“I was probably one of the first people to drive the mini in a race as many people thought a mini would never be a racing car. The thing is that it was very fast around corners and in an 850 you could go the whole way around Brands Hatch flat out, you wouldn’t have to slow down for anything. It performed like a go cart. Being an 850 it wasn’t very fast anyway and you could head flat out up the hill to a corner like Druids; you would just go sideways and it would slow it down. I started with an ex-rally car that cost me £400 and had some reasonable success with it. I then joined Coopers and was in the Cooper team for a couple of years and won the British Touring Car Championship in 1961. During that year, Marcus Chambers, BMC’s competition manager said that he had had a call from an American racing driver who was going to be in Britain and wanted to borrow a racing car.
He asked if I had heard of an American chap called Steve McQueen. Neither of us had but as I was on my way to London anyway, so Marcus suggested I pop into the hotel this fellow was staying in to check him out, find out if he was serious and a real racing driver. I met Steve in his hotel and we chatted for about three hours and he spoke about his enthusiasm for cars.
I managed to get Steve an Austin A40, which I borrowed from a friend, and a drive in a club race at Oulton Park. He got on okay and at least he didn’t crash the car.
Since I had won the 1961 championship on the eleventh race and there were twelve races in all. Even if someone had won the twelfth race with full points I couldn’t have been beaten, so I was ahead of the game. The last race was going to be at Brands Hatch in my 850 Mini and I didn’t have to do it. So I thought, hang on, why don’t I let Steve drive. So Steve drove at Brands Hatch against Christabel Carlisle and Vic Elford. The three of them finished the race very close together in the mini race. Steve was bloody good. He had never raced at Brands Hatch and hardly knew the way round. I gave the cup away and I have a picture of the three of them together at the end of the race. Steve and I became very good friends after that and I used to stay with him in Hollywood. Steve did go on to race at Sebring and various other places but his real thing was Motor Cycles.
He and I would ride motor bikes together in Mulholland Drive in California which was a wonderful dirt road then.
After that I joined Ford and won the European Touring Car championship in a Lotus Cortina Mark 1 in 1965 (66). I was then with Carol Shelby with the Daytona Coupes and then the GT40’s.
I actually competed in my first ever race on the 9th August 1958. I bought a lotus 6 for three or four hundred pounds and I needed to do six races that year to get my racing licence, which I managed to do. One of the Lotus team members was a guy called Alan Stacey who was a local farmer to me. I met Alan and he said he would really help me get started as I had proved I could drive. He was brilliant at giving me good advice but the most important thing he did was to persuade Colin Chapman to sell me a Lotus Elite prototype. I had Elite chassis number four. All the others who had them were drivers and I was just a beginner but Alan persuaded Colin to sell me the car and he did all the engineering on it.
What happened then was that I did a couple of races in the Elite and I think the third race I did was the big race at Silverstone, the Daily Express race. Colin Chapman was also driving a Lotus Elite in the same race. I had a bloody good race with Colin and a week after that he called me.
My secretary said there was a chap called Chapman on the phone and being a farmer I thought it was a seed salesman trying to sell me some seed. It was actually Colin on the phone and he asked me if I would like to drive at LeMans in two months’ time. So my first race was in August 1958 and there I was down to drive at Le Mans the following June. I drove with Jimmy Clark and we finished second in our class. My dream when I started racing was to drive once at LeMans and I had achieved that in a ridiculously short space of time; it was an incredible experience.
One funny thing that happened at LeMans - I was sharing a room with Alan Stacey while Jimmy Clark, who I was driving with, was also staying at the same hotel in another room. First evening we arrived we were all together and someone spotted a small piece in a newspaper saying that one of the drivers at LeMans that year had a wooden leg. Jimmy asked who on earth that could be and Alan, who was there, said ‘oh, that’s me’. Jimmy said, ‘no come on, who can it be?’. Alan said ‘no, it is me’ but Jimmy just didn’t believe him.
At about 8.00am the following morning Jimmy burst into our room and there on the floor was Alan’s leg. Well Jimmy just died; he was so embarrassed that he just fled from the room. I didn’t see him again until lunch time and Jimmy came up to me quietly and asked if Alan was angry with him. I said no, Alan had just laughed his head off.
Motorsport was incredibly dangerous in those days and after achieving my dreams of winning a few cups and driving at Le Mans, I took the safe option to retire gracefully and pursue my other interests in flying. I’d been lucky enough as a schoolboy to have had a flight in a meteor jet and my fascination led to attaining my pilots licences.
One particularly enjoyable consequence of racing for Ford in the States, spending time with Steve McQueen and being introduced to friends and acquaintances over there led to me spending time at NASA and co-piloting a fully simulated moon landing. The £400 I spent on that 850CC Mini wasn’t a bad investment….”
Sir John shared these memories in support of Replay Motorsport, the project helping older motorsport fans. There are over 800 memories from the stars of sport, journalists, celebrities and fans to enjoy at www.sportingmemoriesnetwork.com
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