Making it look easy

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Many considered him a rich-kid racer in over his head. In the space of just two years, however, Auto Union were convinced he had the makings of a Champion. He refused their offer. Whitney Straight, explains Eoin Young, had much bigger fish to fly…

Whitney Straight did everything in style. Barred from keeping a car at Cambridge, he kept a plane instead, cycling to the airfield, flying to races in the UK or on the Continent, and being back for first lessons at Cambridge on Monday, where puzzled tutors were reading of Straight’s racing exploits in the morning newspaper.

Whitney Willard Straight was born in New York, in 1912. His father died of influenza in Paris during WWI and his mother remarried to an Englishman. The family moved to Britain in 1925, where they founded an unorthodox new type of modern school at Dartington Hall. Whitney enjoyed its laid-back atmosphere, but learned more about driving, riding and flying he became England’s youngest licensed pilot on his 17th birthday than anything else.

He bought a Brooklands Riley when he was 19 and, a year later, while still at Cambridge, bought Tim Birlcin’s 2.5-litre 8C Maserati. His first race with this car was in February 1932: the Swedish Winter Grand Prix, on an ice lake!

Rivers Fletcher introduced me to Whitney at a Maserati Owners’ Club event. Imagine meeting my all-time hero when I’d vaguely accepted he was dead because I’d had never heard of him in the racing world after 1934.

That’s because he had moved into aviation, buying a string of airports and then gathering medals flying Blenheims and Hurricanes. “1 Post-war, he headed BOAC, BEA, Rolls-Royce and the Post Office.

Straight had innate skill, and was racing in top company, but the 1 there were those who thought the rich young American was getting above himself. Sammy Davis, the 1927 Le Manswinner, told Straight that he was driving too fast at Brooldands.

“I could not believe it!” explained Straight. “I said, took, this is what I’m here to do! I haven’t damaged anyone or myself, so therefore will drive as fast as possible within those limitations’.”

His Maserati was painted black with silver wheels, and when he bought an 1100cc K3 MG in 1933, it was painted in the same distinctive colours. His later Maseratis were also black, but at one stage were bedecked in blue and white, the racing colours of America. He remained a US citizen until he was 21.

He tackled Shelsley, Brooklands, the usual stuff, but also effected an ambitious overseas programme. It was a steep learning curve. In the 250-mile Marne GP of 1933, he finished six laps down in last, and with bad bums to his foot. Straight: “I hadn’t driven the Maserati for that sort of distance before and was wearing a pair of light shoes. The gearbox got extremely hot and I was out of racing for a month.”

Down to Italy for the Coppa Acerbo, the Maserati was out on the first lap. But he won the 1100cc Junior event with the K3, beating three Maserati 4CMs in the process.

He decided to quit Cambridge “I was fed up with my moral sciences course. I should have done engineering” and went motorsport full-time. But it wasn’t just racing. Hill climbs fascinated him. One of his most impressive drives was winning at the 13.5-mile gravel climb of Mount Ventoux. He fitted twin-rear wheels to the Maserati and set a new record of 14min 31.6sec (55.45mph). The great Rudolf Caracciola had set the previous record (15min 12.4sec) in 1932 with a P3 Alfa Romeo, so this was quite a scalp.

‘I was told by Chiron you could go flat through the tunnel… I emerged backwards, at 120mph

Next for Whitney Straight Limited was the Monza Grand Prix, where he finished fourth in his heat. (There was to be two heats and a final.) Straight sent word to race control that there was a lot of oil on one section and asked for a postponement of the final. This was ignored, the final started and three drivers — Baconin Borzacchini, Count Campari and Count Czaykowski — were killed when they went off on the oil. Straight was fourth again.

Back in Britain, Straight set a new Shelsley record (41.2sec) and won Brooklands’ Mountain Championship. It had been a successful season, but he had even bigger plans for 1934.

He’d ordered three Maserati 8CM GP cars and three transporters. The team would be based in Milan under the auspices of former Alfa Romeo works driver, Giulio Ramponi. The mechanics included 6ft 5in Raymond (Lofty) England, Charlie Newcombe, Tony Birch, Jock Finlayson and Billy Roclaiell. James Robertson Justice, later to gain fame as curmudgeonly surgeon Sir Lancelot Spratt in the Doctor. . . films, was racing manager, interpreter and general organiser.

Straight received two of the cars ordered and had them modified to his requirements by Reid Raikon at Thomson and Taylor. He made the heart-shaped cowlings (Straight’s own design), altered the cockpit arrangements, fitted different fuel tanks and had the cars converted to Wilson pre-selector gearboxes. The third car was late arriving and never had any of these mods. Straight: “It was thought Nuvolari had written off a team car and that they took my third car for him.”

Straight was one of the few surviving drivers who had raced against Nuvolari — and there was no gobsmacked awe: “Nuvolari was the man I most wanted to beat in 1934.1 found I could always be quicker than him if it was wet; he was frightened of the wet But in the dry, he was faster than I was. No question.

“He had a Maserati with a standard gearbox and I had mine with the self-change. On certain tracks, Reims, for example, he was faster than I was; he had a much better top speed, because my Wilson transmission absorbed a lot of power.”

So why was he so enamoured with the pre-selector? “You didn’t have to waste time changing gears, you could select ahead and just push it straight though. I was very pleased with it.”

Straight signed Hugh Hamilton and Buddy Featherstonehaugh to be his team-mates. Marcel Lehoux was also a team driver, as was Dick Seaman from time to time. With three cars, Straight’s team could be in two races on one weekend, at a time when there were often two races on the same day in different parts of Europe.

Monaco was the first race for the new team. “I had a close shave in the tunnel during practice,” said Straight. “I was disappointed with my times and I was told by Chiron, and others, that you could go flat through the tunnel. When I eventually tried it, I came out backwards, at 120mph, but fortunately the car parked itself at the side of the road. A second or two later, Chiron flashed past Apparently, it was all right in an Alfa Romeo, but not in a Maserati — it didn’t have the stability.” Straight was second in the Vichy Grand Prix behind Count Trossi in a Scuderia Ferrari P3 Alfa Romeo. The race was run in two heats; it rained during Straight’s. A contemporary report said, “Whitney Straight made the best start. He was totally unaffected by a 180-degree spin over the start-finish line at the end of the first lap — everyone else slowed so that he was still leading after it!”

He finished third in Comminges (on the same day Hamilton crashed fatally on the last lap of the Swiss GP at Bremgarten) and fourth at Casablanca and Montreux, where Straight’s supercharger started leaking oil and he had to stop several times to have his goggles cleaned.

In October, he secured the Donington Park Trophy and successfully defended his Mountain Championship title. He also made an attempt on the Outer Circuit record in a Duesenberg, the car that now sits in pride of place at the Brooldands Museum. Straight rates it as the worst moment of his career.

“I borrowed it from Scuderia Ferrari. It was essentially an Indycar and it had no acceleration.

This meant I had to take tremendous risks on the bankings, and there is a photograph of me in the car, going for the record, with all four wheels in the air. It was a pretty shattering performance, and I was proud to do a lap at 138.15mph, which put me second-fastest to John Cobb in the Napier-Railton.” Straight was just 2.15mph slower than his rival, with an engine that was 19.5-litres smaller!

During this swansong (yes, already) season, Whitney again broke the Shelsley record, leaving it at 40sec flat He also entered his Maserati in the 13-mile Klausen hill climb, finishing third behind the might of Caracciola in the Mercedes and Hans Stuck in the Auto Union.

Although the Straight cars tended to avoid pointless head-to-heads with the German teams, he finished eighth in the Italian GP at Monza, won by Caracciola and Luigi Fagioli sharing a Mercedes.

His performances were catching the attention of the right people. In 1935, Auto Union’s Willy Walb offered Straight a works drive, starting with the 1935 South African Grand Prix. Though flattered, Whitney refused.

“I would have liked to have driven for Auto Union, but I doubt that I would have survived to tell the tale. I don’t think the prospect held much in the way of life expectancy. The Auto Union was a tricky car to handle —16 cylinders, 600bhp, weighed 12cwt, and spun its wheels up to 160mph! Plus I had got married by this time. I told them I wouldn’t be racing anymore.”

The 1934 South African Grand Prix, between Christmas and New Year, on the 16-mile East London course, was Straight’s final race. He smiled as he thought of the deal he did with the organisers of the race that was entitled the Border 100, but would become known as the first South African Grand Prix. “I thought of a starting money figure, quadrupled it, and came home with a handsome profit”

He flew down in a De Havilland Dragon, with brother Michael, who was entered in a Railton, and Dick Seaman, who was to race his MG K3. “It was a long flight, averaging 95 mph, with no radio. We ran out of aerodrome on our take-off in Rhodesia and landed in a ditch. But we made it, eventually. And I won the race. Michael was third and Dick had engine problems with the MG.”

Straight died in 1979 after a truly amazing life.