The past might be forever out of reach, but its essence is still out there – so long as you know where to look
One of my favourite regulars in this magazine has long been You Were There, where you send us pictures and recollections of a special race you attended in the dim and distant past.
The images – always pre-digital, often gloriously colour-saturated and sometimes a little fuzzy – are brilliantly evocative. As such they are true treasures. It doesn’t matter if they were taken at Crystal Palace or the Col de Turini, club races or a top-flight title decider. Snapshots like these are solid gold in my book.
I’ve got a few of my own tucked away in assorted photo albums. Taken on simple kit with my nose pressed the through catch fencing, I lived in hope of being in the right place at the right time. It rarely went that way, but the ritual of posting these precious canisters of captured colour and drama to be processed, then receiving a fat wallet of pictures in the post a week or so later, was a joy beyond measure. Instant iPhone gratification and Instagram filters simply don’t hold a candle to it.
Looking back I witnessed some really special races in those formative years: Soper and Rouse going door-to-door in their Texaco and Kaliber RS500 Cosworths at the 1988 Brands Hatch 1000Kms support race; seeing Jochen Mass’s Sauber C9 get clattered off at Clark Curve in the headline race at the same meeting, and cheering Andy Wallace, Martin Brundle and John Nielsen to victory in their Silk Cut Jaguar XJR-9; Mazda winning the 1991 Le Mans 24 Hours; Nigel Mansell winning the 1991 British GP and giving Senna a lift through the middle of track invasion; Colin McRae doing donuts at Chester racecourse after winning the 1995 Rally GB and taking his first World Rally Championship title. I was even at Pikes Peak when Monster Tajima broke Rod Millen’s 13-year-old record.
The magic of motor sport is you can never predict where or when these moments will happen. It is love for our sport that draws us to go and stand by the debris fencing or trek through a muddy forest. There’s no surefire certainty of witnessing something remarkable, but when an iconic moment unfolds the memories are indelible.
So how about this? If you could go back in time and witness one great event or moment plucked from the annals of motor sport history what would it be?
At first it’s almost too much to contemplate. Even if you restrict yourself to years within your own lifetime, the abundance of possibilities from which to choose is completely overwhelming. Give yourself a moment to take a breath and soon your brain will fizz and flash with things you’ve read, photos you’ve seen or archive footage you’ve watched over and again. I suggest it’s a question best pondered over a beer, in the company of fellow motor sport obsessives, so give yourselves a chance.
Initially the obvious stuff dominates. We’ve all watched the Steve McQueen movie, but actually to be at Le Mans to see the Gulf 917s do battle with Ferrari, and maybe sneak through the trees and dodge the gendarmes to get up to the guardrails near the Mulsanne Kink. That would be magnificent. Or imagine being at the Nürburgring Nordschleife to see the pre-war Silver Arrows fly?
If you wish you’d be born early enough to watch Jim Clark race, then perhaps you’d want to be sitting on the descent from Druids as he drifts his Lotus Cortina through Graham Hill Bend on three wheels. Then again how wonderful would it be to see him in his Lotus 25 at Spa, right at the start of a winning streak that would ultimately secure his 1963 world championship title?
And me? After much thought I’m heading to Sicily for the Targa Florio. Has there ever been a finer motor race? Not as far as I’m concerned. I’d get there early in the week so I could drive on the course when the teams were doing their perilous practice laps. Assuming I didn’t get clattered by Vic Elford I’d make my way to the Buonfornello Straight (all 3.7 miles of it) to see and hear the fastest sports cars in the world totally flat out, before heading to Cerda and looking around the pits as the cars were being prepared.
Come race day I’d get up before dawn, load my Fiat 500 with a hearty picnic and drive into the hills near Catavuturo, or perhaps tuck myself into a doorway in Collesano as the big-banger Alfa and Ferrari sports-prototypes yelp and howl their way through craggy mountains and dusty streets. Me and 700,000 roaring Sicilians: drunk on sunshine, speed and a few glasses of Nero D’Avola. If that’s not your idea of nirvana I’d love to hear what is.
It’s all a fantasy, one I know can never be fulfilled, but it’s an endlessly tantalising prospect. An inspiring one too, for while I’d sell vital organs to travel back to the Sixties or Seventies and feel the Sicilian sun on my face as my ears ring to the wail of an Italian flat-12, if I get my arse in gear and book travel and accommodation to the Isle of Man for next year’s TT I can experience a very close approximation of that bygone magic.
Better, if I pulled the stops out I reckon I could sort a drive in one of the Targa Florio-inspired closed-road motor sport events in Tasmania, Western Australia and Newfoundland. They might not be world title level, but they’re held annually, super-competitive and open to anyone with the balls and the budget.
Being steeped in our sport means it’s only natural to long to have seen some of the greats in action, but we shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking the glory days are behind us.
History lives on in archives and memories, but it’s still being made every weekend.
Dickie Meaden has been writing about cars for 25 years – and racing them for almost as long. He is a regular winner at historic meetings