Where did 50 years go?

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Reeling from realising he’s been at it for half a century, Doug recalls some significant people and cars who helped shape his career.

I am writing this on November 3, 2013, which in my little world is quite a steadying date, because 50 years ago — on November 3, 1963 — I shook my father’s hand, gave my mum a hug and set off on a train to Swanley Junction, Kent, to start my first full-time job. Alan Brinton and John Blunsden, editors of Motor Racing magazine, had taken me on as hapless drudge and bottle-washer, working in a Portakabin in the cafe car park at Brands Hatch circuit. Somehow I’d managed to convince them that since I perched on the loo every week and memorised Autosport from cover to cover, they needed my encyclopaedic knowledge (ahem) of club racing.

A sister publication in that little group was Airfix Magazine and my prime duties were to assist its editor, Darryl Reach, building plastic kits and writing reviews. At 18 — and three weeks — I’d stumbled on a way of being paid to pursue a hobby. Darryl and John in particular taught me the journalistic ropes and I revelled in access — for free! — to the Brands test-day paddock, then club meetings and eventually Boxing Day Brands and — into 1964— the national and international scene. I’ve been stuck in the same rut ever since.

But today I have just watched Sebastian Vettel absolutely demolish all opposition to win the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Not only was he driving a high-tech Red Bull-Renault festooned with flaps and tabs and aerobendy gizmology of a nature (and materials) almost unimaginable in 1963, but the race itself was taking place on a Tilke playmat circuit painted onto Tarmac laid on what 50 years before had been a sun-baked coastal waste. Not only that, but the race started in late-evening light, progressed through the Gulf States’ brief dusk and ended in floodlit night In Formula 1 terms, again a scenario and space-age spectacle simply unthinkable back in ’63.

So what else has changed? Very much. The day before I donned my duffle-coat and wrapped my striped school scarf round my throat at mum’s instruction to “wrap up warm” and set off for Swanley Junction, David Piper and erstwhile Cooper works Formula 1 driver Tony Maggs had just shared the former’s Ferrari 250 GTO to win the Kyalami Nine Hours in South Africa. David had shipped his hard-raced car down there and I believe drove it on public roads out from the dockside in Cape Town, through the Karoo desert and up onto Johannesburg’s plateau. The pair won the race and eventually the GTO would be hammered back again to the Union Castle shipping line dock and home, costs for the trip comfortably covered.

Back then a private owner really could make his motor racing pay, whereas today stupendous sums need to be inveigled from commercial sponsors if there’s to be any prospect of breaking even on a season’s international motor sport. What I find most depressing, however, is the sight of deserted grandstands for almost any motor race meeting below major championship level while at endurance races short of Le Mans the number of pass holders within paddock and pits seems to be a multiple of those rare and hardy souls occasionally identified on the other side of the track as paying spectators.

During my few years with Motor Racing at Brands Hatch, I also worked with Darryl Reach as weekend press officer.., and it was a really bad weekend if we saw fewer than 4000 spectators massed around the valley for a BRSCC or Maidstone 8c Mid-Kent MC (for example) club race meeting. It was affordable and on Sundays there were few conflicting sporting attractions.

But perhaps the most telling difference between the current motor racing scene and that of 1963 is that we don’t bump off as many good guys as was the case back then. We peripherals us chaps who didn’t so much do it as merely write about it regularly felt the loss of heroes, acquaintances or friends and perhaps it hardened all our attitudes, toughened us up, to some extent made us quite callous. But that’s just the way it was.

My mentor and colleague Darryl Reach went on, with our commercial manager Patrick Stephens, to found a book publishing company that in 1968 produced Dr Michael Henderson’s treatise on motor racing in safety. Mike’s masterly compilation of accident statistics spelled out indelibly the effectiveness of proper seat belts in combination with roll-over protection. He demolished the long-held belief that in a sizeable shunt it was safer for the driver to be thrown clear, and in effect he provided the really significant ammunition that Jackie Stewart then had the balls to fire at a complacent motor racing mindset, us included.

Way back at the dawn of motor sport, Damon Runyan had written that the Wooden Wonder of Playa del Rey California’s pioneering board speedway had “burned down with a great saving of life”. That’s exactly what Dr Michael Henderson helped achieve back in the late 1960s, upon a platform provided by two of the blokes I was fortunate enough to begin work with at Brands Hatch… groan… 50 years ago.

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