Man behind the Legends
A day with Duncan Wiltshire, organiser of the prestigious Le Mans support event
On the morning of the most famous race in the world, there’s a highly prestigious historic event called Le Mans Legends. But it’s not run by the ACO; it’s run by two guys in an old fire station in Warwickshire.
Motor Racing Legends is the outfit, now well known for historic racing series and events, and since it has just moved to Bicester Heritage, once an RAF base and destined to become a motor village like Brooklands once was, I went to see the new place and talk to MRL main man Duncan Wiltshire.
Bentley people will recall Duncan’s father Ray, the handlebar-moustached BDC president for many years. “My earliest memories,” says Duncan, “are of sitting in the back of Bentleys going to events – and then not seeing him because he was organising. Everything revolved round Bentleys, and I’m very grateful for that. Most of my social life revolves round the car world and in the last 12 years my livelihood has, too.”
MRL springs from Ray’s long association with Le Mans. With the 50th running of the classic race coming up for 1982, he asked what the ACO had planned. Answer: nothing – have you any ideas? The outcome was the Classic Cavalcade, meant as a one-off but so popular it thrived until 2009.
“But its sheer success became a nightmare,” says Duncan. “It grew to 1000 cars – just too much.” Especially as in 2001 Ray had taken over the support event on race morning – which became the Legends race. “That was the turning point for the operation,” says Duncan, “and for me: I gave up my job as a civil engineer [he ran the English end of the second Severn Bridge build] to join the firm.” It was a shock when his father died within the year and Duncan found himself in sole charge of a fledgling business.
That Legends race remains the cornerstone of MRL’s activities, but Duncan soon realised he had to diversify, so in 2004 he started a pre-war sports car series. This led to today’s RAC Woodcote and Stirling Moss trophies and the Historic Touring Car challenge. “One motive, selfishly, was to have better pre-war racing myself,” smiles Duncan. “I’ve been racing Bentleys for 25 years. But as we began offering longer racing and going further afield it became so successful that I don’t have time to put a helmet on!”
One major change in those 12 years has been circuit hire costs. “We take slots at meetings,” Duncan explains, “but circuit charges have gone through the roof, so race fees have to follow. It wouldn’t be viable without our sponsors such as EFG Bank and JD Classics.” He adds that the recession actually proved a benefit to the top end of racing. “There’s never been a better time to have your money in cars – an investment you can enjoy while it’s rising. And there are more and more events.”
He feels that the expansion can’t continue, though. “It will be hard for events that find themselves off the ‘must do’ list. The one thing the rich don’t have any more of is time.”
He made plenty of mistakes, he admits, “but I’m very happy with where we are now. We have well-honed products, a loyal customer base and great sponsors. We’re all about providing fun racing – but gentlemanly. Many of these cars are phenomenally valuable; their owners are happy to race but they want them to go home in the same form they came in. We take a stern view on driving standards; there’s no excuse for bodily contact.” Duncan’s position is firm: he will ‘uninvite’ transgressors, adding “I don’t mind embarrassing them in public if they’re that bad.”
Then there’s the tuning debate, the relentless search for more speed. Duncan accepts it’s inherent in the sport, and fuelled by the expanding popularity and rising profile of historic racing. “Getting on the podium at a big meeting is more attractive than ever,” he admits. “If the cars progress evenly the status quo remains, but we do for instance demand restrictor plates on Chevy engines. It sends a message that there’s a limit.”
Running to the FIA’s Appendix K rulebook provides a firm framework, and Duncan is glad to rely on John Hopwood – “perhaps Europe’s foremost scrutineer”, says Duncan – to inspect entries. “He knows when to be tough and when to be generous, but it’s rare to refuse an entry. We’ll just put them in an invitation class. The subtle approach.”
A bigger challenge than hot-rods is hot-shoes – expert guest drivers, part of the show at Goodwood, but now appearing at historic events near you. “A mixed blessing,” says Duncan. “They bring kudos, but they need the right attitude so as not to intimidate the amateurs. This is about the cars, not the drivers. Someone like Steve Soper is great to have on a grid. He had a reputation in saloons, but in historics he’s rapid yet respects the machinery.”
Of course, boundless enthusiasm of Duncan’s sort isn’t all you need, so a few years back he brought in management consultant Richard Grafton to strengthen the commercial aspect. He’s now a fixed asset of the business. Or one of the businesses: as the firm’s abilities grew they realised they had the skills to run whole events. So was born Historic Promotions. You may not recognise the title, but you know the product.
Its portfolio includes Donington Historic Festival, the International Historic Racing Awards, and AMOC’s racing programme and this year it launched the Bournemouth Wheels Festival, which drew half a million people. Yet the operation remains tiny: “MRL is mainly me,” says Duncan, “while Promotions is Richard and me.”
The new office once housed RAF Bicester’s fire team, hence its title – the Fire Party House, not a Brixton club but a solid brick building among the hangars and workshops steadily coming back to life around the old airfield. (As they’re not quite installed yet we meet in the restored Court Martial room – a sobering venue especially with the chilling old cells outside.) Despite the scale of its activities, MRL has up to now run from Duncan’s home so this is a gearshift for this small-scale but high-profile operation. Is expansion on the cards? “If we added more series I couldn’t give them the same personal attention, but I could see us tackling more outside events.”
It’s hard to see where he’d find the hours, but no doubt this genial and seemingly unflappable chap will manage, along with some Bentley time. He recently did well on the 1000 Mile Trial, along with a French tour – the perfect break from work: “Bentleying through France on your way to a bloody good lunch – that’s what life’s about.”
Try a ride on the banking
Now you have the chance to drive a Brooklands legend around the famous concrete speedbowl – even though it’s incomplete
The other day I went for a ride around the Brooklands Banking at 140mph in the Napier-Railton – virtually. It’s a new £1m attraction at the Museum, a 3D simulator that lets the whole family experience the surge of the famous speedbowl. Housed under a dramatic dome in the newly restored Balloon Hangar, it uses powerful hydraulic rams to tilt and plunge your seat in front of a big-screen view of a race from on board John Cobb’s thundering Outer Circuit record holder.
It’s not simulated imagery, either; it is real footage from the car, but filmed on the Montlhéry banking using the actual car together with the LSR Delage and the Pacey-Hassan to enact a ‘race’ – all appropriate as the Napier-Railton raced against both and the Paris autodrome is one of the few tracks the huge machine visited in period. Paddock scenes were filmed around the race bays and workshops at Brooklands, with suitably dressed re-enactors. Driver for the filming was museum director Alan Wynn, who tells me his respect for Cobb has only increased as even at lowish speeds around the French track he was bounced out of his seat and he hardly dared turn the wheel.
Viewed through 3D glasses styled as racing goggles, the result gives a fair impression of blasting up the banking, fun for family visits though vintage people may blink as Armco and Michelin signs flash past… There’s plenty of shaking and shuddering to recreate the famously rough Brooklands concrete, and the 3D effect is pronounced, though it’s a bit of a shock at the beginning when presenter Tiff Needell suddenly appears in your lap.
How we’d blow the budget this month
Owned for 40 years by a USAF pilot who saw his first SL while buzzing an autobahn in the Fifties. Few machines have such aerial presence – and that was with doors closed!
Jaguar man Ian Callum has bought one, a recommendation for this very usable classic. With its purple paint and alloys it’ll whisk you back to the Seventies – dig out those flares!
Aston Martin 15/98 tourer
Rare to see a tourer than hasn’t been made into a race rep. With overdrive gearbox and room for four aboard, this one has given many reliable miles to its keen owner.