Motorsport Flashback: Meeting Heroes

Posted in Cars


The local motor-racing calendar is generally packed full of events at this time of the year, especially for Michael, who catches up with a couple of motor-racing legends

Kenny in his Swift — about to head out for another win

Kenny’s festival
The New Zealand Festival of Motor Racing at Hampton Downs celebrating Kenny Smith, in late January, was run on the International circuit, and, for most competitors, it was a first. By all accounts, the track is certainly challenging — and was not helped by the schizophrenic weather, especially on the Sunday, when those of us in the commentary box couldn’t believe our screens when hail stones fell at a section of the extended track. Kenny was racing three cars over the weekend — his Formula 5000 Lola, the Swift DB-4 Atlantic car that he regularly uses in Formula Libre racing, and a Formula Ford borrowed off Phil Foulkes.

He did OK — he won all three 5000 races, won all four Formula Libres, and three of the four Formula Ford races, so 10 wins from 11 starts and a second — and one of the wins came after he started from pit lane. That might be possible in some categories, but is unheard of in the hurly-burly wheel-to-wheel racing in Formula Ford. But racing was only part of Kenny’s duties over the weekend — there were cars to demonstrate during lunchtime parades, book signings, and the Saturday-night dinner in his honour. Three of his Australian buddies from the good old days made the trip — Kevin Bartlett, Warwick Brown, and Bruce Allison — and all spoke with warmth and humour about the incomparable Kenny. Towards the end of the evening, the MC got two of Ken’s oldest friends up on the stage — both are guys that Kenny says he could race with wheel to wheel without ever wondering if there would be any ‘funny business’: Graeme Lawrence and David Oxton. 

David Oxton entertains with MC Michael Clark, star of the show Kenny Smith, and ‘brother’ Graeme Lawrence

Graeme wrote the foreword in the Kenny book, in which he describes their relationship as being more like that of brothers. Both he and David added further hilarity, combined with thoughtful reflection on just how much Kenny has continued to improve as a driver at a time when many people his age are weighing up which retirement village to move into. Tony Quinn also spoke on the night, and suggested that Kenny should be employed by the New Zealand Government to go around rest homes and show people what they could be doing at 75. It’s a superb idea …

Near the end of the evening, Warwick Mortimer sidled up to me and said, “In your book, there is a section about cars Kenny would have loved to have raced — the first one is a Can-Am McLaren, and I wonder if he’d like to drive mine tomorrow.” I pointed out to Warwick that Kenny was standing close by and suggested he ask him, but he said, “I’d like you to.” So, that was the easiest question of the night: “Kenny, would you like to drive Mort’s McLaren tomorrow in the lunchtime display?”

Though the car did not quite fit him properly, Kenny loved the experience — despite a few specks of rain near the end. So, how was it out there? “I tell you, they’re men’s cars. A 5000 is a man’s car, but these even more so. It took a while to get used to all that bodywork around me, but I just loved it. It got a bit slippery near the end, and there was no point being a hero — fantastic, makes you think how it would have been back in the day, with two dozen of those things racing.”

Kenny cleaning up Formula 5000

The Taupo event the weekend after the festival was billed as a Formula 5000 versus Formula 1 showdown, with half a dozen Ford Cosworth DFV–powered Grand Prix (GP) cars on hand. Michael Lyons found his ex–Rupert Keegan Hesketh 308E not cooperating, so borrowed his dad Frank’s ex–James Hunt McLaren M26 to go head-to-head with Kenny. They were each the class of their respective groups — Michael, tall and boyish, just turned 26, and Kenny — tougher than diesel. Just as he’d been at Hampton Downs, where he set a new lap record for the long track. Michael’s lighter and more nimble Formula 1 (F1) car just had the legs on the best of the 5000s. Next year, Frank Lyons expects more F1 cars to make the trip, and one hopes that that will attract more spectators to see, and hear, these wonderful machines in action.

Warwick Mortimer was also at Taupo with his Can-Am McLaren. On Saturday, he put Bruce McLaren’s daughter Amanda into the cockpit, and, despite never having driven anything remotely similar before, she loved the experience. On Sunday, the car was handed over to Cary Taylor — it was a lovely gesture by Mort, because Cary had been Denny’s mechanic, not only on his world championship–winning Brabham, but also on his Can-Am McLarens from 1968 to 1970. Cary had raced a Brabham twin-cam in the early ’70s, and showed enough to indicate he might be just as talented with a steering wheel as he was with a spanner. He described it as “… an awesome experience, and brought back many memories of my time as chief mechanic on Denny’s cars …”

Cary and I will work on a special feature for the October issue to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his and Denny’s fantastic achievement.

Bruce McLaren’s daughter Amanda tries out the M26

I can’t recall when I last missed the wonderful Skope Classic at Ruapuna — it is one of the most enjoyable meetings of the year, and this year saw over 300 entries headed by Formula 1, F5000 and Juniors, but with the very special focus on Historic Touring Cars. The organizers, who seem to think of everything, invited over some celebrities from Australia in the form of Christine and Fred Gibson, Allan Moffat and Jim Richards, and from much further afield, Gianfranco Brancatelli and Ulf Granberg. The races featured ‘Branca’ — complete with the Amon-styled crash helmet that he has worn since the ’70s in honour of his boyhood hero — in a Sierra Cosworth RS500 up against Michael Lyons — the boy can drive anything — in an ex–British Touring Car Championship Nissan Primera. Although giving away a lot of power, the Nissan is newer, and from an era described as “the Formula 1 of touring cars”. 

To the surprise of many, once Lyons became comfortable with his new mount, he was able to keep the Sierra behind — and the Italian might be 67 but is no slug. After all, 67-year-olds are young fry compared with Kenny Smith. 

Jacky Ickx meets Tish Amon. In the background are Amon twins Alex and James and Manfeild CEO, Julie Keane

Allan Moffat
Having agreed to interview some of the touring-car drivers at the Saturday-night dinner, I was then told the Canadian-born-but-Melbourne-domiciled Allan Moffat was also on the list. I recalled an intense and extremely unfriendly bespectacled Moffat as the driver of the famous Coca-Cola Mustang when he first visited these shores in the early ’70s. His reputation back then preceded him to the extent that even many dyed-in-the-wool Ford fans found him difficult. He was easy to admire on the track but hard to like off it.

I am, however, delighted to report that he was utterly charming, warm and full of anecdotes. He’s now 77 and told me that his story is nearing completion and should be in bookshops later this year. Even Holden hardliners could not deny his place in Australian motor-racing folklore, just as Ford fans must recognize the contribution of Peter Brock. Between the two of them, they set a platform for virtually everything that has followed — they both brought a new level of professionalism to the sport in Australasia, and the success of Bathurst is very largely on the back of the profiles they respectively established.

Moffat, Clark, and Ickx

Circuit Chris Amon
The good people at Manfeild could have just renamed the circuit in recognition of their local lad and left it at that. They could have added a bit of new signage and pressed on with the running of the 62nd New Zealand GP, especially in the knowledge that they might not get it back in 2018, but no. They went all out and honoured the memory of Chris: they brought out Chris’ Ferrari teammate from 1968, Jacky Ickx, and this was a master stroke. The Belgian-born driver was twice runner-up in the world championship and, like Chris, was a Le Mans winner; although, unlike the Kiwi, who only finished it once, Ickx won it six times.

What a class act Jacky is — this youthful 72-year-old with a rich voice, and beautiful command of English spoken with his French accent, with highly intelligent opinions and observations. Nothing was too much trouble, from the time he arrived at the circuit with his son and daughter on the Friday before the GP, after driving down from Auckland, until the time he left the dinner on Sunday night.

In one of the suites, we met a lad with ‘Steve the Maori’ embroidered on his shirt. We got talking and discovered his interest in things Ferrari extended beyond his watch and shoes with little prancing horses — his daughters are named ‘Minardi’ (a former and perennial backmarker F1 team that was once powered by Ferrari) and ‘Alecia’ (after ‘Jean’, the Ferrari driver from 1991 to ’95), and then he revealed a giant Ferrari shield tattooed on his right shoulder. I was starting to become convinced of his dedication — and more so when his email address included ‘27’, the number on Gilles Villeneuve’s Ferrari when he was killed in 1982.

Jacky signs another autograph — this one to be tattooed

Steve grew up near the old Bay Park, and, despite a complete absence of any motor-racing interest in his family, followed the noise one day and became hooked — perhaps even obsessed. He wondered if I would mind introducing him to Mr Ickx for an autograph. Having seen the body art, I — jokingly, I must add — suggested he get Jacky to autograph his shoulder and then have that tattooed as well. Jacky didn’t miss a beat, and Steve, as promised, forwarded a photograph of his specially signed shoulder to be included in these pages.

As MC for the Sunday dinner, my main task was to interview Jacky. I asked my first question and he simply took over — 400-plus people hanging onto his every word. As the evening doubled as the prize-giving for the Toyota Racing Series, he provided wisdom to the 20 young men who had just raced in the GP, as he interwove stories of joining Ferrari and the delight of being a teammate to a very special New Zealander: “He was elegant — both as a driver and as a man. People like us are lucky — we survived a very dangerous period, and I now see [that] Chris had a complete life with a lovely wife and family.” He added the following poignant comment, “To make it to the top in motor racing, one must be egotistical, highly focused, and self-centred. These are not qualities that are necessarily useful in everyday life, but in motor racing they are utterly essential.”

It was then time to get my new friend Allan Moffat up onto the stage, so that he and Jacky could tell us about winning Bathurst together 40 years ago. Moffat, who had flown back here from Melbourne after Skope, said, “I couldn’t miss out on the chance to spend some time with the best co-driver I ever had in the most memorable win at Mount Panorama — hey, I love this guy.” Earlier in the day, the Belgian had given Tish Amon an emotional lap of Manfeild in the Grant Aitken–owned Ford GT40 — an exact replica of the car the Kiwis had shared to win Le Mans in 1966.

Michael Clark interviewing Jacky Ickx

Meeting heroes
After the completion of my MC duties, Kenny Smith collared me: “Would you introduce me to Ickx? I always admired that guy.” Well there was no need — as I said ‘Jacky’ he looked up, and then, “Ah — you must be the incredible Kenny Smith!” I think that rather made Ken’s night.

Completing a special night for me was discovering my favourite All Black was in the audience. Sam Strahan was at school with Chris (both Huntley and Wanganui Collegiate) and couldn’t believe he’d ever been anyone’s favourite — but he was mine, from his first test in 1967 to his last in 1973. I was also delighted to find out that he is motor-racing fan and a regular spectator at Manfeild, which is just down the road from his farm. 

This article originally appeared in NZ Classic Car issue No. 315 — Click the cover below to purchase a print copy of the magazine