“I always kept a packet of fags in the ashtray”
Tobacco, beer and avoiding exercise – essential driver training in the 1960s when Gordon Spice began his racing career. In the next 23 years he became a colourful fixture on UK circuits and abroad, winning in Minis, Capris and sports cars, creating his own prototypes, scoring four endurance titles and entering 14 Le Mans races, all while juggling a complex business operation. His entertaining new autobiography Life of Spice is packed with wins, crashes, boozy nights, share flotations and some great party tricks. Here we present a short extract. We pick up the tale in 1979, after Gordon has clinched a new sponsorship deal for Spa with Belga cigarettes – signed on a restaurant tablecloth…
For the 1979 Spa 24 Hours we had our strongest driver line-up to date, with Belga Capris for the Martin brothers [Philippe and Jean-Michel], Chris Craft and Jeff Allam, plus Alain Semoulin sharing with me. I had got to know Alain well and we had earlier driven together at Le Mans in a six-hour race on the Bugatti circuit and enjoyed a particularly satisfying win. That was the first and last race that my Mum ever attended. It surprised me how emotional she was – and so proud of her wayward son!
The team was accompanied by our loyal band of volunteers from the UK. I’ll mention just two: Neil Brown, our engine builder, was always on hand to give practical help and advice – he always did a superb job; and Rob Adaway, a regular Silverstone marshal, who assumed responsibility for refuelling all the team cars, a demanding 24-hour task, while his wife Val helped in other areas. These were among the many who gave freely of their time with enthusiasm over the years: we were lucky to have them.
This was the first 24-hour race on the new 4.35-mile circuit. Although not as fast as the old track, it was equally challenging and considerably safer.
Pole position went to Hans Stuck’s BMW with a time of 2min 48.99sec, my time of 2min 49.98sec being only good enough for seventh spot on the grid! Chris and Jeff were 15th at 2min 52.52sec and the competition was so strong the Martin brothers were not even in the top 20.
After a wet start, the BMW contingent were at it hammer and tongs – you’d have thought it was a 10-lap sprint. Shortly after Alain had handed over to me for my second stint, Beltoise, challenging for the lead in his BMW, had a horrific fiery accident at the legendary Eau Rouge downhill corner, which featured a stream of water across the track. Beltoise was lucky to escape with minor injuries, but in the process he flattened the Armco and three pace cars were out for 90 minutes while it was repaired.
I always kept a packet of fags in the ashtray – to save having to cadge from the marshals if I got stuck on the circuit, or felt the urge for one behind a pace car. On this occasion I ran out of ciggies and signed to my pitcrew my predicament. Next time round I drove slowly past the pitwall and Creech [Spice’s wife Mandy] lobbed a fresh fag pack through the window: panic over!
In the mixed conditions there were accidents aplenty, but we kept our noses clean. By 3am (half-distance), despite an unscheduled stop for exhaust repairs (my fault), we were in third place, behind the two BMWs for Eddy Joosen and Bruno Giacomelli. Significantly the Martin brothers, enjoying a trouble-free run, were in fifth spot, and the Craft/Allam car, after a series of niggling delays, held seventh.
At 5.30am our hopes of success were dashed when poor Alain got involved with someone else’s accident. Somehow he brought the car back, with what looked like terminal damage. The side window was smashed, the door hanging off and the fuel tank was leaking badly. After replacing the tank and much panel bashing, I rejoined the race well down the order.
Meanwhile, both the leading BMWs hit problems, and with just six hours to go the Martin brothers held a healthy lead over Joosen. For me, it was now shit or bust to catch up, and I set the fastest lap of the race – faster than Stuck’s pole time. The cost was probably not worth it as the engine started to sound rough. Neil Brown imposed a 5800rpm limit to have any chance of finishing.
At this stage I turned down [Belga PR chief] Jules Radart’s offer to share the Martin brothers’ Capri, for which I was reserve driver. This was an easy decision for two reasons: firstly, the brothers had driven superbly and a win by two Belgian lads would be both well-deserved and politically perfect; secondly, with the Craft/Allam car running just ahead of us, Belga was looking good for the prestigious team prize – the Coupe de Roi – but that would depend on nursing our own car to the end.
By 3pm on Sunday the Martins’ Capri had the race won, two laps clear of the Joosen BMW and 12 laps clear of Craft/Allam in fourth. Alain and I came fifth, a lap down on Craft. As the Motoring News report summed up: “Only two BMWs finished in the top 10 and only four among the 20 finishers. A Spa 24 Hours as testing as has ever been seen, long or short circuit. Mind you, only five Capris finished, but they were in the right places!”
It was a brilliant team result, only made possible by impeccable teamwork. Belga had provided the finance, but credit for winning the team prize was down to Keith Greene’s team management and the pitcrew’s unstinting efforts.
At a major supper in Brussels that Sunday evening, the celebrations for our GSR team and the Belga people were even more OTT than the previous year, with Jules, Jean-Michel and Philippe in seventh heaven. When the restaurant wanted to close, Jules Radart countered with
an offer to buy it!
Announcing that Belga had become the brand leader in Belgium, Jules publicly insisted that we sign up again for the following year. I argued that two Belga wins on the trot was as lucky as it was exceptional: perhaps we should quit while ahead? Jules would have none of it and after dinner my arm was twisted to sign an agreement for 1980, which we did there and then.
A wonderful sellers’ market!