The racing bluesman

Guitarist Chris Rea fell in love with racing as a small boy. Now he is returning to the tracks to race one of his beloved Ferraris
By Rob Widdows

He could have been the ice cream king of Middlesbrough. He could have been a rock legend, an exalted megastar. Instead he chose to be a musician, to play the blues.

But what Chris Rea really wanted to do was go motor racing, to race a ‘sharknose’ Ferrari 156 wheel to wheel with Wolfgang von Trips, to realise his boyhood dream of sliding down into the cockpit of a red car from Maranello.

But Middlesbrough is a long way from Maranello. It would be two decades until, having earned his fortune with a series of hit records, he could get his hands on a Ferrari. And another decade before he would build his own replica of a ‘sharknose’, watch it being driven by Phil Hill, and fulfil the ambition of a lifetime.

This year Chris Rea is racing a Ferrari 328, contesting the Ferrari Challenge series in Europe. “Good racing and great value for money,” he says, “and you can buy a 328 for really very little cash.” He had planned to race his Lotus Elan 26R, the car having been lovingly restored by Sherwood Restorations, but became disillusioned with what he calls the “crazy over-development” of historic racing cars. The 26R is now up for sale.

“I had the car restored to its original specification, just as it ought to be,” says Rea, “but I would have been way off the pace. It makes me sad to see how many cars have been developed way beyond their original performance.”

He is, however, hanging on to his Lotus 6 in the hope of racing it at the Goodwood Revival this year. And he keeps his Caterham 7 just for blasting around when the mood takes him.

His passion for cars and racing began when he was a small boy in Middlesbrough, watching racing on TV with his father, a second-generation Italian who owned an ice cream café near the old football ground.

“I sat on his knee and watched the Monaco Grand Prix,” he smiles. “It was in black and white, of course, and the cameras were static. Moss was leading and behind him I could see Richie Ginther, or Phil Hill, in the ‘sharknose’ Ferraris. Just a glimpse but it was enough. Then I went on a family trip back to Italy and I saw my first real Ferrari. I just stood by it, and walked round and round it for hours. And from that day I wanted one.”

But he had to wait some time. Rea did not pick up a guitar until he was 22, and it was only after years on the road that he hit the big time.

“My Gran had a ‘Teasmade’, you know the old thing that combined a tea pot, boiling water and an alarm clock all in one,” he laughs, “and it was always coming on at strange times. One day it suddenly burst into life and I heard this guy Charlie Patton playing bottleneck blues – I thought it was a violin at first – it was such a sweet sound. So I bought a guitar from a pawn shop, learnt to play and used my sister’s nail varnish bottle as a slide. You couldn’t buy a proper bottleneck in Middlesbrough in 1972.”

Rea was a naturally gifted guitarist, a Clark rather than a Hill, and found himself propelled into the limelight. A little reluctantly, he became a pop superstar with a string of hits; then, like many before him, he felt he had to tackle America.

“I was making a good living,” he says, by which he means he was already cramming a young family into a 2+2 Ferrari, “but the Americans wanted to make me into somebody I wasn’t. I didn’t want to be a manufactured megastar, it didn’t interest me, and they simply didn’t understand that. In fact they got quite angry when I didn’t want to go along with the whole ‘hit factory’ thing they had planned.”

So he came home, suffering a trough in his remarkable rollercoaster of a career. He kept on writing songs, played his beloved blues and toured with his band in Europe. But he’d been fortunate to make a lot of money, had met a lot of people and fell in with the lads from Jordan Grand Prix. Not a bad place to be for an Irish-Italian motor racing fanatic.

“They were great times,” he grins. “I drove the Jordan 193 at Silverstone. Unbelievable – to be driving an F1 car, just incredible. Those brakes! First time, braking for Stowe, I could feel my breakfast coming back up. I spent a lot of time with Jordan in those days and I was even asked to be the left rear tyre cover man for the Monaco GP in 1995. That was a great experience, being so close to it all, and standing out the back watching the cars through the swimming pool section. But now I prefer good old club racing, or the Ferrari Challenge, because I want to be out there, racing. Going out onto the race track is like going into a guitar solo, same kind of feeling.”

Perhaps Chris’s happiest racing moment came at the Goodwood Festival of Speed when Phil Hill drove the ‘sharknose’ recreation Rea had commissioned for his 1995 film Passione, a musical tribute to his beloved Ferrari and a nostalgic flashback to his boyhood.

“I couldn’t afford to buy one so we made one,” Rea says. “I showed the photos of Willy Mairesse’s car upside down at Spa to an engineer from Shoreham who was racing Caterhams and he realised that it was very simply put together, a simple construction. That’s how they were in the early 1960s. He built me one for £30,000. Of course it was a great moment when Phil drove it, I was in tears. But then the car became a problem, everyone wanted to sell me an engine, or some old ‘genuine’ parts and I just didn’t need the hassle of it any more. Too stressful, too complicated, no more joy.”

And that is typical of the man. A genuine, passionate enthusiast with motor racing running through his veins. Historic racing needs people like this.