With more backing and a couple of lucky breaks, the talents of Chris Craft surely would have shone at the highest level. Yet no-one can have enjoyed their career more. Colin Goodwin meets a happy-go-lucky racer who had more than his share of go – both on and off the track
Money was so tight that driver Chris Craft and team manager Keith Greene had to take a Page & Moy tour to get to North America for the two end-of-season GPs in 1971. The deal was that Craft would give the punters talks about his career in racing; about what it felt like to drive a Ferrari 512M at Le Mans at 220mph while dicing with Jo Siffert’s Porsche 917; about giant-killing drives in Chevron B8s against big-gun GT4Os driven by international stars; about door-handling Broadspeed Escorts against the likes of Frank Gardner.
Page & Moy’s guests would definitely have got their money’s worth. By 1971, the 32-year-old Craft had competed in pretty much every type of road racing in everything from Ford Anglias to an F3 Tecno, from Le Mans to Formula 5000. And if Craft had talked about all the scrapes, girls and high jinks that occurred along the way, they’d have been doubly entertained.
Craft’s Brabham BT33 Formula One car travelled to the Americas in the hold of a ro-ro ferry, sitting on an open trailer attached to the back of Alain de Cadenet’s derelict Transit van. Mechanic Keith Baldwin (now CEO of Allied Dunbar!) flew cattle class in a Boeing 707. “Alain had tried to put me and the other mechanic on the ro-ro with the car,” remembers Baldwin, “but we weren’t having that.”
Craft: “Alain would do anything to save a bit of money. He drove the Transit miles and miles on this huge loop around New York so that he could avoid paying a $1 toll on a bridge.”
The Page & Moy bus got snared in Watkins Glen traffic which meant that Craft and Greene were late for official practice. “I was standing next to the car,” says de Cadenet, “watching other drivers going out, and wondering where on earth Chris and Keith were. Jackie Stewart came up and said, ‘Where’s your man? You’d better go out in it yourself.’ I was considering doing exactly that when Chris came sprinting across the paddock and jumped in the car. I don’t even think he put his overalls on.”
With a budget that couldn’t have bought a second-hand shoestring, it’s hardly surprising that the Brabham failed to qualify for the Canadian GP at Mosport Park and blew its gearbox at the ‘Glen. Not a huge success, but then de Cadenet had only decided to have a crack at F1 in a fit of pique.
Craft explains: “We won [in a McLaren M8E] the race at the Norisring in which Pedro Rodriguez had been killed. In The Times report on Pedro’s death the race was made out to be some sort of club event. This really pissed off Alain because, for one thing, we all loved Pedro, but also because we had bust a gut to win. So Alain got the hump and decided that we’d show people and have a go at F1.”
De Cadenet: “I met Chris Craft at the Nurburgring in the late ’60s. I had this old Ferrari 206SP Dino which just wouldn’t run. I spent the whole day underneath the bloody thing. But I’d seen Chris racing a Chevron B8 at Brands, giving a GT40 one hell of a chase, and I was very impressed by his speed and by the way he just kept on fighting.
“Later I bought a Porsche 908 and asked Chris if he’d like to drive it. The first race was a sportscar event at Vila Real in Portugal. When we picked up the car from Weissach it was already set-up for Vila Real (Porsche had done this using its computer) and came with a comprehensive instruction manual. Chris shared the car with David Piper and they won. Craft drove brilliantly, comfortably outpacing his co-driver who, at the time, was considered the top privateer Ferrari driver.
“We also used that 908 in the Nordic Cup in Scandinavia,” continues de Cadenet, “which we christened the ‘More Dick’ Cup. This was a girl-chasing contest between various drivers and team members that would have been won by one of the mechanics except for the fact that one of his conquests was on a ferry; we deemed that to be out of ‘territorial waters’ and so disallowed it. Anyway, we did well, with Chris winning the Swedish GP at Karlskoga against pretty strong opposition.”
The gang’s campaign at Le Mans in 1971 with a Ferrari 512M is another good tale, and like most of the stories surrounding Craft’s career, it’s a mix of fun, hard graft and a giant-killing result
“Alain was friends with this millionaire American playboy called David Weir,” explains Greene. “He desperately wanted to race at Le Mans, but he was a real high-liver: parties, birds, the lot. I told Alain that there was no way! was going to Le Mans with a 220mph car with a playboy as one of its drivers. But Weir was very determined, so I sent all of us, Chris and me included, to Dave Prowse’s gym [Prowse was the Green Cross Code Man and later Darth Vader] in the East End. To his credit, Weir was great, stopped all the partying and got very fit.
“As usual, we went to Le Mans with the car towed behind the Transit, with just Keith Baldwin, one other mechanic and a gopher. What we did have, though, was a Ferrari with an absolutely stonking engine. Ferrari gave us a dyno sheet that showed it gave 640bhp — a top figure at the time.”
Craft: “David Weir drove well — nice and steady, with smooth gearshifts and plenty of respect for the car. The 512 was fantastic. I’d say that, including my wins and championships, my fondest memory is lap after lap dicing with Jo Siffert’s 917 in the night.”
De Cadenet was driving a similar 512 for Ecurie Belge: “I couldn’t get through the Mulsanne Kink without lifting my foot off the throttle. Chris said he was taking it flat, but I just couldn’t do it. He suggested that I plonk my left foot over my right to stop myself lifting. All that happened is that both feet came up! Chris eventually suggested that I just follow him through the Kink. On my own the engine was pulling 8200rpm, but in his slipstream it was hitting 8400rpm. After that, going flat through there on my own didn’t seem such a big deal.”
Craft’s 512 destroyed its clutch early on Sunday morning, but Baldwin fixed it in just under an hour: “The rear of the car was red-hot, but we managed to separate the motor and gearbox, then hit the clutch with a club hammer to free it. The works Ferrari had the same problem; it took them 64 minutes to fix theirs.”
The other drama was a crack in the windscreen that got longer and longer each time the car took the crest at White House. “Chris was phenomenally brave,” says Baldwin, “but even he was getting worried by the prospect of it caving in at 220mph.”
There was one other hitch: Craft distracted at the Mulsanne signalling post by a member of the equipe flinging open his macintosh to reveal all.
He and Weir finished fourth.
The early 1970s was an incredible period for Craft, de Cadenet and Greene. The number of miles they clocked up racing all over Europe was truly staggering — always with the beat-up Transit towing a shabby trailer, always with Craft and Greene sharing one of Craft’s Ford-supplied Zephyrs or Capris.
One classic outing at Le Mans was with the Gordon Murray-designed Duckhams powered by a Cosworth DFV. “Although the car looked like a Duckhams can on wheels, they only coughed up £500,” says De Cadenet “But the whole car only cost about £5000. Gordon used a fair few bits from the Brabham BT33.”
The team rocked up with a set of wets, a set of slicks and a set of spark plugs. Nothing else.
Craft: “The car was fantastic and we were going really well — until I aquaplaned off. The worst moment of my career. I felt I’d let everyone down.”
He was forgiven. “Chris was a fantastic driver,” says de Cadenet, “He never gave up and wasn’t frightened of anything or anybody, in or out of the car. Jackie Stewart, who drove a Broadspeed Escort himself a few times and watched Chris drive them, thought he could easily have done F1.”
Craft’s track record is still impressive. He was the 1973 European 2-litre sportscar champion, having competed in the series for a few years against top grade drivers like Lauda, Peterson and Bonnier. He was third at Le Mans in 1976 with de Cadenet in a Lola, having set the race’s fastest lap the year before.
But most tellingly of all, maximum fun was had by all, all of the time.