrari 1-2-3 in the Syracuse GP, and soon he was a regular European spectator. The F1 circus was smaller then, and Tom was befriended by Autosport editor Gregor Grant.  

“Gregor were ever so good to me. There’d be parties, and he’d say, ‘Tom, d’you fancy coming to a do tonight?’ Mimmo Dei, who ran Scuderia Centro-Sud, he had a party at the Italian GP one year, in a big house just outside the Monza gates; very grand. Of course I weren’t invited, but Gregor sweeps in and introduces me to the host, ‘This is Monsieur So-and-so’, makes me sound important, and they bow at us and in we go. Afterwards I said to Gregor: ‘How d’you get invited to such a wonderful do? Everybody were there, Fangio; everybody.’ And Gregor says, ‘Oh, I wasn’t invited.’ If I’d known I would never have dared go in. He took me around, I were like a spaniel dog beside him, and he got me the courage to chat to anybody. And I’d sometimes bring his reports back to the Autosport offices, to help out.

“I loved Gregor. He knew what were going on, but he were a terrible liar. He’d tell nine of the biggest lies you’d ever heard, and then the tenth one, the wildest of the lot, would turn out to be true. We’re eating in a fish restaurant in Monte Carlo, and he says, ‘Tom, I’ve found a car. It’s four doors away from where we’re sitting. It’s the remains of the Lancia that Ascari crashed into the water here in 1955.’ ‘Come on, Gregor, you’ve got your eyes crossed. I bet you a tenner you can’t show me that car.’ So he took me up the road, and we went into a lockup, and there it was. I went back later and couldn’t find the bastard thing. It came out of the water and they put it in that lockup, but then it must have got stolen… rrrrrr rrrrrr.

“Fangio were a lovely man. If you had a pound or a penny, he treated you the same. We got to be friends down the years, and he came to Donington a few times. I went to his 80th birthday party. He drove me from Buenos Aires to his home town in the country, and the whole place turned out to welcome him, kids, old men; everybody. He sent me his helmet for my collection. It were during the Falklands War, and the customs people intercepted it and wanted to destroy it. Fortunately I got that sorted. I’ve got Nuvolari’s helmet from when he won at Donington in 1938, and Ascari’s helmet, Hawthorn’s and a lot more.

“Rob Walker were a real gentleman, just like it said in his passport. I got to know his team ever so well. I used to go back to the paddock at night and fetch the mechanics some beer. His wife Betty always had a tin of her home-made chocolate brownies that she’d hand around in the pits. Once I were coming back from the Nürburgring in me 300SL Gullwing and there was his Facel II broken down by the side of the road. He were going to leave it there for someone to collect, but I said, ‘You can’t leave the booger here; I’ll tow you.’ Towed him about 80 miles on a short rope… Rrrrrr Rrrrrr.”

In 1963 Tom decided he wanted a painting of one of his favourite cars, the Ferrari 125. A top motorsport artist of the day quoted him £900. Then, flicking through the classifieds in the back of Motor Sport, he saw a real 125 for sale – for £1000. The 1949 Italian GP winner, it had been in Australia ever since Peter Whitehead took it there for the Tasman Series, and now it had a Chevy V8 engine in it. Tom bought it sight unseen. Later he tracked down the original engine (in an Australian powerboat!) and had the car rebuilt to original spec. By 1973 he had bought and restored 30 more grand prix cars.

“I’ve always been lucky. I can always come up with the right figure to do a deal. A deal’s got to be a two-way street: you’ve got to leave some cake for the other man, otherwise he’ll never deal with you again. I’ve dealt with Bernie Ecclestone for more than 20 years, and it’s always dead easy with him. I’ve sold him several cars, like I sold him a V16 BRM, and we always do a deal in two minutes. Always over the  ’phone, always unseen. First car he tried to buy was the Thinwall Special. I had both of them, one complete and one in bits. I told him I weren’t selling the complete one but he could have the one in bits. ‘What sort of bits?’ ‘Big bits, Bernie. Engine’s all complete, we’ve took the sump off and had a look. Chassis, fuel tanks, it’s all there.’ He says, ‘What’s your figure?’ ‘£350,000, Bernie.’ ‘Now, Tom, you’ve got your figures mixed up. All that money for a load of rust?’ ‘No, Bernie, I’m not charging you for the rust.’ Rrrrrr rrrrrr. The cheque were in the post next day.

“Bernie will always use you when he can. I were in the Silverstone paddock and he came up and said, ‘Talk to me here, Tom, where the BRDC blazers can see us, because I’m doing their new British GP contract.’ He wanted them to think he were bringing the race to Donington. Rrrrrr Rrrrrr. With me he’s always been 100 per cent. When he closed the Brabham factory down he rang up. ‘Tom, there’s a lorry load of stuff here, don’t know if it’s any good or not, but you can have the lot. I’ll send it up.’ We get on like a house afire.”

There are now over 150 cars in the Donington Collection, many of them unique. To see some of the marques lined up is heart-stopping – the BRMs, for example, running chronologically through 27 seasons of failure to triumph and then mediocrity, from Mk 1 and Mk 2 V16s to P201. Or the full glorious set of Vanwalls, from Thinwall Special to the final rear-engined car, and including the unraced streamliner. Some are unrealised dreams that were never raced, like the 1969 4WD Cosworth. Tom has a story about every one: how he found lost and hidden cars, how he married up engines that had been parted from chassis, who he dealt with and how each deal was done. In the 1960s and 1970s old racing cars were worth very little, but now the Collection’s value is simply incalculable. The ex-Nuvolari Maserati 8CM, for example, cost Tom £9500. As one of the most original 1930s grand prix cars in the world, it is now almost priceless. Post-war F1 cars were routinely bought for £2000 and restored for £4000 more. But, while Tom is the shrewdest of buyers, his acquisitions have all been driven by the love of each car and its history, and not by any thought of investment value.

Tom also believes in driving his cars. Most of them, restored and maintained by Hall & Hall, are fully raceworthy. Even the wondrous Bimotore Alfa is ready to go, on both engines. Every so often Tom invites a few close friends up to Donington for “a little play”. And Tom plays hard, and has had his share of hairy moments: the one-off Tec-Mec had just been fully restored when Tom somersaulted it, escaping serious injury but instigating another rebuild.

Although almost all his cars are single-seaters, Tom wanted a Bugatti Royale. None of the six that exist could be bought, so he spent 10 years and £2 million having a 100 per cent perfect copy built from scratch: engine, chassis, body, interior, every detail correct. While he was at it, he had five spare blocks cast up and four spare chassis made, to salt away for possible future use. Now he has commissioned Crosthwaite and Gardner to make a batch of five Mercedes-Benz W125s – and Bernie has already ordered the first car. “Some people may not like it, but this way everyone can see and hear and smell a W125 really being raced.”

From collector to entrant was an inevitable step. In 1970 Tom backed Derek Bell in the Tasman Series and then, briefly, in F1 with a Brabham BT26A, before helping him into Team Surtees. He also ran Derek in Formula 2 with a BT30, and the équipe finished second in the European Championship. Then at the 1971 Monaco GP, watching the F3 final from his balcony at the Hotel Metropole, Tom found himself following the charging progress up the field of a young driver from his home town of Leicester. Roger Williamson was doing his first season in F3 on a shoestring, and Tom noted the March 713’s smoky engine. So he stumped off to the distant F3 paddock, where he found Roger already embarking on a roadside engine rebuild. “He’d got the engine on the never-never from Holbay, and he couldn’t even afford the first payment. I introduced meself, and right from the start we just got on ever so well.” There was an immediate rapport between them, and perhaps Tom recognised something of himself in the quiet, unpretentious but totally determined 23-year-old.

Tom’s gift there and then of a fresh engine grew within a few weeks into full backing for a concentrated onslaught on British F3, in which Roger became virtually unbeatable. Over the next two seasons he won three championships, and the top Grovewood Award. His trademark attacking style, head down in the cockpit, showed at its best when the odds were stacked against him. F2 followed in 1973, with a typically Williamson display at Monza: Roger was pushed off at the first chicane by Vittorio Brambilla, restarted dead last, and came through to win by 17sec. Already there was interest from the Formula 1 world and, following an impressive BRM test, Tom was summoned to lunch at The Dorchester with Louis Stanley. Not surprisingly the pompous Stanley and the no-nonsense Wheatcroft didn’t speak the same language. “He tried to buy Roger. I told him Roger weren’t for sale. Things got heated, and I got up and left the table. As I went I said, ‘You’ve spoiled my day, Louis.’ He called after me, ‘You can call me Mr Stanley.’ ‘I’ll try to remember that, Louis.’ Rrrrrr Rrrrrr.”

Tom had much more respect for Ken Tyrrell, who also wanted to sign Roger. With Jackie Stewart’s retirement looming, Ken needed a young team-mate for François Cevert. Meanwhile Tom hired an F1 March for Roger’s first grand prix, at Silverstone. This was the year of the Scheckter-induced pile-up at the end of Lap 1, so his debut was brief. Two weeks later came the Dutch GP. 

“The day before we left for Zandvoort, Roger came over and said he had something to ask me. ‘Is there any chance of me staying with you, instead of going with Tyrrell?’ ‘Now, Roger,’ I said, ‘You’ve got to make your name. Ken has forgotten more about F1 than I’ll ever know. I’m not good enough for you.’ ‘But we said that about F3, and we said that about F2, but we did it. I want to stay with you.’ So we rang up McLaren there and then, and we ordered two F1 cars, so we’d have a spare. Teddy Mayer agreed we’d get all the works know-how – if they learned anything, we’d get it. So there I was, all set to run an F1 McLaren for Roger, do it properly. I know he had it in him to go right to the very top.”

The ghastly events of that Zandvoort race are all too familiar. Roger qualified 18th out of 24 starters, but he was already up to 13th on lap 8 when, in a fast fifth-gear right-hander, his left front tyre de-laminated. The Armco barrier that he hit was anchored in sand and bent back on impact, launching the car, which finally came to rest upside down several hundred yards down the track. Roger was almost certainly completely unhurt, but trapped inside. The car’s nearly full tanks ignited, and the marshals nearby, improperly clothed to deal with fire, did not go to his aid. David Purley, who’d been chasing Roger, stopped and rushed into the fire, but despite frantic efforts he couldn’t lift the car off him single-handed. Neither of the two fire extinguishers he grabbed from the trackside worked. The race wasn’t stopped, and by the time a fire truck got to the scene several minutes later the car was burnt out, and Roger was dead.

“It were the worst day of my life. He didn’t have a break on his body, you know. He were conscious in the car, shouting to Purley to get him out. The police came and arrested me – as the owner of the car, under Dutch law I were implicated in his death – and I had to verify him and everything. I spent the night in a cell, and it were 10 o’clock next morning when the British consul got me out. Then we had to fly him home. I just felt so sad. I loved Roger like a son. People said I should sue, but I wasn’t interested. It wouldn’t bring Roger back. But I were very ill after that: it knocked a lot out of me. I started to get over it, and then a year later, when farmers were burning stubble after the harvest, I saw the smoke rising across the fields like I did from the pits that day, [and] it all came back. I were ashamed; had to have some words with myself. You have to learn to live with it but I still think of Roger every day.” 

It wasn’t quite the end of Tom’s days as an entrant. He commissioned Mike Pilbeam to design a Formula Atlantic chassis and then an F2 version – initially with a straight-six Abarth engine – which was raced by Brian Henton and Bob Evans. But by now Donington was consuming more and more of Tom’s time. In 1971 he’d heard that the site of the old circuit, which was an Army transport depot during the war and had been lying fallow ever since, might be for sale. Within days he had bought it. That was only the start of a six-year pitched battle, with endless planning problems and trenchant local opposition conspiring to block his dream of running motor racing there once more. But Tom has quite extraordinary tenacity. “I’m an awkward bastard. I’m determined in everything I do. I’d known Donington as a lad, and I wanted the place to live again. The more I were blocked, and fobbed off, and lied to – and the more days we spent in court with my legal bills mounting by the minute – the more determined I became.” 

On May 28th 1977 the first race meeting took place, 38 years after the last one. Even that was nearly stopped by protesters claiming right of way over an ancient footpath that crossed the track. Meanwhile the new Museum building had been built near the main entrance, and before long international events came back to Donington – the British Motorcycle GP, and rounds of the World Sportscar Championship. But of course Tom wanted an F1 race, and finally he got it: the European Grand Prix in April 1993. That wet weekend, when Ayrton Senna scored perhaps his greatest victory, has gone down in history.

“I shouldn’t have been there. I were very ill  in hospital because I’d just had a heart attack, then I’d had an operation, the whole do, but on the Saturday I told the specialist I had to go because I had a Grand Prix on. I got to the track and I saw Bernie. I could see from the way he looked at me he thought he’d better get his money quick before I snuffed it. Rrrrrr Rrrrrr

“Then on the Sunday someone said I should drive the W154 Mercedes in the demonstration laps before the race. After all the struggles to get the race to happen, I wanted to do it. The specialist were very unhappy: he said I were mad, but he told me whatever I did not to let any cold air get to my chest, to wrap a silk scarf around my mouth. Off we went, and it were raining heavy. I couldn’t see much, and I’d never driven the W154 before, but down through Craner Curves we went, and I thought, ‘this is grand’. Then all of a sudden I can’t breathe. I pull the scarf off my mouth, and when the cold air goes in it’s like a hundred little bayonets inside me lungs jabbing to come out. Then I realised I was off line, and I thought, you booger, you’re going to stuff it. I tried to brake, and then we were in the gravel. They hooked me out with a tractor and I carried on for my four laps, got it back to the paddock, and I were just finished. I were gone. They lifted me out of the car, took me to the medical centre, took my overalls off, put oxygen in me. I tried to fight it, then I passed out. I didn’t think I’d make it to the podium to present the prizes, but I did get there, and once I was up there with Senna, wearing me top hat, I felt strong as a bulldozer –18 years old again. Then I went home to bed.

“Of course, because of the dreadful weather and the cold, we only got 50,000 spectators. Between you and me, I lost £4.2 million that weekend. But it were bloody wonderful. At the FIA prize-giving in Paris that year we got the trophy for the best-organised race. Really tickled me up, that did. Max (Mosley) come out of the curtains one side of the stage, Bernie come out of the other, trophy were so big it were all he could carry. When I went up for it, everybody stood and cheered. Afterwards Bernie come up and he said, ‘Tom, you can run the grand prix next year. I can get rid of Silverstone.’ I said, ‘No thanks, Bernie. It’s proved two things to me: the circuit’s no good for a grand prix without I put the structure in and spend the money, and you can’t run two grands prix in one country. Even with good weather I’ll still lose £2 million, maybe two and a half.” 

Donington’s new lease has been much in the news and, says Tom, has been misunderstood by some. “We haven’t sold Donington. Us Wheatcrofts still own it. After 14 months of negotiation, we’ve granted a 150-year lease on the whole place. That covers the museum as well, and the new people have to operate the museum and pay the labour, and there are very strict conditions in the lease about cleanliness and upkeep. The cars mean so much to us as a family, we’ll never let them go. And the cars in the museum that are on loan to us: some of them have been with us for over 30 years, and we have a great relationship of trust with their owners. They’re all still under our control. I’m president of the new company, and my son Kevin is very much involved. They can’t even take one car out of the museum to photograph it without his say-so.” 

A crucial provision in the lease caters for Tom’s wish to take any of his cars out of the museum from time to time and exercise them on the track. For the rest of us, that wondrous collection, and the track where once Auto Unions and W125s roared, are there to enjoy. They are the true legacy of this great enthusiast’s life-long passion, which all began when a young lad found a hole in the Donington hedge and squeezed through it, 72 years ago.