His test pilot father was Concorde Brian Trubshaw’s ‘wingman’ as they flew Vampires and Venoms through pea-soupers to assist the development of instrument landing systems during the 1950s.
He also took the controls of BAC’s 188, the startling ‘Flaming Pencil’, a supersonic research aircraft fitted massively with forerunners of Concorde’s Olympus turbojet.
Adaptability, adventure and risk are clearly in the genes. For Ian Ashley raced single-seaters, up to and including Formula 1, Formula 5000 and CART, before switching to motorbikes and then sidecars.
He did so with no small amount of skill and large dollops of bravery and necessary resilience and fortitude. That ‘Crashley’ nickname was obviously glib but not entirely without foundation.
“There’s no smoke without fire!” he concurs.
His terrifying and injurious – shattered wrist and ankles – backwards somersault that scythed through a TV tower at Mosport in 1977 would have put most off the sport for life.
But Ashley, now 66, is still racing. Cars. Historics.
He’s still flying, too. Planes. Albeit for fun rather than business now.
His Grand Prix debut, made 40 years ago this week, was a microcosm: an outside chance grabbed as though it might be his last.
Nascent Token Racing, which started out with much promise and good intentions, was already living down to its unfortunate name by the time of the 1974 German GP. Even have-a-go David Purley, recipient of the George Cross for gallantry, walked away after a DNQ at Brands.
Tom Pryce in the Token at Nivelles
Fellow F5000 frontrunner Ashley was next in line.
“The car was pretty basic,” he says chirpily. “Tom Pryce had managed to qualify it once before switching to Shadow. But I thought, ‘Well, the Nürburgring has 175 corners. A little bit of skill at each. Perhaps I can make a difference.’
“One thing I inherited from my father was an ability to learn quickly. I read an article by Paul Frère about the circuit – it was quite detailed – then shouted out the corners to a friend as we drove round in a little Opel rental. I was soon passing Mercs and Porsches.
“Of course, it looked very different in an F1 car.”
He ‘qualified’ 26th in designer Ray Jessop’s RJ02, some 24 seconds slower than Niki Lauda’s pole for Ferrari. Not a bad effort in the circumstances: a ’Ring rookie driving for an inexperienced, underfunded team.
Unfortunately, the organisers decreed that only 25 would start.
Ashley was permitted to undertake the reconnaissance lap, however. Just in case.
As he had in practice, he picked up a front-right puncture at the Foxhole depression – “They presumed I’d crashed” – but this time returned on a ragged rim, the upper wishbone mangled by flailing rubber.
Luckily, the convoluted start procedure at this long circuit – cars returned to the pits before completing a lap of the Pits Loop before forming a dummy grid, and only then rolling into position – allowed this tiny outfit time for a quick-fix.
“We had about 15 minutes,” says Ashley. “But they had to run back to the paddock to get the spare part. And they didn’t have a spare nose so they just taped it up.”
Did he consider calling it a day there and then?
1974 German GP results
1. Clay Regazzoni, Ferrari 1hr 41m 35s
2. Jody Scheckter, Tyrrell +50.7s
3. Carlos Reutemann, Brabham +1m 23.3s
4. Ronnie Peterson, Lotus +1m 24.2s
5. Jacky Ickx, Lotus +1m 25.0s
6. Tom Pryce, Shadow +2m18.1s
7. Hans-Joachim Stuck, March +2m 58.7s
8. Jean-Pierre Jarier, Shadow +3m 25.9s
9. Graham Hill, Lola +3m 26.4s
10. Henri Pescarolo, BRM +4m 17.7s
11. Derek Bell, Surtees +5m 17.7s
12. Carlos Pace, Brabham +6m 26.3s
13. Vittorio Brambilla, March +8m 43.1s
14. Ian Ashley, Token + 1 lap
15. Mike Hailwood, McLaren, accident
Mass, Hunt, Depailler, Merzario, Beltoise, Schuppan, Fittipaldi, Laffite, Watson, Lauda, Hulme
The recent death of his father in a freakish sailing accident in a Bay of Biscay Force 10 had made Ian even more determined to follow his dream.
Despite there being a healthy 25 on the grid, he roared out. Just in case.
And when Emerson Fittipaldi fluffed his start and McLaren team-mate Denny Hulme clouted his M23’s rear suspension against him, Ashley saw no reason why he shouldn’t join the fray.
“I’d sat and waited patiently. And saw that Denny hadn’t crossed the line. He hadn’t started in my book.”
The officials presumably agreed. Or didn’t care.
The early laps were chaotic.
Lauda, fuming because of a tardy getaway, “goofed” just three corners in and biffed the barriers.
The ‘Ring podium in 1974
Hulme managed three fast laps in the spare McLaren before someone in a position of power cared enough to order him to desist.
Fittipaldi, John Watson (Brabham) and Jacques Laffite (Williams) stopped because of suspicions about their suspensions, and Patrick Depailler (Tyrrell) crashed out good and proper.
The meeting had already seen the conclusion of Howden Ganley’s F1 career when his Maki’s suspension collapsed in practice. And on lap 13 (of 14) Mike Hailwood, another holder of the George Cross, joined him on the permanent sidelines when his third-string M23 landed squiffily and plunged into the Pflanzgarten Armco.
Chivalrous, dangerous times.
Ashley, soldiering on despite hurried and thus awry settings, rose as high as eighth: “I’d only overtaken one car.”
Unbeknown to him and the team, however, he was running on yet another porous rim. Another sudden Foxhole flat – “I knew how to deal with them by now” – resulted in another long ride on the rim.
Ashley chases Dieter Quester at the Österreichring
He graunched and sparked along the pitlane: “Another ‘lightning’ change. No quick-lift. Just hands and hammers. Bang! Bang! Bang!”
This rim at least saw him home 14th, the only lapped runner.
“Altogether an event full of drama and excitement for this amateur group,” wrote Motor Sport’s Denis Jenkinson. “But nonetheless satisfying, for a lot of people didn’t finish, and it was Token’s first try.”
Ashley remained with the team for the Austrian GP. He qualified 25th – 31 started – but was not classified after losing eight laps because of a blistering front, loose rear and false fire alarm.
Thereafter he turned down Surtees, an error in hindsight, to drive long-time supporter Chequered Flag’s bitsa Brabham BT42 – “A different make of shock absorber at each corner” – and failed to qualify at Mosport and Watkins Glen.
Watkins Glen in the Chequered Flag Brabham
And that was that in F1 until he returned to the Nürburgring with a one-off Williams rent-a-drive the following year and chipped an ankle in a 160mph practice crash when an engine mount sheared on the approach to Pflanzgarten.
All hope of impressing Colin Chapman – Team Lotus had lined him up for the remainder of the season – was gone.
Undeterred, he drove for tragi-comic Stanley BRM at the 1976 Brazilian GP – he did well to qualify its recalcitrant P201B but was the first retiree – and in 1977 had five outings with the stub of Hesketh Racing.
“My peer group – Pace, Hunt, Watson, Lauda, Fittipaldi – they all made it. Apart from me. Shit happens! But I wouldn’t change it.”
That 14th on debut would remain his F1 best. Hardly stellar. But you have to admire his attitude.
His was far from Token resistance.