Simon Taylor's Notebook

The Segrave Trophy is not as well-known now as it used to be, but it still recognises human courage and endeavour

Henry O'Neal De Hane Segrave was one of those Boys' Own heroes who occur from time to time in motorsporting history. Aged 17 he was in the trenches of World War I and was badly wounded. Invalided home, he wangled a transfer to the Royal Flying Corps and was twice shot down. When the war was over he married a beautiful actress and took up motor racing. Famously, he won the French Grand Prix for Sunbeam in 1923: it was the first time that a British driver had won a grand prix in a British car, and it wouldn't happen again for more than 30 years. Then he attacked the World Land Speed Record and became the first man to travel at more than 200mph, later raising it to 231mph. For this he was knighted by King George V.

He switched to powerboating, beat the Americans in the Fischer Cup, and set his sights on the Water Speed Record with Miss England II, powered by two 1500bhp Rolls-Royce aero engines. On Friday 13 June 1930, with his loyal engineers Halliwell and Wilcocks aboard, he set a new world record on Lake 'Windermere at 98.76mph.

But Sir Henry was just warming up. Straight away he turned round and had another go. Approaching 120mph Miss England II hit a submerged log, tore open its hull, rolled over and sank. Halliwell was killed, Wilcocks survived. Segrave, badly injured, was pulled conscious from the water and taken to a house on the shore. He asked his wife if he'd taken the record: she told him he had. Then he died. His ashes were taken up in an aircraft he'd helped to design, the Segrave Meteor, and scattered over the playing fields of Eton — his old school, of course. A few weeks earlier he'd said: "God save me from dying between the sheets."

Three quarters of a century later all this may seem unfashionably gung-ho. But Segrave was a truly brave man who, despite an Irish father and an American mother, wanted glory for Britain. He had become an adored public hero — the Beckham or Flintoff of his day — and his death shocked the nation, which had followed his exploits hungrily in the popular newspapers. A trust fund was raised to administer a trophy in his memory, for "the British or Commonwealth subject who accomplishes the most outstanding possibilities of transport by land, air or water."

For a long time the Segrave Trophy was nationally revered, and its winner each year made frontpage news. Today's news priorities are different, and many people have forgotten that the Segrave existed or have never heard of it. But in the 75 years since Sir Henry's death, the trophy that carries his name has been awarded 56 times. A committee appointed by members of the Royal Automobile Club, the British Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, and the Powerboat Division of the Royal Yachting Association sits annually to decide on a worthy recipient. Recent winners have included aerobatic veteran Brian Lecomber, disabled round-the-world pilot Tim Ellison, World Powerboat Champion Steve Curtis and — posthumously — Irish motorcycle talisman Joey Dunlop. Andy Green was 1997's winner: the first man to break the sound barrier on land, he is very much in the Segrave mould. So is his mentor Richard Noble, who'd brought the Land Speed Record back to Britain 14 years before. Brian Milton flew a microlight around the world in 80 days; Lady Arran became the first woman to exceed 100mph on water. John Blashford-Snell won the Segrave for his expedition to the Zaire River in 1974, and Ken Wallis for holding every world autogyro record for speed, altitude and endurance.

Back in the 1930s the world was a bigger place and there were still plenty of single-handed heroic challenges to attack. The first few awards went to long-distance pilots like Charles Kingsford-Smith and Amy Johnson. Malcolm Campbell won it twice and his son Donald four times, the last one posthumously. Other record-breakers who won the Segrave have included Cobb, Eyston and Goldie Gardner.

But nowadays such individual achievements are rarer, and the wheeled awards in recent years have recognised racing and rallying achievements. In 1957 Stirling Moss became the first man to win it for motor racing, followed in 1969 by Bruce McLaren for winning the Can-Am Series with cars of his own manufacture. Jackie Stewart won it for his trio of Fl titles, Roger Clark (coupled with the names of the Ford team) for his 1975 British Rally Championship and Martin Brundle for winning the World Sports Car title for Jaguar in 1988. Nigel Mansell and Frank Williams took it jointly in 1992 for their Fl World Championships: the following year, Mansell and Lola's Eric Broadley for their IndyCar World Series victory. Colin McRae and Damon Hill won it for their world rally and race titles in 1995 and 1996.

As the exploits in which Segrave delighted become more a matter of technology and budgets and less about individual courage, so the list of names qualifying for the Trophy will inevitably become shorter. And yet men and women will go on finding ways to display extraordinary endeavour on land, sea and air. Records will still be set — and broken. Sir Henry's spirit will live on.