No, I am not talking about our fatuous speed limit on motorways, but of 70 years. When I was growing up my family were of Victorian extraction and beliefs and to me a man’s life span was “three score years and ten,” at least that was what I was told was in the Good Book that contained the rules of life. As I grew up I became forcibly aware that the Good Book only applied to certain people, and it was more a case of “If you are lucky” the span of life was “three score years and ten.” Before I was 10 years old I learnt a hard lesson, for my school chum Alfie and I used to run and climb on the back of slow-moving lorries in the South London streets where I lived, and cadge a ride. One day Alfie, who was much braver than I, clambered onto the tow-bar between a lorry and four-wheeled trailer, while I “chickened out” and climbed on the tail-board of the trailer. While sitting on the tow-bar Alfie lost his balance and slipped and the trailer ran over his head. Alfie was not lucky.
By the time another decade had passed I was involved in motor racing and soon realized that there was a price to pay if you wanted to enjoy the excitement of racing, and if your luck ran out you wouldn’t see “three scores and ten,” but it did not affect my enthusiasm for racing. The war years followed and inevitably a lot of people’s luck ran out, and I found I developed a simple philosophy that said, “If your number comes up on the wheel of life, you’ve had it, there is nothing you can do about it.” The natural corollary to that is to make the most of life while you can. Someone once said, “Life is not a rehearsal,” which is so true.
When I reached the half-way point to my allotted span I was well into racing, having raced motorcycles for five years as a profession, and then got into the most exciting of all motor races, the Mille Miglia. High speed in cars and on motorcycles was my normal way of life and I decided that if I reached my allotted span, thanks to my luck not running out, from then on I would be on “borrowed time” — not that it was going to make any difference. When I mentioned this to a friend recently, he said, “Good grief! I’ve known you for over forty years and you’ve always been living on borrowed time.”
I’m not sure that I know what he meant. A friend in America wrote to wish me a happy 70th and said, “I’ve been thinking about that and to me it’s the correct year to have been born (1920); able to have read about the Grand Prix Delages while a schoolboy, to have known about monoposto Alfa Rorneos and Maseratis at an age when we are all so impressionable, to have actually seen the silver Mercedes-Benz and Auto-Unions in the age of the Titans, and appreciate their technology at the time; to have experienced the re-birth of racing after the war years, through the 1950s and 1960s, and still be engrossed in Formula One today and to be able to evaluate it all to the past, from whence it came. What a wonderful situation to be in.” I would mention that friend Dale Miller is about half my age. He went on to say, “without a doubt, you’ve seen the ultimate in greatness pass by your very eyes; I hope you get another 70 years of great motor sporting events.” A kindly thought, but I fear my luck won’t hold out that long, though my father lived to 94 and his brother lived to 99. I hear voices in the background wailing, “Oh no, and he’ll still be banging on about fakes and phoneys and dishonesty even then.” Those voices are absolutely right, because time does not make a fake genuine, nor eradicate dishonesty.
To return to my friend’s letter, I would add that looking back I am happy to recall reading about the Schneider Trophy aeroplane races taking place, and listening to wireless broadcasts, and to follow the fortunes of the beautiful de Havilland Comet ‘racer’ in the race from London to Melbourne in 1934. Then there was the memorable occasion of seeing the first flight of the Gloster-Whittle gas-turbine jet-propelled ‘racer’ from the Royal Aircraft Establishment’s airfield at Farnborough. Not its first flight of all time mark you, but the first one under the official eye of the RAE. The first scheduled flight of Concord from London’s Heathrow was something that just had to be witnessed from the end of the runway, along with thousands of other people who simply brought traffic movement to a complete standstill; and why not, it was a moment in progress that can never be repeated.
There are still many of you readers who have been reading MOTOR SPORT for longer than I have been writing for it and occasionally I will meet one who will say, “I’ve been reading your stuff for 40 years and your style hasn’t changed,” to which I have to reply, “Why should it? My enthusiasm for motor racing and racing cars hasn’t changed, so why should I write differently?” Stuart Turner, who recently retired, once said to me, “Don’t ever give up Jenks, we need people like you.” I asked him what he meant by that and he said whenever someone is making a pompous, self-opinionated PR speech, with the audience sitting there either spellbound or bored to tears, there is Jenks in the background quietly saying “Rhubarb, Rhubarb, Rhubarb.” It’s very true because I can’t stand bullshit when it is offered up as gospel. Real bullshit is fun and very amusing, and there have been some brilliant exponents of the art in motor racing, and I have loved them all, because they know it’s not true, so it’s all a big joke. The people that give you a load of bull, probably actually believing it themselves, are the tiresome ones, and there are still lots of them about, especially on the inner fringes of the world of Formula One. I always remember one of the Indianapolis drivers who came to Europe way back, an old, grizzled, experienced character, who listened to a young whizz-kid giving him a load of bullshit and he said, “Son,” and brushed some imaginary specks off his own shoulder, “That ain’t hayseed, that’s dandruff.”
There was an occasion when a new Formula One car was being launched with big free helpings of bullshit, which I stood for a while, but when some girls began to sing a song about how wonderful the new car was going to be, I said to the people around me, “I think I am going to be sick.” Unfortunately I said it louder than intended and I wasn’t too popular with that team’s management when they started racing. I didn’t miss anything, it was a disaster.
All my life I have enjoyed motorcycles, and only took up motorcycle racing because I could not afford to race cars the way I wanted to, and since 1946 I have been spectacularly unsuccessful on two wheels, but have enjoyed every minute of my competitive riding, and still do, though nowadays at sprints and hillclimbs the pleasure lasts for seconds rather than minutes, but they are very satisfying seconds, and the fewer there are of them between the start and the finish the more satisfying they are. I have seldom managed to be anything but last, but never hopelessly last.
The trouble is that every time I improve on my time up a hill or on a sprint course, the rest of the lads improve as well. It’s called competition and if you have never wanted to do it, hard luck. You have missed out on one of the real pleasures of life with wheels and the internal combustion engine.
Just before writing this I have been watching Martin Brundle and Mark Blundell doing some track testing with the interim Brabham BT59Y, powered by the new Yamaha V12 engine. Now that is an exciting project and I can’t wait for the 1991 Formula One season to start. Why does the sound of a pure racing engine ‘on song’ make the adrenalin flow? Because it does, even to my rather deaf 70 year old ears.
If this letter turns out to be an obituary … Well, my luck ran out. Yours, DSJ