What really happens behind closed doors at racing schools when instructors have too much time on their hands? In Autosport’s 2007 Christmas special, GARY WATKINS revealed a few of the more unlikely high-jinks tales…
Throw a bunch of twentysomething wannabe racing drivers together, give them a fleet of hot road cars and almost unrestricted access to a race circuit, then sprinkle in some paying public looking to get out on track for the first time and what have you got? Carnage and mayhem, otherwise known as a racing school in less regulated times that stretched into the 1990s.
The instructors working at the schools of Britain and beyond got up to all sorts of high jinks and horseplay back in the day. It was perhaps inevitable: a bunch of young blokes — and they were mostly male — will inevitably come up with games and challenges in any workplace environment.
“The difference was,” says 2000 FIA GT Championship title winner Jamie Campbell-Walter, a regular at the Jim Russell Racing Drivers’ School at Donington Park in the 1990s, “we had race-prepped cars at our disposal. We were left to our own devices and got away with murder.”
Sometimes the pupils — then referred to as ‘billies’ after the rhyming slang for punter, Billy Bunter — were involved and sometimes not. But the pranks the instructors pulled and the games they played have become the stuff of the legend.
Dario Franchitti went end over end more than once during his illustrious IndyCar career. Yet long before he could ever have imagined that he would end up winning the Indy 500 three times, he managed a backflip at Donington – without the aid of racing car.
Come the end of day at the Jim Russell school, a group of instructors would go out to collect the cones that marked the braking, turn-in and apex points. The idea of stopping to pick them up was anathema to a group of hot-headed racers, so the game was for someone to lean out of the side door of a minibus and grab the cones on the hoof.
“Dario missed one,” remembers Jonny Kane, who would win the 1997 British Formula 3 Championship before heading off into a successful sportscar career. “Whoever was driving hit the brakes and out went Dario. It was quite a nasty tumble, and I’m told he still has the scar to show for it.”
Phone a friend
Gary Ayles’ days as a touring car driver were pretty much behind him when this writer rang him one afternoon about a prospective drive with which he’d been linked. When the phone was answered, it was clear its owner was in a car travelling at high speed.
“Where are you?” was the obvious question. “The Craners,” was the less-than-likely reply. Cue a downshift, tyre squeal and a new answer: “The Old Hairpin.” I can’t remember if Gary reeled off all the corners as he made his way around Donington Park in a school car that day.
Instructing while on the phone was nothing new for Ayles: “Once I did a full personal instruction with my ear welded to the phone. And that included all the driving!”
Remote control racing
Put a racing driver in a car — any car — and he’ll want to race it. Down at Brands in the early ’90s, it didn’t matter if he or she wasn’t behind the wheel. ‘Billy Racing’ involved the instructor getting his or her punter around the track as quickly as possible, and ahead of those your mates were passengering.
“We’d pick our billies on the basis of whether they looked a bit racey or not,” recalls Johnny Mowlem, who worked at Brands for 12 years until his career in sportscars took off in the early 2000s. “You’d tell them when to brake, turn and accelerate. It was a case of ‘Don’t brake, don’t brake, BRAKE, BRAKE, BRAKE!’ The rules of the game were that you weren’t allowed to grab the wheel.
“Gary Ayles and I were among the worst culprits. I remember going into Druids and my guy going up the inside of Gary’s guy and tapping him into a spin. It was straight out of the British Touring Car Championship.”
Student pranks on Campus
Playing tricks on your contemporaries is one of the privileges of youth. More than 20 years ago at the Elf La Filiere school at Le Mans, a group of youngsters managed to persuade a fellow pupil from Japan that one of their challenges involved unclipping the steering and holding it above ones head at full speed on the start-finish straight.
“We drove the Formula Campus cars that were pretty old by then, and the detachable steering wheels were quite hard to get on and off,” recalls Val Hillebrand, who was just starting out on a career that took him to the 2002 FIA Sportscar Championship title. “This guy didn’t speak much French and some of the others convinced him that he had to hold up the steering wheel then put it back on. He was told he had to do it when he got to the front of the train during one of the lapping sessions we used to do.
“The guy actually did it,” Hillebrands reveals. “The instructors on the pitwall couldn’t believe their eyes.”
Uncomfortable moon landing
David Germain was a handy Formula Ford pedaller and sometime Formula 3 racer, but in national racing circles he’s probably better known to those of a certain age for one particular story from the lawless days at the Brands Hatch Racing School.
School stalwart Tim Jones, son of legendary track commentator Brian, was on marshalling duty on the inside of the Druids Hairpin on the fateful day. He was bored and said as much to the boys in the control tower over the radio. Cue Germain’s attempt to enliven proceedings by pulling a moonie on his colleague — while driving one of the school cars.
“I had a few practice runs behind the pits with my backside hanging out of the window,” recalls Germain. “That went fine, but I had forgotten was that I wouldn’t be driving in a straight line up at Druids.”
There are various versions of what happened next, but the unembellished truth is as funny as any of them.
“I was probably doing 20-25mph, but as I turned right into the corner with my overalls and boxers around my ankles, I fell onto the steering wheel and couldn’t push myself off,” says Germain. “So instead of heading off down to Graham Hill Bend, the car took a big arc into the barriers on the inside.”
The misdemeanour resulted in a three-month ban from Brands for Germain. He actually told his bosses that he’d been checking out a car. No doubt the ban would have been significantly longer if it had been revealed just how cheeky he was being.
Lulu make Lanfranchi wanna shout
The late Tony Lanfranchi was the self-styled chief instructor at Brands Hatch over the course of four decades. So when pop queen Lulu was invited down the Hatch for a photo opportunity sometime in the late 1960s, hard-living Lanfranchi took it upon himself to show her the ropes.
The late Brian Jones, who had joined Brands and its school (then known as Motor Racing Stables) in 1970, takes up what he’s sure is much more than an apocryphal story.
“Lulu was big news at the time, so it was quite a coup to get her down to Brands,” he says. “Lanfranchi bagged her, as was his right, and got into the passenger seat. Lulu lurched 100 yards up the pitroad before Tony had had enough.
“He yanked on the handbrake and got out with the words, ‘You’re on your own now, love!'”
Blind man drops Kane
It was one of the more unusual tasks for a racing instructor — teaching the blind to drive. The day organised up at Donington finished with some hot laps for the participants aboard the Astras and Jonny Kane came up with what he reckoned was a great idea to give his punter the ride of a lifetime.
“I decided to go over every kerb and rumble strip so the lap felt really exciting,” recalls Kane. “My plan went awry at the Old Hairpin, where I went a little too far over the kerb. We went into the gravel, up on two wheels and almost rolled.
“I tried to shrug it off, saying that we’d just had a ‘little spin’. But it’s true what they say about the loss of one sense heightening the others. This guy asked me if we had nearly rolled. After we were dragged out of the gravel, he refused to get back in with me.”
Doing the banana splits
Tommy Field, probably best known as a production saloon racer, famously put a school car over the barriers at Brands early one morning in the ’90s. The reason was ice on the track. He couldn’t blame another famously slippery substance found at the scene of the accident.
“It was one of those icy mornings when all the instructors would go out to try to clear the track before we took the billies out,” remembers Germain. “Tommy hit some ice at Paddock, got into the gravel — which was frozen solid — and went straight over the tyres.
“We all rushed down there to see if he was okay and while he was brushing himself down, someone found a banana skin lying around and shouted, ‘Hey, Tommy, now we know what the problem was’.”
Donington flat in fourth – everywhere
Imagine piling into Redgate at Donington with your foot flat to the floor, and your only hope of making the corner lying with the mischievous colleague sitting alongside you. That was the game the instructors used to play at the Jim Russell school with a couple of billies sitting in the back.
The whole lap had to be taken with the accelerator pedal on one of the school Vauxhall Astra GTEs nailed to the floor and fourth gear engaged. No braking was allowed. The speed of the car was controlled only by the master switch being turned on and off.
“You could make it through Redgate even if they flicked off the ignition at the braking point,” recalls Campbell-Walter. “You’d have to lob it into apex and hope the guy next to you turned the power back on so you could boot it around the corner.”
And what were the pupils in the back thinking?
“The billies,” says Campbell-Walter, “loved it.”
No angels on the road
British Touring Car Championship legend Anthony Reid and John Pratt, twice a podium finisher at the Formula Ford Festival at Brands, couldn’t even wander over to the cafe without turning it into a race when they worked at the Silverstone school in the mid-1980s.
“We’d race each other out on the track,” says Reid, “and we’d race the cars from the school buildings to the pitlane.”
So you can imagine that the mad dash home to Oxford after a hard day’s instructing could be a little manic. Especially if you encountered a pack of Hell’s Angels on the A34.
“I managed to get past them, but Pratty somehow got caught in the middle of their squadron and ended up tagging one of the riders,” recalls Reid. “They gathered around his car and tried to stop him. When he didn’t, they pulled out bike chains and gave his car a good thrashing.”
Pratt managed to escape down a side road, at which point the bikers headed after Reid.
“Fortunately, my Peugeot 205 diesel was quicker than a bike around all those roundabouts on the Oxford ring road,” he recalls.
It turned out to be good practice for a driver who’d go on to enjoy the best years of his career in front-wheel-drive machinery in the BTCC.
A version of this story first appeared in Autosport magazine in 2007. Cartoons by Jim Bamber.