Where now for the Tourist Trophy?

The announcement that Silverstone – and therefore the UK – will be missing from the FIA World Endurance Championship calendar from now on is not a surprise. There has been much hoo-ha on social media about it from British ‘fans’ – although it’s quite likely that more people have taken the trouble to post their outrage than ever bought a ticket.

Of rather more pith and moment is the fact that at present the Royal Automobile Club’s Tourist Trophy has no home – and there is no obvious candidate to replace it. But why, after so many decades, is top flight sports car racing abandoning the UK?

In 2011, the S&G worked on behalf of the Automobile Club de l’Ouest to promote the event. A phone call in mid-July basically said that there was a budget to promote the race, which was in mid-September, and as everyone in France takes August off would we mind awfully doing what we could to sell some tickets.

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The Tourist Trophy has been awarded to the winners of the Silverstone 6 Hours in recent years

It was the dream brief: a client who gives you a budget first and asks questions later. It was quite possibly the most fun that will ever be had in this working life.

Local radio stations from the Solent to the Black Country ran adverts that used Steve McQueen’s movie Le Mans as the theme, with a heartbeat getting faster and engines bursting into life while a sonorous voice spoke in wonder about the world’s most advanced sports-prototypes and the elegant GT cars, Audis, Peugeots, Aston Martins, Porsches, Corvettes and Ferraris.

Every station that took the ads got pairs – sometimes several pairs – of VIP hospitality tickets to use as competition prizes. So did any local newspapers that we advertised in, which from memory was about a dozen from Herefordshire to Suffolk and Watford to Uttoxeter.

On the PR front, we realised that it was the 35th anniversary of the first Silverstone 6 Hours race, and got the winner of that inaugural race, John Fitzpatrick, to describe his giant-killing act alongside Tom Walkinshaw in a home-brewed BMW against the might of the BMW and Porsche works teams. We also got Desiré Wilson to talk to the press about being the first and only lady racer to win the event.

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The girls of the Silverstone 6 Hours with Dunsfold’s P-51D

There was a media day at Silverstone where home favourite Allan McNish took journalists round the track in a race-prepared Audi R8 GT car. Among the victims we sorted out for the day was BBC Radio 2 Drive Time sportscaster Matt Williams, who did a brilliant piece for roughly five million listeners which basically involved him asking questions in a panicked scream and Nishy laughing like a drain in reply.

Northampton railway station was completely wrapped to look like the grid at Le Mans (a little tribute to how our Bahraini friends promote their Grand Prix so well), and at every station between Euston and Birmingham there was advertising to be found on the platforms.

Finally, we found some of the finest-looking promo girls in Britain, dressed them in replicas of the iconic and much-lamented Hawaiian Tropic girls’ outfit and sallied forth to as many other motoring events as we could – armed with a barrel-load of flyers with unique 10% discount codes. At Dunsfold Wings & Wheels we took along one of Trackspeed’s Porsche GT3s and a Gulf Aston Martin DBR1/2, at Chelsea Autolegends we had the Aston and the Strakka Racing HRD that slotted in to the Le Mans-themed main display, and the ACO came and did a press conference.

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On the lawns of the Royal Hospital at Chelsea alongside a few billions’ worth of classics

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If in doubt, grab a Chelsea Pensioner.

Because enthusiasts of motor racing tend to like having models of the cars in some shape of form, we did a deal with the now sadly defunct Modelzone company to put posters in the windows of their 46 shops across the country and for each shop to have a prize draw for a pair of hospitality tickets. They also ran a competition on their website and to their email distribution list to win the opportunity to wave the flag that starts the race.

We had branding all over Autosport.com, a competition to do the grid walk on Pistonheads and yet more competition prizes of hospitality. As a final offer, we contacted the marque clubs of every brand with cars taking part in the event and offered them display parking on the infield with a sliding scale of up to 50% off the ticket price, the more cars (and therefore people) that came with them.

As a final treat to reward the hordes of people that we hoped would be coming, we got the distributor of SCX slot cars to set up a tent with a massive track in it and plenty of Audis and Peugeots to race. We got John Fitzpatrick and Desiré Wilson to come along and do autograph sessions. We got Porsche 956 chassis 001, the 1982 Group C class winner and founder of 12 years of success for Porsche, together with a BMW CSL representing the inaugural 6 Hours and a Porsche 935.

All of this was done in six weeks from a standing start. All of this was done on a total budget that would scarcely pay for a tatty second-hand Porsche. All of this reached an audience of millions and we sold… something like 8,000 tickets. It was raining at Silverstone and there is seldom a more desolate part of the world on a soggy September day than the old airfield, especially when one is wandering round looking at the fruits of one’s labours and seeing not one soul between Copse and Stowe other than the ever-hearty marshals.

With heavy hearts we reported in to the ACO folks, expecting to be informed that we’d never work in this town again. They were… coq-au-hoop! Refreshed from their month in Provence, they couldn’t believe that they’d sold around 15% more tickets than the previous year with a campaign that lasted six weeks instead of three months.

It’s Silverstone, they said, with suitably Gallic shrugs. Everything costs too much because they have to fund the Grand Prix. The Wing stood empty above the paddock because it was too big and infeasibly priced, so all the hospitality had to be done in the old units on the old start/finish straight and guests had to be bussed the mile in between lunch and the working area.

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We even had a page in The Sun – although the cars were notably absent…

The only location that could be found for the marque clubs, slot car track and historic racing cars display was exactly half-way between the two paddocks, meaning that few people bothered to get off their buses and brave the rain to come and have a look. As it was, neither the tent for the historic cars or the security person to look after them had shown up, so we had to send the Porsche 956 back to its owner and keep the BMW and 935 outside while a short-notice tent was found to house them.

When the S&G returned to the event in 2014, it was the first round of the new season and there had been much excitement on social media about the return of Porsche and all the rest of the pre-season chatter. There had been a photo call with the cars in central London but very little in the press had resulted from it, there were no adverts to speak of and no campaign of the sort that we’d done but the weather was uncommonly pleasant on the Saturday.

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Le Mans brings fans together from around the world – especially the UK

There was still barely a soul in the public areas around much of the circuit. If more tickets were sold the difference was marginal. Yet at Le Mans one can barely walk a step without falling over roaming families, all eagerly discussing the race in every accent and dialect of the British Isles. Chuck a rock into the crowd at Le Mans and you’re far more likely to be told to ‘eff off’ than you are to ‘va te faire foutre’.

So now the ACO has decided to abandon its crusade to give British fans a treat on home soil. It’s not possible (as so many of them have wished) to return to Brands Hatch because the circuit isn’t to modern endurance standards – and anyway the 1000km races there in their 1980s heyday were fairly processional because there’s no room for overtaking.

People remember those races so fondly because there were big crowds, in part due to the presence of Jaguar and Porsche’s great ace Derek Bell as national heroes… and also in part because everyone buying a ticket to the Grand Prix at Brands got a free ticket to the 1000km. Sometimes, nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.

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Brands Hatch had a packed house for Group C sports cars in the 1980s

So, a chapter closes and all that remains to be said is what the future holds for the Royal Automobile Club Tourist Trophy, the world’s longest-serving motor sport prize? It’s only warranted a small mention in the World Endurance Championship arena, but this grand old prize was awarded to the winner of the Silverstone 6 Hours.

In 112 years it’s been awarded at a sports car race 29 times, GT races 11 times, to races for Grand Prix cars three times and for touring cars 25 times. Perhaps Alan Gow and TOCA might like to use it for a non-championship touring car all-comers race as they did 20 years ago? Or maybe the thriving British GT series should take it on? Undoubtedly there will be a lobby for reinstating Britain’s round of Formula E and using it for this purpose… it’s the in thing to do these days, after all.

Perhaps the most pragmatic suggestion is to permanently base the TT at Goodwood, where the current tribute race for 1960s GT cars can be restored to full glory. After all, there are few events in Britain that attract a similar size of crowd, and the prestige of winning it is enormous amongst a group of drivers and owners who actually care about its heritage and history.

At present, the longest-standing prize in motor racing history, a trophy that unites C.S. Rolls, Tazio Nuvolari, Sir Stirling Moss and Alain Menu is rootless. Steps must be taken fast to ensure that this grand old prize remains fixed to the greatest motor sport occasion on the calendar, the most stylish, the most glamorous and the most relevant – because if we lose our sense of identity at this moment of crisis for motor sport in Britain then we might as well all pack up and go home.

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Quality versus clamour: why Le Mans and Indy remain as giants

Last week, The Guardian newspaper ran an interesting bit of speculation – a week-long series entitled ‘Sport 2.0’ based upon the premise that, across the board, major sports are dying.

This rather dramatic prognosis was based upon evidence that TV figures are falling, revenues are down and crowd sizes have dwindled.

It’s a universal problem, it would seem. If the editorial of ‘Sport 2.0′ is to be believed, the only cure is to reduce the length of any event down to a maximum of five minutes and to surrender one’s soul to the great new god of ‘shareable content’.

According to one of these stories, international football matches will soon be played within a grid of some 200 cameras capturing every detail of the scene that can immediately be reproduced as a hologram in other stadia. So if a game is being played in Rio, for example, you can pop into your local stadium in Dundee to see an exact 3D version of the match on your home pitch.

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No holograms or gimmicks: just a thumping crowd and a traditional spectacle that lasts a week

Nobody’s yet asked: ‘why?’

If people aren’t going to watch their own teams playing in their own stadia, will they really turn up in droves to watch a hologram of Norway vs. South Korea?

Apparently, the Japanese bid for the 2022 World Cup included using exactly this technology. The problem was that they could have promised a genuine alien invasion and a comeback concert by Elvis Presley because nothing was ever going to keep the gentlemen of FIFA away from Qatar’s billions.

Another point missed by The Guardian: even if there was a way for sports to break new ground and touch new hearts, it is pretty well guaranteed that an immediate influx of dollars will win the day. Have they not heard of Formula 1?

The Olympics once again provided cause for depression. When one thinks back upon the money lavished upon each and every Games, let alone the social changes enforced upon the host populations in order to sell Big Macs and fizzy drinks, it was galling indeed to read the architect and cheerleader for London 2012, Sebastian Coe, admit that athletics will never rank among the top three or four sports in Britain.

Elsewhere throughout the week, there was a fixation upon all of the ‘urban’ sports like BMX, Parkour, Skateboarding, Quidditch and the like, which the experts in sports marketing tell us have a greater appeal among the under-25s. Adapt or die was the message, or else all will be doom and gloom.

But throughout the period in which these stories were being put out, the Le Mans 24 Hours was taking place. Rather than a five-minute blast, we had practice on Tuesday, Qualifying on Wednesday and Thursday, a day of public jamboree on Friday and then the race from Saturday through to Sunday.

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The battle for GT glory went down to the last lap

More than a quarter of a million people were at the track to see the start and the Internet was groaning with traffic as what seemed like every sports fan from Scandinavia to the Outback started talking about the race. An event lasting a week held us in its thrall right up to the last lap battle for GT honours was resolved in Aston Martin’s favour.

There is a reason why this level of fervour takes place every year: Le Mans is the world’s greatest motor sport event. In fact, according to no less an organ than National Geographic magazine, Le Mans is the greatest sporting event of any kind anywhere in the world based upon such factors as the scale of the challenge, the number and diversity of its participants, the size of the crowd and the heritage of the event.

In motor racing terms, only the Indianapolis 500 compares to Le Mans – and it compares very well indeed. Again, Indy brings no ‘urban sports’ element, it would be recognisable to competitors of a century ago and, where Le Mans lasts a week, Indy consumes an entire month!

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Indianapolis pitches heroism and tradition that can be seen, heard and smelt

The Guardian offered no recognition that the only people who are truly obsessed by sports seven days a week are the people trying to rinse every available penny from those sports: the promoters trying to sell their pay-TV subscriptions, the venues trying to sell tickets and billboard space, the newspapers trying to sell advertising space around their reports and the creative agencies trying to sell ideas to the sponsors and the advertisers that make them stand out from the crowd.

Society has other things to worry about. We have less time and less money with every passing year, so when we want to pay attention to something, it has to be special. And if the past few weeks of fervour around Indianapolis and Le Mans have taught us anything, it’s that we, as an audience, can be optimistic. Because these events truly do remain special.

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Human drama is served by the bucketload in 24 fraught hours at Le MansScreenshot 2017-06-20 12.15.08

It’s not something that can be synthesised. It’s not the result of some tremendous promotional idea. It’s simply recognition of all those reasons listed by the National Geographic – and none of the frankly Orwellian language from The Guardian.

If one could bottle and sell what makes these events special, the status of a minor god might be accorded (although the thought occurs that perhaps Lord March has got closest to doing so at the Festival of Speed). But nobody has or will, and a hologram won’t do much better. Let’s allow the over-hyped, over-worked and over-valued clamour for our attention drift away on the tide, and savour what has always been right in the first place.

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Long may the great races continue their fine traditions – and long may the wider world enjoy them

Ken Miles: Part 2 – 1966 and all that

We’re going to venture beyond the S&G’s remit here, ladies and gentlemen. Part 1 of the Ken Miles story took us past the 1961 cut-off for our yarns so let’s blaze onward unrepentantly, in the manner of the subject of this double-header.

In 1963, the mechanics in Carroll Shelby’s workshops – the famous ‘Snake Pit’ – called the angular Englishman in their midst ‘Teddy Teabag’ because of the endless British brew-ups with which he sustained himself. Either that or ‘Sidebite’ in reference to his habit of speaking out of the corner of his mouth.

He was respected… although everyone agreed that kid gloves were needed to handle him on occasion. The man in question was called Ken Miles, and this is how the rest of his story went…

By the end of 1963, the AC Cobra that Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles had built was riding high. Fundamentally it had achieved all that Shelby had set out to do: it had beaten the Chevrolet Corvette to become the dominant force for outright victories in American GT racing. And it had done so with a Ford V8 under the hood.

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Miles competing ‘on loan’ to Comstock Racing for the Canadian Grand Prix

This in turn caught the eye of Ford executives like Lee Iacocca, who was about to launch the Mustang and a new way of thinking called ‘Total Performance’ that was intended to prove that Ford was not just the dour choice of cranky old American ladies who refused to buy a Volkswagen.

The final piece in the puzzle came in the form of Henry Ford II himself – known to most as The Deuce – who could see that America was almost fully mature as a market in which to sell cars but that Europe remained to be conquered. As the 1960s really hit their stride and the European years of post-war austerity finally abated, The Deuce wanted to revitalise Ford’s image at home and dominate the emerging European markets with his products.

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Lee Iacocca was the architect of Ford’s metamorphosis. “Speed sells.” he said.

First he had planned to buy Enzo Ferrari’s operation in Maranello and launch a range of high performance Ferrari-Fords (or Ford-Ferraris). Negotiations were held, but Ferrari puled up the drawbridge when the final contract lay on his desk. He threw the Americans out, so instead The Deuce decided to beat Ferrari at the most famous race of them all, the Le Mans 24 Hours – no matter what it cost.

Thus Ford embarked upon the GT40 programme in late 1963, after Shelby introduced the Ford executives to Lola’s Eric Broadley (who would design the car, together with Ford stylist Roy Lunn), and former Aston Martin team boss John Wyer (who would run the operations). Unfortunately, the GT40 programme went from one disaster to the next in its debut year of 1964.

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Shell forgets the 1921 Grand Prix-wining Duesenberg in its 1964 adverts

Meanwhile at the expanding Shelby American factory, the Cobra was also benefitting from Ford’s largesse and with a streamlined body designed by Peter Brock (no relation). The so-called Cobra Daytona Coupé was about to be unleashed onto the world stage.

By the end of 1964, the Daytona Coupé had provided the only ray of light in Ford’s season, beating Ferrari to the GT class at Le Mans. It would have won the World Championship for Makes as well, but for the decisive Monza 1000 km being cancelled at the behest of Enzo Ferrari. It was a low blow, but from behind those impenetrable dark glasses, Ferrari was able to see that he was having to play for time.

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With Peter Brock’s body on it, the Cobra squared up to Ferrari in Europe… and won

Meanwhile at home, Ken Miles himself finished on the podium in more than half of the domestic American sports car races that he entered at the wheel of one of the original and wild little open-top Cobras.

The GT40 remained a failure, though. Adding insult to injury, Chevrolet had begun to throw money at Jim Hall and his Chaparral operation to try and out-do the GT40, while the Bill Thomas Cheetah had become a GM-sanctioned rival for the Cobra. If Ford’s pursuit of Ferrari wasn’t troublesome enough, it now had to fight a rearguard action against The General.

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GM-backed Chaparral came after Ford’s motor sport programme with every resource at its disposal

This led to another concern for the men at Ford… one that grew through 1964. Not only were the GT40s struggling to be competitive, but also Chevrolet’s racing programme had an unalloyed American blood line. Both the Cobra and the GT40 were British cars with Detroit muscle, so a decisive move was made to ramp up the stars and bars attached to Ford’s racing endeavours.

Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles were given the GT40 project, lock, stock and barrel, to rework for the 1965 season under the Shelby American banner. The spending increased dramatically in the winter of 1964-65 when the decision was taken to freeze development of the original 4.7 litre GT40 cars and plough resource into a monstrous new 7.0 litre Ford GT Mk.II.

There was precious little improvement in Ford’s racing fortunes in 1965, despite the massive hike in engine power, but The Deuce and his men in Detroit gave Shelby the benefit of the doubt. Meanwhile Miles and the engineers sweat blood to make the new car work.

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The first 7.0-litre Ford Mk.II appeared in 1965, developed by Miles

Miles himself spent countless days tramping around the circuit at Riverside, often with NASA-spec equipment to measure airflow and temperatures. He relished the abundance of new technology for data acquisition and processing, the astonishing computerised dynamometer that could recreated every lap of Le Mans for a full 24 hours.

And he loved caressing the wheel with his fingertips as the results came back in laps driven faster and more reliably than ever.

By the start of 1966 the work was almost completed – at a development cost of something like $15 million per year, or $116 million in modern currency… an unprecedented sum for the mid-Sixties. Not since the silver arrows had flown for Nazi Germany had any racing programme been so lavish – or indeed so political.

Perhaps in hindsight this was not the best environment for ‘The Hawk’. But without him the story would have been rather different. As it was, the highly-regarded engineer and development driver found that his racing speed was sufficient to cause some unwanted waves among the Ford men in 1966.

At the start of the season it was Miles and Lloyd Ruby who took the first international victory for the 7-litre car – and the first major race win for the GT40 programme – at the 1966 Daytona 24 Hours. There were scenes of pandemonium as they crossed the line and, finally, the promise that the GT40 had been shown in full to the public… and those hundreds of millions of dollars spent were about to find their rich reward.

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Miles (right) and Lloyd Ruby celebrate their Daytona success

Nobody at Ford cared who won at that point. They just saw the metaphorical blue oval on the nose and got on with shouting from the rooftops. Even Ferrari was generous in its praise for Ford’s tenacity in sticking with the programme until it came good.

Next came the 12 Hours of Sebring and, to enormous surprise, Miles and Ruby were the winners once again. However, this was the moment when the Ford execs took issue because the wiry Briton had blatantly disobeyed team orders and, instead of holding a comfortable second place, had pushed the leading Ford of Dan Gurney and Jerry Grant into speeding up and breaking its gearbox.

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Miles chased down Gurney’s leading sister car to win at Sebring

In the eyes of the Ford execs, Miles had committed an unforgiveable sin. Yet ‘The Hawk’ had no truck with any sort of request to hold station and was not inclined to trust ‘suits’ – even those spending upwards of a quarter of a billion dollars on the programme that he served.

Now came preparations for ‘the big one’ and the Fords arrived at Le Mans in force. In the meanwhile, Miles’ regular co-driver Lloyd Ruby had been badly knocked about in a ‘plane crash, so the burly and equally bullish New Zealander Denny Hulme was drafted in to share the number 1 car with him.

And so the race played out: the Miles/Hulme Ford setting the pace for most of the race while many of their stablemates and the pursuing Ferraris began to hit trouble.

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Miles and Denny Hulme kept car no.1 in front at Le Mans

Meanwhile, the black GT40 of all-Kiwi crewmen Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon had fallen back early in the race when their tyres began to fall apart. Both men were contracted to Firestone whereas the rest of the Fords were running on Goodyears, so the decision was taken that Ford would compensate Firestone if they switched brands… and this they did.

Famously, as Amon set off for his first stint on Goodyears, Bruce McLaren opened the door and yelled over the roar of the big V8: “Go like hell!” This they both did – although the intention was that they should complete an all-Ford podium rather than win the race.

In the closing stages, Ford’s man on top of the racing programme, Leo Beebe, suggested that their two leading cars – Miles/Hulme and McLaren/Amon – should close up and cross the line on the same lap in a dead heat. The Deuce was easily convinced and, as their final pit stops approached, Beebe gave Miles the instruction.

It is a colossal understatement to say that Miles, who was on course to become the first man to win the endurance racing ‘triple crown’ of Daytona, Sebring and Le Mans in a single season, was incensed. He tore off his sunglasses and hurled them down the pit lane. “So ends my contribution to this bloody motor race.”

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Photo finish: the Fords complete the 1966 Le Mans 24H

Only after he took the number 1 Ford back out onto the track for its final stint were the Ford team members told that a dead heat was all-but impossible, because the black number 2 car being driven by McLaren had started 60 feet further back than the blue car of Miles, thereby covering a greater distance.

Many hands were wrung. Should they tell the drivers? Should they cancel the stunt? In the end, the men from Detroit remembered Miles’ disobedience at Sebring and let history be written. The number 1 and 2 Fords crossed the line just ahead of the number 5 Ford in their wake.

At the finish line, McLaren gave a last blip of the throttle and pulled to a halt in front of Miles. The New Zealanders weren’t sure what was going on but Miles and Denny Hulme were sure that they had won. It was only when they tried to drive to the winners’ position and were turned away did the reality dawn upon them.

“I think I’ve been f***ed,” Miles said.

The slightly bemused pairing of McLaren and Amon, together with car number 2, went to the podium in the company of Henry Ford II and the suits from Detroit to hear strains of the Star Spangled Banner being played in their honour. They would soon be climbing aboard The Deuce’s private jet to a global whirlwind of parties, interviews and lavish celebration.

Before leaving the circuit, McLaren went back to the pits to collect his gear. He found Miles there, alone and in utter desolation. The two men looked awkwardly at one another for a moment before Miles stepped forward and pulled his team mate in for a congratulatory bear hug. To a waiting British journalist, Miles later said: “I’m disappointed, of course, but what are you going to do about it?”

Forty years later, Carroll Shelby remarked: “I’ll forever be sorry that I agreed with Leo Beebe and Henry Ford to have the three cars come over the line at the same time… Ken was one and a half laps ahead and he’d have won the race. It broke his heart.”

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Miles in happier times

Back at Shelby American, the successor to the Ford GT40 was being developed: the Ford J-car. This car looked more radical, with a square ‘breadvan’ rear end and a lobster claw nose. It was lighter and stiffer and most importantly of all it was all-American. It had been decreed that Ford would go back to Le Mans in 1967 and win with an American car and drivers.

Two months after Le Mans, Ken Miles was finishing another long day of pounding round the Riverside race track in the J-car. Coming down the back straight he lifted off, the engine note fell and he shed some speed while preparing to cruise back into the pits. But inexplicably, the J-car then speared off the track at right-angles.

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Ford’s all-American J-car as it appeared in testing at Le Mans

It took off, cleared the embankment and bounced end-over-end down an escarpment before bursting into flames. The following Saturday, Ken Miles was cremated and slowly slipped from the collective memory.

The J-car was meanwhile reworked to become the Ford Mk.IV which did indeed win the 1967 Le Mans 24 Hours with an all-American crew of Dan Gurney and A.J. Foyt on board. The sheer might of the Mk.IV caused the FIA and the Automobile Club de l’Ouest to immediately ban cars with engines larger than 5 litres and the sleek ’67 Ford never raced again.

Ford flirted with a new sports car, the 3-litre P68, but this soon began to fly off the road with alarming regularity. There was little point in continuing at Le Mans officially, so Ford refocused on its Formula 1 engine programme with Cosworth, while putting showroom models out on rallies and touring car races to maintain its link back to customer product.

But this is not the end of the story.

Twenty years and more after the drama of 1966, a former police officer called Fred Jones, by then enjoying his retirement as a Cobra collector and Ford motorsport nut, went in search of some documents missing from his archive. He discovered not one but two death certificates for Ken Miles in the Riverside coroner’s office. This did not sit easily with a man who dealt with that sort of paperwork on a daily basis. He started digging.

He also found and was told several different accounts about the crash: variously that Miles was decapitated, that he was dead when the medics arrived, and he was still breathing when the ambulance doors closed. Doubtless he was intrigued by the testimony of Miles’s son Peter, who was there at Riverside in August 1966, and said: ‘I remember seeing the car burning but I didn’t see my Dad.”

Eventually the path that Fred Jones found himself on led to a little town called Scandinavia in Wisconsin, where he met a wiry, destitute old man with a large and crooked nose who lived in an abandoned school bus. He introduced himself as Ken Miles, the racing driver. He produced a drivers’ licence in the name Kenneth Henry Miles, born in 1918, as evidence and told many stories about life at Shelby American, about Le Mans and Sebring and Riverside and Daytona.

The dishevelled septuagenarian claimed that Ford had paid him $2 million to disappear. The obvious response at this point is either to shake one’s head or simply ask ‘Why?’ But hey, this was the Sixties, man. Just one more all-American conspiracy to sit alongside JFK, RFK, MLK, Malcolm X, LSD and that, like, totally fake moon landing!

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So where was the conspiracy to attach to Ken Miles? Well, it just so happened that in 1966 the road safety movement burst into vibrant life and the ethical premise of motor racing – i.e. selling cars with speed – was being publicly called into question.

The standard-bearer for this crusade for road safety was an academic and ambitious would-be politician called Ralph Nader. In his highly proactive anti-car campaign, Nader highlighted the fact that the death count on American highways was increasing exponentially.

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Nader’s research drew attention in the press and he played to the gallery, effectively accusing motor manufacturers that promoted themselves through speed of signing the death warrant of innocent road users. And he singled out Ford Motor Company as the biggest culprit.

Inertia was not an option for the US administration and swiftly the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act was enacted and the government took a direct hand in what its motor manufacturers were doing about road safety. There was grist to the mill when, even as the Act was being drawn up and passed, Ford’s motor sport programme suffered its first two deaths.

First, Canadian driver Bob McLean was burnt to death at Sebring in a GT40 owned by Canadian team Comstock Racing. Then at the Le Mans test, Ford works driver Walt Hansgen was killed just as Nader and the road safety reform wave had crossed the Atlantic from America and broke on the shores of Europe.

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Bob McLean was killed in this car when it struck a telegraph pole at Sebring and caught fire

Thus, 20 years later, the old man in Wisconsin told Fred Jones that while he, Ken Miles, had recovered as best he could from the J-car crash at Riverside, Ford paid him to go away and a cremation was held before a grieving Californian motor sport community. His ashes were not placed in any known grave or mausoleum. He vanished.

It has all the ingredients of a decent conspiracy but, let’s remember, this was America. In the Sixties. In fact, there were Ford employees in 1966 who went to their graves believing that Ralph Nader and the road safety lobby was a scam funded by General Motors to stop Ford’s motor sport campaign in its tracks. The old double-bluff conspiracy!

And if you want to know whether the American public has lost its taste for conspiracy theories, we humbly suggest that you check the incumbent President’s Twitter feed.

Eventually, Fred Jones went back to the surviving team members and reported the story that he’d been told. Most of them told him in no uncertain terms that the story was complete hokum – although why an old destitute living in a bus might claim to be Ken Miles and offer up a fairly convincing picture of life at Shelby American was anyone’s guess. A photo of the man who claimed to be Ken Miles can be found here.

Fred Jones’s journey ended when he presented his story of the old man in Wisconsin to Carroll Shelby himself while lunching in a hospitality suite at the Monterey Historics weekend. He claimed that the legendary Texan dropped the plate of food that he was carrying, but said nothing.

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It is an intriguing, infuriating end to the story of a man who was dedicated to motor racing like few others: a Renaissance man who drove, engineered and administered his sport, who was competitive right up until his late 40s and whose contribution to the American and European heritage of racing is almost unfathomable.

As an aside, at the time that Fred Jones ‘discovered’ Ken Miles in Wisconsin, his son Peter Miles was launching a career in motor sport engineering with Florida-based Precision Performance, Inc, taking part in the 1991 Baja 1000. He has since helped publish a beautiful scrapbook of photographs and magazine articles about his father, published by Brooklands Books, that is available here.

Ken Miles, 1918 – 1966

The S&G salutes you.

Heineken and the classics

Crikey! In terms of bringing some excitement and prestige back to modern Formula 1, Heineken’s ‘groundbreaking’ announcement fell flatter than a witch’s proverbial, did it not? Aston Martin and Alfa Romeo’s involvement was non-existent and James Bond never showed up.

Instead, the waiting world was promised that Heineken will deliver ‘innovative content’ to online consumers – which is what anyone who delivers online advertising promises. The S&G would love to see someone offering ‘derivative content’ because, as a policy, that would be truly groundbreaking.

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Apparently watching ‘content’ can be an agreeable experience

Heineken has pledged to create promotional pushes in cities in the weeks before races (as several of the races already do), shop floor campaigns in bars, cafes and supermarkets around the world (as several sponsors already do), worldwide ticket promotions and competitions (as many sponsors already do), and social media campaigns to engage the ‘millennials’ of the online generation (as all sponsors attempt to do).

So what’s the point? Heineken is already positioned as the aspirational brand of choice among lager drinkers: the BMW of beers. What it wants to do is reinforce this image among the markets of Asia and the Middle East by using Formula 1’s ubiquity in these ’emerging markets’.

As a serious bonus from the Heineken deal, however, it appears to have played a key role in ensuring that Monza remains on the Grand Prix racing calendar. By ‘key role’ we do of course mean ‘bank roll’. No wonder Bernie looked so chirpy as he clutched his bottle of lager in Montreal.

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The roll of honour at Monza is an elite group – long may it remain

 

What this means is that Formula 1 may yet retain the one venue that has not been completely neutered by the passage of time.

Despite the silly run-off on the Parabolica, Monza remains a truly, regally, magnificently scary anachronism among the modern Grand Prix venues. Yes, it has chicanes but the difference between the guys who are vying for a seat among the legends of the sport and the guys who are paying for a seat anywhere from the third row of the grid backwards can never be more pronounced than it is beneath the trees of the Villa Reale.

And on that note, the S&G will join 007 in toasting the hope that Monza will continue to offer Formula 1 its annual reality check for many, many seasons to come. For now, however, the time has come to up sticks and head to another wonderful and terrifying venue of enormous historical significance – the Circuit de la Sarthe.

Watch this space for some ‘content’ from the greatest motor race in the world – and for starters, here is a bit of testing at Monza with the chicanes removed. You will seldom see such might!

Michael Burn: Birkin’s ghostwriter

The story told in the BBC film Full Throttle, that of the writing of Sir Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin’s autobiography, was just one landmark in the life of another extraordinary character – the author, poet and warrior, Michael Burn. His is a tale well worth the telling.

Burn was born in December 1912, the eldest son of a solicitor who was soon appointed secretary to the Duchy of Cornwall. The family moved to a grace-and-favour house diagonally opposite Buckingham Palace. As a child, Burn used to fire his air rifle towards the palace, trying to hit the first Belisha beacon to be installed in London.

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‘Tim’ Birkin and Michael Burn as portrayed in Full Throttle

While at school in Winchester, Burn suggested to his father that he was attracted to the other boys.  Sir Clive arranged an appointment with King George V’s personal doctor, who prescribed benzedrine. That didn’t work, unsurprisingly, so his father went to a different doctor, who pronounced the youth ‘normal’ and, with that little matter thus cleared up, his son went up to Oxford.

University life was not a success. It ushered in a year of utter debauchery, from which Burn retired to a villa in Le Touquet in the summer of 1931, where his maternal grandfather had built the first casino. Here he met with the celebrated racing driver ‘Tim’ Birkin, twice a winner at Le Mans and a genuine Boys’ Own hero. Burn decided not to return to Oxford and instead agreed to act as ghostwriter for Birkin’s autobiography, entitled Full Throttle.

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Birkin also invented electric rail racing – precursor to slot cars

The book did brilliantly and led to Burn being commissioned to write a history of Brooklands, which appeared as Wheels Take Wings (1933). During his research, Burn met a student from Trinity College, Cambridge, by the name of Guy Burgess. Burgess was openly homosexual, a Marxist, and he utterly bewitched the younger man – introducing him to his circle of friends among whom was the novelist EM Forster.

In the early 1930s, fiery political rhetoric intoxicated many young men and Burn was among them. He decided to witness Hitler’s Germany for himself: renting a flat in Munich and allowing himself to be seduced by Nazism. Here he lived among a number of other expats including Donald Maclean, who would soon join forces with Guy Burgess as members of the ‘Cambridge Spy Ring’.

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Burn’s first encounter with the Cambridge spy ring came through Guy Burgess

Burn drank his fill of Hitler’s economic miracle and marvelled at the levels of national pride he encountered. He then went on to witness Mussolini in Italy, where he lived as a guest of Alice Keppel, Edward VII’s mistress, and her daughter, Violet Trefusis, in Florence. Fascist Italy provided pyrotechnic politics of the kind he so desired – and also brought about more contact with the opposite sex.

Returning to London, Burn took up residence with the celebrated stage and film actress, Viola Tree. He helped her to edit the memoirs of her late husband while he perfected vocational training in typing and shorthand. A relatively sedate life then beckoned on the staff of the Gloucester Citizen until Burn decided to spend hid summer holiday back in Munich during 1935.

Among the British crowd in Bavaria this time around was Unity Mitford, the most fervent of the celebrated Mitford sisters in her admiration of fascism. Unity was completely besotted with Adolf Hitler, and her peers were sure that she was hell-bent on marrying him. Burn took tea with Unity in Munich’s Carlton tea rooms when the Führer popped in to say hello, and Burn recorded that Unity was positively vibrating with glee as she was ushered off to sit with him.

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Burn (centre) pictured alongside Unity Mitford (left) at Nuremberg

Eventually, Burn would also be granted an audience with Hitler – who invited the young Englishman to witness the Nüremberg Rally from one of the more privileged seats alongside Unity. He was utterly spellbound by “great lights in the sky, moving music, the rhetoric, the presentation, timing, performance, soundtrack, exultation, and climax. It was almost aimed at the sexual parts of one’s consciousness.”

Hitler also handed him a personally-signed copy of Mein Kampf – although he lost it soon afterwards. He was also treated to a tour of the Dachau concentration camp, which apparently didn’t phase him. Nevertheless, something sparked an almighty row with Unity Mitford in the days afterwards and, with that, Burn turned his back on Germany.

He returned to Britain after informing his editor that he wanted to leave the Gloucester Citizen for less tranquil waters. A glowing reference was presented to The Times, which stuck the newcomer on fairly light domestic duties until Burn’s unprecedented access to the royal family led to his covering the affair between King Edward VIII and the American divorcee, Wallis Simpson.

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Burn and his father playing golf, 1931

When viewed from our age of phone tapping and litigation, this would appear to have been a staggering breach in court security. Burn’s father was firmly ensconced in the Duchy of Cornwall, and from this position granted his son access to court and everyone up to Walter Monckton, the King’s go-between with the prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, during the abdication crisis. Whatever else, it can certainly be said that coverage of the whole sorry spectacle in The Times did not lack authority.

Nevertheless, the growing threat posed by Germany loomed large over proceedings and soon the threat posed by Hitler trumped even the ongoing fallout of royal scandal. Burn enlisted as a reservist in the Queen’s Westminsters territorial battalion of the King’s Rifle Corps during 1938 but remained a journalist and travelled to Croydon Airport to see off the new prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, when he went to Munich to meet Hitler.

When war finally came, Burn volunteered for service in one of the ten independent companies that were formed to conduct guerilla operations in the battle to save Norway from invasion. After the fall of Norway, Burn joined the British Commandos, ending up in No.2 Commando and honing his skills in readiness for the assault on the world’s largest dry dock in Ste. Nazaire in March 1942.

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Ste. Nazaire: HMS Campbelltown resting on the wall it would soon destroy

The dock was believed to be the only location large enough to accommodate the battleship Tirpitz, and if it was put out of acton the German Kriegsmarine would be less likely to send its flagship out into the Atlantic. Burn’s 2 Commando landed in advance to destroy onshore facilities and minimize the firepower that could be brought to bear on the attacking force. They were to clear the way for the destroyer HMS Campbelltown, which would be crashed into the wall of the dry dock, laden with concealed explosives.

The plan was for the Campbelltown sit astride the dry dock wall, the fuses on her explosive cargo delayed to allow the Commandos to escape. Then she would be blown to smithereens, taking the wall with her and ushering in a wave that would demolish the entire facility.

Burn’s commanding officer described the audacious plan as “the sauciest job since Drake”. Militarily, the operation was an unprecedented success in terms of destroying the base, but the Commandos paid a heavy price, made worse because the small boats that they were supposed to escape in were sunk, forcing them to fight their way out and attempt to escape over land.

Burn was among the wounded. His capture was filmed for use in the propaganda reels and, noticing the camera crew as he passed, Burn discreetly positioned his fingers in a ‘V-sign’ as he was marched off. When the newsreel was shown in occupied Holland, Burn’s defiance so moved the mother of future Hollywood icon Audrey Hepburn that she sent a food parcel to his prison camp.

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Caught on camera: Burn gives his defiant V-sign

Burn’s internment was to last to the end of the war, primarily in Oflag IV-C, better known as Colditz Castle, where he languished alongside such men as future Le Mans winner Tony Rolt. Burn recorded as much detail of life in the camp as he could and, when he was released, turned his recollections into another best-selling book. During his incarceration, Burn also became a confirmed Communist sympathizer.

In the hoary early morning of the Cold War, Burn was to be found in Vienna as correspondent for The Times. He remained in the city – a place of secrets and shadows on the fringes of the enlarged Soviet empire – for almost a year. He then went to Budapest, much closer to the Soviets, and took with him a new wife.

Mary Booker had been the subject of one of the most tragic and celebrated romances of the war, as the great love of Spitfire pilot Richard Hillary, who badly burned in the Battle of Britain and later killed in a flying accident during 1943. Mary had been significantly older than Hillary and was well into middle age by the time she married Burn. They lived contentedly enough together in Budapest while Burn was The Times’ Balkan correspondent.

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Burn and his wife, Mary

The couple returned to Britain in the early 1950s, whereupon Burn forsook journalism for more creative writing. He put out a play, The Night of the Ball, which opened in 1954. It was at this time that he was arrested during a sexual encounter with a young man in Bayswater. The policemen concerned attempted to blackmail Burn, who called their bluff and prosecuted the men. They were found guilty of blackmail and sentenced to prison.

Burn continued a fairly prodigious output of poetry and novels throughout the Fifties and the marriage continued until Mary’s death in 1974. He lived for a time in some bohemian splendour amid the eccentric village of Portmeirion, later to become famous as the location for Patrick McGoohan’s surreal spy drama The Prisoner. North Wales was his home and from here he attempted to run a Communist-style co-operative mussel farming business without conspicuous success.

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Portmeirion – the Welsh village has had a profound effect on popular culture

In 1988, Burn produced the book Mary and Richard, based the love letters that passed between his late wife and Richard Hillary up until his death. He wrote it as a means to end rumours that Hilary had chosen to kill himself because of unhappiness in the affair. As a defence of his late wife’s reputation it was a masterpiece: through their intimate words, Burn conclusively proved how profound their affection had been to the end.

In 1995 Burn added his voice to the BBC’s film Full Throttle, a dramatization of his three week stay with Sir Henry Birkin, where his young self was portrayed by Crispin Bonham-Carter, cousin of the celebrated actress Helena. Burn’s own autobiography appeared in 2003, entitled Turned Towards the Sun. He died in his sleep at home in North Wales in 2010, aged 97.

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Michael Burn in his final days in North Wales

 

Birkin biopic back in circulation

Rather terrifyingly, it is now more than 20 years since the BBC screened Full Throttle, a film that many people have fondly remembered as an excellent biopic of the celebrated Bentley Boy and Brooklands ace, Sir Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin.

Birkin was played with some panache by Rowan Atkinson: a (relatively) straight role for a lifelong fan of all things on four wheels… who was doubtless drawn to the part like a moth to a flame. There is also the a strong presence for Michael Burn, Birkin’s ghostwriter. But for two decades this little gem has been a mystery to all but those with a grainy VHS recording stashed away somewhere because Full Throttle simply vanished.

Now it is back.

It is an enormous pleasure to report that, for its time, Full Throttle, has aged very well… the lavish lighting makes it look like modern digital quality in a lot of places and in general few corners were cut, save travelling to Le Mans of course.

Somewhat nervously, we put it on the S&G laptop half expecting it to be nowhere near as good as we remembered. Fortunately it was, if anything, even better. The newspapers at the time called it ‘Blackadder goes racing’ but that does the film – and themselves – an enormous disservice.

Enjoy!

Coventry’s Finest

Hot on the heels of noise about Alfa Romeo’s potential return to motor sport in the near future came word that Jaguar is teaming up with Williams to launch a full works Formula E effort.

This is a brave move, given the scorn that was poured upon then-owner Ford when it had the temerity to build a front-wheel-drive car with a Jaguar badge on it a few years ago. Now the purr of a six-cylinder is to be replaced by the whine of an electric motor, no doubt prompting much gnashing of teeth among gentlemen of a certain vintage that the ‘leaper’ is set to be seen on a glorified milk float.

Be that as it may, the automotive industry has some fairly major challenges ahead and these will only be solved by boldly going forth into new forms of powering its products. Electric vehicles are hideously inefficient, their production requires some horrendously toxic processes to take place and they are only ever likely to offer short-range inner-city transport solutions… but at least Jaguar is joining in the conversation.

Sadly the most obvious course of action for a brand like Jaguar, such as developing a hydrogen fuel cell Le Mans car, is a bit too much of a stretch at a time when its profitability is taking a bit of a beating. Jaguar Land Rover is temporarily on the back foot thanks to some poor luck in the Far East and investing half a billion dollars in new production centres, which presumably makes a relatively low cost/high visibility programme like Formula E more attractive.

But whatever the merits of Formula E, it is a positive thing that Jaguar is going to use motor sport to stake its place in the future of the industry. So to celebrate here is a gallery of loveliness to remind us all how much the big cat from Coventry has brought to the sport over the years.