An interview with Peter Cooper
Chairman of the RAC British Motor Sports Council
Stability is a word which features strongly in conversations with Peter Cooper about the government of motorsport in the UK. As Chairman of the RAC British Motor Sports Council it was Cooper who stepped into the breach in April last year following the death of Basil Tye from a heart attack whilst sailing his new boat in Poole harbour.
Initially, Cooper took over the reins of the RACMSA as a temporary measure, but following gentle persuasion from the board he now finds himself in the role of Chief Executive, spending at least three days a week at 31 Belgrave Square, headquarters for the governing body of motorsports in this country.
“Following Basil’s death, I stepped in to give a little stability,” explains 60-year-old Cooper. “I don’t mean it unkindly, but at times like that people tend to run in all directions. I reminded them that for 14 days they would get the sympathy of everyone, but after that they would get the criticism if they weren’t doing their job.”
His increased involvement with the day-to-day administration of the RACMSA meant that Cooper had less and less time to run his successful Ford main dealership in his home town of New Milton in Hampshire. The appointment of a joint Managing Director, however, gave Cooper the freedom he needed to be effective in his new role.
“After motorsport having been my hobby for 30 years, it is very nice to receive some recompense for it. One never dreams that one will”, he says.
By his own admission, Cooper came into motorsport a little late. His first love was rugby, and he was instrumental in forming New Milton rugby football club in 1946. He played regularly until 1952, giving up after being concussed during one match. He then turned his attention to cricket, a game he still plays today. He is an honorary life member of Hampshire County Cricket Club, a fact of which he is “very proud”.
His introduction to motorsport came soon after the second World War when George Hartwell asked him to co-drive on the Daily Express International rally in a Sunbeam Talbot.
“I was hooked. I immediately got a car, joined my mother club, West Hants and Dorset (he is still President), and started rallying.”
Cooper’s successes included second overall on the 1954 RAC Rally in a Triumph TR2, and two years later he finished sixth with a Standard 10, beating the works cars and driving the only under 1,000 cc model in the top 25 finishers. Cooper dabbled in racing, but not to any significant degree, his practical experience of this area of the sport limited to half a dozen events. As a club competitor his interests lay in trials, autotests and, of course, rallies.
His first involvement with the RAC came in 1957 when he joined the then Competitions Committee, the close links having continued unbroken ever since. He has been Chairman of the Karting Committee for 15 years, was Chairman of the Rallies Committee from 1979 for three years, and has sat on both the Autotests and Trials Committee as well as the Technical Committee.
Cooper therefore has a broad spectrum of motorsporting interests (apart from his RAC involvement he was Chairman of the British Trials and Rally Drivers Club from 1972), and he has somehow managed to avoid being labelled as a person who favours a particular area of motorsport.
Since taking charge of the RACMSA he has been made acutely aware of the need to adopt a different approach, or at least having to look at problems from a new angle:
“It is completely different to when you are a committee chairman. Now I find that I may jump to a decision a little too readily. At the same time one must use one’s business acumen to make the original decision. I now have committee members writing to me complaining about decisions I’ve made, telling me they should have been made in committee. If any business executive referred all the decisions to his staff it would be just ridiculous!”
There has been a reduction in the number of committee meetings — “I think we have too many” — Cooper feeling that much more use can come from working groups. There has undoubtedly been a tendency for the governing body to become top heavy with committees, but there is a fine balance between being autocratic and democratic, the latter philosophy having been the policy of the RACMSA and its predecessor, the RAC Motor Sports Division.
Discussing autocracy in motorsport, the conversation naturally turns to FISA, and relations with Jean-Marie Balestre, the controversial President, who was challenged by Tye for re-election. It was a brave move, and Tye was obviously disappointed to lose, but Cooper thinks good came out of the attempt to wrest power from the autocratic Balestre.
By having taken such a stand Cooper feels it showed other sporting bodies that the RACMSA was strong, and wasn’t overawed or afraid to take on Balestre. Since then, says Cooper, relationships with FISA and Jean-Marie have improved, the proof being that Britain is again represented on the FISA Rallies Commission, an RACMSA staff member is Chairman of the Off Roads Committee, and that Cooper himself was co-opted onto the FIA Executive Committee.
“These are points which I think give some stability to motorsport in this country. These international hassles don’t do anyone any good. I always tell my staff that in business it is all very well saying that you are always right, but sometimes you have to compromise. One must bury the hatchet, but that is not to say we are just sitting back and letting them do what they like. We have on many occasions complained about various points,” he says.
With his gentle nature, and quiet mannerisms, one can be easily swayed into the belief that Peter Cooper is a “soft touch”, but under that benign exterior lies the ability to make swift, decisive decisions without fear or favour. His activities as Chairman of RACMSA Tribunals bears this out, Cooper gaining a reputation for being one of the fairest members of the judicial team. It was a role he enjoyed, feeling if nothing else that his efforts to improve procedures, particularly at events, have benefited the sport.
“I think that for many years people took matters too haphazardly by having a chat behind a car instead of making it formal. If, at a circuit, you are in a position to fine someone £100 and take their licence away for 30 days then the whole matter should be carried out in a formal manner.”
This year the RACMSA has largely been able to hold down licence fees to the same levels as 1982, and currently the Association is discussing with the Forestry Commission ways of reducing the 30 per cent. increase in charges inflicted on forestry special stage rally organisers and competitors for 1983.
These, and other grass roots matters, are of prime importance to Cooper, as he gives the firm impression that the lower end of the sport has tended to be ignored in the past.
Since his own motor club days he has been aware of a “them and us” attitude towards the governing body, feeling it has become something of a game for the clubs to criticise the RAC at every opportunity. Above all he wants to avoid such clashes, commenting that the only way this can be achieved is by showing to them that the RACMSA is trying to do things the “right way”.
“I don’t say we will ever resolve all the problems — you never can in business, we all make mistakes — but I do think the introduction of a more business-like approach will help”, he adds.
By impressing on everyone — his own staff Included — that the RACMSA is there to assist clubs, circuit owners and licence holders, he feels there will be a better understanding.
“I think our main job is not to make too many hard and fast dictatorial decisions. We should listen to people. Having come into this job overnight, and not having appreciated all the ins and outs of past battles, I have asked a lot more questions than some people may have done in the past. I think people see this, and in turn feel they must put a proper and logical point of view because here is someone who has not got the old resolutions and hardy annuals that are put under the counter. I’d like them to think that here is a person who is prepared to bring them out and discuss them.”
A new calm does seem to have settled over Belgrave Square since Cooper’s arrival. There is a feeling of starting afresh, something which Cooper wishes to nurture, particularly in view of his intention (along with new Chairman Michael Southcombe) to spend time dealing with the grass roots of the sport, trying to make the man who spends £8 feel as important as the one who spends £100. It’s a laudable objective, but one which will be hard to achieve, human nature being what it is.
Peter Cooper is nevertheless completely undaunted by this challenge, and the overall one of ensuring that the RACMSA maintains its position as one of the most respected motor sporting governing bodies in the world.