True heroism

Is there a more overused, overworked noun in the English language than ‘hero’? To become a hero no longer requires the smallest act of heroism, you just need to be able to kick a ball around a pitch with more than usual adroitness. I’m not even sure that those who drove lethal racing cars in the 1950s and ’60s were in any way heroic. To me at least, true heroism involves not just personal risk, but willing self-sacrifice for the benefit of others.

Why mention this now? Because at the Silverstone Classic and for doing nothing more than scoring a minor class placing, I got to meet someone whose standing as a true hero can be doubted by no one. When people think of Tony Rolt, they recall the outstanding victory he shared with Duncan Hamilton at Le Mans in 1953. They may recall his pioneering work with four-wheel drive at FF Developments or even that, as a teenager, he won the British Empire Trophy in 1939. None of this makes him a hero. Staying behind at Dunkirk, fighting back the Panzers for three days to enable as many British soldiers as possible to make it home is what makes him a hero. For this exceptional conduct, he earned the Military Cross. 

Rolt was captured and attempted to escape seven times before being sent to Colditz, where he had the idea for building a glider in its roof. As many will know, the glider was built but never flew as by the time it was ready, liberation was imminent.

Rolt is now 88 and, while he looks well, is rarely seen in public. At the time I’d just raced a Ferrari 750 Monza for the first time and not disgraced myself. Nothing, or so I thought, could have eclipsed that feeling until I turned up for prize-giving and saw Rolt standing there. I have never felt so honoured to meet someone in my life.

As for the Classic itself, it took another step in the right direction. There were problems – putting one of the greatest selections of Group C cars ever assembled so far from the action on the Club circuit straight was daft – but the grids were exceptional, the racing tight and, away from the track, there was a lot more for families to see and do. We need more of this if the event is to realise its potential and appeal to anyone looking for fun, not just to racing die-hards. 

Andrew Frankel