F1 WRITER KATE WALKER INTERVIEWS DAVID TREMAYNE
When Kate and I sat down at Le Pinocchio in Old Monaco on JUNE 12 2014, and we went through the whole background to STAY GOLD, I thought we were close to a breakthrough. Little did I know that salvation was still two years distant… DT
Do you remember the beginning of your dream, you know, being a sort of 14 year-old or whatever, when you thought, I want to do that? How did the dream start?
It started by seeing Donald Campbell die, which perhaps is a pretty weird way of looking at it. But it isn’t, you know. How inspirational was that, and how cool is it for his memory if other people come along and want to pick up his torch? Initially, in a very sort of romanticised schoolboy way when I was 14, that was what it was about. Kind of carrying on his work. You read things like Leo Villa saying there would never be another Donald Campbell. And of course there wouldn’t be – couldn’t be – but there have been other people wanting to do what he did. You know, there was kind of a schoolboy thing with me of, ‘Yeah, I want to do that,’ because you have no idea how dangerous or anything else it is, or how difficult all the other aspects are. So that’s where it began. And later it got serious and in 1976 I used to draw lots of pictures of record cars and boats, all that kind of thing.
But it got more serious in 1981, because of Thrust2, and then really serious in 1984, when Project Thrust was done and Richard had the record. And me thinking, ‘Well, we’ve got the land speed record now, wouldn’t it be cool to go after the water speed record? Richard said once of his initial dream, ‘There comes a time when you think, am I going to do anything about this, or am I going to let it go?’ And it’s a very good question you should ask yourself, and my answer was, ‘Yeah, I do want to do something.’ and that’s when I bought a Rolls-Royce Orpheus engine, with Andrew Hurdle’s help. That’s where Andrew and I first met.
So you’re going back full circle, with Andrew and STAY GOLD
Yep. And it’s funny, you know, the original boat I designed had a Viper engine, and at one stage it was gonna be called GOLDFIRE, so it kind of had the name.
The name was half there…
GOLD was there, and the Viper, then it became Restless Spirit with the Orpheus, and it went on from there. Buying the engine was the commitment.
So you were putting your money where your mouth was
Well there wasn’t much money, but I didn’t have such a big mouth in those days!
I find that hard to believe!
Yeah, yeah. Actually that was the best deal I ever did. I paid £400 for the engine in 1984, and I sold it in 1996 when I realised that project wasn’t going to fly and needed to buy the hull for RS170, and I got five grand for it.
And I think I’m right in saying, it’s flying in the ex-Dave Gilmour Gnat, one of the Yellowjacks rather than a Red Arrow. And that would be massively cool if that engine’s still flying. It was a very good one, a proper one that was still classified to fly. It’s the only thing I’ve ever really earned a lot of money on.
That’s brilliant, that’s like an eight times return on your investment or something, not bad at all
Now we’re the experts in buying duff Viper jet engines!
How do you go about reshaping your dream, because you originally had the boat dream, didn’t you, and you turned it into a land speed dream. How do you go from water to land, is it a practical thing that you do?
I don’t know why I’ve always loved boats. I think it might just be because when you’re throwing a hydroplane around a corner there’s not so much to hit as there is on race tracks, in theory! I’ve always just been comfortable with the idea of running atop the water. But also, one thing I’ve always, always stressed to myself: I’m not interested in unrealistic dreams. All my dreams have been based on some form of reality.
Are they to begin with?
Yes, in a way. I mean it’s like, as a kid, you decide you want break a speed record and you think it’s either going to be a land or a water speed record, and in my case it was a little bit of both. When I was 14 I was drawing cars and boats. But when I got to really thinking about it seriously, in 1984, I wanted to do the boat record because Richard [Noble] had just done the land speed record, so that was taken care of. And he taught me so much about how to do it and how to ground it in reality, not to indulge in any sort of highfaluting stuff. And I never wanted to be someone with an impossible dream. I wanted to try something that was real, that you could actually achieve.
And so you could break it down and do it step by step?
Yeah. I figured it that way with our original speed project, which I called Restless Spirit RS450, which was a hydroplane to break 325 mph but with a 450 mph design speed. Not that you would try and achieve 450; that was to give us a good safety margin. And then we got an engine, and we started to try and get the hull designed and built. And then along the way I eventually realised that maybe it wasn’t going to happen because of the money. So the next thing was, ‘Okay, what would I be happy with next?’ So that led to the UK propeller record programme. And that was realistic, because we bought the hull and then we got the engine. So it wasn’t like I was saying, ‘I really want to go to Mars.’ It was, ‘Well, I think I can do this.’
And when you were a boy, were you able to break it down into steps, or was it an impossible dream as a boy and then as you get older you sort of wised up?
Well, when I was young obviously I didn’t know what an impossible dream was because I was just a kid. And kids, you know… You don’t realise how hard life can be until you grow up. And growing up is what teaches you how difficult these things are. So sometimes you only learn that when you actually start something. And you have to start somewhere. And my commitment was to sell my Jaguar XJ6 to fund the purchase of a jet engine. Then later I sold my beloved Jaguar Mark II which I had put in storage, to buy the hull for the RS170 hydroplane.
But you never really know where you’ll go when you start out, but you just have to start somewhere. And that’s why going and buying the jet engine was my commitment to starting the water speed project. And I tried to put it together the way Richard did, getting the engine to demonstrate commitment, then selling the project to try and put the rest together. But I’m not Richard, and I couldn’t sell it.
And then subsequently, how I converted to a land speed programme was…
Well, the problem is that nobody understands what a speedboat is. Companies sort of get land speed cars or racing cars, and everyone knows what an aeroplane is. But not a speedboat.
You’d think it was something you nipped around in during your summer holidays…
Yes, and to me that’s a motor boat, not a speedboat. An RIB or a cabin cruiser. Speedboats are hydroplanes which dance on top of the water on only three points, and go very fast. And I always, always, always wanted to do that. And we got so close with the boat projects; not with the outright water speed boat but with the UK propeller record boat, RS170, and a project after that to go after the world propeller record with Ken Muscatel’s Miss Freei. But each time we just couldn’t make it stick, financially.
And after a while, as you well know, some things in my life changed in 2008. And it was hard, you know, it wasn’t a happy time when that happened. And you can either sit moping, or just tell yourself: ‘Stop doing that and get on and do something. Make something happen.’ I knew the boat project was dead, and I made myself acknowledge that. So then I wanted to do a rocket car, as you also know. It was like giving the finger to a world I no longer liked so much and that would have been something so spectacular. Wouldn’t it be cool to go running that round the Middle East…
On a rocket!
Playing rocket cars! And then that wasn’t gonna work because of the hydrogen peroxide/bomb association thing, so then I realised it would have to be a jet car. So I started looking for one. Then all of a sudden there on the internet was Ian Caseley’s Road Zombie II as it was known at the time. And you know when you just look at something and you think, ‘Whoa, this is actually meant to happen…’
Yeah, you think it’s kismet
I looked at it two ways. For some time I thought ‘This was meant to happen.’ And I found the money for it – £20,000. Tony Purnell, of PI Research and Jaguar Racing fame was my first backer, bless him, and then Martin Whitmarsh at McLaren helped me out. Without their kindness and belief at those crucial moments, it would never have happened. Then the price went up five grand, and I’m thinking, ‘Shit, I can’t believe this isn’t meant to happen!’ And that was why I was kicking things round the house and having a major, major meltdown. Because I thought I had finally found what I wanted to do and had actually found the money to put it together, after all those years of failure. And then the price goes up 25 per cent, and you’re out of it again. You know, it was ‘only’ five grand but I didn’t have a bean personally to put into a project like that. And you just think, ‘I cannot believe The Man would be so cruel to let me get so close, and then take it away.’ I just couldn’t believe that.
And that’s when Tom and Sam came to the rescue…
Unbelievable! They both said, ‘Okay, two and a half grand each from us. No argument.’ And I said, ‘No, no,’ and they both said, ‘Yes, yes.’ And then you think, actually I’m being stupid because they want to do this as much as you do, so yeah, let’s do it. And that’s how it changed, just because eventually you get to that crunch point. You know, it’s not going to happen with the boat, and you need to accept it. And I knew I’d messed up over the years, but you don’t give up. Ever.
Yeah, when you want something and it’s so close…
It was so close I could taste it. There’s a difference between giving up, or knowing when reality is reality. And it was like being in love, having to give up on love, giving up on the Freei. You sort of think, this is my love, this is my religion, this is (almost) everything I ever think about. And I’m not going to give up.
For a while I was going to be the one who was getting in that boat and closing the hatch. I’d sat in two of those big unlimited boats – Bob Fendler’s U-19 and Jim Lucero’s U-50 Truck Gear but funnily enough not actually the Freei – and I experienced the same feeling I would have later with GOLD, where you just think, ‘Well, I don’t feel as if I’m sitting in a coffin with a window, I feel like I’m home, that I’m where I should be and where I want to be.’ So that felt completely comfortable, and I just loved the idea of doing it, and I talked to lots of people who’d done it, and I’d raced my little 100 mph hydroplane, so I knew something about those boats and I loved them. So you just don’t want to give up, but when you really get honest with yourself after so many years – eight years – eventually you think, ‘DT, nobody is going to invest the money in you to do this, and you won’t do it without the money.’ And then it was like crunch time. I sat at home and said brutally to myself, ‘You can carry on like this, carrying this dream around, even if you only tell a few special people that you trust about it, but going nowhere. Or perhaps you can try and do something that you can make work.’
And sometimes you just have to put your balls on the line… It’s a commitment to yourself, putting it out there, isn’t it? By telling people what your dream is, you almost have to commit to doing it…
In a way. But the only people I told, apart from family and people I was looking for money from or those whose help I needed, were my really close friends, especially Nadia Petrossi. Later it was Mariana Becker, Jane Nottage, you, Diana Binks, Patricia Sanchez, Debs Whitmarsh, Peter Collins. Later, Alexandra Newbery over in Austin and Blair Soden in Connecticut. That’s what annoys me when people would say, ‘Oh look at him going on about his jet car again,’ because they don’t know anything about it. I would look at those people and think, ‘I’ve never talked you about it, never told you anything. I’ve never pushed it at you, so you don’t know anything about it. Or about me.’
I’ve always had this ‘honesty with yourself kick’, and being able to look at yourself in the mirror. Do you think you can do this, or are you just kidding yourself and carrying this like a comfort blanket, and then in 10 years’ time you’ll look back and realise what a tosser you were? What a tosser you looked? All this big dream that you never did anything about. Talk’s cheap, and I’d hate to be like that. That’s the last kind of person I’d ever want to be. And it’s just taken me 30 years to learn how to get from one thrust car to another one, having driven Sammy Miller’s beautiful Vanishing Point back in 1982, which is pretty quick progress! I’m an overnight sensation. So yeah, it was all about being honest, and still thinking, ‘Do you really want to do it?’
And were you motivated to do it by 2008? You know, you were in such a low place emotionally that you wanted to turn that into a positive?
Oh massively, yeah! I was always motivated. But it was just like it was when my dad died in 1989 and I started the RS170 programme after realising the big boat would never happen. And now, nearly 20 years later, it was like, ‘Life is really crap, I’m going nowhere. What am I going to do about it?’ And, yes, I needed to turn that into a positive. Both times, I felt exactly the same way. So yeah, throughout 2008 I was hugely motivated, and even more so at the end of that year. And then I found the car and, almost overnight, because of two very kind friends and my kids, I found the money. Just like that, after all those years of struggle with the boats. And suddenly you have this delicious feeling: ‘I can buy this thing. I have my project. Really, I do!’
It’s actually happening…
Yeah. And when you get to that point, things become totally different. Because knowing that you really can do something you’ve always dreamed of, you look at it like an opportunity cost in economics, which is the cost of making one decision compared to another. It’s kind of, ‘I’ve always wanted to do this, and now I can!’ And your other self is saying, ‘Yes, but now that you can do it, are you sure you really want to?’ That’s the point of ultimate commitment, because suddenly there’s no excuse not to make it. You can have this dream which you think is realistic and everything else, and yes it is, but it’s still ephemeral until you suddenly have the wherewithal to do it.’
I suppose that’s when you really do have to look at yourself and decide if you’ve got the balls to go ahead, or if you’re all mouth and no trousers
Absolutely! Like I said, talk is cheap. And it’s actually really interesting. You know, there are all these moments of truth that come along, but that’s probably the most important one of all. I’m pretty sure that the Richard Nobles of the game never even gave all that a second thought. Whereas I did, because I was scared. I was absolutely terrified. Of failing.
But don’t you find that the fear of failure is what propels you to try harder?
Oh, yeah! Of course it is!
I mean, if I’m not afraid of screwing up, I coast. Life is about finding the scary moments, and discovering who you are
Absolutely. And it’s also about which scary thing to do. It could be a bungee jump, or a parachute jump. I really don’t believe I could jump out of an aeroplane, I haven’t got the balls to do that in cold blood. I don’t think I could do a bungee jump, either. I don’t really want to do either of those things. But I wanted to drive a vehicle faster than anyone else in a category sufficiently respectable and yes, I guess dangerous, that I could be satisfied with it. Okay, by this time in my life the outright records were way beyond me, both my talent and my means. But I liked that bit, where you actually think, ‘Do I really want this now that I can have it?’ And, you know, you sit in something like GOLD and you become completely seduced by it.
But has GOLD ever scared you?
Yes. The biggest fear I had when I bought her was, ‘Okay, I’ve got the funding to buy this car, and the thing that I’ve always said is that I’ll only truly have a project when I’ve bought or created a vehicle and started running it.’ Because I’d bought RS170 in 1990 but that dragged on ’till 1998, where we had the hull and we had the engine but we just could not finish funding the mating process even though we got massively close. A couple of times we got let down.
My biggest fear was that I didn’t want to end up with something that just sat on the farm and which I never got to drive. ‘So you’ve never driven it, DT?’ ‘Well, actually, no I haven’t.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘Well, I can’t afford to.’
And that scared the hell out of me, because you know, though it’s really hard to find the money, that just sounds so lame.
Being halfway there is almost worse than not having taken the first step, isn’t it?
No, and yes. No, because you’ve got started. And that’s key. Yes, because it makes you an even bigger chump, actually. You know, why would you have something like that and not use it? And then you try and explain, that it’s not just a matter of turning up, flicking the ignition on and off you go. Running GOLD costs big money. But excuses always sound feeble to me, even if they are actually reasons.
But you went ahead anyway…
Of course. But it still took three years between buying GOLD and running her for the first time. And all that time I was really scared that she would just sit in her trailer on the farm, still painted pink, and for a long time she did just that. I’d get her out now and then and we’d play around with bits and pieces. And you’d sort of think, ‘Oh, God, DT, have you bought another white (pink) elephant?’ And then thanks to Tony [Fernandes], and things sort of coming together when they had to, she’s not even a red elephant now. She’s a gorgeous red jetcar, a fantastic piece of kit that I’m going to drive fast again very soon, and that’s so important.
One of the things that I find so, well I don’t know, odd, is the way that you’re so guardedly private in some ways about GOLD, you know, not wanting to ram it down people’s throats but only sharing it with people that you trust because they’ll understand it and you. But at the same time, in order to get the investment, you’ve had to invite corporate people to buy into your dream
Hmm. Well, that’s partly because I’m an idiot, because I want my cake and eat it. I don’t want to go round shoving GOLD down people’s throats. But also I get sore if people aren’t interested in her. It’s pretty stupid when you think about it, because I’ve never found it difficult to go to companies and talk about that side of it, because they’re people I don’t know and I need their financial help. And they’ve got it within their remit to make it happen or not. Whereas the other people don’t, they’re just friends and I don’t want them sort of looking and thinking, you know, we’re so bored with him and his bloody jetcar.
But no, I don’t mind going and talking to people businesswise about GOLD, because it’s actually quite good practice, and it’s not like you’re boasting to them. You’re just putting your proposition to them and suggesting that maybe we can develop a business partnership around this. And it’s an easy thing for me to talk about to people like that. But as you know, I never, ever talk to people that I don’t think are going to be interested. I’ve never been a boaster.
You know I’m not a self-publicist, I never have been, and that’s probably half the reason why I’ve such a feeble track record of finding the money. I hate selling myself. But I don’t want to be, and never have wanted to be, one of these people who boasts about things that they then don’t achieve. You know, that terrifies me. It’s way too easy to talk, the hard part is the doing, and it always has been. And too many people come up with projects and announce them when they’re on paper only, and what they hope is that somebody, somewhere will read about them and suddenly go, ‘Oh my, how interesting! I’ve got to sponsor this!’ That just never happens. You just make yourself look a chump when you do that. So I’m actually quite funny about publicity until we have done something worthwhile to speak about or to demonstrate. The boys have put stuff on YouTube and Facebook, and if I’d had my choice I wouldn’t have put any of that there, until we’ve virtually done it, and then we’ve got something to talk about afterwards. Which is a bit of a stupid way of doing it, especially for a journalist who knows how these things are supposed to work, but that’s the way I look at it.
Well you have to look at things like the afterburner test and the first run video as a taster, you’re teasing people, getting them excited in emotionally investing in the project, if they can’t afford to do so financially
Yeah, but it depends who you want emotionally involved. And one of the beautiful things about this kind of project, and I’ve seen it happen with Richard, lots of times, is where people attach themselves to you because they come to share your dream, and that helps the dream to come true because it becomes their dream too.
It takes a village to raise a child, sort of thing.
Yeah, but you can’t always choose the people that live in that village, they choose themselves. I chose Andrew Hurdle, our engine man, because I suddenly came to my senses one day and thought, ‘Hang on, Andrew’s a genius,’ and I got back in touch with him and then Andrew brought Kieran Westman to the project, who also knows jet engines. Which, you know, that felt like, I don’t know, having Adrian Newey and Ross Brawn working on your project. So right from the start I thought, ‘Holy cow, these guys know so much and they’re clever in different ways, and Kieran is brilliant with engines.’ Tom was reminding me the other day of the time that he went down to RAF Kemble, the Cotswold Airport, where Ronan and Suzannah Harvey used to let us keep GOLD in luxury she’d become accustomed to, expecting to help Kieran put the gearbox on the latest engine and then install it. And by the time he got there Kieran had already done it the night before, he’d already put it in the car, because that’s Kieran. And Andrew is so clever on so many different levels, because he’s borderline genius. And he’s very good at promoting things and knowing where to go for them, and he knows about engines and networking as well.
And they’re both former jet car drivers. Andrew drove Scorpion and Kieran drove Vampire, at Santa Pod and others places back in the Eighties. And because he knew Kieran, Paul Jewell came along. And bless him, he’s never gone away because he loves the project. Kieran’s son Jack also comes down to help. And when you get people that actually want to be involved, who are prepared to spend so much of their own time on it, it’s just a mega thing.
And does it give you more confidence in the project, with people like that getting involved?
Of course it does, because I could never do it on my own.
But knowing you’ve got people of that quality investing in your dream
Absolutely. I trust them because they know what they’re talking about and what they’re doing. And these are exactly the kind of people that give the project credibility. And then there’s Carl Gilkeson at Leeds University – Dr Carl. He’s been supervising students who have been looking after the computational fluid dynamics aerodynamics research programme. They’ve been validating GOLD’s basic shape and working on enhancements that will make her faster and even more stable, and they are all just massively clever. Again, Carl just came along and said, ‘I’m the guy you need.’ And when you actually find people who are wanting to help you, and you are no longer trying to push water up hill, trying to get anyone interested, it’s massively exciting.
And then The Man blesses you and you find the Tony Fernandes of the world, who believe in the dream and are willing to help you financially.
I wanted to ask you about Tony. You’re both practical dreamers, was it love at first sight when you met?
Totally! Genuinely, I love that guy.
But how do you move to sponsorship from chatting on the grid?
Well, initially The Independent phoned me and said that Tony had invited us to interview him. I went to his house in Mayfair and we talked about Lotus, about his dream. Well, if I slashed my wrists the blood would probably coagulate in the word Lotus, because I adored Jimmy Clark and all that wonderful heritage. I was sitting there getting more and more excited, and literally within minutes I understood where Tony was coming from with his dream. It was the same dream we’d all had when we were working for Team Lotus, when I was doing the press releases when Peter Collins and Peter Wright were working so hard to revive the team in 1991 to ’94. The first thing I did when I left was phone PC and say, ‘Dude, we don’t have to worry about the future of Lotus, it’s in good hands. This guy gets it.’
Tony is a dreamer, but he’s a practical dreamer, and one of the things he said that resonated was about finding the right people, the people with passion, and getting them into the right jobs and empowering them, to help you with your dream. And I thought, yeah, I get that totally.
So I was really excited, and even if I had no business connections with Tony, I’d still want to be his friend because he’s like the genie from the lamp, he’s a very inspiring person, and a very kind-hearted person. I have been blessed to meet some great people in my life, and he is one of the two most important ones I’ve met in the last 10 years. And I don’t mean that because he’s helping to fund GOLD. He’s just a great guy for whom I have great love, respect and affection.
And he’s so inspirational…
Yes, he’s very motivational on an emotional level. He’s that kind of guy. The world needs Tony Fernandes-type people who are big dreamers, but who also get on and do things, who live their dreams and not only make them come true, but other people’s as well.
So how did Tony become your benefactor?
Well, he just liked a proposal I put before him in 2011 and it went from there. We cemented things the Sunday morning in Canada a few days later. Now he says, ‘Your dream is our dream.’ And you just think, ‘How cool is that?’ But then, you know, in some ways you do make your own luck, because we’d been through a few wars together, against the bad guys, long before that. That’s just the way it goes, the way a friendship develops. But it isn’t why we went through the wars, that just happened because I thought fighting alongside him in those wars was the right thing to do.
He’s got the vision, and he’s got the generosity to believe in other people, so it’s not just the money but having the generous spirit that enables you to have faith in other people. That’s really special
Yeah. The first thing is to have the dream, then you’ve got to figure out how to make that dream achievable. And then if you’re lucky you find other people coming alongside to work with you. But ultimately, what really ignites the flame and keeps it lit is when you find the next person after that, the one who believes in that dream sufficiently to come up with the financial wherewithal to help it happen.
The universe gives you the right people at the right times, I think
Yeah, you’d better hope so! In the past seven years it’s brought so many blessings to me in the form of close friends and helpmates, who have made the whole STAY GOLD programme possible but also just been there for me.
And one of the things that you hope to do with GOLD is to use it as a sort of learning tool to teach kids about the power of dreams, isn’t it?
Yes, I really believe very strongly in that, although it’s more about informing them rather than teaching or preaching. One thing that really irks me is when people belittle dreams, because it’s not even a matter of getting them or not, some people are just scared to dream or made uncomfortable by people who do. Or they get scared when their children dream, not because they are being cruel like those people, but because they don’t think you should do something because they’re scared you might not achieve it and thus be disappointed and unhappy for the rest of your life.
It’s fascinating; when my younger sis, Madeleine, was 12 and I was 11, my parents said, ‘What do you want to do for a living?’ Maddle said she wanted to be an actress and I said I wanted to be a race driver. And they both said, ‘Yes, yes, but you need to think of a proper job.’ And yeah, that was partly because they knew nothing about acting or race driving, so they were scared for us and didn’t know where to go with it. But my mate Will Buxton’s mum and dad, Georgie and Bill, they asked the same thing with Will and his sister Pip, and he and she said pretty much the same. And their parents’ attitude was different, they said, ‘You know, we’ll have to see what we can try and do.’ And all four of us were doing those things that we said we wanted to do as kids. Maddle and Pip acted, and Will and I are doing what we are best suited to do, writing about race drivers. But perhaps if my parents had been able to say, ‘Well, we don’t really know quite how to do this but we’ll have a think,’ Maddle and I might have got to where we wanted to be five or even 10 years sooner.
But one thing you learn in life is that it moves at the pace it wants to move when you are looking for The Path, and you just have to be patient. Yeah, I know, it sounds funny me, Mr Impatient, saying that, but it’s true. Sure, push it like hell whenever you can, but sometimes you just have to be patient and play the long game.
Yeah, that’s true.
I did a speech at the Melbourne Club in 2013, about dreams and motorsport. I talked about Mark Webber, Alan Jones, Jack Brabham, Ken Warby – big Aussies and how they all made their names through their dreams. And then I told them a little about GOLD and then said, ‘I want to ask you all a favour. If I was Richard Noble now, the favour would be that I’d pass a bucket round and ask you to throw money into it. But I don’t want you to do that, what I do want you to do is just think about dreams and what they really mean. And you obviously know kids, you might have them or know people with them or have grandchildren or teach… And if they’re ever brave enough to share their dreams with you, please don’t be tempted to gainsay or belittle them just because you don’t understand. Please do everything you can to encourage them.
What’s that Keats quote… Tread softly for you tread on my dreams…
Hmm. But like I said, it’s about informing, not teaching or preaching. Just hopefully inspiring them, encouraging them to chase – and live – their own dreams.
I read a wonderful poster on the Montreal metro last year. It was in French but effectively said in English: ‘Dreams only come true when you’re awake.’
Yeah. And that could be awake with a capital A or in italics, couldn’t it? Awake!
Dreams are massively important.
Well, for me a dream is something that gets you through the night. You know, it’s something to hold on to in the good times and the bad, it’s a goal, it’s a focus. And if you don’t have something that you’re aiming for, you’re just wandering, aren’t you?
And sometimes it’s a comfort blanket, and there’s nothing wrong with that, so long as it doesn’t just become that and nothing else. Some very clever person once said, ‘Dreams are passion, passion is feeling and feeling is life.’ For me that sums up the whole thing.
Well you can’t afford to spend your life asleep, can you?
No, and as I’m fond of saying, I don’t want to wake up dead one day and look down and think, ‘You idiot, DT, you were one of those people down there, why didn’t you do anything? All those days sat around doing nothing, why didn’t you make use of it?’ You know, I still find days where I’m sat around doing nothing and think, ‘You should be doing something, get on with it.’
Sometimes though, you’re recharging for the next stage
Yeah, and sometimes you’re just being lazy. But I like to keep the lazy days down as much as I can.
Yeah, but it’s healthy to have a contrast
Maybe. Now Trish, she tells me that I work really hard, but I don’t work anything like as hard as she does, she never stops. Doesn’t matter what she’s doing, either with her special needs kids at school or working on the farm, she never stops. Which is probably why she can sleep so easily, because she really is flat out the whole time she’s awake.
If you run flat out the entire time you eventually burn out the clutch
Only if you’ve got your foot on the wrong pedal! And besides, jetcars don’t have clutches…
Well you blow your engine then. We’re not designed for flat out
Ha! If that’s the case, why is it called the human race?
Remember the tortoise and the hare?
Yeah. I always hated the tortoise and the hare. I always wished the hare would get his car fixed and then run over the smart ass little tortoise who was glorified for being slow. Because actually I think the tortoise and the hare is the absolute, erm…
It’s almost self-defeating isn’t it?
It’s second rate; don’t try because those in front will always fail and then you can beat them by doing nothing yourself. That sends entirely the wrong message.
I did hear a great redraft of the tortoise and the hare a few years ago. The hare challenges the tortoise to a rematch getting home… Ready, steady, go. And the tortoise pulls his head, arms and legs back into his shell, and says, ‘I win!’ Sometimes you just have to change the rules a bit!
That’s very clever. But that’s actually the tortoise following Jim Collins’ Good to Great lessons, the hedgehog theory, isn’t it… Do what you’re good at.
If you’re good at pulling your legs and head in and being at home, then stick with it. Don’t race!
But you don’t necessarily stick with what you’re good at, that’s the whole thing about pursuing dreams, you challenge yourself and find out what you’re good at
That’s true. It’s very funny, when we were coming back from Spa in 2012, shortly after I’d done the one and only quick run of 205 mph first time out in GOLD before we realised the original engine’s rear bearing was kaput, Joe Saward picked up on when I said that I didn’t know if I could do it until I had done it. He was amazed, and said, ‘Well why did you do it then? I thought you were so confident about it!’ And I said, ‘You should know me well enough by now, that I’m not the sort of person who knows I can do something (or actually do it well enough to satisfy myself) until I’ve done it.’ But that’s the exciting thing about it, because I guess you make this pact with the people that are with you, when you say, ‘I’d like to climb this mountain.’ And they come along and think, okay we’re going to help you. But you’d better be able to climb that mountain when all these people are coming along to help and/or watch you, otherwise you’ve just wasted all their time and betrayed all their dreams. You don’t actually know you can do that for sure until you’re trying to climb the mountain and nearing the top, because there’s no other way to find out. But sometimes you need to put yourself way beyond your comfort zone.
There’s that fantastic Leann Womack song, ‘I hope you dance.’ The lyrics go, ‘And if you get the chance to sit it out and dance, I hope you dance.’ And I kind of think, yeah I’m crap at dancing but the point is it doesn’t matter what you look like, you should try it. We always encouraged Tom and Sam to do things, to go for it if you’ve got a chance of doing something. Don’t be the ones sitting on the sidelines thinking, ‘Oh, everyone else is doing it, but I can’t.’ And they do both go for it.
Yeah, better to regret the things you have done than the things you haven’t
That’s why it’s so fascinating, to actually be at the stage we are with GOLD. Richard talked with ThrustSSC of Roosevelt’s speech about it not being the critic who counts but the man who goes down into the arena, the dirt of honest toil on his face, trying to achieve something. And going into the arena… everyone should do it once in their life, just to get out of their comfort zone and see what’s it like trying to achieve something. You know, we all sit here, us hacks, criticising drivers and saying, ‘Look at that guy, what an idiot, look what he’s just done.’ The truth of it is, a lot of journalists probably haven’t got the faintest idea what they’re really talking about. I’m talking about genuine understanding of what it takes to be a racer, especially in the pressure cooker of F1. They stand on the grid and pontificate, trying to get themselves on television, then go and watch from the comfort of the press room. But imagine what it’s like staying on the grid, strapped into something that can kill you, still being there when the red lights go out, that visceral moment when all the animals are let loose…
I was speaking to Alex Rossi about it, and he was talking about that time he gets on to the grid, that moment when you’re coming back after the installation lap and you’re waiting for the lights to go out. And he sits there in the car and every time he thinks, ‘What am I doing, I need to get out of this car, what the hell am I doing? I’m such an idiot, I shouldn’t be doing this! And the minute the lights go out… Boom! And you’re in the zone, and you’re there, and you’re ready to fight.’
See, that’s interesting because I never feel that, and I love the zone. I love the bit where you’re sitting in your hydroplane, or like in the Vanishing Point rocket car when the bodyshell was locked down and you’re sat there and you’re told you can go when you want. Or with GOLD the first time when the engine was screaming behind my head and I had my right foot on the brake and my left thumb on the reheat button, just before I would stab the hot shot button with my right thumb and launch her. I love that feeling, that calm moment before the storm, when you’re just sat there and all the bullshit’s over, all the apprehension, all the silly things you worry about, all that’s gone. And it’s just that moment all to yourself as you prepare for the fight.
In fact, GOLD’s cockpit is such a great place that I often doze when I’m strapped in it. Lewis says he does the same thing in his Merc.
Because it’s so tranquil…
Yeah. And it sounds silly really, but it’s not, because it’s just this peaceful place which isn’t going to be really peaceful in a minute. It’s just that beautiful calmness before the storm. And I love that. I have to say I’ve never felt the apprehension over what I’m about to do, when I’m strapped in. That usually happens just before you fall asleep, or when you’re driving down to the venue, but that’s just because I’ve got a stupidly overactive imagination. But when you’re in the cockpit you’re physically and mentally ready, you can just relax and think, ‘This is okay, just do it.’ And I love that feeling.
Years ago I did lots and lots of theatre, and I never got stage fright. I used to love going on the stage, the minute I would hear the overture sort of strike up…
That’s because you’re such a show off!
Yeah exactly! I loved it and I got a kick out of it. But everybody else I know, who did get stage fright, used to rely on that nervous energy to give them the buzz that they needed to perform
Yeah and I’m actually surprised that I don’t have that stage fright, or seem to need that energy kick. It’s one of the things that I learned about myself.
Maybe you’re a bit of a show off, like me on the stage
I am actually a little bit of a show off with things like this, I suppose. I hope in a nice way. Once I’m comfortable. When I was racing vee-hull boats at Windermere I’d always make the boat jump out of the water more when I went past the pits, I’d look for waves to launch off, because I knew Trish was watching. She wasn’t impressed!
Nothing wrong with showing off
Well there is when you get it wrong and make an idiot of yourself! I honestly don’t think it’s arrogance; it’s a kind of good-natured sort of showing off. Enjoying your moment. But I wouldn’t ever pretend that it’s not a slightly fun element of it.
Well, even as writers we operate in an environment where everything that we do is public, and that’s the thing about writing. I know you put yourself out, you put bits of your heart and your soul into the daily papers or magazines or books for people to read, whether they realise it or not. You know, we’re performers
I suppose I’m used to doing what I do with GOLD now so I have to think how I felt before that first time. I know what I’m meant to do, so it doesn’t really worry me much. The funny thing is, when I was driving GOLD in the rain, late in the afternoon, with a dark visor, at Kemble’s Best of British Show in August 2012, it never crossed my mind that I was going to screw up and I never even thought about the people watching us. But I wouldn’t have wanted to do that on my very first run, just in case. And because I had a good time then and GOLD felt sweet, that doesn’t mean that to say there aren’t going to be some nasty times ahead. You know, if something is funny aerodynamically with the car and it starts doing unexpected things at 300 miles an hour, it’s not going to be an option to put somebody else in her.
Well you just have to take it one step at a time
Yes. We have our run plans drawn up, we’ve had a lot of cfd done and know we have a stable car to which we can add speed, and we are going to be sensible how we do it. Lots of careful technical checks, especially to the Goodyear tyres and the cleanliness of the track, no huge jumps in speed. We always run GOLD with 100 percent power and full reheat; we’ll adjust the speed in the measured distance by deciding our start point, like stretching the elastic further and further back on a catapult, so that we can determine what vmax we reach going into the measured section. 50 mph increments only.
One of the things I was thinking about you talking professionally, is that you’ve spent however many years investing in other people’s dreams. Has having people investing in your dream made you realise how important your support has been to others, or do you not think of it like that?
You do, yeah, you’d be stupid if you pretended you didn’t have some effect. But I never think of it like that because it’s always been something I just wanted to do. But I remember my mate Russell Spence, who supported Tom and Sam’s karting and two of the boat projects, asking me whether a former World Champion of our acquaintance was helping them. I said of course he wasn’t, why should they? ‘Because they bloody well should mate, after all the help you gave him at a crucial stage of his career, with what you wrote about him.’ But I don’t believe life works like that.
I prefer to turn it round the other way. I find it incredibly humbling that these people are here because I’m here. It’s not like we’re all part of a team and trying to help that guy over there. You sort of think, it’s because of me, this is why these people are here. I find it hard to get my head around that. It’s massively humbling, and it’s a fantastically cool feeling. But you also know that you’d better deliver when the time comes.
It’s like the time when TWR built the engine for the RS170, a supercharged version of the Jaguar V6 with 850 bhp and around 1100 lbs of torque. When I was driving home from dear old Tom Walkinshaw’s place at Kidlington back in 1996 I was thinking, ‘You done this a thousand times, gone to look at stuff a team’s doing. But this time everything you’ve looked at today, the engine and the testing data, isn’t something you are going to write about. It’s been done solely for you and RS170. Because they’re supporting you and your dream.’ Deeply humbling.
And is it weird for somebody who’s spent their life telling the story to be the story?
A little. Though we found out the hard way how it felt to be in the media spotlight in the aftermath of David Leslie’s death in March 2008. The intrusive photos, all the ‘let’s capture the grieving friends’ thing. This time it’s not on that dark side so it’s fun, but it’s also kind of odd. I mean it’s funny, because Trish and I used to drive home from the farm in Darlington back to London when we lived down south, so we had a three-hour drive and the kids would be asleep in the back. And we’d be talking all the way about our dreams – this would be like the Nineties – and back then mine were about having a BMW M5 and my own business, and a speed project on the go. And now, I’ve said this to you before, sometimes you’re driving along and you just think, ‘You know what, you’ve got almost everything you’ve ever dreamed of in your life. You’ve got a wonderful family; you’ve got fantastic friends whom you can count on two hands, spectacular friends; a fun roadcar; you have a fabulous job, work for yourself and Grand Prix+ is your own F1 e-mag; and then you’ve got this big red baby in the hangar down at Kemble.’ And you realise you are blessed, and it’s almost like it snuck up on you. The trick is to appreciate those blessings and to savour them.
And it’s such a great feeling, you think, ‘How lucky can you be?’ I think the only way to look at it is that this is fate, this is what was meant to happen. But you never know what is meant to happen until it does, do you?
It’s that whole thing, whenever something seemingly terrible happens and a door slams shut, another door has always opened even if I haven’t spotted it yet. Do you see the difficulties of life as being necessary stumbling blocks that got you to GOLD?
Absolutely. It’s all part of The Path, isn’t it? I love Paulo Coelho’s stuff, as you know, and you learn a lot from that. Like in the Alchemist, where this guy is on this journey and when he finishes it he realises he’s back where he started, but he’s seeing it differently. He appreciates things more. And though it sounds a bit trite I do believe that so long as you never give up every failure is a step to success. Failure isn’t something to be ashamed of, but to learn from. Look at Ron Dennis, why do you think he got on to Project Four? Because three projects had to fail before he figured out how to do it, and now he’s got one of the greatest race teams in the world.
Well you need to learn what you’re doing wrong, so that you can do it right
Yeah, and there’s that thing about how you need to learn to lose before you can learn to win. And I totally believe that. Even though the failures are crushing at the time. I’ve been writing a book on all this as we go along and 90 per cent of it is a litany of failures, and you just think, ‘This is a bit pathetic.’ And if that was all the book is, then it wouldn’t be a very good story, so I hope there’s success coming at the end of it! But it all prepares you, it teaches you different ways to find the path to success, that you have to learn from your mistakes and your failures. So long as you never give up, every failure is just the next step to success.
Also, it’s part of using GOLD to inspire other people to follow their dreams. You know, we’re so used these days, with our celebrity quick-fix culture, to seeing people pop on the X Factor and achieve their dreams in a one and a half hour Saturday night show. The reality is that most of us sort of fight through the wilderness for years before we actually get to where we want to be or where we’re supposed to be. Failure is not an obstacle, it’s just a sign that you’re reading the map wrong
Yeah, or the wrong map, and nothing is a failure until you’re dead and you didn’t succeed. That’s the final counting!
I’ve always said that my greatest fear in life is lying on my deathbed and seeing my life flash before my eyes and being bored
Yeah, oh yeah!
I’d much rather have screwed up numerous times in an interesting way
Yeah exactly, because you know, at the end of the day, if we don’t get the record with GOLD, as long as we’re all still around at the end of it, and we’ve made an honest and painstaking and honourable effort, we’ll still have had a lot of fun. I remember talking to Richard on that subject on the Black Rock Desert back in 1983 when Thrust2 had troubles. In one of his rare philosophical moments, when I asked him what he was going to do if he failed, he said, ‘At least we tried.’ And you think, yeah, there’s an honesty in trying. And it’s too easy not to try, that’s the thing that terrifies me. Doing nothing is very seductive.
Yeah, and there’s always an excuse
I did something for Sky in 2013 about Roger Williamson, and because of him I have this thing where I will not give up if it’s something I want, because that’s the way he used to drive. And he exerted this massive influence at a key time of my life, I guess. I can’t stand people who give up. People who give up easily without a fight… I don’t think any of my friends are not fighters. And it’s funny, because I do have a lot of very close women friends, and while they are all different, they all have that same character. They’re all fighters, they’re all people who have had it tough, and they’re all people who don’t give up. Almost all of them have worked or work in Formula 1, and I honestly believe that women have to work twice as hard there to be thought half as much of as men. And all of you have got balls and fight and I love and respect people like that. It’s okay not to be ambitious and to live a normal life too, not everybody has to be a crusader. But I don’t respect people who want something but give up.
But if you are a fighter, you need to make it…
It’s ‘okay’ to fail insofar as it’s better to try and fail than not to try. But don’t say you’re a crusader if you’re going to give up.
Yeah you don’t turn around when you hit the Mediterranean, you keep going
Yeah. But we’re lucky, aren’t we? We live and work in an incredibly inspiring environment, don’t we, where pretty much everybody worth their salt is pushing to be the best on all levels.
My favourite race of Lewis’ career was in 2009, the Italian Grand Prix, and he crashed out, because P3 wasn’t good enough
But why did he do that? Because he’s a racer and he wanted P2. And that’s why he’s more like Gilles Villeneuve than anyone, the way I look at it.
That’s the attitude
And Martin Whitmarsh’s comment, ‘Lewis is a racer, we’re not going to rein him in.’ Yeah! One day, in the book, I’ll tell the full story of what Martin did for GOLD. Like Tony, I’d take a machine gun drive-by of bullets for him. He’s a special guy, another real racer.
Formula 1 is inspirational isn’t it?
I think so. We are very lucky hanging out with driven people whom we like and respect. We’re so blessed that we get to see it all, close up, because it’s so massively inspiring. And when someone says, ‘Oh I watched it on the TV, it’s really boring,’ I think, ‘Well, I could explain it to you but I’m not sure you’d even begin to understand.’ It’s like we have this expression that you ‘get it’, and when these people ask, ‘Get what?’ there’s not much hope they ever will get it because they don’t understand the basic fundamentals of what you’re talking about.
It’s something that applies in any professional arena really. I mean, if you think of top chefs and the way they will spend six months honing a recipe, tweaking details, you know, it’s the same the way a driver will go out lap after lap trying to hit the right braking points, nailing the apex, tweaking the car to make it better. Some people pursue perfection, and others just let good enough be good enough
And also I think what’s really important with dreams is that they don’t have to be something as crazy as doing the UK land speed record, or worse still 1000 miles an hour on land, or 400 miles an hour on water. Mentalists! The medium doesn’t matter. It doesn’t have to be anything exotic or exciting, it could be something totally mundane, yet it’s not mundane. You know, it’s doing something really well, it doesn’t matter what it is. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s a small dream like setting up a little shop, or writing a book, becoming a florist or something. If that’s your dream, if it makes you happy, why else are you here, why else are you on earth? Life shouldn’t be a drudge and a bore, it should be something that makes you feel, that excites you. Even if it’s something that just seems quite minor, if that’s what really makes you happy and motivates you, get after it.
And the other thing about dreams is, when young kids want to come into Formula 1 journalism, for example, you think, everything in life is kind of a pyramid, isn’t it? And a pyramid is steep so it’s hard to climb, but that also means that when you’re at the top, it’s really hard to stay there unless you stay focused and committed. Or stay gold!
And the people who have been at the top a long time, they’re going to slide off that top spot eventually, just like even the best race drivers do, and that’s your chance to move up into their place.
Yes, and move up step by step, and it’s something that we see every day in the paddock, certain people do that and fall down the ladder, and others grow and climb
But you’ve got to deserve that, and you can’t take your eye off the ball. As a journalist it’s easy to get mired in an era, or just build relationships with certain drivers, and then it kind of stalls. And then you find in a few years’ time that it’s all moved on. Sometimes you can maybe pick it up again, and other times you can’t and you’ve been left behind. That must be horrible, because you’re just not in touch anymore.
Yeah, you’re not part of it, you’re on the outside looking in
It’s all about keeping your foot on the gas and not letting up. But that’s what life is, and F1 is a great metaphor for life, I think. Because when you start giving up in life… It’s like a lot of people when they retire, they relax and the bad things happen to them. It’s like all of us in the winter isn’t it, you get colds and everything else. Because…
You take your foot off the gas…
You’ve backed off, the adrenaline stops flowing, you’re not racing around travelling, and all of a sudden you’ve left yourself open and you get a cold or whatever.
Yeah, or somebody comes round the outside and you’ve lost the lead
With Formula 1, less so these days, but when you were growing up watching it, a lot of the people who inspired you and who had the dream, lost their life to their dreams. Did that ever make you afraid of dreams, or did it make you more determined to fight to do what they had been cut out of?
It never made me afraid of dreams. After a while it always made me angry. Not with Donald Campbell back in 1967, because I didn’t understand it then. It didn’t make me angry when he was killed on Coniston but it inspired me, and that was the absolute turning point in my life. But when Jim Clark was killed the following year it made me so angry, though I still didn’t quite understand why. I just went out on my pushbike and pedalled it all out for an hour or so. But you know, subconsciously, that’s when the mission was born, if you like, when I started to get it: to sort of speak for those people afterwards. That’s why much later I wrote The Lost Generation, because I wanted people to remember Roger Williamson, Tony Brise and Tom Pryce; who they were and what they stood for. Saying it like that sounds arrogant, but it’s not meant to be; I just want new generations to remember these people, because of the inspiration they provided. It’s still massively potent motivation and it means a lot to me.
The written record is one of the most important things we’ve developed as human beings. If we don’t record stories for posterity, they’re not going to get passed down
Yeah, I think you’re right. I’m sure there are all sorts of books we all want to write. Carlos Jalife did that fantastic book on the Rodriguez brothers. Now I would have loved to have done a book on Pedro, one of my great heroes, but I’d never have done as good a job as him. Ditto Gianluca Gasparini’s lovely book with Alex Zanardi. But it’s good that somebody is doing these things, like Gerry Donaldson’s beautiful book on Gilles. So long as somebody captures their spirit the right way, so people will remember who these guys were, and what they did, what they stood for.
So deaths never stopped me wanting to dream. They often fuelled my dreams, actually, because often they made me want to avenge. And in the days when I wanted to be a racing driver, you wanted to kind of get out there and drive like, not like Jimmy, of course, because nobody could do that, but like some of the other guys, to sort of honour them by bringing back the kind of style that they had. Hard to express.
Zanardi is a tremendous example, isn’t he?
Oh, yeah! The four bravest people I’ve ever met are Sammy Miller, Andy Green, Steve Curtis – and Alex. All in totally different ways.
With their cojones you just wonder how they fit themselves into the cockpit…
Yeah you do! Andy is such a deadpan fly boy, the never reveal emotion type. One of my racing friends once said of him, ‘Oh, he’s so boring!’ And you think, ‘Only because you’re too stupid to understand and either not intelligent or articulate enough to ask the right questions, and get him to open up. But Andy is very typically a trained British RAF pilot, and everything with him is about being in control.
With Alex, whenever I think of him, the first thing that comes into my head is that picture of him in his grey suit, with his overalls rolled up beyond the knees and you can see the prosthetic legs and underneath it just says, ‘What’s your excuse?’
Yeah, where do you begin with Alex? He is just inspirational on a million levels. A fabulous guy! I’m so proud he’s my friend.
And Steve and Sammy?
Steve is a multiple world champion offshore boat racer, and if he was here right now he’d never feel the need to tell you that. He is so much the real deal. He’s a genuine reluctant hero – he tried to rescue Princess Caroline’s husband Stefano Casiraghi when he crashed off Monaco in October 1990 – and always comes back faster from Bill Muncey-style, kidney-ripping accidents. He taught me how to drive vee-hull boats, and at the time it was like getting personal tuition in F1 from Michael Schumacher.
Sammy was an old-fashioned, balls-out, brave guy. You know, he once did 384 mph in less than four seconds in Vanishing Point at the Pod. Now we could all say what would happen if he crashed, but the guy himself never thought, ‘What if I end up in a field?’ And when he actually did, he came back and went faster still. Before a run he would talk to anyone, and then just got in the car and entertained them. And you know, some people would say sort of snidely, ‘Oh, he’s a showman,’ like it was something bad. But he also did the deeds. In spades.
What’s wrong with being a showman?
Exactly! Somebody like that is so inspiring. When you’re alongside them you look at them and you think, ‘You know, this guy is different. He does things I wouldn’t even dream of doing.’ And Alex does it on a very human level, because he’s such a good model to anyone who’s had physical injury. Like all the soldiers coming out of Afghanistan with hideous injuries, and those guys that race in the Dakar Rally.
Anything like that is inspiring, isn’t it, and that’s dreams all over again.
And do you think you deliberately surround yourself with fighters, to inspire you to pursue your dream?
No, not at all, not even remotely. That’s incidental, part of the job. But like I said, it’s so cool to work in this milieu, to know these people. It’s a privilege.
Are they sort of drawn to you, or are you drawn to them?
Why on earth would they be drawn to me? I’m drawn to them, to their milieu, because I like things that inspire me. But that doesn’t fire my dream at all. My heart has always done that. The thing that fires my dream is wanting to prove something to myself. And it’s not a case of wanting to be better than anybody else, it’s not about that at all.
You need to be better than you
No, not even that, though that wouldn’t hurt, would it? It’s about proving I’m as good as anyone else, I guess, and that I have my right to my little square millimetre of this world that I operate in. Like I’m not just some moke who sits on the sidelines criticising people, not knowing anything – this guy has actually tried to do something, he has gone down into the arena. Let’s be clear, what we’re doing is not like driving or racing a Grand Prix car or anything hard like that where you need huge talent, it’s not that difficult to sit there and hold a steering wheel and go in a straight line. But it’s still something that’s quite fun. Putting it all together. Running a team. Driving GOLD. And it’s just my little bit of the world that makes me think, well at least I’ve done something exciting. And that’s really why I’m doing it, to prove it to myself, not to anyone else. I don’t actually care what anyone else thinks.
How do you deal with the practicalities of having a dream, because it’s so easy to come up with the ideas and then get bogged down in the details. Do you need other people around you?
Yeah, you need people around you. Of course. But I made all the mistakes myself! I lean on Tom and Sam a huge amount on many levels because they are very committed to this as well. And without Andrew, Kieran, Paul and Jack, we’d be nowhere. It’s fantastic that those guys can be getting on with things when I’m away at races. I used to feel guilty about that, but then you think it’s silly to feel that way because we’ve all got our different roles and areas of expertise, and they want to do it.
Yeah, you’re not an engineer
No, though I can wield the odd spanner. We don’t sit down and define what each other’s roles are, we’ve never done that. But in some ways, it’s kind of intuitive what we all do.
But you all sort of fit, don’t you?
Yeah I think we do. And you know what’s interesting? It’s nearly four years since we were able to run GOLD, because of all the different engine problems, but I worked it out the other day that in the intervening 42 months we had probably done fewer than 32 full days working on GOLD, between us all. We all have busy lives and jobs that demand a huge amount of our time and none of us gets paid with GOLD, so we work on her when we can. That’s not a lot of time spent on her in the grand scheme of things, is it? That’s why these things take so damn long!
And then there’s also Malcolm Pittwood on the team, who when the time comes will organise the actual record attempt and liaise with the MSA, and through the Speed Record Club we’ve got a whole load of fantastic volunteers who are going to come and give up their time to be part of it as well when we make our attempt at Elvington this summer. Again, that’s massively humbling because these are people I’ve known for ages. And 2013 was the first time I’ve ever done a presentation on the project to them, with Tom up at Coniston, and I’d been waiting to do that for goodness knows how long. But again, I never say anything unless I have something real to say or to show.
But then you also spend a lot of time authenticating, for the lack of a better word, other people’s dreams, and doing this land speed stuff with the work you do on the FIA Land Speed Records Commission. Has that given you another insight into what people’s projects are like?
I tell you, it’s given me a massive insight into how clever people like Malcolm are when they actually can sit down and handle the minutiae, because that bores the hell out of me, filling in forms. It does my head in and I just want to give it to somebody else. And Malcolm is the perfect guy to do that. It’s different when you’re looking through the paperwork of somebody else’s attempt, like we do on the FIA Land Speed Records Commission when we ratify attempt results, because it’s all been filled in and it’s just the process of making sure it complies with what it should. Whereas if it’s your own thing, I hate filling in forms, I’m crap at it.
Dotting Is and crossing Ts
Yeah, and you’re a grown up, you should be able to fill in a form, but I just don’t like doing it.
And that’s why I hate filling in my US and Chinese visa applications. I find that stressful. And when you think about it, that’s really stupid. But it’s fantastic to have Malcolm on that side of things, and Carl doing the aero. I mean The Doc is genius level with maths. And all these young students are really clever too. I think overall we are all complementary. And I hope I don’t do a bad job in the cockpit. I’ve done one mistake so far, and I put my hands up to it straight away when I realised what I’d done. Trying to select reheat with the motor only at 70 percent. It’s good motivation to make sure you do the right thing when everyone else has got you this far. And if you were a bit of a chump that keeps getting it wrong, you’d feel really guilty. Then it would be, well put Tom in the car!
It was good fun when we saw Martin Hill go past us at 262 miles an hour in Fire Force 3 at the Pod in May 2013 the day we bought a Viper 535 from him, almost within touching distance. I never see GOLD running, of course, and apart from the day that Trish and I watched Sammy driver Vanishing Point at Santa Pod in July 1982, that’s the closest I’ve ever been to really serious speed because F1s and Indycars are a fair bit slower in a straight line and when I witnessed Andy go supersonic in 1997 I was an awful lot closer than most but still a quarter of a mile away…
Well you have to be, don’t you!
Yes. But with Martin’s speed, you could almost touch it. And you just think, Jesus, that’s really fast… With Sammy… Well, you could barely see it, let alone almost touch it! And yet in the cockpit it feels really different. I remember Dwight Eisenhower said to Campbell at Lake Mead in 1955 how scary it looked driving Bluebird K7 and how you wouldn’t get him into ‘that tin can’. And Campbell just said, ‘It’s much less scary when you’re in it than when you’re watching it.’ And I think my experience so far is that that’s true.
I think that’s actually true of life, isn’t it? I mean, people always tell me that I’m doing things that seem ballsy, and you think, no I’m just getting on with it, I’m doing what I do
This is because you’re fundamentally assimilating what’s happening and coping with it and processing it, and enjoying it, yeah.
You’re too busy to be scared
Because often the fearing side of it, the apprehension, is much more off-putting than the reality.
You know, we’re all quite – I was going to say intelligent, but we’re all quite imaginative – and it’s easy to over-imagine these things. And the best way to do anything is actually just to give it a try. It’s much easier to quantify a challenge when you’ve started to accept it.
Just do it, yeah, grasp the nettle
Which is not always easy at all. And if there’s anything that comes out of this, I’d love people to think, ‘Maybe I will give it a try,’ whatever it is that they might want to do. You know, it scares me because I’m scared of failing, which most people experience. But if I fail, I’ll do it again. And again.
Yeah, just do it slightly differently
As a journalist I shouldn’t say it, but if I could do GOLD without any publicity and any extraneous people watching, I would.
Just because you need to do it for you
Although I’m more inclined now to do it in public than I was, because I know what I’m dealing with. But yeah, I guess I’d be quite happy at the time doing it on my own, though probably afterwards I’d wish I hadn’t. It’s the little showing off thing, I guess. Or at least having it appreciated. I certainly want to do it at my own pace, not be pushed around by stupid TV schedules or any of that junk, when somebody just wants you to do something to suit their timetable. That’s really important with these things, from the safety point of view, but fortunately we’re probably not big enough to attract the TV stuff anyway.
So what have you learned from GOLD?
Two things, definitely. Three things actually. The first thing is that everything takes twice as long as you think it will and costs twice as much. The other is to be careful getting into the cockpit. You have to step over the screen, then put each elbow on the metal bars that stick out from the rollcage, and then grasp the top of the rollcage and lower yourself into the seat. Easy enough, but I learned to check that the five-point seat belt buckle isn’t on the seat. The first time after we had bought GOLD I sat in her and somebody had moved the buckle; normally it’s in front of the seat, but somebody had put it back in the seat and I hadn’t bothered checking… I dropped down into the seat and my coccyx landed on the buckle. Yowzah! That hurt! I remember saying at the time to GOLD that that had better be the worst thing she would ever do to me. I was hobbling around for the next two days.
But seriously, you learn all sorts of things. The third thing is just how fantastic people can be, apart from some who sell you duff engines. And how you can never do these things on your own, and just how empowering it is when you’ve got your own little band of team-mates, all soldiers in our own little war. And again, I don’t mean it arrogantly but it has to be somebody’s team, and it’s ‘our’ team. And it feels great that it isn’t somebody else’s dream this time. That this is ours.
And is that something…
It’s a fantastic feeling, that people initially joined me, and now they join us. I still don’t understand fully why. I can understand why they want to get involved with a speed record attempt because it’s fun, but actually doing it for us? You know, it’s always been me helping other people, and I never expect people to just want to come along and do that for us. Like I say, it’s genuinely humbling, and that’s always good for you.
That’s probably why they want to do it for you. Because you don’t expect it, it’s not like an entitlement
I’m just grateful that they do. But also, through the GOLD project I’d love it if maybe a few people thought… I want to be a footballer, so now I’m going to try and do that. Or a rocket scientist or a trapeze artist. That would be amazing, wouldn’t it? Giving young people confidence. It’s a tough world and if you’re stupid you can forget, when you’re older and maybe closer to the top of a pile because you’ve been around so long, what it’s like when you’re kind of outside looking in. I want to speak to the new guys coming up, because you should still remember what it felt like to be in their shoes. And everything is about renewing isn’t it, any endeavour should always be looking for the next generation, in our case the people who love the sport as much as we do and want to take it on to whatever level they can take it to. That’s how it goes in any walk of life. I don’t care if GOLD inspires somebody to be a tiddly winks champion or a World Champion or whatever, if it gives them the confidence to believe in themselves and to live their dreams, that would be pretty cool.
I suppose another thing I’ve learned from GOLD is that I do actually believe in myself now whereas I didn’t know if I did before. You don’t always know that until you try these things, though you kind of hope! And sometimes it’s too easy to beat yourself before you’ve even tried.
That’s the self-defeating part of wanting to seem professional and get it all right
Yeah, well it’s not even self-defeating as such, because you haven’t even done anything at which to defeat yourself, that’s the worst part of it. It’s like self-defeating defeating, and it’s horrible. I hated that, in the days when I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to achieve the high standards I set myself.
You need to believe in yourself and to commit
Yeah, but those words are easier to say than to follow. The thing that I hate most are the people who have no commitment, who have put nothing into anything, and snipe at the people who have. You know, opinion is one thing, but it can be cruel using the vantage point of zero risk and zero commitment to rip people apart from your armchair. As Campbell said, ‘What do they know?’ And I can’t stand that. Belittling people’s dreams, it’s one of the cheapest, lowest forms of human behaviour.
But I think you have to have a certain amount of self-belief to be generous enough to support other people’s dreams, because otherwise you feel threatened by your own inconsequentialism. If you’re confident with who you are you can help other people make the most of themselves
Well, I guess you hope you can! I mean, I genuinely… there’s two things I really like doing.
One is helping young people who want to succeed, because mentoring people in whom you see the same passion that you have for racing, that’s really fulfilling. Seeing people that you’ve given jobs to progressing and realising their potential is fantastic. It’s a sort of parental thing I guess, a paternal thing, even if 90 per cent of them never see that even though these days most of them have now got kids themselves.
The other thing is helping drivers, and believing in their dreams. There’s a list a mile long of drivers I like to think I’ve helped in some small way. And I attached myself to Richard during Thrust2 and never went away. I remember the second project, ThrustSSC, when I was really angry because he was such a jerk about the way he put that together, but I never went away from that one, either.
Because you believed in the dream
Yeah and I wasn’t going to be shaken off no matter how much he annoyed me! And those things, helping other people with their dreams, is almost as empowering as having your own. It’s wonderful, it’s what life’s all about. You know, sharing common goals, and actually being there when Richard brought the record back to Britain with Thrust2 and 14 years later when Andy went supersonic in ThrustSSC, that was mega. To actually be part of those teams was even better than being in F1, on the sidelines as an observer. It was just fantastic. And being embedded with JCB Dieselmax was wonderful. Doing the old masculine thing of hiding wet eyes behind sunglasses, with people like Tim Leverton, who was the tech director behind Dieselmax and a great guy, or John Piper, who was the designer and is a great mate, the day that Andy did 350 miles an hour at Bonneville… Each time there was that sense of shared achievement, that we all, in our own little or not so little ways, had done this. But even then there’s always this sort of thing, ‘Yeah but I only wrote about it or I only did the press releases, these guys designed and built it, Andy drove it and validated it, or whatever.’ And that’s why I need GOLD, to actually be a real player in the drama, for once, the guy in the cockpit, so you feel like you’re a reasonably important part of the whole thing.
Well you did also buy the car and put the people in place, you know, you fostered the idea
Yeah, and that’s fun because you actually feel like this isn’t just me kind of observing and writing, this is me actually being a bit more in the middle of it.
So is GOLD your third child?
No. If anything she’s my ninth! Because there’s Tom and Sam, of course, but also now David and Jane Leslie’s sons Graham and James, our lifelong friends Phil and Adam Churchman, Billy Boy Buxton and Trish’s cousin Jan’s son Ben McGhie. But GOLD is my only daughter, let’s put it that way. Though some think she’s my mistress… Which she is…
And she’s so pretty!
She is the most expensive woman in my life, and the third most beautiful in a feminine way but the most beautiful mechanically. And she’s the noisiest and craziest, and she’s certainly the laziest and most high-maintenance.
Pretty fast too
And she’s always taking her clothes off in front of the boys. Well, actually, she always lets them take them off. And she sits there quite shameless in her unclothedness!
There’s still a certain amount of pride in her…
You bet. She’s very sexy, you know, when you look at her sometimes you just think…
I know… As the actress said to the bishop, it’s so much bigger than it looks in pictures! Why, Mr Tremayne, your jetcar is massive!
This is where you should ask me something like, ‘Is all this a midlife crisis?’
So is it? A midlife crisis?
It would never even occur to me to think it’s a midlife crisis
But a lot of people think it is. Who knows, perhaps she’ll be my very-close-to-end-of-life crisis!
Actually, midlife crisis is an expression that really irks me, because it’s usually said in a patronising manner. But I think midlife crises are fantastic, and everybody should have one.
When I was 25 I had what I refer to as my call-to-life crisis. And it was a catalyst for everything going well. I don’t know if you know anything about the tarot but I used to do quite a lot of that sort of thing. I don’t know if I believe in it, but I’m interested in it. And whenever anyone sees the death card come up in a reading, they get terrified. But it actually signifies new beginnings
Yeah, well, everyone’s going to get a death card one day, aren’t they?
Yeah but you know, it’s just a new beginning. It’s washing away the old and starting something new. And if that’s what a midlife crisis is, then you know, who’s to say we don’t need a brainwash every couple of decades?
What is a midlife crisis? It’s fundamentally where you look at who you are and what you are and where you are, and maybe who and what and where you want to be, and you think, I’m either happy with this or I’m not. And if you’re not, you make changes.
It’s a matter of, I should have done this and this, and then thinking, ‘Well, I’m actually going to do something about this.’ As opposed to, ‘Yeah, look, how sad my life is. Well, never mind.’ Or perhaps it’s buying yourself a jetcar and teaching yourself how to drive it. You know, I’m a great believer in fate.
It’s sort of managed fate isn’t it?
I’m never sure if this is having your cake and eating it, but I always think of fate as being a little bit like Y diagrams in maths, where you get to a circle and then it either goes yes and goes off to the left or no and it goes to the right, and that leads to more yes/no decisions, all of which influence what happens to you in life. Part of me thinks your fate is mapped out anyway, but part of me also thinks you’ve got a little bit of a hand in your own fate insofar as you take certain decisions. You could then argue, well who then makes you make those decisions, is that all an illusion to give you the idea you have any kind of say… Which starts to get a bit too complicated, but you get the picture…
I think it’s one of those, choose your own adventure stories. You know, do you go into the dungeon and fight the dragon, go to page 44. Do you turn around and get the army, go to page 75. The end of the book is usually the same either way, it’s just the…
You’re going to get killed anyway! Just in a different way. But you know, whether you can sort of push your own fate or not, you certainly can’t if you just sit at home and do nothing.
And have you ever regretted any aspects of GOLD? Other than the cost and the endless engine issues!
No. The only thing I ever regret about GOLD is the circumstances leading up to me sitting down and making the decisions that changed our direction in the first place, but that’s extremely personal. But yeah that’s the only regret I’d have on that. And again, that’s just life. That, and not yet delivering for Tony, and all the other believers. But we will.
Like I said, I was very scared that she might just sit forever, like a sort of trophy that was never going to get used. But we’ve been incredibly lucky. And all the problems we’ve had are part of the deal. It’s really funny because I get so vexed over computer or internet problems, they really stress me out so I’m screaming and ranting round the house, calling Tom or Sam or my nephew Andy Philpott, or snivelling to Chris Bentley at the FIA. I freely admit that I just don’t have the personal resources to deal with them. It sounds pathetic when you think about it when you’re calm, but when it’s happening that doesn’t stop you ranting and screaming around the house a second time. And it makes them feel loved and useful…
Or an airline like KLM or S7 in Russia screws you over with connection times that are too tight or failing to book you all the way through so you have to re-connect between flights, and everything is going to hell outside of your control. Massively stressing… Way more, a 1000 percent more, than driving GOLD.
But when it comes to the really big things, I am super calm. Yes, really! We’ve had a lot of irritating problems with all of our various engines, but I never let myself get angry or stressed about that because (a) there’s no point, but (b) part of me is thinking, not in a masochistic way or anything, that you have to pay your dues in this game. Why should we have it easy? You think Parry Thomas, Malcolm Campbell or de Hane Segrave had it easy, setting the land speed record in the UK in the Twenties? Or Richard Noble in the Eighties? Or Colin Fallows after him? We’ve been paying some of our dues with the engine problems and the fact that it’s taken the best part of four years to solve them. You know, in August 2012 when the Viper 520 proved to have a duff rear bearing, I thought we’d probably have a new engine in by December. But that didn’t happen until March 2013, and then it turned out that the replacement we’d bought, a more powerful Viper 601, wasn’t of merchantable quality so wasn’t fit for purpose. Which means it was a piece of crap. Then in May 2013 we got the current Viper 535 from Martin Hill but that’s never delivered more than 40 percent power because of an elusive reason that we’re still tracking down. It’s taken Tom, Sam and I a long time to figure it out, to find the right people to talk to for advice, but doing that has actually been fun to some extent. And that’s just the way it goes. Like I said, none of us is fulltime on this.
I quite like the fact that we’re paying our dues, and that it isn’t going to be easy. Tom and I were laughing about it the other day saying, you know, let’s assume the 535 is finally cool and we really start to get going. But there will be a whole load more problems before we get to where we want to be. You know, it’s not just suddenly going to be. ‘Okay, here we are, we’ve done 320 miles an hour, let’s just go and do the return run and we’re all done. Wow, that didn’t take long!’ It’s not going to be like that at all.
But anything that’s easy doesn’t feel as worthwhile afterwards, does it?
Of course not, no. Like I said, why should we expect it to be easy?
One of the things that’s always characterised crusaders for me, is the fact that you’re never really 100 per cent satisfied. You know, achieving one dream doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re done. So what’s the next step after GOLD?
Back at the turn of the 20th century, Camille Jenatzy fought a duel for the land speed record with Count Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat, and Jenatzy’s electric torpedo was called La Jamais Contente – The Never Satisfied. What a fantastic name for a record car! That to me utterly sums up the spirit of record breakers.
If we’re successful – I never say when – and we’re fortunate enough to get the job done, I hope the next phase is to go and do the Malaysian land speed record, which is Tom’s deal. Or the African land speed record. Beyond that? Well, there’s still a hydro in Seattle with my name on it… Or there are some other beautiful jetcars out there… Maybe a two-car exhibition team…
Don’t you want to run at Bonneville, because it’s been so important to you?
Not with GOLD, because she’s not really a Bonneville car. But one thing I would like to do is go and run there. And my friend, Mike Cook, runs some of the speed weeks out there and has always promised to find us a good salt car, a safe car, and Tom, Sam and I would go and have some fun with it. Maybe get in the 200 miles an hour club. I’ve been talking to Jean Alesi about it, because when he and I were discussing what he could do after his abortive attempt at Indianapolis he mentioned wanting to drive “on the white lake.” It’d be great to get Mike to sort out something good for him, too, and that would just be such a gas to all go over there together. Whatever would Wendover make of Jean, and vice versa?
Bonneville and the Black Rock Desert are such spiritual places. Garry Connelly, the FIA steward who is also on the Land Speed Records Commission, was with us when the Commission went out to Bonneville in 2011 and again in 2014, and took a fantastic picture of me standing on the salt.
Oh is that the man in the black, the one that looks like an album cover?
Yeah. Mr Milk Tray does Utah! I was standing there with my back to him, all alone, and he captioned the pic something about DT being contemplative, but what he didn’t know was that tears were running down my face because that place makes me feel so emotional. It’s full of spirits, and you stand there and you’re just this little speck in the overall scheme of the great cosmos. It’s overwhelming. And I was remembering all the good times I’ve had there. When I first went there, with Thrust2 in 1981, it was where I had wanted to be since I was that 14 year-old kid, and there it was, exactly as it was in 1935 when Malcolm Campbell broke the big record there for the first time. The mountains, they’re all the same, nothing changes in geography, and they’ll still be there like dark sentinels in another 10,000 years when nobody even remembers there was a land speed record. And it’s just so massively moving to get in touch with reality at a place like that.
Do you think that places like that hold the echoes of people’s dreams?
I don’t see why not. I could feel the spirits of Athol Graham, Glenn Leasher and Nolan White there, and hear their echoes. I love places like that, they’re inspirational…
I think that’s the one of the myriad differences between somebody like me and a proper record breaker, like Andy or Richard or Campbell, all of the kings. They don’t go out there thinking in that romanticised sort of way, because they are there to do a dangerous job, not to think like a writer. But I do. Leasher was one of my heroes, just because he was brave and nobody remembers him or knows that he wanted to break 400 then marry his sweetheart. And Nolan White was another. I met him once at Black Rock in ’82, and when he died 20 years later at Bonneville he was 71 and had just done a run over 400 miles an hour and was on his return run when the ‘chutes failed…
He was 71?
Yeah. And he’d just done a run at 422 mph.
That’s just mind-blowing
And tragic, but at the same time…
There’s no better way to die, is there? It’s the ultimate, going out doing what you love
Maybe, though it’s better to be around to savour the achievement! But you know, things like that, they unleash the spirits. Why wouldn’t they be there?
One thing that was interesting was when I drove to Kemble in August 2012, just before the first run with GOLD. I drove down there from Darlington so I had a lot of time to think, and I think far too much anyway. And there was a lot of that sort of existentialist stuff going round in my head. But one thing I realised that day is that all the romanticism and stuff like that is just jibba jabba. There is nothing romantic about smashing a car, or splattering yourself, or anything like that. Death is death, and it’s final. And it hurts those you leave behind.
Don’t you think the romance is in the hope?
Yes, but you know, that’s something for the people who aren’t doing it, that sort of thinking. The ones who are doing it can’t go into it with a romanticised idea of it, it has to be entirely practical. Which is why that drive interested me because as you know I am an incurable romantic, and I do like to romanticise these things, in the way that I like people and things to be remembered. It’s part of making it an exciting and empowering story, but the actual reality of doing it is… Different. I mean, you don’t even think about that kind of thing when you’re doing it. And I don’t think people think about it when they’re watching you do it. It’s only afterwards you can perhaps express it in that framework.
I guess what I realised was that everything I’d been doing for the past 38 years, all the motorsport journalism and the 49 books, and all of that stuff, doesn’t actually mean much to me. The biggest thing that I’ll ever do is this. It would be more satisfying to me than everything I’ve ever done before put together.
I can see that on a personal level, but from a public point of view, with things such as The Lost Generation or your Donald Campbell biography you captured the essence of other people’s dreams and spirits and passed them down. The recording of the romanticism is so valid. I’m so new to motorsports, it’s still just over eight years since I watched my first race, and your passion in your writing was one of the things that inspired me to chase this dream. And I’m not alone in that
I suppose what I’m saying is that to me none of that is enough. The Restless Spirit name is very apt!
I won’t say writing is the easy bit, because writing The Lost Generation certainly was no trip to Paris, but you know what I mean… It comes easy to me and yet for many, your only real commitment is a word processor and a tape recorder and you go and talk to a few people.
But you also need to care
Sure you do, passionately, if you are going to do it properly and give the thing the justice it deserves. Lost Generation didn’t screw me up, but it certainly burnt me out emotionally for two years. But still compared with what I’m trying to do with GOLD, that’s easy stuff that a lot of people can do. Actually, a lot of people can do GOLD too, but it’s just that I was stupid enough, or lucky enough, to be the one who put the package together, I guess. But for me, actually doing something where I suppose there’s a small element of risk, kind of validates me more in my own head than any of the writing stuff in the past three and a half decades. All of that is my mission, but GOLD is my personal religion. And I don’t look at her as being the cherry on the cake, she is the cake.
Is that because of the dreamers that you grew up with, your heroes when you were younger, were risk takers?
I suppose so. I’d never say I was one of them if we’re successful, but I don’t think I’d have to look down at the floor and keep my trap shut if I was in their company, if we can pull this thing off. Because then I’d have a little bit better idea of what they had to go through.
It was funny, in 2012 Nadia and I went to Pendine Sands because Malcolm had told me it had a run length of 5000 metres instead of Elvington’s 3000. Nadia happened to be over from Dubai for a convention in Cardiff, so we went to check the place out. Clearly it wasn’t going to be suitable for a 325 mph jetcar, but it made me imagine Malcolm Campbell driving that 350 horsepower Sunbeam V12, on four inch wide tyres, at 150 miles an hour on sand. If we had got into the M3 and wound it out down the beach, I wonder if we would’ve got anywhere near 150… Probably not, and we’d have been protected behind a windscreen and probably had the Foo Fighters playing loud and the air con on.
Not having your teeth rattling around in a tin can
On a tin can, the way those cars were back then. Those pioneering guys were massive, massive heroes and genuine risk-takers.
You look at the equipment they were using, the tracks they were running on
I love all those kind of facts, they’re fascinating. I’m a great believer in how we need to understand history before we can understand the future.
Yeah, and if we don’t understand it, we can’t improve things
But it’s not so much the past and future, the trick is being able to live in the present. And I guess that’s what all the time I’m doing with GOLD, thinking consciously, ‘I’m really enjoying this right now, today. In this present moment, I am having a ball. This will be tomorrow’s memory, but today I will always know I savoured it as it was happening.’
Yeah, sometimes you can just feel yourself taking that mental photo of the moment
Yeah, you soak everything in. And you remember what the sun was like, and how the rain smelled and the scent of fresh-cut grass. And getting up in the morning and saying to your reflection in the mirror, ‘Today, DT, you become a jetcar driver.’ You just sort of soak it in, and that makes you feel as though you’re really alive. And that’s the other thing about all this project. Sometimes I’ve had discussions with drivers about how it feels when you know you are really hooked up, maybe going a lot faster than you ought to be…
The knife edge is a fun place to dance, isn’t it?
It is. And I never actually thought about what might happen if anything went wrong when GOLD and I were whizzing along the runway at Kemble. I was busy dealing with what I was doing. Forgetting all the romantic notions. And I was very chuffed when I put the ‘chute out with my right hand to see that my left hand was already applying corrective lock, without me even having to think of it consciously.
The whole GOLD thing is a positive story of hope, of achievement, of desire, but what if you fail?
I suppose the lesson about it is, you can be a miserable loser and fail for an awful long time, but you can actually turn it round if you keep pushing. Well I hope you can! Actually, even if we don’t break the record, I’m not going say that I don’t care, because of course I do care, very much, and I want to do it for Nadia and the two Tonys and for all of the people who believe in GOLD. But you know, if the worst came to the worst and I didn’t succeed, but we got close or something, I would say that at least we tried and I wrote my own little chapter in the history of this endeavour. And, yes, I’ll go down as a guy who didn’t make it, but at least I’ll have been out there.
Yeah, at least you were the guy, you weren’t the watcher
You know, suppose we only do 290, that’s still a pretty reasonable thing to have done. There aren’t that many people in England who have driven cars that fast, in England. It’s like my own little thing… I found a list online of a whole load of thrust-driven speed runs and I think when I ran zero to 247 miles an hour in 1.8s with Sammy’s Vanishing Point that would put me in the top 10 accelerators over an eighth of a mile, or else would have at the time. But it was unofficial, of course.
Yeah, that was a pretty good run that we had. It’s just a stupid little thing that doesn’t mean anything to anyone except me, and like I said, it was completely unofficial.
But it means something to you
Yeah, it’s quite cool. For something that lasted less than two seconds, in real terms, it’s got a completely out of proportion position in my life. But things like that are really interesting, they tell you so much about yourself. When they put the funny car body down and that’s it, you’re shut in, it’s like a cell door locking. And there are only two ways of getting out. One is to plead and beg and disgrace and dishonour yourself, so you’d have a beard down to here because you’d never be able to look at yourself in the mirror again. And the other is just to get it done. Prod the tiger. Get your foot down, and go.
The worst thing that you could do is admit to yourself that you’re afraid
No, the worst thing is to have to admit it to anyone else! But that’s the equivalent of getting to the top of a bungee jump and then saying, I can’t do this. Which, like I said, I actually think I probably wouldn’t be able to do.
Why would you do something like this, that’s potentially fatal, when you’ve got a family, and does it distress them? And how do you deal with the spectre of death?
It’s a little bit selfish in that sense. Tom and Sam just totally get it and know that we are doing everything we can to do it safely. And Trish says that while she doesn’t understand it she would never dream of telling me not to do it if it’s something that means so much to me. That’s really brave.
As for me, I’m in the group that believes it will never happen to them. But like I said, we are doing it as sensibly and safely as we can, I trust GOLD and I just don’t think it would serve much purpose to dwell on the potentially negative aspects. I suppose I’m fatalistic about it, for reasons I’d rather not go into.
Dreams are selfish, they don’t take other people into account. If you’re lucky, other people join in on your dreams, but dreams are private and individual, and that’s what makes it so scary to make them public
It’s very interesting, I read water speed record holder Ken Warby’s biography not so long ago. He’s the only guy officially to have gone over 300 miles an hour on water and lived, his record’s stood since 1978. He’s the only guy in history who designed, built, pretty much financed, and drove his own boat. And one of the things that came through on that was that he was completely selfish, he was just totally focused. But one man’s selfishness is another man’s single mindedness. Trish and I give each other a lot of freedom, but one of the things which possibly is why this has taken so long to put together, and why it’s taken me 30 years between driving my first thrust-powered car and driving my next one – which is pretty slow progress by anyone’s standards – is that there was never the remotest chance that I would do anything at the expense of our family. I wouldn’t spend family money on it when the kids were growing up. In the end, I guess I did because I used book money. But I’ve seen people screw up their families trying to keep racing, and that just wasn’t for me, that’s not what this would ever be about, from a family point of view.
The kids, bless them, when they were determined to put in that extra money to buy GOLD, said, ‘But you paid for all our racing.’ But that’s not the point, that’s what you do for your kids. But now they are both key figures in the project and if they want to drive GOLD, then they will.
I suppose I wanted my cake and eat it on the money score, and that’s one of the reasons why it took a long time. Which means I must be an awful lot more patient than most of you think!
And it’s one of the myriad reasons why I’m just really so grateful to Tony, because he’s actually given me the chance to do it and without him we’d still have a jetcar but we wouldn’t be running it. And without Tony Purnell who helped with the purchase, and Martin Whitmarsh, we would never have got to the point where we needed AirAsia’s sponsorship.
Do you feel like you are emerging from a tunnel now that you’re close to having the Viper 535 working at last?
A tunnel or a deep well, yes. Trish said recently, ‘I’m actually quite surprised you’re not angry how long everything has taken.’ But the thing is, you can and must try and make things happen as fast as you can, but sometimes you have to accept that at any given time you can only push them on at the pace that they will go. Of course you always want to push them along faster, but sometimes you’ve got to accept that they won’t go any faster, that they will happen, but that you’ve just got to take it at their schedule. That’s something I’ve learned. Probably the biggest thing.
I mean, I was amazed that it was eight months between me running GOLD at Kemble’s Best of British Show in August 2012 and the next time that I even sat in her. If the day I climbed out of the cockpit at Kemble you’d told me that, I have laughed at you.
So patience is a record breaker’s virtue?
It helps! We’ve had to find the right people to advise us with our engines, and since the motors are Fifties technology that hasn’t been easy. Tom, Sam and I, with help from Andrew and Kieran, have pretty much had to try and figure out ourselves just what’s been wrong with the 535, but we now think we know and it’s close to running properly at last. We’ve just trekked across a very big and debilitating wilderness, but now I think we are back on track and can start to get going. I hope that we’re back where we should have been four years ago, albeit with a lot of dues paid.