A humble local radio station in Portsmouth was the unlikely source of star-studded motor racing chatter nearly 40 years ago. Now those shows, known as Track Torque, are ready to reach the global audience they deserve | writer Damien Smith
There’s no mistaking the presenter’s voice because it hasn’t changed a bit. But when he invites listeners to phone in “on Portsmouth 27755”, the shortage of digits is an instant reminder that this wasn’t recorded yesterday. It sounds like one of our Motor Sport podcasts, but actually it’s a timewarp, spooling us back from the digital era to good old-fashioned audio tape, nearly 40 years ago – when the world was a very different place.
Since June 2009, when we began our increasingly popular series of online podcasts, anchorman Rob Widdows has established himself as the ‘voice’ of Motor Sport. But for those who go back far enough and lived within range of south-coast radio waves, Rob’s warm tone will trigger other memories: of Thursday nights in the late 1970s and interviews with motor racing’s most colourful personalities. And then there are the select few who will recall evenings sitting in stationary cars, parked up in lay-bys somewhere on a road in Hampshire…
It’s not like it sounds. As far as we know.
Radio Victory’s Track Torque shows pre-date not only mass media interest in motor racing, but mass media itself. They offered a rare and beguiling oasis for fans thirsty for coverage of the world’s greatest sport as Rob and his friend Mike Lawrence lured an impressive cast to the navy town to chat live on air about racing’s matters of the moment.
Happily, Rob kept some – but sadly not all – of the tapes, and now thanks to the skills of our podcast producer Alan Hyde those shows have been brought back to life, transferred from analogue to digital downloads. A clutch are available via our website – for a small fee – with more to follow. So how did Widdows end up coaxing the likes of Frank Williams, Ron Dennis and more to late-night local radio?
He picks up the story over a pie and a pint.
“I’d been working in America for Channel 13, the public broadcasting service, and decided to come home. But I didn’t have a job. At the same time one of the first independent radio stations in Britain had opened in Portsmouth: Radio Victory. I thought that was something I could do, maybe get some freelance work as a reporter. After a year they asked me to be the head of news. I knew it would be seven days a week, 25 hours a day, so I said ‘I’ll do it, but I want you to give me my own programme about motor racing as part of the deal.’ They agreed.”
This was the end of 1976, in the afterglow of James Hunt vs Niki Lauda. But still, it must have taken some selling? Apparently not. “The broadcasting authority at the time had given the stations a diktat that said there had to be a certain amount of speech programming among the pop music,” Widdows says. “So this was quite good for the station because it got an hour out of me, every Thursday night.
“I knew I could do it because within a few miles of where I lived were John Watson, Derek Bell, Mike Earle, David Purley, Derek Warwick, a lot of small teams and of course the Goodwood and Thruxton circuits.”
But with the demands of his day job, Rob soon realised he needed some help. “One evening there was a knock at my door and it was a guy canvassing for the Liberal Party. For some reason I asked him in and we discovered we were both into motor racing. This was Mike Lawrence, an English teacher at a local school.”
Future Motor Sport staffer Mike began to help Rob round up guests. “Our first major coup was getting Ron Dennis, who drove down to Portsmouth on a Thursday night,” says Rob. “We bought him a pint in the Museum Gardens, the pub next door. I didn’t know him, but had met him and Neil Trundle at Thruxton when they were doing F2. I think I asked about three questions in the hour – he holds the Track Torque record for the longest ever answer…
“That was the beginning of a relationship with Ron that was very helpful to us. He really understood the value of marketing and publicity, even on a local radio station. It was worth his while to do it.”
Soon others were heading south. “I rang Frank Williams, so he drove down to Portsmouth on a Thursday night,” says Rob. “We were sitting in the Museum Gardens keeping our eyes peeled for his Jaguar. But it got nearer the programme, and still no Frank. It came to the time when we had to put down our pints, go next door and do the show. And there was Frank, in reception and on the phone. He’d convinced the duty engineer to let him in by banging on the door, and he was speaking to Carlos Reutemann, perhaps the beginnings of a deal for a drive…” Saved wily Williams the princely cost of a call to Argentina, that night.
“Early on, we relied on local contacts,” Rob admits. “At the time Derek Bell was right at the top of his career, and David Purley had the Lec F1 car in our first full year of broadcasting, so we did a lot with him. He and Bell were good mates. I remember one night we asked them to come in together, which was potentially dangerous. They were very late and we were already on air when they arrived. They’d driven from Birdham, where Purley lived, and he’d insisted on shooting rabbits from the tailgate of his Range Rover while Derek drove…
“The programme didn’t go without a hitch either. Purley had a good-looking girlfriend called Gail, whom he later married. During a news bulletin he decided he would raise her jersey above her head, as Mike was reading the news live. To give Mike credit, he hardly faltered.”
It was the response to competitions to win merchandise donated by the likes of Ken Tyrrell and Williams that gave Rob and Mike an inkling that they were on to something. “It was always ‘answers on a postcard’, and we started to receive hundreds. Then we discovered that people were driving into our broadcasting area and parking in lay-bys just to listen in!
“It’s important to remember that in those days there was no motor racing on the radio, apart from short bulletins from an F1 race. There was very little on television and obviously no internet. So it became hugely important for fans, and we started to syndicate it around other radio stations in Britain.”
The roll-call over four years and 202 shows is staggering: along with those already mentioned, add Nelson Piquet, Colin Chapman, Alexander Hesketh, Stirling Moss, Riccardo Paletti, Teo Fabi – “we always took the Italian drivers to a pizza restaurant round the corner” – Alain Prost, Mario Andretti, our own Denis Jenkinson… and even Roger Penske and AJ Foyt.
Admittedly, not all the interviews were recorded live in Portsmouth. “We started going to races which of course involved [dealing with] Mr Ecclestone,” says Rob. “One evening I got a phone call from Mr Ecclestone out of the blue. He asked me why I’d applied for accreditation to the British GP at Silverstone, and I began to explain why. But he said ‘Yeah, I know what you do. I’m just checking.’ And that was it.
We got our accreditation.
“In ’77 Watson had joined Brabham-Alfa, with Niki Lauda as his team-mate, and we were invited to go to the Monaco Grand Prix. This trip was noticeable for two things: one, Gordon Murray gave us one of the best interviews we ever did. Two, Mr Lauda tried to steal my new wife, who’d come with me. At breakfast Niki did his very best to persuade her that she should spend the rest of the day with him and not me, because I was working and he had a day off between the two practice days…”
The 1981 British Grand Prix was another landmark for Track Torque, thanks to Watson’s victory for McLaren. “Ron had agreed to have us spend the whole weekend with the team – I can’t imagine it happening now – and of course Wattie won. After the race Ron was keen to talk to me about this great victory for the new carbon-fibre MP4/1 and I expected to get a triumphant interview. But what he really wanted to talk about was Andrea de Cesaris crashing the other car!
“Many years later, I went to the Brazilian GP at Interlagos and I was walking through that wonderful paddock. I saw Ron and I heard him say to the people he was with, ‘Look at that, here comes racing on a shoestring.’ He always referred to us like that – because we never had a budget or got paid. But we were at the right place at the right time, when a lot of teams were realising how important the media was, whether it be radio, magazines, telly – because sponsors were asking for more exposure.”
So why did Track Torque fall silent in ’81? “Because I got offered a job as an ITV reporter,” says Rob. But the shadow of the show stretched further for its founder.
“I suppose the real legacy for me is that I can still talk to people now because of that programme,” he says. “I can still phone people up because of the number of times we met during those days.
“Radio – and now podcasting – is a very personal situation,” adds Rob. “In television, cameras immediately introduce an element that unsettles almost everybody, whoever they are, because they become conscious of how they look, how they are dressed. None of that applies to radio, and the intimacy gives you a better result. It becomes less of an interview and more of a conversation.”
For the past six years, the Motor Sport podcasts have kept the spirit of Track Torque alive. But now the shows themselves are back, ready to gain the global audience Rob could only have dreamed about in 1981 – and you don’t even have to find an empty Hampshire lay-by to hear them.
Track Torque is available to download via our website. Each show is priced at £1.99. Buy now. There are currently four available: a two-part interview with Stirling Moss, another with Lord Hesketh and a conversation recorded in 1979 with our own Denis Jenkinson. More will follow in 2016.