Lunch with Mike Wilds

From photographic apprentice to Formula 1… and he’s still winning races at the dawn of his eighth decade. Racing drivers are rarely this diverse

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Lyndon McNeil

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History records eight Formula 1 world championship entries, three starts and no classified finishes – but that’s an irrelevant detail from one of the most intriguing motor sport careers of the modern age. Mike Wilds started his first race in 1965 and more than half a century later is still a regular winner.

He has few complaints about the hand he’s been dealt. “If I were a boxer,” he says, “I guess I’d be regarded as a journeyman. My only real regret is that I never had the opportunity to drive a competitive F1 car in period, to find out whether I might have forged a decent GP career. I’m not saying I could have been world champion, because I don’t think I could, but I would have appreciated one chance to see how well I might have gone in a McLaren M23 or a Brabham BT44. If nothing else, I’d just like to know the answer!”

To fill in the blanks either side of his brief stint in the F1 shadows, Mike invites us to The Royal Oak, Swallowcliffe, a charming inn accessed via narrow lanes lined by lush Wiltshire hedgerows. After a single pint of Sharp’s Doom Bar, savoured slowly, he orders pan-roasted lamb chump with basil and goat’s cheese risotto, rinsed down with a carafe of water and, subsequently, coffee.

Wilds’s passion for competition was inspired by older brother Johnny, who raced an AJS 350 7R in motorcycle clubbies at Brands Hatch. “Our parents didn’t know,” he says. “The bike was kept at a friend’s garage in New Cross and we’d leave home on a Sunday, say ‘See you later’ and head to Brands. I was too young to do anything useful, so just watched. I’ve owned a motorbike since I was 16, but never fancied racing one – for me it was always cars.

“I grew up in west London and often used to cycle along Chiswick High Road to Graham Warner’s Chequered Flag garage, where there were Lotus XIs and many other lovely things. I went so often that they eventually offered me a Saturday job, washing cars.

“At the back of the premises, Chas Beattie built Gemini Formula Juniors and one day invited me to a race meeting at Brands Hatch. I went with him in the transporter with these two Geminis in the back and it led to one of those ‘eureka!’ moments – I got out of the truck and there was this atmosphere, the noise, the smell. It was like somebody throwing a switch in my brain: ‘This is what I want to do with the rest of my life.’ From that day I spent every waking moment wondering how I could start racing.

1973-F3-Mike-Wilds

Wilds leads an F3 race at Mallory Park following his switch to a March 733, 1973

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“My father was a photographer and when I left school he helped me get an apprenticeship with an agency just off Fleet Street. I started in the darkroom, then began going on jobs to learn the trade – to this day I love taking photos, but it wasn’t really what I wanted to do with my life so I left and went through various jobs before going to Firestone in Brentford. I knew they had a racing division, which had no vacancies, but they offered me a role in the export department and promised to give me a chance on the racing side when a job became available. They kept their word and I had a fantastic time, working with JW Automotive as a tyre engineer at Le Mans and so on, but what I really wanted was to meet people who might be able to help me launch a driving career.”

In 1964 Wilds had taken others’ counsel and joined the 750 Motor Club, which he’d been told was the cheapest way to get started. “Once a month I’d go along to a pub in Battersea and listen to people talking about the technical side of the sport. It was here that I met a guy called Lou Bergonzi, who had a DRW Mk1 that he raced in the 750MC’s 1172 Formula. Towards the end of 1964 he told me he was going to sell it. I had no proper money – I still rode a bicycle and didn’t own a road car – but when he said it was £280, complete with trailer, I told him I’d have it. I had no idea how I was going to pay, but I’d been working bar shifts in the evenings to save towards a car, which gave me enough for a deposit, and my mum agreed to act as guarantor on a loan to cover the rest.

“We lived in a flat and for a while the car sat under a tarpaulin, more or less untouched. Dad and I would go out occasionally to start the engine and fiddle about – he never raced, but loved tinkering – and it wasn’t until early in 1965 that I’d saved enough to do a sprint. My mum had an old Morris Minor cabriolet, so
I fitted a tow hook to that, went to Brands Hatch, did the sprint and spun twice.

“By May I’d put together enough to enter an 1172 Formula race at Snetterton – the old circuit, which was fantastic. I had no idea what to do, but the other competitors were really helpful, telling me where to sign on and explaining about scrutineering and so on. I think the grid was drawn by ballot, because the timekeepers had arrived late, and I ended up somewhere near the front. A man by the side of the track lifted a Union Jack, so I applied a few revs – I’d never done a race start – and as the flag came down I dropped the clutch, shot between the first two rows and led towards the first corner. I wondered if I’d done something wrong and started looking around, then braked early and was eaten alive by all these 1172 cars. It was the most sensational moment of my life to that point.

1974-British-GP-Mike-Wilds-3

Attempt to qualify a rented March 731 for the 1974 British GP

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“I had a fabulous dice with a guy called Cyril Lyford and finished third. I drove home on cloud nine, with a tiny trophy about the size of an egg cup – I still have it somewhere. I was 100 per cent hooked, but didn’t have enough money to do the next race. I saved up do a few more later in the year, finished second at Silverstone next time out and won my third race, which was also at Silverstone. I did about seven events in all and was given a trophy as the best newcomer.”

Charming naïveté had morphed into great encouragement, but all impetus seemed lost following a serious accident at Brands Hatch early the following year. “A guy in a Rejo spun in front of me at Paddock,” Wilds says, “then clipped me as I went past and sent me wide. At the time the rules stated that circuits had to have a six-foot earth barrier to protect spectators, but instead of building the bank up at the top they’d dug a ditch at the bottom so that it complied. The car dug in, rolled – and of course we didn’t have belts. I half fell out, fractured my pelvis and also broke my nose when I was thrown forward, though that helpfully switched off the ignition and fuel pump. There was a bit of an oil fire, but I was oblivious. I didn’t wake up for a week and was in traction for a long time at Dartford Hospital.

“Given our lack of funds that looked like being it, but fortunately a guy named Tiny Littler – a Libre racer who was a member of the 750MC – talked to my father. Tiny had a bodyshop in London and repaired the chassis free of charge. My hospital bed was in such a position that if I looked through a particular window I could see one parking bay, so every couple of weeks my father would load the car on a trailer and bring it from Chiswick so I could watch him working on it.

“I did race the DKW a few times after that, but remained in debt so eventually had to sell it. In 2015, to celebrate my 50 years of motor racing, I commissioned artist Andrew Kitson to do an oil painting featuring various cars I’ve raced and the DKW is in the top left corner. It got me started and meant a lot to me. I’d love to own it again, if it’s still around.”

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F5000 snapshot: The Dempster March 74A being chased by Ian Ashley’s Lola at Brands Hatch 1974

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For a couple of years Wilds focused on his day job with Firestone, though the desire to compete burned no less fiercely. “I was always asking people whether they’d let me have a go in their car,” he says, “though they usually said ‘no’.” In 1969, though, he managed to secure the loan of a Vixen-Imp to compete in Formula 4. The car was supplied by Bob Jarvis and Pat Longhurst, both well-known club racers. “Unfortunately I managed to fall out with them at Ingliston,” Wilds says. “Bob was leading as we headed into the final corner on the last lap of a wet race. I wasn’t really a dirty driver, but there was prize money on offer and I was keen to win because I needed it desperately. So I tapped Bob out of the way with one of his own cars, which secured me the win but probably wasn’t the wisest move because I instantly lost my drive. That possibility simply hadn’t occurred to me…

“Fortunately, John Cavill – another F4 racer – had become a good friend and lent me his Vixen to do some more races. One was at Lydden and I came up against Bob again. There was so much acrimony that we kept banging wheels and, at the last corner, hit each other so hard that we crossed the line as one, with my car above his. I got reprimanded and Bob was awarded victory, though I felt I’d won as my car was on top. We did later make up…”

That Firestone contacts book was also starting to bear fruit. “Through work I’d met [future Williams F1 director] Sheridan Thynne, who had been running his cousin in a Formula Ford Titan. He’d obviously seen me race and asked whether I fancied a crack at FF1600 in 1971. He said I could use the Titan on the proviso that I gave it back to him in the same condition at the end of the year. I didn’t really have a budget to run the car, so spoke to Firestone’s marketing department. All our promotional jackets were made by a firm called Skyjump, so somebody from marketing called them and said, ‘Look, if you want all these orders we’d like you to help Mike.’ They gave me £500, a huge amount in those days.”

There would be no victories, but there were some strong performances – including a close fight with Jody Scheckter in the Race of Champions support event at Brands Hatch, where the pair proved evenly matched until the Titan’s fuel pump packed up.

It was in the later part of that season that happenstance steered Mike towards professionalism. “Firstly,” he says, “John Cavill’s father Jack wanted to put him in F3, but John said, ‘Look Dad, I’m not going to make it as a racing driver and have known it since I asked Mike where he braked down and changed for Gerards during an F4 race at Mallory. He was taking it flat in top and I knew I couldn’t do that.’ He kindly persuaded his father to put me in an F3 car instead.

“Secondly – and this came about as a result of my constantly badgering people for drives – a chap named Jeremy Sumner had a Chevron B6 that I really wanted to try. He finally relented and let me do a Libre race at Brands. He told me I wouldn’t have a chance because I’d be up against a field full of single-seaters, and also that I have to mend it if I bent it. But it was raining by the time my race started… and I won. Jeremy came up to me afterwards and said, ‘I think we’re going to have to help you.’

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On the F1 grid at last, in an Ensign at Watkins Glen, 1974

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“He introduced me to a chap named Colin Phillips, who with his partner Sid Pearce ran a firm called Dempster Developments. Colin asked what I wanted to do and I told him I’d love to do F3, that I wanted to be a professional driver and so on. I’d worked out some figures that looked like telephone numbers to me – I needed £35,000 for a season. They agreed, but told me I had to put 100 per cent into it – and that meant giving up a very good job at Firestone. My wife Chrissie was very supportive and Dempster offered me a retainer of £45 per week, enough to live on back then. Handing in my notice at Firestone was a big deal for me at the time, but I wanted to be a racing driver…”

Wilds happened to be at Silverstone when Motor Sport was shooting Kevin Kivlochan’s ex-Digby Martland B6 for a recent feature (June 2017). “I was astonished when I learned it was the very same chassis in which I’d won at Brands,” he says. “I felt quite moved, because that car quite literally changed my career.”

He spent two seasons in F3, initially in an ex-James Hunt March 713S that was swapped for an Ensign LNF3 and, early in 1973, a March 733. Run by Colin Bennett, in October ’73 he scored his first international victory against a strong F3 field at Mallory Park, one of two wins as he finished third, sixth and ninth in the UK’s three F3 championships of the time.

“I had a reasonable year in a very competitive season,” he says. “It was a fantastic time to be racing and I loved it to bits. I had the greatest respect for Tony Brise and we were very good friends – had he lived, I’m sure Tony would have become a world champion. My son Anthony is named after him. Ian Taylor was also a fierce competitor, another who is sadly missed – we used to go to his house for Sunday lunch and he made the world’s finest sherry trifle. Out of the car he was one of my best mates, but in it… He didn’t give an inch and neither did I, but we never put each other off. There was a level of respect that you don’t always see in modern racing.”

Logically the next career step was F2, a move to which Dempster agreed… until it saw the European Championship calendar and spotted that there were no UK races scheduled in 1974. “As a UK company it wasn’t for them,” Wilds says, “so I suggested F5000 and they agreed. I thought a Lola T332 would be perfect, but Max Mosley offered us a deal on a March 741 and said we could put a Chevy V8 in the back. It was OK, but perhaps not quite the way to go. It felt like a beast to me after a 120bhp F3 car, but in the first race of the year at Brands Hatch I followed Brian Redman for about 30 laps and learned so much just from watching how he handled the power.

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Duel with Amon led to offer of a works BRM seat in 1975, but not for long…

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“I’d lost out at the start, when I just sat there spinning my wheels, but when we got to Silverstone for round three I started to lose my clutch on the formation lap and couldn’t find any gears. Eventually I just put the lever somewhere, which happened to be second. I dropped the clutch at about 7500rpm and shot off, then discovered that I’d just accidentally stumbled across the correct technique.”

During the middle of the season Wilds received a call from Max Mosley, asking whether he’d be interested in replacing works March driver Hans Stuck in the Swedish Grand Prix, the German having broken his thumb in Monaco. The following day, though, Wilds was on F5000 duty at Thruxton. “I was running in the top three when I came up to lap Tony Dean’s Chevron on the approach to the chicane. For some reason he drifted across and caught my rear wheel, which spun me around into the barriers and snapped my wrist, so Reine Wisell got to drive for March in Sweden.”

There was an abortive attempt to qualify a March 731 for the British GP, after which Ensign boss Mo Nunn approached Dempster about putting Wilds in a car for the final four Grands Prix of the season, to replace the departed Vern Schuppan. “The car had a complex fuel system,” he says, “and unfortunately the pressure dropped whenever you loaded up the car in a left-hander. I failed to qualify in Austria, Italy and Canada and it was the worst time of my career – thinking I was never going to get onto the grid. It was so frustrating that I considered giving up. During practice at Watkins Glen, I remember looking down the straight, seeing a nice grandstand and thinking, ‘That would be a good spot to watch the race.’ That was my mindset: I was starting to think I wouldn’t qualify.”

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Wilds spent four seasons as part of the Ecurie Ecosse WEC team. This is from Silverstone 1982

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Nunn had agreed to revert to a conventional fuel tank after Canada, though, and the team saved its one fresh set of tyres for a final run. “I went out and drove my bollocks off,” Wilds says. “Jody Scheckter had followed me out of the pits and every time I looked in my mirrors he was still there. It was my best lap by far and got me into the race. In the paddock later, Ken Tyrrell came up and told me Jody wanted a word. I assumed he was cross because I hadn’t let him through – perfectly true, but I had one shot with those tyres and it was my only chance to make the cut. When I found Jody I jabbed my finger into his chest and shouted, ‘I hear you wanted to see me.’ He stepped back, somewhat bemused, and replied, ‘Yes, I just wanted to tell you how well you were making that Ensign go.’ I had completely the wrong
end of the stick.

“Ronnie Peterson was my hero and it was surreal sitting on the grid the following day, with Ronnie only about three places ahead of me in his Lotus 72. I was thinking, ‘How the hell did this happen?’ I remember reading the local paper at the hotel on Sunday morning, seeing the line-up and all these famous names. It seemed very odd – and almost wrong – that my name was also on there.”

Fuel pressure problems early in the race dictated a lengthy stop, after which he was sent back out to enjoy himself and gain a bit of experience. That led to a spirited tussle with Chris Amon’s BRM – and a close call with the emerging champion. “Towards the end I was starting to get a bit tired and recall changing down to turn in to a corner when I suddenly became aware of another car – it was Emerson Fittipaldi, en route to clinching the title. I was within an ace of taking him out, though I don’t think he had any idea until I mentioned it to him when our paths crossed at Spa recently.

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Wilds was a Thundersports regular in the 1980s, here in Jim Wallis’s Chevron B19

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“It was a day of really mixed emotions. I felt elated to have made the finish, even if I was a few laps behind, but then I was told that Helmuth Koinigg had been killed. He was a good friend and we’d travelled out to the race together. The Armco wasn’t set in concrete where he went off, the posts were in the earth and the rails separated upon impact, taking his head off. It was just dreadful.”

That brief tussle with Amon had an unforeseen consequence. “A portly gentleman came up to me afterwards, introduced himself as BRM boss Louis Stanley and asked who I was, because he’d never heard of me. ‘You were dicing with my man,’ he said, ‘so what are you doing next year?’ He invited me to go and see him at his suite in the Dorchester Hotel. When
I was back in the UK, I went to visit Mike Hailwood – still recuperating from a shunt at the Nürburgring – and he warned me against having anything to do with BRM, but I had nothing else and was keen to stay in F1.

“I felt that if they invested some effort and I gave my best, we could perhaps get something out of it. So I went to Snetterton to do a test, with Chris Amon in the current P201 and me in an older P160, which was lovely. Late on, Chris had to depart and I jumped in the P201. I didn’t over-rev it, but after a couple of laps the engine went bang – two rods through the block. I was mortified, but Louis told me not to worry, that they had plenty of spare engines, and I thought, ‘Wow, this really is F1.’

“I signed up for £60 per week and received my itinerary for the opening race of 1975 in Argentina, which all seemed very professional. When I got to the track and looked at the car, however, I could see the block had been welded and thought, ‘That’s the same engine I blew up at Snetterton.’ The team denied it, but it was – and it wasn’t very good.

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Final appearance as a factory driver, with Nissan at Le Mans in 1988

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“In the race the scavenge side of the V12 packed up, so oil was going into the engine but none was coming out. Pressures and temperatures seemed fine, but then there was a huge explosion with lots of fire – obviously oil was being pumped in until the engine burst.

“Things were similar in Brazil. The chassis felt good, but in terms of top speed it was horrendous. My race ended when a nut came off the clutch, flew around inside the bellhousing and killed the ignition. I guess I was frustrated, but when I saw Louis Stanley afterwards I wasn’t as diplomatic as I should have been and told him how awful the engine was. I told him I’d like to sort out a DFV, stick it in the back of a P201 and see if we could get higher up the field. He was apoplectic that I’d dare even think he’d put an American engine in the back of a British Racing Motor.
I pointed out that DFVs were built in Northampton, but he said it was all done with American money through Ford and fired me on the spot. My F1 career was over – sad, but I’d achieved my ambition of driving in Grands Prix.”

In the short term Wilds took a job as sales director of a friend’s helicopter company and picked up drives where he could. In 1976 he raced a Shadow DN3 in British Group 8, but failed in his attempt to qualify for his home GP. “I was a wild-card entry, other teams didn’t really want us there and we weren’t allowed qualifying tyres.” He won the F2 class in the 1978 version of Gp8’s successor – the British F1 series – and accepted whatever else he could find he could. “I did all sorts of jobs to cover the mortgage,” he says, “but in racing terms I seemed unable to get my foot properly back in the door.”

He appeared regularly in Sports 2000, made a winning one-off Formula Talbot appearance at Oulton Park (replacing the indisposed Mark Thatcher), guested in assorted other club races and scored a number of Thundersports victories through the 1980s. From 1984-87 he was also part of the Ecurie Ecosse team that competed in the C2 class of the World Endurance Championship and won the title in ’86.

“They were four of the most fun seasons I’ve had,” he says. “I instantly fell in love with that kind of racing – and compared with some of the stuff I’d been doing it felt quite relaxed. I certainly didn’t have to stick my neck out in the same way as I had in the BRM. It was very competitive, but in the paddock you were among friends – and that to me is how motor racing should be. Silverstone 1985 was the first race Ray Mallock and I won – I know it was a class success, but to stand up there on the podium after a world championship victory on home soil felt very special.”

Wilds’s final appearance as a factory driver came at Le Mans in 1988, sharing a Nissan R88C with Allan Grice and Win Percy. “Nissan asked me to pay a visit to Howard Marsden, who was then running Nismo Europe in Milton Keynes. I had a rusty Rover 800 at the time, which I didn’t think would leave a great impression, and spoke to Win to find out how much I should charge. He told me he’d be getting five grand, so I decided to set a level with negotiations. Instead of going in the Rover, I did a deal with a friend to borrow a helicopter, told Howard I had a very hectic schedule and asked if he could meet me at Cranfield, as I could stop there on my way to another ‘appointment’. I landed in this thing, which was basically the 2CV of helicopters, walked in and decided to ask for 10 grand in the hope that I might get five. I told them my normal rate for 24 hours was £10,000 and they didn’t bat an eyelid. I wish I’d asked for 20.

“That was my seventh Le Mans, I’d never previously finished and I was desperate to see the flag. Gearbox problems dropped us to about 33rd, but we fought back to 14th and
I was due to drive for the final stint. About halfway through I got a call to pit – I had no idea why, but they wanted one of the Japanese drivers to take the car over the line. I’d really wanted to do that, so it felt like a kick in the balls to be asked to hand over. I wasn’t very diplomatic about that, either, but they paid me, gave me a lovely inscribed watch and told me they wouldn’t be using my services again.”

Since then he has, in his own words, been “dipping and playing”, earning his keep as a driver coach and occasional helicopter tutor. He has continued racing an endless stream of cars, contemporary and historic, although at one point he thought he might have to stop.

“My worst accident occurred at the 1994 Goodwood Festival of Speed,” he says, “in Nick Mason’s Ferrari 312 T3. I still don’t understand what happened. Approaching the house it felt as though something had broken and the car just turned left – it hit some stone blocks lining the road, enough to break both legs and ankles. I was out of action for a while, but won my comeback race in a Chevron B8 at Donington Park. I cried my eyes out afterwards, because in hospital they’d been telling me I might not been able to walk properly again, never mind race.”

In more recent times he has enjoyed significant success with second son Anthony, sharing three Britcar championship titles. At Snetterton last year, the pair scored their first outright victory together in a Ferrari 458. “That was one of the last boxes ticked for me,” Wilds says. “Car owner Dave Summers is a very good driver and could just as easily be at the wheel, but he loves doing the strategy stuff from the pit wall. I’d just taken the overall lead when I got a call telling me we were marginal on fuel and that a quick splash-and-dash might be wise. Dave reckoned that would put us third on the road, which was still a class-winning position, but to me that wasn’t an option. I cut the revs and drove the nuts off the thing in the corners. I kept looking at the clock and wondering when the ‘last lap’ board would appear. A Renault RS01 prototype had stopped for a splash of fuel. I could see it gaining – and then the Ferrari ran dry as I accelerated out of the final corner towards the line. I got across with about three seconds to spare. I know it was only a national race, but we were both quite emotional after that.

 

“I feel exactly the same about driving as I did in 1965. The passion is still there and won’t go away. It has been my life.”