Tony Brooks

Some call him the most under-rated British driver of all. Stirling Moss considered him one of his toughest rivals. Now Tony Brooks has written his autobiography, and we are proud to present this extract describing the eventful road to his racing debut

It was books and magazines that sparked the young Tony Brooks’s interest in motor sport. With his enthusiasm boosted by visits to Prescott and Shelsley Walsh, Brooks practiced his craft on the road with a BSA and then a 650cc Triumph Thunderbird motorbike, teaching himself to anticipate traffic, assess grip and take the neatest line through a corner. But two wheels were never going to be enough…

The Triumph had its limitations, but I learned to ride within them and I had some wonderful runs in the High Peak area over the Snake Pass to Hathersage, Baslow, Buxton and Whaley Bridge, with little or no traffic on challenging roads with a great variety of bends. I learnt a great deal about riding both quickly and safely on those roads and would look forward to the weekends when I would do circular tours just for the pleasure of the ride. It was when I returned from these that my father spotted more squashed insects on my goggles and person than he thought advisable.

Dad resolved to get me off my bike and into a car, but I had told myself that I didn’t want to make the transition until it was to a car as fast as my bike – an unrealistic ambition as in those days only a handful of extremely expensive road cars could match the Triumph’s 0-100mph time. Fortunately, although my motorcycling experience had heightened my enjoyment of speed and the thrill of cornering, I had come to accept that the public roads were not the place to explore the limit of myself or the machinery I was in charge of. At about this time I read Charles Mortimer’s book Racing a Sports Car.

It ran to only 138 pages but I absorbed every sentence. I was in a fantasy world, reliving his experiences and that of his wife, Jean, who was the real novice. The car Charles had bought to go racing was a Healey Silverstone.

As Dad wanted to get me off my motorcycle and Mum was a good sport I suggested they read Mortimer’s book, which they did. Again I adopted a gentle ‘constant drip’ approach and in time Dad bought my idea of selling my Triumph and Mum’s MG TC to purchase a car suitable for some low-key club motor racing, the MG not being suitable for this purpose. Which car to buy? Charles’ Healey had cost £1256 11s 8d (£1256.58 in modern currency), much more than our funds could stretch to. But the Healey had proved to be a reliable car with its 2½-litre four-cylinder Riley engine and had provided some very enjoyable motor racing. It seemed to be the ideal car, the only problem being to find one we could afford.

Only 105 Silverstones had been built so I had quite a challenge to ind one at a suitable price. I scoured the classiied adverts in the motoring magazines and found one owned by a lady living in the West Country. It was first registered by her in December 1949 and with 10,700 miles on the odometer we managed to buy it for £740. Dad and I drove it home with great joy and I resolved to keep a racing journal detailing all work on the car, the races and the results. The first entry was: ‘Arrived home 5th December 1951, mileage 11,093’. I had shown Mum a photograph of a Healey Silverstone as part of the selling process, so she knew that with its mudguard wings and primitive hood it was not exactly an ideal shopping car, but she had entered into the spirit of the venture with remarkable enthusiasm. Charles Mortimer encouraged us by recording that the first season’s racing, excluding the purchase of the car, had cost a total of only £291 1s 7d (£291.08) after deducting bonus and prize money and it included competing in the RAC TT, the Jersey International Road Race, the Silverstone Production Car Race, six Goodwood Club meetings and some sprints.

Although it was 250 miles away from Dukinfield, Goodwood was the obvious choice for my racing debut because it had been the focus of the Mortimers and looked to be an interesting circuit with character. Charles had recorded his Goodwood lap times in the book which I thought would be very useful in providing a yardstick for my performance.

Imagine my disappointment to find that a new chicane had since been incorporated in the circuit between Woodcote and Madgwick Corners, making any comparison of lap times invalid! The Goodwood events were run by the British Automobile Racing Club so I applied for membership of the BARC and completed an entry form for a club meeting on Saturday, March 22, 1952, entering a scratch and a handicap race, both of five laps. [Local mechanic] Jim Critchlow and I carefully prepared the Healey. The cylinder head was removed and we found three bent pushrods and a law in the No2 inlet valve. The plugs were changed, the pushrods and valves replaced, stronger valve springs fitted and the ports polished. There were no individual brands of petrol at the time, all pumps dispensing low-grade ‘Pool’ petrol of around 75-octane, so we advanced the ignition because we had managed to obtain six gallons of 80-octane for the event, which we had to take with us in the Healey in two- and four-gallon drums.

Dad finished surgery at 3.30pm on the Friday afternoon and I left University early, aiming to catch up the following week on whatever I missed with the help of friends like Gerry Hartley. We set off together in the Silverstone on our voyage of discovery. Roads out of town were derestricted in those days and we were able to average 50mph and 26mpg for the 248 miles to the seaside resort of Bognor Regis, where we stayed overnight in a bed & breakfast guest house. Then the following morning we set off early for the circuit in some trepidation.

We had nobody to initiate us into the procedure of signing-on, scrutineering, etc, but we fumbled our way through the various steps, conscious that our notional ‘L’ plates must have been very evident, but the officials and other competitors were very friendly, which eased our discomfort. At just 20 years of age I had reached the moment of truth.

My desire to race had been built up steadily over the years and haring over the Snake Pass with my motorcycles and cars had given me a great thrill so I was absolutely certain that I would enjoy testing the car and myself to the limit. I was conident about my driving ability, but so presumably were the other drivers, so was I about to be proven wrong?

Would I make an idiot of myself? Would I overdo it, spin and bend the car, or cause another competitor to have a moment? Would I be some way behind at the end of five laps? I had no means of knowing without the benefit of any comparable lap times. My realistic concerns were in sharp contrast to the attitude of too many young drivers today, who appear to think it necessary to have self-confidence oozing out of every pore and seem unable to recognise where confidence spills over into arrogance and cockiness. Lap times, race results and the way they behave on and off the track will reveal the truth and all that everyone needs to know about them.

Goodwood had been an aerodrome during the war and was built on landowned by the Duke of Richmond and Gordon, a former racing driver, team manager and President of the BARC. It was known as RAF Westhampnett, was an ancillary to the main Fighter Command station at Tangmere, and was used almost exclusively for Spitires. To provide access for their large refuelling tankers a perimeter track was laid, which by sheer chance produced an extremely good 2.4-mile circuit when it was tried out by some of the RAF pilots. In fact in retrospect I cannot recall a circuit with such a variety of challenging, double-apex, varying camber corners in so few miles, so unwittingly I could not have found a better one on which to make my debut.

Although the short practice period would allow me only five laps, I had adopted an approach which would stand me in good stead in the future, carefully studying the circuit map, clearly identifying every corner and getting at least some idea of their radii. So learning which way the Goodwood circuit went was not a great problem, and having clearly in my mind what was coming up next helped me to make the most of the meagre five laps. The first practice lap time my father recorded for me was 2min 21sec. The Silverstone was not a serious competitor in a scratch race, but what I was after was as much experience as possible in as short a time as possible and it was fast enough to get a sense of what motor racing was all about.

Sitting on the grid, some way back, staring ixedly at the raised Union Jack, all doubts were banished from my mind and I was determined to at least be the first of those on my row into the first corner, Madgwick.

Holding the engine revs constant at 1750rpm I let the clutch pedal up at the drop of the lag, inducing the little bit of wheelspin I wanted to ensure the revs were kept in the torque range, then eased back on the accelerator to kill the wheelspin and gain maximum acceleration. My first race start was good – better than some I made later in my career – and I edged ahead of the rest of my row, which was the first little racing ‘kick’ I enjoyed. We jostled our way around Madgwick and started to string out a bit before Fordwater, which became flat-out with more experience, and by the time I reached the right-hander before St Mary’s I was able to use the whole road, taking the correct line and hanging on to it.

Through both St Mary’s and Lavant I was still able to hold the best, tight line, with someone optimistically trying to go round me on the outside, and then I was into the straight, clocking just 100mph and charging towards Woodcote Corner. I had a fast car on my inside so I had to give way to it on braking, swinging through its two apexes on the right line, braking as late as possible into the new tight chicane and rushing up the straight past the pits. I had safely completed my first-ever racing lap, and the exhilaration was something I remember to this day.

Apart from that first lap there was little wheel-to-wheel racing and I was pleased to be able to concentrate on learning everything I could about the corners and the best line through them. The five laps lashed by and I hardly had a chance to fully savour the pleasure I had in trying to push myself and the car to the limit that my experience permitted, but I had to be satisfied with sixth position and the great thrill of my irst race.

I couldn’t wait for my second event, the five-lap handicap. Dad timed my standing-start lap at 2min 12sec, but although I reduced my lap time to 2min 8.5sec by the end of the race it was not good enough for the handicapper and I finished in eighth position. I might have done better if the car hadn’t begun to splutter due to petrol surge. I had learned another lesson: a minimum of three gallons must be maintained in the tank.

The results of my first two races might appear disappointing, but I was elated and utterly convinced that motor racing was what I wanted to do. I had improved on my first timed practice lap by 12.5 seconds and at this stage of my career I would have to be satisied with measuring my progress in these terms, not by results.

All things considered it was a successful debut. Most importantly, I had not damaged the car mechanically or reshaped it, a philosophy I would cling to which would earn me a reputation for having a safe pair of hands and lead to invitations to drive the cars of others. The fact that any contretemps would mean us going back on the train, apart from the expense of repairs, was justification in itself for my philosophy and reinforced my commitment to it. Most of all I had really caught the racing bug and lit a burning ambition which kept me smiling on the drive home immediately after my last race, the Silverstone seemingly running more sweetly than ever, averaging 26mpg for the weekend trip, including the racing.