I was asked recently by one of my young mentoring clients what was the first race car that I had driven on a race circuit, where it had been, and when.
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He was quite surprised when I had no difficulty recalling the occasion, albeit it was more than 50 years ago. It sticks in my mind because what should have been an exciting experience for me actually turned into one of the most unpleasant. As to the type of car, that too is etched on my mind for all the wrong reasons.
Visiting the annual Racing Car Show was a must ever since I had gone to the British GP at Brands in 1968 and watched Jo Siffert do the business! In those days, the Show was held in London, and I think it was 1971 when Olympia was the venue. I know Grand Prix World Champion Sir Jack Brabham opened it. As I was walking down one of the crowded aisles, a guy in a racing suit stopped me and asked if I would like to try the F3 simulator. It turned out to be F1 driver Trevor Taylor. He told me that the person with the fastest lap time of the day would earn a free trial at Motor Racing Stables, the Brands Hatch-based racing school.
It didn’t start very well! The large wooden steering wheel came off in my hands… To call this old F3 race car chassis with a screen balanced on the front of it, today’s generation of e-sporters would laugh at a simulator, but to me, it was the bee’s knees.
As I was walking down one of the crowded aisles, a guy in a racing suit stopped me and asked if I would like to try the F3 simulator.
I was told later that day that I had got the fastest lap and handed a voucher to go to Brands for a free trial lesson. Yes, I know what you’re thinking. Everyone who tried the simulator got a voucher! I’m sure they did, but to me, it was an omen!
I duly arrived at Brands Hatch and walked into the office where I, F5000 racer Tony Lanfranchi, Syd Fox, F1 driver Trevor Taylor and another F1 racer, Peter Arundell, were lounging around, looking thoroughly bored.
I handed over my voucher and, after choosing a race helmet that sort of fitted, was directed in the direction of a TVR Vixen sports car parked in the pit lane.
Peter Arundell was my instructor, and he took me on three impressive hot laps before dropping me back in the pits and allowing me to drive. I was disappointed that he didn’t tell me I was one of the quickest students he’d ever seen, but maybe he was keeping that news back as a surprise!
Then it was onto the Formula Fords. I headed out of the pits towards Paddock Hill Bend, an F1 star in the making! All was going well until I realised that the mirrors were hanging rather loosely from the taped-up bodywork, and as I accelerated through Bottom Hill bend and headed towards the right-hander into Clearways, I thought I saw a car in the gyrating mirror. Too late, and as a Formula Ford shot past me, I tried a natty avoidance and promptly spun around, stalling the car in the middle of the track. I waited to see what would transpire!
Syd Fox arrived a little breathless on the scene and, in a few choice words, suggested that I might not be the driver of the day! To be precise, I was told to get out of the car, as I would have to forfeit my remaining laps and should return from whence I had come.
To say that I felt about as welcome as that messy stuff you pick up under shoes on a bad day would be an understatement. All eyes were on me as I walked back to the car park. I was shamed!
Here’s the strange thing, however. 16 years later, I’d raced in production touring cars professionally for Mercedes Benz South Africa, won a Championship, raced in the Yellow Pages International Group C race on the famous Kyalami F1 Circuit in the company of Jochen Mass, Derek Bell, Jackie Ickx and many other international stars.
However, and this is the best part, sixteen years later, together with my wife Lizzie, we established South Africa’s first ever professional race driver school, Speed International, at the prestigious Kyalami Grand Prix Circuit and built it into a highly sponsored, professional operation that took our top pupil each year to Europe to an FF2000 test with Paul Stewart Racing, arranged a touring car drive on their return and a job at the school as an instructor.
My pool of professional instructors must have gotten fed up with being told on a daily basis to make every single person who attended our school, whether just for a one-ff experience, serious instruction, a trial lesson or a corporate day, that they were special, however good or bad their driving, criticism was good, but only in a constructive way; after all, they were there to enjoy the experience, not to be made to feel a jerk. That helps no one!
As I explained in reply to the original question, I have never forgotten my day at Brands Hatch and the way that I was made to feel.