Motorsport: Fearless racer a huge presence in pits

By Eric Thompson

Chris Amon is remembered for his unassuming manner, great storytelling and as an inspiration to young drivers.
Day of glory for Chris Amon (right) and Bruce McLaren with Henry Ford II after winning at the Le Mans 24-Hour race in 1966. Picture / AP
Day of glory for Chris Amon (right) and Bruce McLaren with Henry Ford II after winning at the Le Mans 24-Hour race in 1966. Picture / AP

It was with some trepidation that I opened an email from a good friend on Wednesday morning. I had known Chris Amon had been ill for a while with cancer but when I last spoke to him a few weeks ago, he was battling on with his treatment and medication in his normal indomitable way.

So it was with a heavy heart I read the full email realising one of the last drivers of a great motor racing era had moved on. My condolences and thoughts are with Amon's family.

I will always be grateful that I got to meet by boyhood hero. Not too many people get to do that. I'm not going to recount Amon's glory years here, rather reflect on the man himself, his fabulously unassuming manner and great storytelling.

During the late 1960s, I was never one for wanting to be a movie star or astronaut - especially not an astronaut. The thought of being locked inside a metal can placed on a barely controlled explosion and hurled into a vacuum held no appeal for me, nor did acting out a pretend life on film.

Sport was my passion and in particular motor racing. I have often wondered why as a child Amon appealed to me rather than the likes of Bruce McLaren (he had his own team) or Denny Hulme (he won a world title). I suppose it was like being either a Rolling Stones fan or a Beatles fan.

All were very gifted in their own ways. But Amon it was for me.

Having returned to New Zealand after many years abroad, I started covering motorsport for the New Zealand Herald. It was about 10 years ago at the New Zealand Grand Prix at Manfeild that I spotted a bloke walking across the start-finish straight. My mind froze like a hard drive in a wonky computer when I realised it was Chris Amon. It took me a good five minutes to make my move and introduce myself to him, blurting out he was my hero etc, etc, like a starstruck 10-year old meeting Superman.

He was gracious enough to say he read a number of motorsport pieces in the paper and would I like to join him for dinner that evening? I was hooked.

Over the next 10 years, he was kind enough to allow me to rummage through his memories for various interviews, but more importantly, we spoke on a regular basis about motorsport in general and the young Kiwis who were making their mark on the world stage.

Some of my favourite stories of his weren't about any particular race result, more about the back stories. One of my favourites was when we were talking about the DRS system in modern Formula One cars. Amon laughed and started chatting about his experience with a very early version.

"We tried a basic version at Ferrari where you could change the rear wing angle using hydraulics. The only problem is that the fluid leaked out most of the time," he said.

"This caused trouble in two ways; first, it could get all over the rear tyres, and second, the wing would lock in the wrong position, causing the car to have either no downforce or too much."

Another interesting fact was after being dogged by bad luck for much of his racing career, in 1973 Amon decided to take his destiny back into his own hands and form Chris Amon Racing and build his own car.

He aimed to give himself a cutting edge chassis, a powerful Cosworth engine and build something that pushed the design envelope. It pushed the envelope all right; it nearly broke it and himself.

Many years later, a bloke called Ron Maydon contacted Amon saying he had bought the car and was going to restore it and compete in the Masters F1 Race Series.

"I remember getting the email from Ron and replying almost straight away," said Amon at the time.

"I said to him in a reply 'why would he even bother with that s**tbox' and other less savoury remarks."

A few days later in another email, Amon apologised for his earlier email and set about explaining the things he thought they got wrong with the car.

Amon and the car had a mutual dislike for each other and it got to the stage the Kiwi thought the car would kill him. Being way ahead of its time, there was no imperial data for the team to look at for comparison, no data downloads, no wind tunnels and nothing else like it to benchmark against.

If you wanted to be innovative in car design, you couldn't model it on a computer, you just had to build it and race it to find out if your ideas worked.

Amon and McLaren were the first Kiwis to win at Le Mans and a couple of years ago, we were talking about how teams get seven minutes to get the drivers in the car.

His response was to laugh out loud saying: "They get seven minutes - really. I use to enjoy the running bit, as I was pretty fast over 100 metres.

"In the early days, there were no belts and then just a lap belt and finally shoulder belts as well but with no crotch straps.

"I remember one time leaping in the car, doing up the lap part of the belt and taking off down the track doing the shoulder belts up as I went along because the Mulsanne Straight is so long, you had a bit of time to put a few belts on."

He had another great anecdote from Le Mans.

"I can remember my first time at Le Mans in 1963 as a reserve driver for the Roots Group in Sunbeam Alpines. The major topic of conversation at debrief time between the drivers was if the ashtray was big enough.

"I don't think anyone really wanted to smoke though."

Amon raced at Le Mans 11 times and could remember finishing only once - the year he won it.

These are just a very few of the reasons I looked forward to our chats, which provided memories I will treasure for the rest of my days, not just the fact he was the most gifted racer of his generation to never win an F1 Grand Prix.

Amon's quiet and calm demeanour along with his grounded personality and love of life came from him surviving probably the most dangerous era in F1 racing, when drivers didn't make close friendships knowing they could die on any given race weekend.

His name will live on in many guises and none more so than with the Toyota Racing Series.

Up until a few years ago, Amon was a huge presence in the pits, being available to all the young drivers seeking wisdom, help, suggestions and racing advice in general.

The Chris Amon Trophy is awarded to the overall winner of the championship.

In my eyes, that's leaving the legacy of a true winner.

Pitstop

Hybrid gets a workout

Kiwi rally driver Michael Young is in China this weekend for the third round of the Asia Pacific Rally Championship. Young will not be in his normal rally car - he'll be debuting the new BYD Hybrid rally car, a first for an FIA-sanctioned event. The brand is the leading hybrid in the country.

Enduring health

The future of the New Zealand Endurance Championship is looking healthy with the signing of a historic 10-year deal with MotorSport New Zealand. The North Island and South Island endurance racing drivers' clubs become the caretakers of the championship until 2025.

Catlins celebrate 60th

Eighty-nine cars will line up for the Eastern Southland Car Club's Catlins Coast Rally this weekend to celebrate 60 years of the event. Adding a bit of flavour will be 2015 New Zealand rally champion Ben Hunt. Several changes have been made to the special stages this year although many popular roads remain.

Gordon back on track

Four-time Nascar champion Jeff Gordon's retirement is on hold again. He's been called up for another two races, at Watkins Glen this weekend and at Bristol on August 20, as a replacement for the still injured Dale Earnhardt jnr, who is still recovering from concussion.

Kiwis rev up at Sepang

Team New Zealand Motorsport will be back in action this weekend at the second round of the Asian Le Mans Sprint Cup at Sepang for two one-hour races. The team won the GT class at the season opener and Graeme Dowsett and John Curran will be looking to bring their Porsche 997 GT3 Cup car back to victory lane.

Under the hood

Who runs Formula One? It's a fair question. In 2016, all the intrigue and excitement has been off the track as the battle for the upper hand in the sport is a tug of war between the FIA and the team owners. You have to feel for the drivers who are told that double yellows will be waved during qualifying only to find out that when they get to the track the flags are red. In the past, few races track limits have been enforced with vigour one week and relaxed the next. Also, no one knows which rule will be in place over pit to driver communications.

- NZ Herald

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

SIGN UP NOW

© Copyright 2016, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf05 at 01 Oct 2016 02:52:07 Processing Time: 490ms