Letters from readers, September 2003

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Double standards?

Sir,

I must express my disgust at the ultimatum issued by Bernie Ecclestone to the BRDC regarding the future of the British Grand Prix at Silverstone. As an Englishman surely he should be trying to keep the race at a circuit where overtaking is something that happens on a regular basis. I can think of a number of grand prix venues that do not have the width of track, pits and garage areas that Silverstone has. Monaco springs to mind. Why are there no ultimatums there? I am sure that many thousands of British motorsport enthusiasts would like an answer to that.

I am, yours etc,
John Glenn, Birmingham
* * * *
Je m’accuse

Sir,

I draw your attention to the article in the August issue of Motor Sport regarding the 1970 British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch.

The BT33 was the first Brabham monocoque F1 chassis, not one of the last spaceframes, and I regretfully admit that I was the mechanic who failed to readjust the fuel mixture on the starting grid. I believe Sir Jack has forgiven me!

I am, yours etc,
Nick Goozée, Puddletown, Dorset
* * * *
A genuine all-rounder

Sir,

Briggs Cunningham should also be remembered as a fine yachtsman. Those on yachts with sails may well tension their luffs by means of the Cunningham Hole set in the sail near the boom. Defending the America’s Cup for the New York Yacht Club in 1958, Cunningham’s Columbia beat the UK’s Sceptre 4-0; his total lead-time was in the region of 35min! He was also on the NYYC Selection Committee for several years and raced other classes in Europe.

He wrote at length on his museum’s light-blue writing paper, and a firm handshake greeted all who arrived at the Briggs Cunningham Automotive Museum. Opened in February 1966 to the sounds of Stan Kenton, a black-tie do for 650 guests launched the museum in style. Everything worked there, and enthusiasts were encouraged to take the wheel, in my case helming the Bugatti Royale, the silver elephant on the rad cap seemingly in the next state!

Briggs did much to lead the way for Ford and others to Europe. His collection included the ex-Gary Cooper Duesenberg (a rare two-seater; Clark Gable had the other one), a splendid white SSK Mercedes-Benz, and many more.

I am, yours etc,
David Kinsella, Wimbledon
* * * *
True sportsman

Sir,

I read with sorrow your short notice on the passing of Briggs Cunningham in the August 2003 issue. Surely an entire issue of the magazine is required to even in minor measure set out the accomplishments of this man, who was the greatest single individual in the organisation and professionalisation of American racing and its outreach to world sportscar racing. And, that aside, he was one of the world’s great sportsmen.

Is there another successful Le Mans competitor who can claim top finishes in that race, a win at Sebring, an America’s Cup win and the cover of Time magazine? I doubt it.

Mr Cunningham was present at the birth of post-war sportscar racing in the US, providing opportunities for top-level rides in his cars and bringing together the fusion of hot-rodders, American automobile manufacturers, sprint and stock-car drivers and all the many elements which we now take for granted, but before him were separated by false ‘cultural’ barriers. If a Mercedes needed a Buick engine in it and a sprint-car driver was the best candidate, Briggs would put them in and damn the critics. It’s a shame that Europe didn’t get to see his original planned assault on Le Mans with Fordillacs; instead, he famously put a basically standard Cadillac coupé in the top 10.

My own enthusiasm for the sport was also a product of Mr Cunningham. My father had driven us out to Bridgehampton, Long Island, in 1963 to see an SCCA race which, unbeknown to us, had been cancelled. In its place, however, was a track instruction day where Mr Cunningham was in attendance.

Seeing me wandering in the pits, he struck up a conversation. I was a bit stunned, knowing who he was, but he treated this youth with understanding and enthusiasm and asked me if I’d like a ride in his brand-new white E-type. After I secured my father’s okay, he proceeded to ask driver Walt Hansgen to take me on a lap around the track during the lunchbreak! I’m sure it was a gentle trundle, but since I had never even seen an E-type, and had certainly never been on a racetrack before, it felt like 11/10ths. A memory I will never forget.

A few years later I was in Manhattan for the New York Auto Show and saw Mr Cunningham trying to stand unobtrusively behind a potted plant. I went over to say hello and, seeing me (and a chance to escape the drollery of the BMC stand), he said, “Didn’t I meet you at Bridgehampton?”

We talked about Alec Issigonis’ new Morris Mini-Minor, its liquid suspension and the possibilities for racing use. In the middle of this, a representative from BMC came over and, grabbing him by the elbow, said, “Hey, Briggs, there’s a guy here you have to meet!” Mr Cunningham met him with an icy stare and said, “Can’t you see we’re talking about the cars?” The look on the BMC man’s face was priceless.

His legacy at Le Mans with Corvette is still alive more than four decades after his initial success, and one can only hope that there will come another time when people like him emerge once again on the world stage, as unlikely as that seems in the era of Bernie.

I am, yours etc,
Norman Gaines, Hartsdale, New York, USA
* * * *
A year out

Sir,

In the story ‘Phoenix Park Marks Centenary’ in the August edition you state that it was 1929 that the race meeting was established. I cannot understand why you then give the details of the 1930 winner. The winner of the 1929 Irish GP was the Alfa Romeo 6C 1750 now owned by the Pilkington family. I am fortunate to own the Alfa Romeo 6C 1500 which won the first day’s race and came third overall. The driver of both cars was Boris Ivanowski.

I am, yours etc,
John Hearne, Silverlake, New Zealand
* * * *
Filling the gaps

Sir,

A year ago I appealed to your readers for help concerning my proposed book regarding the British Formula Three championships, 1971 to ’90. I received a healthy response from many sources, but I am still in need of numerous complete race results – namely from the 1974-78 period. There must be people out there with these sheets stored away in attics and also ex-team personnel who kept such items. I have a list available of race results still required and I would be grateful if anyone could give further help in this direction. I can be contacted on 01280 816687.

The project is coming along nicely and I’m currently researching the staggering total of 981 drivers who raced – or attempted to race – in F3 races over this 20-year period.

I am, yours etc,
Jonathan Blackwell, Buckingham
* * * *
Indomitable A J

Sir,

Joe Scalzo’s article on A J Foyt was interesting but could only scratch the surface of the long and varied career of this complex and unpredictable character.

Foyt first raced in Europe in the 1958 Race of Two Worlds at Monza where, lapping at up to 177mph, he ran as high as third before finishing sixth, co-driving with Maurice Trintignant.

At Le Mans in 1967 Foyt drove 14 hours to Gurney’s 10, the car leading for almost the entire race. This was only a week after he’d won his third Indianapolis 500.

I well remember the USAC Indycar race at Silverstone in 1978 where, in his outdated, overweight, underpowered Coyote, he won against the Cosworth runners. Compared to F1 cars, the turbocharged, methanol-fuelled Indycars accelerated like rockets and were clearly a handful, but Foyt was inch-perfect and extremely smooth.

No-one in Europe seems to like the fact that, even with a broken back, he took pole position from Jim Clark at Indy in 1965.

At Milwaukee in 1966 his Indycar failed to turn up, so he ran a front-engined sprint car, on Tarmac, and took pole ahead of the rear-engined cars. He almost won, too, finishing second.

Brake failure at Elkhart Lake almost cost him both legs in 1990, but he was back on the front row of the Indy 500 the following May, aged 56.

He also holds the world’s circuit speed record of over 275mph in an Oldsmobile Aerotech.

In the days when IROC meant something, he won the series twice against Andretti, Donohue, Petty, the Unsers, Gurney and Fittipaldi.

Foyt also ran his own team, worked on the cars himself, took on Ford’s V8 programme, introduced Goodyear to racing and gave many future aces, such as Al Unser, their first Indy drive.

The two words not in his vocabulary are ‘points’ and ‘podium’. In the early 1960s he was narrowly leading Rodger Ward in the USAC championship with one race to go, in which he only had to finish second to Ward to clinch the title. Foyt’s attitude was: “If I win the race, then Ward can’t.” The thought of cruising to second place horrified him, so he took both the race and the title, as a champion should.

Like him or not, he always generated sparks of interest, on the track and off it, and had more strength of character and presence than a grid full of modem politically correct and PR-savvy drivers.

I’ll leave the final words to two of America’s finest: Andretti devoted a whole chapter of his book to Foyt, and Pamelli Jones once said, “There are some cars that no-one can win in, but Foyt can win in cars that no-one else could win in.”

What a pity he didn’t team up with Gurney again in 1967 at Spa in a Formula One Eagle.

I am, yours etc,
Martin R Casswell, Gainsborough
* * * *
Be lucky

Sir,

I very much enjoyed your article on A J Foyt and would like to make some points.

Formula One: Foyt avoided it for the same reason Parnell Jones did — it took two years to learn the tracks and success was not guaranteed, dependant on signing with the right team at the right time.

Indianapolis: as a rookie, SuperTex turned few heads, unlike rivals Jones, Jimmy Clark and Mario Andretti. In fact, he never dominated a 500. Even the years he won, it was through the misfortunes of others (with the exception perhaps of 1977). Chris Economaki said: “There is no driver in the world who’s been luckier than AJ Foyt.”

Sportscars: Foyt’s greatest sportscar race was Nassau ’63, where he drove the wheels off the Mecom Scarab, winning both the Nassau and Governor’s trophies, beating the likes of Hall, Penske and Gurney.

Temperament: Foyt’s temper is legendary, but never did he let it rule his head during a race. Bobby Unser, who raced against him on dirt and asphalt, in midgets and sprints, sportscars, stock cars and Indycars, said he never saw Foyt put a wheel wrong or make an error in judgment. However, Foyt showed reckless off-track judgment in firing legendary crew chief George Bignotti — yet continued winning as if nothing had changed.

Bottom line: Foyt won in everything he drove, and his tenacity and luck would have brought him F1 success too, had he chosen to invest the time necessary to win.

I am, yours etc,
Richard Nisley, University Park, Illinois, USA
* * * *
Lazy days

Sir,

Last month’s article on the Lola T70 reminded me of when Lola drove a car back from Le Mans. Just south of Bromley is a dip with traffic lights on the upward slope. The Lola driver stalled here several times. Across the road was a police station from which appeared a bevy of Kent Constabulary. As the lights changed, they pushed the Lola uphill and it roared off. None of us in the queue were enraged; we enjoyed the moment.

In the 1960s Brands had a big meeting on the August Bank Holiday and every driver of repute would be there. I recall on the Thursday afternoon prior to one of these a well-known driver (was it Innes Ireland?) looked at his watch and declared he had better dash because he was booked on the 5pm Dover ferry. He was racing in the German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring on Sunday. All the named drivers disappeared on Thursday, contested the GP and returned on the Monday for a hard day’s racing in saloons, sportscars etc.

It may have been that same meeting, on the Friday after practice, that Aston Martin took its cars back to the works. One was put on a transporter converted from a DB4 by adding a fifth wheel for a semi-trailer; the other had motorbike megaphones jammed up the open exhausts, trade plates dropped under front and rear screens where no-one could see them, and the driver took off at speed, in what was a Le Mans car; through the rush hour traffic.

On the Sunday afternoon a Ferrari mechanic found he had no fags, so he put his girlfriend into the notional seat (just a bit of aluminium to meet regulations) of an open Ferrari and shot off down country lanes towards Wrotham looking for a source of cigarettes. He could be heard miles away.

How easy-going and relaxed those times were. Top drivers were accessible, and if you were in the paddock it was not unknown to be asked to give a hand for something. I recall helping to bump-start a Connaught, and watching an argument between Roger Penske and the stewards who wanted to check the capacity of his engine before it had fully cooled — he was not going to remove a hot cylinder head.

The nearest thing now to those days is a VSCC event. Everyone is there to enjoy themselves and all have some knowledge and appreciation of what they are watching. This contrasts with the Goodwood Festival of Speed where, after watching two rare and interesting cars, I heard one spectator say to his friend: “I fink that red car were betta than that blue ‘un.”

I am, yours etc,
Robert Marshall, Bath
* * * *
Final orders

Sir,

The apparent controversy over the 1955 Aintree GP finish is surprising in view of Fangio covering it in Fangio — My Racing Life; DSJ also deals with it in Jenks, a Passion for Motorsport. There can be no doubt that this was a clear case of team orders.

The pleasure of opening a fresh Motor Sport remains undiminished after 31 years. Keep it up.

I am, yours etc,
Patrick Irwin, Melbourne, Australia

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