Drum & race

There’s a rich trail of musicians in racing, but this may be the only one to have used a band’s huge fame to lever himself into Formula 1 | Writer ROB WIDDOWS

Karl Edward Tommy Borgudd was born and brought up on the island of Oland in the Baltic Sea – a long way from Monte Carlo and even further from the jazz clubs of New Orleans. Yet these two places not only combine his talents for music and motor racing but also set the scene for an extraordinary adventure.

Let’s start with the music as this is where he became known as ‘Slim’ Borgudd, the man who went on to play with BB King, drum his way into the pop charts with Abba and then make it on to the Grand Prix grid with ATS and Tyrrell. Leaving school at 14 he sailed away from Sweden for a life at sea, stashing his drum kit in his cabin. One night, in New Orleans, Tommy and his shipmates went to see Memphis Slim and Willie Dixon play the blues. But the legendary bluesmen were short of a drummer, asking if anyone could help them out. 

“This lad’s a drummer, my mates called out, so I found myself up on the stage behind the drum kit. Incredible – I was 15, and I’m playing with my heroes. So from that day on they called me Little Slim, and that became Slim.”

These days Slim is a fit 68, smart in a crisp white shirt with ‘Slim Racing’ logo, a twinkle in the eye and busy with his race preparation business. When did the rhythm of racing engines start to compete with the beat of the drum kit?

“I saw Stirling Moss at Karlskoga in 1959, the first time I saw any motor racing, and I was hooked, but it was the drums that got me started. When I came to England in ’68, on tour with my band Made in Sweden, I met Chris Barber in a club in Soho. He had a Lotus 22 and I bought it for £900, then went to Snetterton to the Jim Russell School, because I’d never driven on a circuit. There was a race for the top pupils, limited to 6000rpm; I was the only one who wasn’t penalised for over-revving, and I won it. That’s how it all kicked off. Then I won 19 of 20 races in a Swedish sports car championship.”

From here on Slim, in a whirlwind of late nights on stage and early mornings at circuits, got himself into a Formula Ford, winning three races. Now both drummer and roadie for Solar Plexus, he fitted races between gigs, borrowing cars until by 1976 he’d moved up to F3. His Viking F3 car featured on the cover of his solo album Funky Formula but it was his heroics in the 1979 European F3 series in an old Ralt RT1 that put him in the spotlight.

“Roger Heavens helped me into a car for ’79. I was mechanic as well as driver, money was tight and I only managed to do a few races, but I was competitive and came third behind Alain Prost and Michael Bleekemolen, ahead of Michele Alboreto who was later to be my team-mate at Tyrrell. It was a fantastic year and I also won the Swedish F3 title.”

Meanwhile Slim kept on drumming, and then had an idea that was to prove a turning point in his short but meteoric racing adventure. It’s worth remembering that he was 34 years old by the time the big break came.

“Yeah, I was quite old by then,” he says, with a laugh, “but the session drumming, my connection with Abba, did help me on my way to F1. In 1980 I asked their manager if the band would sponsor an F1 car, but he told me to get stuffed, so I called Benny Andersson from Abba and he got the band to agree to lend me their logo for a year.

“No money changed hands but having Abba on the car helped persuade [ATS boss] Günther Schmid that it would bring his team good publicity. I mean, Abba was huge, Sweden’s biggest export.

“So I drove in 1981 for nothing, good news for Schmid, and found some personal sponsors. I looked like a Christmas tree in my overalls. It went well; when Abba turned up for the German Grand Prix they put an extra 85,000 people on the gate. There was pre-qualifying then, and 35 cars, and it was tough even to get on the grid, but I was 13th in my first race at Imola. After that I didn’t qualify, the team was in a mess, most of the mechanics left, managers came and went. Schmid was a very difficult person. At Dijon Michelin withdrew its tyres,
so we didn’t have a car to run.

“Then I heard that Alastair Caldwell had walked away from Brabham. He was in my hotel, so I knocked on his door and asked if he’d like to work for us. He was a bit grumpy, said, ‘Oh yeah, you’re the guy in that yellow car. I’ll come and see you tomorrow.’ Well, he turned up, walked over to Schmid and said, ‘Okay, I’ll take the job.’ Günther went mad, because I hadn’t told him what I’d done. Anyway, Alastair made a huge difference to the team.”

In the two weeks between Dijon and the British GP at Silverstone Caldwell transformed ‘that yellow car’, he and Slim working 12-hour days in the workshop in a bid to move it further up the grid.

“Alastair had a good understanding of how aero worked, and he also managed to take 32 kilos off the car. In first qualifying I wasn’t making any progress; I had no experience of efficient aero. So I came in and Alastair said, ‘Remember this: downforce increases with speed. The faster you go, the more grip you have.’ So I went back out, took a whole chunk of time out of my laps and qualified 21st, which was amazing as I’d hardly had any time in the car the whole season. 

“In the race, coming down to Stowe on the first lap, the throttle jammed open – a mechanic had left a spanner in the footwell. Being a drummer I was pretty good with my feet so I kept it out of the way using my left foot, but it stayed there the whole race, and now of course I couldn’t use the clutch except for a pitstop.

“At the end my left leg was completely numb from holding the spanner away from the throttle pedal. Alastair fired the mechanic right after the race, which was a bit tough, but I was just happy that I’d driven a really good race – sixth place, the first championship points for the team, the only Formula 1 point Avon ever scored; a good day. I knew I could do it in a car set up for the way I drive. I had beaten a lot of the F1 guys when I was doing Formula 3, so I had some confidence.”

That was as good as it was going to get. Things went from bad to worse at ATS; the money ran out and Slim went in search of more sponsorship. By the time he got to Las Vegas for the final race at Caesar’s Palace he’d found a Swedish company who wanted to get on board. This news was not well received by Schmid.

“When I told him I’d found a new sponsor he just flipped. ‘I don’t need no sponsor,’ he yelled. ‘I can pay for my own racing!’ So I took the sponsor to Ken Tyrrell. That last race for ATS I had to use the spare car because the new aerodynamics were now too much for the chassis and the bulkhead was cracking, but I was up to ninth when the engine blew. And that was that. I was off to Tyrrell for ’82.”

Slim’s maiden outing in the Tyrrell 011 was not a happy one. Testing at Paul Ricard, he had the biggest shunt of his career.

“I never thought about getting hurt. If you were worried about that you shouldn’t be there in the first place,” he says. “But this was a big one. As I turned into Signes, the long flat-out right hander, the car just went, no warning. I took down 160 metres of catch-fencing, somersaulted end over end seven times, so I just pulled my arms in, held on until it landed.

“I probably sat there for 30 seconds, didn’t know if I was right way up or not. Then I opened my eyes, felt my fingers, my legs, my toes… They seemed okay so I undid the belts and stood up, looked around me… There was just the tub, no engine, no gearbox, no sidepods, no wings, no wheels, nothing, just wreckage everywhere. The scary thing was I waited for 10 minutes before anyone showed up. Not good, and of course that was where poor Elio [de Angelis] died later [in 1986]. He could have been saved, I think. After I’d been checked over Ken came and told me the suspension had broken so I was relieved it was not my fault.”

The first race of a new championship season was at Kyalami, Slim being teamed with Michele Alboreto in the Tyrrell-Fords. As ever, the tribulations of an F1 career continued with a drivers’ strike in protest at new superlicence conditions imposed by FISA.

“This I remember very vividly,” says Slim, grimacing at the memory, “because really I had no choice but to join it. On the Friday night Ken came to see me and asked me if I was going to strike and he said ‘If you do, I’m going to kick your arse so hard you’re never going to land.’

“Well, this was tough for me. Anyway, I joined it. We were all locked into a hotel and it was interesting to see how all the guys reacted under pressure. Team owners were shouting at us down the chimneys and through the air vents, threatening all sorts of things. One of the drivers escaped through a toilet window. Nerves were running high, and some of us, like me and Derek Daly, had invested everything we had, and more, and now we risked losing our jobs.

“Niki Lauda and Didier Pironi became our spokesmen, and they negotiated us out of the mess in the end. The only nice part was Elio de Angelis playing the piano. I did a concert with him later, in Germany, just piano and drums. He was one of my best mates, a super nice guy. I knew him from F3; he was a great competitor, very honest, always ready to congratulate you if you beat him. Anyway, when I got back to the paddock Ken was standing there, looking pretty fierce. I said to Michele ‘This doesn’t look good’ but Ken looked me in the eye and said ‘Slim, I gotta tell you this – you sure got balls. Now get in the car.” In qualifying the suspension broke again, and this made me angry. The bolts had come out of the chassis so I picked them up and took them back to the pits, told Ken it wasn’t good enough. I didn’t have a good race.”

At Long Beach Slim’s season itself fell apart. The new sponsor went bust, the funds dried up, there was no way to continue. But ‘Little Slim’ the drummer had made it to F1, against all the odds, and to this day he has but one regret, one memory that leaves a bitter taste.

“I always thought my record spoke for itself – the success in Formula Ford, the F3 title, the job I did at ATS, but when I scored that point at Silverstone I will always remember what an English newspaper had to say. They wrote ‘What has become of Formula 1 when a roadie for Abba can finish sixth in a Grand Prix?’ That hurt. I’d never been a roadie… But I believed in myself, I always have, and after that I borrowed an F3 car and went to Macau where I had the best race of my life. I stripped first gear at the start, fell to 36th and drove back to sixth at the finish, passing Emanuele Pirro on the last lap. He still ribs me about that.”

Having left F1 behind, Slim won the European truck title in both 1986 and ’87, was Nordic touring car champion in 1994 and returned to trucks to win the World Cup in ’95.

“In the beginning it was all a bit smoky, but they cleaned it up and in the ’90s those super trucks were very quick, very sophisticated, and Steve Parrish and I had some great battles. It was good to be driving, and the technical development was interesting, working with Mercedes-Benz and West Coast Diesel on some very powerful engines. The problem is, if you’ve been an F1 driver everyone expects you to finish first, and if you don’t they say you’re a w****r, so you can’t win either way.”

These days Mr Borgudd runs Slim Racing, a race preparation and engineering business in Daventry, tutors drivers new to the sport and still has his drum kit. I suggest that a reunion with Memphis Slim at a concert in Sweden in 1980 must have been his biggest high, bigger even than Grands Prix. “Give me racing any time,” he says. “Racing is always the passion.”