Farewell to a straight shooter
When it comes to telling things as they are, Fl can ill afford to lose men of the calibre of Goodyear’s Lee Gaug
“A lot of them are spoiled, overpaid kids who are not responsible. They’re good, but as people they’re not as good as they ought to be. They don’t appreciate where their pay cheques come from.”
You could never accuse Lee Gaug of being bird-mouthed. He has always remained faithful to his creed of speaking his mind. As he headed for retirement from F1 in Adelaide the man who has overseen Goodyear’s day-to-day involvement in the highest echelon of the sport for the past 12 years, and who has been with the company for 23, was not afraid to stand up for counting.
In the old days, I am told, Formula One was a regular round of weekend social gatherings in foreign fields between individuals from all walks of Grand Prix life. Meandering through the files of our photographic archives at LAT, I often come across the evidence that such gatherings really did happen; Dan Gurney wearing a top hat and Jimmy Clark a party topper during New Year celebrations at Kyalami, that sort of thing. Today they are virtually unheard of, as vested interest and the isolationist approach erects a barrier against fraternisation.
It is indication, therefore, of the esteem in which Lee is held in F1 circles, that Marlboro managed to organise an old-fashioned get together in Adelaide as we bade farewell to the Akron tyre manufacturer’s manager of international motorsport.
We all crowded into a seafood restaurant, and while the cynics might say that you will always get a good media turnout to a free feed, it was heartening from our side of the fence to see just how many drivers came too. Came, and stayed all night. Only Nigel Mansell had to go before we ate, and that because of a prior appointment. Thus, to honour his ‘retirement’, Lee had the pleasure of the company of luminaries such as Ayrton Senna, Gerhard Berger, Riccardo Patrese, Thierry Boutsen and Michele Alboreto, while Frank Williams, Ron Dennis, Jack Oliver, Peter Warr, Prof Watkins and the like came too. None of them was there out of a sense of duty or obligation; in their own way each had come to show their appreciation of Gaug’s unique character.
The first time I ever spoke to him, as an F1 greenhorn at a Spanish test session, he had all the time in the world and told me exactly what I wanted to know, puffing contentedly on the pipe that was never unlit for long and which reminded me irresistibly of Popeye. It was always the same with a man who stood as the epitome of integrity in an F1 paddock. Liars abound, but with Lee you always knew that you would get straight goods. Very often they were accompanied by a request to keep one of his straight shootin’ responses off the record, but there was never any attempt at subterfuge. What you saw was what you got, and when you found the time a talk with Gaug was never dull. Frequently it was uproariously funny, as he trotted out his acerbic one liners, reducing the pompous at a stroke.
His record of 22 years as a fighter pilot with the US Marines undoubtedly went a long way to forming Lee’s disdain for ‘bullshit’, and in his own way he did in his Grumman F7s and F86 Sabres what racing drivers do in their cars, except that the latter operate without the threat that somebody up there is also trying to kill them. Having seen real life – and death – Gaug had no time for the shallowness that is such a feature of some F1 personalities. Once, flying over the Bermuda Triangle, his squadron came close to following an artificial compass reading until it disappeared into the Atlantic Ocean, but just in time somebody worked out that the ambient temperature was playing tricks with the readings. Gaug would dismiss such escapades in later life but there was no escaping the fact that he had Been There, and he had seen a downside of life that is well beyond the imagination – let alone experience – of many of today’s stars.
“Much of the blame rests with the team owners who bid the prices up,” he continued as he considered the role played by the drivers. “The Formula One system changes people. Success makes it hard for them to keep their heads straight.”
It was the sort of deviation that it produces that led him to quit. For a long time the travel had been getting to him as he headed back to Akron after each GP – he always said that he earned so many free air miles that his family never paid for a flight – but the final straw was the manner in which FISA so cold-bloodedly dealt with the question of tyre regulations for 1993.
Gaug has never denied that there are two sides to every argument, and while there is a strong case for narrower rubber, he would have been happier to see the 18 inch rears continue. It was not so much the change, though, as the manner in which it was effected, that made up his mind to quit. Ask him his views on the way Formula One is headed, and he responds without pause.
“I get very upset when I look at it. Decisions are being made by Bernie Ecclestone and a handful of other people. But they are the ‘haves’. The ‘have-nots’, as well as the sponsors or suppliers such as Goodyear, are not involved in this process. My feeling is that they’re trying to improve Formula One but are talking to the wrong people.”
Given what Goodyear has done over the years – including ‘saving’ F1 during the 1987 crisis, his viewpoint is not hard to appreciate.
“Bernie has made Formula One viable, sure,” he concedes, “but the more powerful a man becomes the less he listens. Maybe he’s right. But nobody else has had a chance to provide any input into decisions which affect us all.
“To make a show of racing – and it should be entertaining – you have to do something technically to make the cars more evenly competitive. This way of making technology unlimited could well kill Formula One.”
Insiders say that deciding to quit now was Lee’s way of dealing with a situation whose integrity he questioned and was no longer prepared to countenance. From the journalists’ point of view, 1992 has plumbed new depths. You spend a weekend minutely investigating a story such as the Mansell/Williams saga ready to write what you hope will ‘be the definitive story for Monday’s Motoring News deadline, only to read a different interpretation of the known facts in a daily newspaper on Thursday. Thus you prepare to concede that the story might have changed in the intervening days, check it out all over again, and satisfy yourself that you were right first time round. A week later the individuals at the heart of the story change everything round, and so it begins again. A month later the story swings back to square one. Uncertainty, prevarication, half-truths, zero-truths, commercial interest, day-to-day expediency and a smattering of real fact combine in a heady cocktail. Sometimes you feel you would believe anyone who told you that Nigel Mansell hadn’t really won the 1992 World Championship.
The situation can have been no sweeter for an insider like Gaug, as the company whose interests he had so honorably represented was effectively blackmailed into acquiescence in a manner that suggested that all its past straight dealing and magnanimity to the sport counted for nothing in the eyes of F1 ‘s rulers.
The saddest part of Lee Gaug’s farewell lay in the bronchitis that struck him down and prevented him appearing at the circuit after his Friday night party. That, and the figure he cut as, tired and unwell, he left Adelaide’s airport on the Monday morning on his final homeward journey. When he finally arrived home, he had double pneumonia for company.
Was he going to carry on with Goodyear back home? I asked him. “Nope. I’m not gonna do anything. It’s all finished,” he replied. “I’ve given time twice now and I’m gonna concentrate on family matters and getting well again. I gave once to the Air Force and once to Goodyear. That’s enough.”
A lot of fuss has been made about Nigel Mansell leaving F1 and going to the lndycar series. Lee plans to do a few CART races himself: “I guess I might get to those around the Mid-Ohio and mid-West areas…” I which wonder of them F1 will really miss more. I’d like to feel that everyone who went to that party in Adelaide feels a sense of loss now that an immensely likeable, straight shooter has walked off the stage. And it would be nice to feel that the powers-that-be acknowledge it to themselves, too. It’s fashionable when somebody retires to say how much they’ll be missed. In Lee Gaug’s case, that’s nothing less than the truth.
D J T