To get this far you’d spent two years working on oil rigs to raise the money when most other drivers were karting. What was it like, those two years in the North Sea?
PM: “I didn’t want to be out there. I had to do it for the money. It was the only way and it was very tough, hardened me both mentally and physically. You’re sharing a room with three other guys, up at 6am or earlier, and it’s cold, always cold, so you’re in thermal vests and long johns, steel-capped boots and a hard hat. Getting out there by helicopter you’re in a big orange rubber survival suit
that gives you about 10 minutes in the sea if you’re lucky. We did a lot of safety training but I always thought, if we go into the sea, the flight is just about over.
“On the rigs my job was corrosion control. If the metal structure is left untended in that environment it will corrode and eventually fail, halting production. So you’re hanging from a scaffold platform with a shot-blaster 120 feet above the waves for hours on end, peering through a tiny glass window in your helmet, all the abrasive stuff hitting you, so you’d have to stop and change the glass. The shifts were long, 14 hours, seven days a week, two weeks at a time, but I stashed away at least £15,000 for my racing over those two years in 1978 and ’79. It would have been more if I hadn’t indulged in what sociologists call ‘explosive compensation’ in the pub with my mates when I came back on shore leave.”
For Perry McCarthy, it was always about the next step…
Your career path was, shall we say, punctuated with some horrendous shunts. Did those accidents not deter you from reaching the ultimate goal?
PM: “The first big accident, in Formula Ford in 1984, I broke my back. That put me out for a whole year and in ’85 I was forced to stay down in Formula Ford. I had no money, it wasn’t enjoyable any more – that was a horrible season. So, yes, I was very close to quitting. Honestly, I had lost my motivation and didn’t want to drive those cars any more.
“But… when I found a sponsor and got into a Formula 3 Reynard in ’86 with Madgwick Motorsport, I thought, ‘Wow, this is the big time.’ Coming from a patchy season of Formula Ford in ’85, it felt like I was strapped on the back of a missile. It just felt fantastic. So now I had this great opportunity. I was fastest in early testing and qualifying, nobody expected that, but yet again the good times were always punctuated with unforeseen disappointments. Nerve damage in my right leg forced me to miss part of the season and when I came back I still couldn’t move my right foot properly.
“Are you putting that on, finishing so far down the field?“
“In ’87 we had gearbox failures, suspension failures, engine failures and two massive accidents within days of each other, both suspension breakages. Adrian Reynard wanted me to try some new suspension on an old Saab F3 chassis they had and it collapsed at 140mph putting me in the wall. The car was totally destroyed, my helmet was broken, I’d taken a good blow to the head. Just three days later the team wanted me to try some different development suspension on my car and it fell apart going into the old Russell chicane at Snetterton, and that was a very big shunt. The car took off and barrel-rolled along the track. There was nothing left of the car when they dragged me out.
“Two days later Paul Haigh and the Madgwick guys had built me a new car for the Cellnet Superprix and as soon as I went out on the track I’d lost it. I mean, I was all over the place. I’d had two severe blows to the head, I couldn’t work out what was happening, and that led to fear. I was doing 50mph and in a panic, I had to get back to the pits. I sat there, my hands were shaking, so I stuffed them between my legs so nobody would notice. It was like being in a trance for 20 minutes. I said to myself, ‘What’s happening, I’m a racing driver, I need to go fast.’ So they fired it up, I went back out, did a warm-up lap, one flyer, went fastest, came back in, and I didn’t know what was going on again. I started crying, just stood there crying, not something I do unless it’s in a good Lassie film, but I’d proved a point to myself even though it was a dumb thing to do, to have got in the car. In the race I really struggled, came fourth, but I’d have to be dead not to give it everything.”
It’s a more sedate life these days
Despite the setbacks you got yourself up into International Formula 3000. Did you still believe you had what it takes to make it to Formula 1?
PM: “I believed I was a Formula 1 driver waiting to happen. I needed more results in the ‘Notice Perry’ folder and I knew, that with the right support from the right people, I would make it. I would go anywhere, do anything, as long as people kept believing in me and I absolutely adored my graduation to Formula 3000 at the Birmingham Super Prix street race in 1988 in the GA Motorsport Lola. I was second fastest to Roberto Moreno – who was later my team-mate at Andrea Moda – in the wet quali session and although I missed out in the dry, with mechanical problems, Ron Tauranac had been impressed and I joined the Ralt works team.
“The car wasn’t competitive that year. Other drivers were abandoning it, but in a test on the Le Mans Bugatti Circuit I was fastest in the wet and Tauranac was already telling Ken Tyrrell he should sign me. Formula 3000 was my favourite ever form of racing, loads of power, loads of grip, and the more power, the faster the car, the better driver I became.
McCarthy’s only year in an F1 seat was 1992, but he never once made the starting grid – but tested for Footwork and Benetton
“As I progressed up the ladder I was enjoying the cars more and more. Of course, there was never enough money, but I felt I could make the difference. In ’89 I went with Roger Cowman Racing and the Lola-Cosworth. Roger was a great team leader, he believed in me. Nobody else could have run that car on such a small budget. Roger sacrificed a lot to do that and I signed my house over for that drive. All through my career there were ‘penalty clauses’, or setbacks, like that.
“But I tell you, to qualify that F3000 Ralt in mid-field in ’88 was like winning. The car was so bad that after the race at Dijon Damon Hill said to me, ‘Are you putting that on, finishing so far down the field?’ The insurance broker Tim Clowes told me that people were watching at the ultra high-speed right-hander waiting to see this bloke in a Ralt have the biggest accident they’d ever seen in their lives. When it’s tough like that I don’t back off. I grip the wheel and go harder and faster. That’s the challenge, to make the most of every chance.”
At the Daytona 24 Hours in 1998, McCarthy was part of a Dyson foursome (20) that led the race
Your success in GTP and sports cars in America greatly enhanced your reputation. Should you have stayed longer in America and made more of that opportunity in properly competitive cars?
PM: “America was fantastic. I was welcomed by everyone. They knew about me, and that was really nice, and to win my first race there was great. My introduction to the GTP series, at Watkins Glen in the 600bhp Spice, was incredible. I was quicker than Wayne Taylor in the other Spice and my team-mate Tommy Kendall. By this time I was having conversations with F1 teams. My sole job was to make my name, hang it out, and I just felt the dream was getting closer; somehow a door will open for me.
“At the Glen it rained and I was in my element. I grasped that chance, beating the turbo cars from Jaguar, Nissan, Toyota and Porsche, which were far quicker on the straights. I’ve always been fast in the rain but honestly I have no idea why, it just came naturally. Sadly, I had to leave America, but I went back and in ’98 we were leading the Daytona 24 Hours with Dyson when the car failed after 20 hours. I loved those sports cars, winning with Panoz in 2002, racing with Audi at Le Mans in 1999.
“It was never my choice to leave America the first time round, but I had no money and all the teams needed sponsorship. It’s always been the story. I mean John Wickham wanted me at the Footwork F1 team. I tested for them, and tested for Benetton, came so close, but I had no funding. I’d started my career so late, I was getting older, and time was running out, but I’d loved those tastes of F1 with proper cars and proper teams.”