VII. WHITNEY STRAIGHT
THIS series so far has been devoted to drivers of mature years who have piled up a long experience at the wheel. Now it is the turn of the younger generation, and Mr. Straight’s successes of the past season fully justify our choice. His marked success on the Mountain Course with the Maserati, a car which even Birkin admitted needed all his skill to control it, gave rise to some intriguing rumours that Straight had already raced on American dirt tracks. This was not the case, as he left the United States when he was 14. He did admit that he had driven an old Chrysler round his father’s horse-training track on Long Island, and found himself in trouble on the corners. He is still an American citizen, but has lived most of his time since leaving America in L evonshire.
After witnessing motor races at home and abroad, Straight decided to take an active part in the sport, and bought a Brooklands Riley, which he tuned with the aid of the family chauffeur. With this car he secured in 1931 a third at Shelsley, and another at Southport, was fourth in a Mountain Race, and in the last meeting of the year secured another third in a Brooklands Short Handicap. A feature of this meeting was the splendid driving of Sir Henry Birkin on the 2.5 Maserati, with which he won the Mountain Championship, breaking his previous record with a lap speed of 75.21 m.p.h. Straight decided that this was the car for him, and purchased it at the end of the season.
Racing events in the winter are few and far between but with characteristic enthusiasm he determined to run his car in the Swedish Winter Grand Prix. Most years the course had been covered with snow, and spiked tyres were used, but this was not possible in 1932, as February was exceptionally mild, and some of the roads were free from snow. After a fairly good start, Straight was hard on the heels of Karl Ebb, who was driving a Mercedes. The big car took up
most of the road, but the Maserati drew level in a desperate effort to pass, then as luck would have it, the hub caps touched. Both cars shot off the road, and the Mercedes stayed there. ‘I he front axle of the Maserati was damaged, but driver and mechanic set to work and soon got going again, with the front wheels pointing inwards in the most ludicrous fashion. triving at speed on an icy course with damaged steering is at best a perilous pastime, and soon on a patch of frozen road the car left the course and ditched itself, leaving the driver and his companion a five mile walk back to the Start.
Wearing his unusual striped helmet, Straight appeared at the Brooklands Easter Meeting at the wheel of a 2 litre unblown Bugatti, and after a terrific battle with a 2.3 Bugatti driven by Faulkner, crossed the line to win by 1/5 second. At Whitsun he drove the Maserati in a Mountain Handicap, starting from scratch level with Lord Howe on his 2.3 Bugatti. Howe made the better get-away, but Straight drew level on the top corner, only to lose his advantage through going wide at the Fork. ‘I he American driver broke the lap record with a speed of 75.16 m.p.h., then Lord Howe equalled it. The duel ended with a victory for the Bugatti by 4 yards. High speed on the Maserati does not even look easy, and family opposition put an end to racing for that season. ‘1 he car was driven at Shelsley by Norman Black, but the lure of racing was too strong to be resisted and Straight bought back his mettlesome steed towards the end of the year. One cold Lecember day he took
the Maserati to the Track and after some furious laps succeeded in raising the ” mountain ” lap record to 78 m.p.h.
By increasing the blower pressure the horsepower from this four-year-old 21litre engine was raised to practically 200 h.p. and at the Easter Meeting this. year Straight in the course of a great struggle with Rose-Richards on a 2.3 Bugatti raised the Mountain lap record further, to 78.29 m.p.h. ‘1 he car also ran in the International Trophy, but the increased horsepower proved too much for the old back axle.
Gear-changing on the Maserati was an operation which needed a good deal of physical effort, and following in the footsteps of Sir Malcolm Campbell, Straight installed a huge Wilson self-changing gearbox, controlled by a vertical cranked lever, with a notched plate and a spring-loaded roller to indicate the different ratios. The car then took part in the Grand Prix de la Marne held over last year’s French G.P. circuit at Rheims. Trouble was experienced in getting the car to start, and this together with the slipping of top gear on the new gearbox cost Straight 17 minutes. However, in the Intervals when things were going well, he drove with tremendous zest, actually reaching 142 m.p.h. on the fast leg, and was lying 6th or 7th most of the time. The road surface at the corners was treacherous, and the black car made three excursions up the escape roads, and in the course of a chase with Sommer the car and driver found themselves in a cornfield with the car undamaged. Straight secured fourth place in the final placing,
but his legs were so burnt by the heat from the gearbox that he had to spend some weeks in a nursing home.
He was fit again by August, and drove Rubin’s Alfa in the Swedish Summer G.P. One third of the course is a narrow tarmac road and the rest of it merely a dirt surface, and to add to the difficulty it is 18 miles in length, and needs some knowing. He managed to avoid the terrific crash at the beginning and finished 3 minutes behind Brivio on a 2.6 Alfa.
The Coppa Acerb° came next, and he won the 1,100 c.c. class by 1/5 .second driving an M.G. Magnette. The Magnette had the legs of the Maserati driven by Barbierri, but being undergeared for the course could not reach its normal maximum.
Mont Ventoux, the scene for many years of the famous Hill-Climb rises to a height of over 6,000 feet near Avignon, and a rough road 131 miles in length leads to the observatory at the summit Straight found the twin rear wheels on the Maserati invaluable in getting good adhesion and it never went better than on the lower slopes of the hill. It was steady on the loose surface and there was no trouble with the five hairpins near the top. Each driver brought up with him a card showing his starting time and when Straight’s was compared with the official stop-watches, the time-keepers could hardly believe their eyes. He had knocked 40 seconds off Caracciola’s record on a Monoposto Alfa. Returning to normal levels again, the Maserati again” did its stuff” in the Albi race, which was held on a rough and narrow circuit near Toulouse. Falchetto
and Brainard, who were team-mates, both get away ahead of Straight and while the last named was building up a useful lead, Falchetto kept to the middle of the course despite the constant waving of blue Straight closed his eyes for a split second flags. With the race three-quarters fin ished he did finally pull over, and Straight really did get moving, to such effect that he broke the lap record. For six laps he was only 10 yards behind Brainard, but stones were flying like hail, and once and was off the road. He soon got going again
and finished 150 yards behind the winner. Returning to Italy for the Grand Prix, the car was not so happy, and after experimenting with 8 different fuels, it was necessary to use a smaller choke, which reduced its speed. In the Monza races which followed the Italian Grand Prix, Straight drove in the first heat, and was involved in the flood of oil from the crank
case of the Duesenburg, broadsiding for a hundred yards, while Moll turned completely round. He finished fourth in his heat and fourth in the final at a speed of 108.6 m.p.h. Though he is only 21 and still at Cambridge, his plans for 1934 are even more ambitious than those of the past season. He has formed a limited company to carry on the business of racing motoring, and four single seater three litre Maseratis have been ordered from Bologna. They will be driven in all the principal Grand
Prix races of 1934, and the drivers will be Straight himself, Brackenbury, Cyril Paul, and Hamilton. Such a team can only be a business proposition where starting money and good prizes can be had, so it is unlikely that it will make many appearances in England. Kensington Moir may possibly act as team manager, and Lyons will be the continental headquarters.
A comparison between the 2.5 and the 3 litre Maserati is interesting. 2.5 Litre. 3 Litre. Horsepower 195 at 5,500 220-250 at 5,500 Maximum speed
142 m.p.h. 155-160 m.p.h.
Weight 16f cwt. 12f cwt.
Other projects are to secure the Ferrari 4.5 Luesenburg, which does 155 m.p.h. unblown, and to borrow the 16 cylinder Maserati for an attempt on the World’s Hour Record. The Company will have as one of its objects the promotion of races, and the team of Maseratis may be used for dirt track displays in the winter to keep them from rusting, so the programme of Whitney Straight Ltd. will be rather full.
In spite of not having had the experience which lies behind the finished driving of most of the “as du volant,” Whitney Straight has developed a mastery of his 2.5 Maserati which is remarkable. In the off-season, beyond going to Switzerland for the Winter Sports, he takes no special pains to keep fit, and during the season he relies on constant driving to get back his knack. Air travel is his usual means of travel on the continent. Music and photography are his other principal interests, and the cover picture on this month’s issue is an enlargement from a Leica negative.
Few drivers in England have both the opportunities and the skill of this young man, and one hopes that his ambitious schemes will meet with the success they deserve.