Harmless fun

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Dear Reader,

The heading for this letter was sparked off when I unexpectedly came across a group of sporting cars gathering in a lay-by near my home. They were on their way to the West Country to take part in the recent Norwich Union Classic Car Run, and had used my part of the world to assemble from various directions, just “to make sure we were all together and under control”. Team leader was my old friend Duncan Rabagliatti and he was in his sports Kieft, while the rest were in a variety of cars such as sports Connaught, a small de Tomaso coupé, Allard, MGA, Triumph TR2, Lea Francis, Swallow Doretti, and probably something else which I have forgotten.

When they were “all present and correct” they set off towards Castle Combe, from where they were starting the rally, and as I watched them go I thought “What a happy bunch of motoring enthusiasts, thoroughly enjoying themselves, causing nobody any anguish (except jealousy, perhaps) and having a lot of harmless fun”.

Thinking around this matter I wondered if any of them had aspirations of getting deeper into the game of rallying, and if so, would the point come when it changed from “harmless fun” into a “serious matter”, then into a “serious business” and ultimately into “a profession”. At the beginning the activity was a “nice day out”, while the end of the logical path upwards becomes “a matter of life and death” with a World Championship and fame and fortune at the pinnacle. At some point along the path the “harmless” part would disappear and then the question would be “when did the fun disappear?” Probably those points depend on the individual, but sadly they seem to come no matter what branch of the sport you are involved in.

You can view the whole gamut of motor sport as being built on a vast pyramid, a structure with sloping sides meeting at a point. What we call the grass-roots of the sport form the base and the pinnacle is whatever form of competition you happen to like. For me the pinnacle is Grand Prix (or Formula 1) racing and if you are a racing driver then your aim should be to eventually win Grand Prix races. If your activity is car designing, or engine development and building then your pinnacle is for your designs to win those races. Anyone joining the pyramid of the sport, from the base, or even part way up one of the sides, must surely be looking up. I cannot really believe that anyone joins our sport looking down. On the way up some may look back, not in anger (like John Osborne), but in sadness when they realise that great changes are taking place on the way up, that were not readily visible when ambition made them start the climb to the top.

In Great Britain I think we have one of the best motor sporting pyramids in the world, built on one of the widest bases imaginable, which means that the slope up to the top on any side is not as steep as in other countries. This does not mean that it is easier to get to the top, for on any pyramid there is precious little room on the point, but there are lots more starting points and getting a foot on the pyramid base-line has never been so easy. On our particular pyramid the immediate way up is very crowded, almost over-crowded I would say, and if you are not prepared to become “professional” at a very early stage in your climb upwards you will soon become swamped by the opposition, unless you possess vast reserves of hidden talent.

Not everyone has the burning desire to climb upwards and many are very happy to “just mess about with motors” around the base of the British pyramid and not get in anybody’s way. It is a vast sea of “harmless fun” and long may it stay that way. But because of this strength in the base of our pyramid, the pyramid itself is much more secure than in some less fortunate countries.

What worries me is that now and then I meet someone who is not content with our solid pyramid, and wants to alter things “to make it better”. When I look deeply into these people I usually find that all their efforts are directed at making it better for them, not for the pyramid itself. If I suggest that they have got it all wrong, and that the pyramid they are building is upside down, they go away muttering “He just doesn’t understand”. Maybe I don’t understand them, but I do know that building a pyramid with the point on the ground instead of up in the air is a misguided activity. Nearly as bad are those who want to build their pyramid on a base line of infinity. All our pyramids are of the same height and all the points are very small, so the shallower the slope the easier it will be for everyone to reach the pinnacle and that is a geometric impossibility. Similarly a pyramid with a base-line that is too small will mean the slopes are too steep and no-one will get to the pinnacle.

As with everything in life a compromise has to be found and as far as the sport is concerned in Great Britain we seem to have a well-structured pyramid build on good compromise, and long may it stay that way. The sight of my friends setting off on a day of simple pleasure with their old cars, as were hundreds of others all converging on Silverstone for the final big gathering at the end of the day, made me very appreciative of the work being done behind the scenes to organise a gathering like the Norwich Union Run, and to keep the base of our pyramid solid and sound, with no flaws spreading upwards.

Memorable Moments: The flow of Three Memorable Moments from readers seems unlimited and this month I have picked three from Group Captain John Altham, of Little Shelford in Cambridgeshire, whose memory and enthusiasm for racing goes back a long way.

1. In 1932 I saw a race on the Brooklands banked outer circuit between John Cobb in the V12 10-1/2-litre Delage and Sir Henry Birkin in the “blower” single-seater Bentley, entered by the Hon Dorothy Paget. They finished one-fifth of a second apart at a race average of nearly 120 mph.

2. In 1935 I went to a race in Southern Ireland, as it then was, at Cork and the sound of an 8-cylinder supercharged Bugatti is something that stayed with me forever.

3. With thousands of other spectators I went to the 1937 Donington Park Grand Prix, when the Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union teams made their first appearance in England. The start, with von Brauchitsch (Mercedes-Benz), Rosemeyer (Auto Union), Lang (Mercedes-Benz) and Seaman (Mercedes-Benz) on the front row of the grid, was a truly Memorable Moment.

Such has been the support from readers for this feature of three Memorable Moments, suggested by reader John Patterson of Grantham two years ago, that we may have to devote a whole issue of Motor Sport to the replies, to catch up on the back-log!

Yours, DSJ

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