Remaking history

Willie Green’s decision to quit racing brings the curtain down on an amazing career spent almost entirely in a historical timewarp. By Paul Lawrence

The 2005 Goodwood Revival meeting will sadly be remembered as the event that brought the curtain down on Willie Green’s racing career. Serious leg injuries sustained in a well-publicised accident have forced him to call time on a remarkable three decades at the very pinnacle of historic racing.

Green’s racing destiny was sealed long before he was born. His father, WH (Wilfred) Green, raced in the late 1920s and was a member of the works Lea-Francis and Austin teams. “He managed to hit the steps of the town hall at Newtownards during the TT!” laughs Green Jnr. “He was bloody quick.”

The family business was in textiles, and Green Snr suffered from the cotton dust. In the early 1930s he retired from racing and became very involved in the early days of Donington Park: it was his Lea-Francis that was used to assess the roads before racing started there, and he was chief marshal for the pre-war Donington grands prix.

Willie was a war baby, born in 1943, and motor racing was ingrained in the youngster’s genes: “I remember sitting on the cricket field at prep school listening to reports from Le Mans on the light programme in 1956 and ‘57.1 never, ever dreamt that one day I’d actually drive the same cars at Le Mans.”

When he left school a career in the family business beckoned, but parental efforts to turn him into an accountant failed. Instead his attention focused on racing, and when the family business was sold he had the money to do it: “I had too much money, too young, which of course didn’t last too long.”

Green’s racing career started in a Triumph Spitfire at Aintree in 1963. The following year he raced a Mini and in subsequent seasons he bought the ex-John Wagstaff Lotus Elite and then a Ginetta G12. The ’66 season with the SCA-powered Ginetta was his best so far, with 21 overall wins and two class victories from 23 races.

By now Willie had established a useful reputation in sports and saloon cars and was starting to get invitations to race for other people. Into the tail end of the 1960s he raced saloon cars for Willy Kay, first a Lotus Cortina and then an early Escort MU: “I’ll never forget one British Touring Car Championship race at Silverstone. Brian Muir, who was a lovely guy, deliberately gave me a tow in qualifying. And I put Willy’s Escort in front of all the Broadspeed cars and I was right behind Frank Gardner. Ralph Broad could not believe his eyes!”

Silverstone in the spring of 1972 was also the setting for one of the races that will always stand out as Willie at his best: “The race I got best known for was driving the JCB 512M Ferrari. Silverstone was short of entries for the Interserie race and they said to Anthony Bamford that they’d give him £200 if the car left the grid. I got up to about seventh or eighth and it started to rain. And it rained very hard and it was wonderful! Kinnunen and the rest were in Porsche 917 turbos and I was taking great chunks of time out of them and won the heat.”

Equally impressed upon his memory of the event was the fact that the girlfriend of Porsche racer Georg Loos was an early recipient of breast enhancement: “All she was wearing was a string vest! My mechanics were all over the place.

“We were the hillbillies and that car should never have won. But I love racing in the rain. Obviously I had local knowledge, which helped, but you could see where the puddles were. These idiots were driving through the puddles and wondering why they lost it. The 512 shouldn’t have been in the same league.”

Green’s 30th birthday came in 1973 and, by now running a garage business in his native Derbyshire, he had started to race regularly for Bamford. The JCB collection of classic racing cars was crammed with gems, and Green would go on to race just about all of them.

“It was like being let loose in a toyshop, and it built my reputation in historics,” admits Green. “I’d known Anthony Bamford socially for a longtime. I think the first car I drove for him was a Chevron B8 in 1970. Then I rebuilt 250Fs for him and a Birdcage and so it just progressed from that. We’ve been together ever since.”

Some drivers keep detailed records of every race they contest, but that is not Green’s way. In all he has probably raced as many as 1500 times, but he has no way of knowing for certain. “I suppose I might have won 600 or 700 races, but I’m not sure,” he says, rather dismissing the concept of recording success.

What is certain is that he has raced a truly wonderful range of cars, from pre-WWI machines right through to around 1980: “I think I’ve raced nearly 100 Ferraris and driven four different GTOs.” Cars from the post-80 era simply do not interest him that much, and neither does the idea of chasing championships. Far more important was having fun, enjoying a good race and making the most of the social side of racing.

In fact, the only time Green was specifically paid to race was when he did some truck racing: “I was paid a little bit to race trucks, when I had a wonderful time. Can you imagine a six-ton go-kart? It’s not as easy as people think and you’re actually sitting in front of the front axle. You have to look in the mirror to see how much opposite lock you need!”

In all those races, a small number of cars and races stick out as truly memorable: “I was so lucky to drive the Mercedes W196 at Monaco in the Historic GP meeting about four years ago. It wasn’t running properly. It’s like driving an armchair. The only car that was as comfortable as the W196 was the Connaught. It’s got a wonderful gearbox. That was very memorable.

“One of the most dramatic cars I’ve ever driven was the Norm Olsen Special. I fancied myself as a bit of a hero, but those Americans racing round the Brickyard made me look like a wanker. I drove it in true 1949 specification and I think it had the most dramatic engine I’ve ever driven, but it had very benign handling characteristics.

“I shared a Ferrari Daytona with Neil Corner at Le Mans in 1973. But the fact that I’ve driven a long-nose D-type in three historic races at Le Mans means a lot more to me than driving the old Daytona.”

But it is the Maserati 250F that rates as his best-loved car. And he’s driven about 15 of them now: “The GT40 is pretty special. But you’ve got to put a 250F at the top. It’s a wonderful car.” He says it’s almost as good as his beloved Ford Capri, which he still uses as a driver-coaching workhorse: “It teaches you to steer with your right foot, exactly how you drive a 250F or a 300S, but it doesn’t work for a Lotus!”

His relationship with GT40s, which runs through to the present day, goes back to the late 1960s, when he tackled his only race on the Nürburgring Nordschleife in chassis 1010, then owned by Peter Sadler: “Back in 1968 the track was just the same as it was pre-war, still with hawthorn hedges all the way round.” His first-ever lap in the car took 21 minutes: “I couldn’t get up the hill at Hohe Acht as it snowed!” Surprisingly, he never raced again on the 14-mile circuit, but has chalked up over 1000 laps during track days and coaching sessions.

Other striking memories of the GT40 include racing at the Vila Real street circuit and at Montjuich Park in Spain. “I did the Tour de France with John Davenport in a GT40. You went through two nights without going to bed,” he adds of an event that they could have won but for a broken gearbox.

For the past 20 years Green has plied his trade as one of the most prolific and successful historic racers. “It’s history, really,” he says, starting to explain the appeal of racing old cars. “The buzz is actually finding the limit and driving on it. It’s much easier to do that in an old car as the limit is generally lower. In an old car it’s all fingertips, and that small amount of tyre tread has got to accelerate it, brake it and corner it. You have to find the balance between all three, and the cars are fragile. If you are violent with it, the car will break.”

For a driver with so many battles with so many racers under his belt, Green has a strong and unexpected view on the best driver he has raced against: “Neil Corner was very good in a 250F. But the most natural racing driver I’ve ever seen was Peter Hannen. No question. He had the Connaught and I was driving a 250F and he sat back and I had to go further and further to keep him behind me. He sat there and watched and learnt. He was a very delicate driver with complete self-control and the ability to assess the situation. He’s probably the best driver I’ve ever seen.”

Others to merit a mention from Green include Mark Hales and the late Gerry Marshall: “I enjoyed racing against Mark. He was in a 512 and I was in the Ligier at Le Mans and we were three feet apart at 190mph. And I was quite happy to race within two or three feet of Gerry, because he would never do a silly move and he’d never lose it.”

Now the aftermath of that terrible accident at Goodwood has encouraged Willie to call time on racing. Thankfully he continues to make good progress from serious leg injuries and is now walking unaided. It was the first time he had been injured in a racing accident: “I’m now very aware how easy it is to get hurt in an old car and I’ve retired from single-seater racing.”

He’ll still be around the sport and will continue to help others enjoy their toys, but a remarkable career has closed: “I’m bloody grateful when I look back. Fabulous people and fabulous memories.”