The flying doctor on tour

Privateer racer Dr Tony Goodwin didn’t let RAF Service stand the way of his racing exploits, as his new book recalls

Back in the late 1960s and early '70s, I found that race reporting was great — if immensely unprofitable — fun. It was wonderful to see real heroes in some of racing history's supreme cars doing battle round the Nürburgring, before it was — as Graham Hill succinctly put it — buggered up, Spa, Monza and of course the Piccolo Madonie.

Those great races included a colourful supporting cast of privateers, often racing on an absolute shoestring and leading a gipsy existence mapped-out by the racing calendar.

One of them was Dr Tony Goodwin, whose son Chris is so well-known today for his racing and test-driving exploits with McLaren F1, SLR and the present MP4-12C cars. Veteran journalist John Blunsden's MRP company is now publishing Goodwin Sr's autobiography, Doctor on the Grid, telling the story behind a lifelong motor racing obsession, involving over 460 races in 21 countries across four continents, and through six decades...

Tony's 'problem' had been seeded by his doctor father projecting on the surgery wall his pre-war home movies of the German cars in the Donington Grand Prix. As a medical student in 1955 Tony 'invested' his savings of £160 upon a Lotus 6 lookalike special, swallowing the vendor's description that it was 90 per cent complete, for which he should have read more like 45 per cent. It was finally completed as his 'Broadway 90' in which he made his competition debut at a Long Marston sprint in July 1956 — by which time the car had cost him £361 (plus £5 17s 6d for a suitably heroic Herbert Johnson crash helmet).

Tony progressed through the 1172 Formula into single-seaters, and of his big chance to test Bob Gibson-Jarvie's Vanwall-shaped Formula 2 Laystall at Silverstone in December 1960 writes: "I remember crawling on my hands and knees in the mud on the outside of Copse, having been thrown out. The car was the right way up but clearly a write-off. I had been saved by the skimpy rollover bar inside the high tail section. Gibson-Jarvie said he had insured it on purpose just for the day... Anyway, he forgot to invite me to join his Formula 1 team of Lotus 18 Specials the following year, [instead choosing] Cliff Allison, Henry Taylor and Stirling Moss..."

He achieved real success with the 1172 Pegasus before graduating to a front-engined Formula Junior Lola, the only problem being that for 1964 FJ was being replaced by 1-litre Formula 3 and by common consent frontrunning cars had their engines in the other end.

By that time Tony had qualified as a doctor, and then joined the RAF, recalling "essential sword drill in a bleak hangar in Norfolk". A posting to Singapore saw him take the Lola, to be transported around primitive Malaysian race circuits in an RAF coach. With multiple cooling scoops opened in its bodywork, he faced the likes of Rodney Seow, Alan Bond, Steve Holland, Lee Han Seng and Singapore police inspector Albert Poon in the 1965 Malaysian GP, on the Old Thomson Road circuit. Against their Merlyn Mk7 and Lotus 23s, he found "my feet getting unbearably hot, my RAF plimsolls giving no protection from the proximity of the mighty 1650 engine. This encouraged me to hurry up and get it over with..." and he finished third. With his feet badly blistered he pondered the wisdom of racing a five-and-ahalf year old front-engined Formula car for two and a half hours in Malaysian midday sun, but had won a handsome trophy and a cheque for £140...

He went on to offset some of his racing expenditure by reporting Asian events for Motoring News, The Motor and some local Malay newspapers. He replaced the old Lola with a Lotus 20B, and at Macau tucked a half-frame camera into his overalls pocket and stopped out on the circuit during practice to photograph his opponents — thus not only driving in the race concerned but also supplying his magazines with both words and pictures.

By the end of 1966 Goodwin was back in Britain, and acquired an F3 Brabham for the following European season. He would race only once in England "as there was no money on offer", before he and mechanic friend John Wickham "packed our spare shirts and a hundred packs of Vesta curry... and made a dash for the midnight ferry".

For £100 start money he arrived in Barcelona, "swept up in the atmosphere of a real Continental motor race", rustled up an extra £60 local "patronage" and finished 11th — to show £70 profit.

Soon after, en route to Denmark, the other end of the cue: "Just past De Panne we stopped by the roadside for a pee and a drunken Frenchman drove his Simca flat out into the back of the trailer. [It] was destroyed and the Brabham punted through the rear doors of the van... I could not believe it. The wretched Frenchman felt no pain..."

A friendly Ostend hotelier was prepared "to wait for better times for his money and kept us alive", while `Wickers' borrowed a welding set from a local campsite to build a new trailer, a bigger job than repairing the Brabham. A frantic trip to race for good start money in Keimola, Finland, plus selling some bits and pieces restored finances... And so they moved on, racing at Chimay, Roskilde, the Djurslandring, Opatija in Yugoslavia, Reims, Zandvoort, then Vila Real in Portugal.

There, Tony was running sixth when one of his steering wheel spokes snapped, and the Brabham ended up bouncing along the top of a straw bale barrier. "I held on tight and shut my eyes. When I opened them again I thought I was blind until I pushed my goggles back in place and realised I was back on the track..." As the car's oil pumped away, he switched off and coasted for the finish line, only to stop short on the final climb. "Officials and spectators rushed out of the shops on one side to help me push the car, and from the other side to stop me. I took a breather while blows were exchanged, then summoned enough energy to push it myself across the line while the police were distracted... I was physically finished. The fire brigade hosed me down and I remember no more..."

In fact, Tony Goodwin's lovely autobiography recalls enough of his staggeringly full motor racing life to be not only entertaining but also record some crucial history. It's not flawless, but it is a real gem.

Doug Nye