Feature - On collecting autographs

A lot of us got carried away by motor racing while we were still at school. As well as collecting cuttings and photographs of racing events, long before we ever saw a motor race, we also longed to stand near enough to one of our racing driver heroes to actually ask him for his autograph. I know I took a long time to pluck up courage to ask my first hero for his autograph, and only then after I had carefully prepared a school exercise book with drivers pictures, cut from magazines, stuck in alongside a list of their racing successes.

I felt I now had something tangible and worthwhile for them to sign. Naturally all racing drivers were heroes to me, so my book was very full of pictures, but not all the pages were autographed. It was a question of opportunity, starting at small club events such as speed trials, and working my way forwards to actual race meetings. My spectating days were limited to the smaller National events, which naturally limited my autograph collecting, but there was one great day at the Crystal Palace track when two famous Grand Prix drivers paid a visit, one to race a Maserati and the other to give a demonstration of a Grand Prix car. By patience and diligence I acquired both autographs, and my day was made when the British Grand Prix “ace” looked at my book and said “That’s a very nice book” and gave me a superb signature right across the page. The other “ace”, an Italian, merely scribbled his surname under his photograph, barely looking to see what he was signing. But no matter, it was my first Italian racing driver autograph. Another famous British driver, who signed my book on a practice day at Brooklands, gave me a fine signature in full, first name and surname, and then looked through the book and said “You have done a lot of work putting this book together”. I can hardly convey what those words meant to me. I suppose encouragement is the best word, but more than that it justified all the work and patience, for my hero was in effect telling me that what I was doing was correct. It meant that I was on the right lines. Hopefully I am still on the right lines, though over the years there have been many people who have told me “. . you don’t understand . .” or “. . you are way off beam . . .” Oddly enough, I am still totally involved in Grand Prix racing and enjoying it as much as ever, while they. . I wonder what they are doing now?

It was not always possible to have my autograph book with me, and my saddest day was when I saw the World Champion, though he wasn’t called that in those days, in a car showroom, making a publicity/courtesy visit. Sadly I could only ask him to sign my small note-pad, but he did that with a smile and a twinkle in his eye. When I got home I carefully cut out the page and almost reverently pasted it into my album alongside his photo and his impressive list of Grand Prix victories. In those days, before I could afford to buy motoring magazines, I used to cycle to the local library and sit in the reading room and copy out the race results of the European races. I failed an awful lot of examinations in those days because, as my school report once said, I spent more time drawing and dreaming about racing cars than concentrating on Mathematics. Looking back at some of those school books, and later technical college folders, I was surprised just how many contained sketches of Grand Prix cars, either in the middle of lecture notes or on the front cover. A sure sign that my mind was not on “Heat engines” or “Workshop Practices and Processes”, and they were my favourite subjects. Some subjects, like Chemistry or Electrical Engineering, did not contain drawings, they didn’t contain much in the way of lecture notes either! I was probably in the Library copying out the results of the Italian Grand Prix at Monza.

Looking at my autograph album I began to wonder why I stopped collecting autographs, for I clearly did stop, and fairly abruptly. While collecting I was a spectator looking over the fence, waiting for the opportunity to get into the paddock after the racing was over. Or occasionally going to practice, when you were allowed in the paddock. Although I enjoyed all this, I desperately wanted to get on the “inside”, not to collect autographs, but to become involved in racing. My actual participation began on a very small scale at a club speed trial when one of the competitors with an MG allowed me to help push-start it in the paddock, and then let me accompany him up to the start-line. A great moment for me, especially as I did not have a pass of any sort. This enthusiasm for getting involved progressed until I got myself a part-time lob as a mechanic, complete with official mechanic’s ticket. I never looked back, and never went back to being a spectator and I realise now that that was when I stopped collecting autographs. I was part of the “Inside” scene. albeit a minuscule part, but nevertheless I was officially on the inside. I can see that part of the fascination of autograph collecting was the challenge of getting into the paddock, or finding the drivers who all lived in a distant and remote world to that in which I lived. Once on the inside I was living in their world so there was no challenge any more and there were many more fascinating things to see and do. They were still heroes, those racing drivers, and they still are.

Today in my job as race-reporter I am able to stand among the World Champions, or have a cup of tea with Derek Warwick, and they are all part of life, but they are all still my heroes though I don’t need their autographs any more. The challenge for me now is to find out why they did this or why they did that or what they would do if…

When I see young enthusiasts nervously waiting for Alain Prost to leave the Marlboro motor home in order to ask him for his autograph, I wonder where they will finish up. Some of the German and Austrian enthusiasts have superb photo albums full of colour portraits of drivers that they have taken themselves, and It is nice to see Niki Lauda or Nelson Piquet taking trouble in autographing their own photographs. I hope they realise just how much it must mean to the owner of the book. Not all autograph collectors are like this unfortunately, too many of them merely offer grubby bits of paper, and I wonder what happens to those bits of paper. I don’t think many of them get pasted into albums, Some do for sure, but you can’t tell which ones.

The whole business of autograph collecting has expanded and developed over the years, and now it is all too easy to write to a racing driver and ask for his autograph, some people even write and demand such is the “democratic” world in which we live but there can’t be much satisfaction in getting an autograph by post. Many drivers have their own Fan Clubs, who will supply autographs, and many teams have full-time Public Relations men who will supply their drivers autographs, and this distancing of the driver from the public is something that has expanded with the growth of public following of Grand Prix racing. The cautious, polite, schoolboy has had to give way to a milling throng that has got so out of hand that World Champions have to be protected by wire mesh and whisked away by helicopter. The chance of the lad with his autograph album meeting the World Champion alone is now very remote, which is sad for the dyed-in-the-wool racing enthusiast, but on the other hand, if he cannot get to the races he can sit at home and watch it all happening in glorious technicolour and can actually listen to his heroes talking to Murray Walker. Though that is not always a good thing!

I often have a chat with enthusiastic MOTOR SPORT readers at race meetings who have their small sons with them, and I will say “I hope he appreciates what a super dad he has bringing him to the British Grand Prix at that age.” Some dads will say sadly, “I’m afraid he doesn’t enjoy it, too many people and too much noise.” Others will say “Oh yes, and he’s a devoted Rosberg fan.” As I look at the beautiful model of a Williams that the small boy is holding, dad will add “I’m going to have to buy him a new model car for 1986, aren’t I? Enthusiasts all.— D.S.J