We all have those precious memories that are etched indelibly into our brains. Many of mine center around the cars and the sport that we all love so much. I imagine that if you are reading this, you too will have similar cherished memories that make you tingle when they are triggered. Mine include being driven around in PPP 6H (aka BS1) by my cousin as a small kid before the car took off to the south of France to shoot “The Persuaders”
(it was the reason that I acquired my DBS); being driven at great speed by Roger Stowers in the Primrose Yellow V8 Vantage demonstrator CYX 1V from my aunt’s house on Tickford Street to Oulton Park for an AMOC meet – I remember Roger drifting that car around a large sweeping motorway off ramp with delight and then looking at me and saying, “That, Master James, is just a little bit of what Aston Martin motoring is all about” in his charming and slightly aloof manner. In more recent years, I have had the pleasure of being treated to some behind the scenes action with Audi at some of the big races due to my involvement with Champion Racing. Seeing the DBR9 win the first time out was my first ever experience of an AM win at an international race, so it’s one of my favourites! The list goes on.
This year I was able to add some new memories to the bank. Like most of the fondest ones, they were quite unexpected, which will only add to their warmth over time. Even though my thorough planning made it possible for me to accomplish my goals during what is always a very hectic few days, the stories that unfolded that weekend were quite remarkable.
This year, I was all set for my annual trip to Sebring with my best friend and fellow race addict, Dr Dave Lobou and a few other friends. My plan this year was to sit down and interview George Howard-Chappell from AM Racing about the team’s return to this historic event with a prototype racing car. With the help of Sarah Durose and Kim Palmer from Aston’s press office, I was invited to the Friday evening media event and was able to get some time with George, as well as talk to the drivers and even David Richards (again!). If you read between the lines, there is some interesting stuff going on at AMR for 2011!
During my research leading up to the weekend, I had looked into the history of AM prototypes at Sebring, and found that the last time “we” raced there with such a machine, was way back in 1983 with the Nimrod. I was able to track down one of the drivers of that very car from that very event – a certain Reggie Smith. I suggested to him that we have a chat about the race, as I thought it might make an interesting sidebar to my interview with George Howard-Chappell. He agreed enthusiastically, and in one of those moments of serendipity, told me that he would be at Sebring for the weekend.
The many books written on the history of AM racing contain much information on the Nimrod project, but the amazing story that Reg recounted to me has, as far as I know, never before been published. It was with reverence that I hung on his every word, as I was fully aware that this might be one of those very rare moments when you are able to capture a piece of our history. Listening to Reggie talk about his experience with self effacing humor interjected with enough anecdotes to write an entirely different story, I realized that what I intended originally to be a sidebar, deserved much more, so it turned into my feature. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did listening to it.
Another unexpected bonus this year was a phone call at 7amon Thursday from one of my friends from the now defunct Champion Racing team. Dane Leekam, now an integral part of Scott Sharp’s Patron sponsored Extreme Speed Motorsports team, called to ask if I could “help out this weekend, as we’re a bit short handed”. Scott Sharp, son of Datsun racing legend Bob Sharp, is fielding an all new team of two Ferrari 430’s in this year’ ALMS and I was hired to be the lollipop man on the 02 car, while Dr Dave was the fireman on the 01 car. Being down in the pits for the whole race weekend was a thrill, as normally I’m not down there for the actual race. Wearing the requisite fire suit all day in the Sebring heat is not something I would want to do, unless actually working, as was the case this year. What a thrill to be on a very professional and well funded team. (I don’t have to tell you what a memory that was!). But that’s another story.
Race Talk with George Howard-Chappell
George Howard-Chappell, Director at Aston Martin Racing has been with Prodrive since 1998. He has been instrumental in engineering the DBR9’s victories as well as overseeing the various Vantage GT programmes and now is taking aim again at Le Mans with the LMP1 Aston Martin–Lola.
I was fortunate to sit down with him at Sebring for a few minutes to discuss where AMR is headed:
James Edmonds – Astons have quite a checkered history here. The last time an Aston Prototype ran at Sebring was in 1983 when a Nimrod finished 5th. Does this point to a future return of the marque to the 12 Hour, or is this just a one off?
George Howard-Chappell – I hope it is a more regular return. We really like racing here and had a great result in ’05 with the GT1 car. It’s a great track and the spectators are always massively enthusiastic. It works as preparation for Le Mans, it’s a good market for Aston Martin out here…it ticks a lot of the boxes.
JE – How does this year’s car differ from last years?
GHC – There are some small changes. We’ve adapted the car to the new regulations; the restrictor size has changed in our favor; we’ve done some development on the aerodynamics; some changes on the engine and chassis side, so it’s a small evolution of last year’s car
JE – What was the reason behind running the cars again this year after it was first announced that AMR would not run in 2010, but instead concentrate their efforts on the new car for 2011?
GHC – I’m not sure if that was well reported. What we were looking at originally was a new car for 2010. We were promised pre–Nurburgring that the equivalence between petrol and diesel would be sorted out. The reality is that the performance differential has been halved, so it is much better for us, but it’s not correct yet. At that point we abandoned plans to do a new car for 2010, so we’re racing our old car now and it does work for us.
JE – Will the 2011 car be a bespoke Aston Martin racing car or will it again be based on an existing chassis?
GHC – If we’re doing it, it’s going to be an Aston Martin car.
JE – Is it coming along now?
GHC – Yes….the design is well progressed on the chassis and on the engine. But it’s not signed off yet.
JE – When the 2011 rules were first announced, you were quoted as saying that, “…no one in their right mind would build a closed car”. Is that still the case?
GHC – Well, there is a small change to that being evaluated, because there is a new safety regulation coming in that mandates that the cars have a central fin (a la current F1 cars – JE), and that may change the decision between an open or closed car.
JE – Would you make an open car?
GHC – I think that the primary objective has to be to win at Le Mans, and not to do a car that is necessarily a coupe. Aston Martin makes open cars – it’s not like they don’t. A lot of their sales come from cars without roofs.
JE – Can you reveal any details of the 2011 engine?
GHC – No.
JE – Will the engine form any basis for a future road car power plant or is strictly a racing car design?
GHC – There may be some technologies explored in the engine, but the basic engine is not going to be, as it is now, the basic engine from a road car.
JE – Do you think that the ACO have made enough changes to the equivalency rules this year for you to be competitive with Audi and Peugeot?
GHC – There’s another small step for ’11, and I hope that they look very carefully at the results from this year and adjust it correctly, or at least give manufacturers assurance that when the new cars run they will be balanced correctly in the area of the power output. They are working towards that, but it’s still not correct at the moment.
JE – KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System) is going to a factor in 2011. Is it something that AMR is considering?
GHC – Of course. It’s part of the performance/economy strategy, and you have to look at it.
JE – Will the system be last year’s technology from Formula One, or be a totally new system for your car?
GHC – We are looking at all of the options…. (Smiling and nodding in a very coy fashion! JE)
JE – Will the experience gained with the DBR9 at Sebring help at all with the P1 car?
GHC – It’s a different animal. But by coming to Sebring on many occasions, what you learn is about the circuit, and how it changes – the weather effects for instance. It helps you not to chase the setup too strongly, or to worry too much when things aren’t quite right. So in that respect, yes, the R9 definitely teaches us some things.
JE – It must have been bittersweet for the team to see David Brabham win Le Mans for Peugeot last year having been a stalwart of yours from the beginning of AMR.
GHC – I thinks it’s great. People move around, and I’m really pleased when someone gets an opening like that. He’s a great guy. Similar thing with Anthony Davidson. He came here with us in 2003, then ran at Le Mans last year with us, and now he’s at Peugeot.
JE – I asked Darren Turner this question once, so I know the answer from a drivers stand point, but from your perspective, how does racing in America differ from in Europe?
GHC – It’s much more open. It’s much more friendly. The layout of the paddock encourages the fans, and probably the crews to be a bit more social. The officials and the teams are so welcoming and generally the people are so enthusiastic that it’s really good fun coming to race here. We really like it.
JE – Everyone was surprised when David Richards announced the LMP1 program, mainly because the chance of winning against the diesel powered cars was so slim. Do you relish that battle, or is it enough just be classed as “fastest petrol car”?
GHC – Your objective of course, is to do as well as you possibly can. You take everything into account and you go racing. The reality is, that if you beat those cars it’s a bonus. Coming fourth at Le Mans last year and out qualifying one of the works Audis was an achievement in itself. When you consider the imbalance in the engine regulations and their budgets, it is a David and Goliath act! It’s not like we show up and say we expect to win because we’re on even terms and have the same resources and development and it’s up to us to be smarter and to run the race in the best possible way with our drivers so that we can win. It isn’t like that. You just have to do the best you can and hope that it comes your way.
JE – Most of us in the AMOC had to be, for many many years, content with reflecting on the racing victories of the glorious past. Does Aston racing history hold any interest for you and do you ever draw any comparisons with John Wyer and his team, or you live only in the present?
GHC – There isn’t a great deal of time for looking back, but of course I’m aware of it. I’ve done some events with the AMOC and the AMHT in the UK and I love the old stuff, but I don’t study it in a detailed way because I don’t have a lot of time for it when so much of my time is spent on the current programme. But the history of the marque is very important.
Reggie Smith – The story of one man’s moment in the (Florida) Sun
Sir Stirling Moss, Roy Salvadori, Carroll Shelby, Innes Ireland, Tony Brooks, Reggie Smith, Eric Thompson….hold on. Back up. Reggie who? That’s right. Reginald Smith. His name may not have the glamour or the cache of the others, but nevertheless he is one of the lucky few in the history of sports car racing to be counted amongst those other famous names as one who drove for that most glorious and legendary of makes, Aston Martin. Like so many of our favorite Aston racing stories, many of them come from obscure and unlikely places. Reggie’s story is no different.
The fact that he drove the Nimrod to it’s best ever result, a fifth place overall at the 1983 Sebring twelve hour has been, by and large, glossed over in the annals of AM racing history. His name and the result have been given a paragraph or two, but if you check the books on your shelves, you will see that this achievement has faded into obscurity. The way that his drive came about is so unlikely, that it could never happen in today’s world of racing within the corporate structure (even by Aston standards!).
Reggie’s father, Reg Smith was instrumental in sparking the motor racing passion. He held the position of race secretary, vice president, general manager and right hand man to Sebring race founder Alec Ullman for twenty years from 1952 to 1972. After Ullman stepped aside, Reg became the race promoter for years to come. From an early age Reggie recalls that having race drivers and those in the fraternity over to the family home around race week seemed normal.
“When I was little kid, we had people over to the house. Stirling Moss, Peter Collins, John Wyer, Donald Healey, William Lyons, to mention a few out of hundreds. As a youngster, I thought that race drivers were just normal people, but I couldn’t imagine anything more interesting! Many of the names that you read about, well frankly, it is a history lesson to many people. As a youngster, I was privileged to be at the right place.”
Having had the passion for racing well and truly ignited, Reggie’s dream was to be able to drive at his beloved Sebring. Although rubbing shoulders with the racing glitterati of the time, his family didn’t have a history of actually driving, nor the wherewithal to fund a drive.
REGGIE SMITH FORMULA FORD
“I’ve never smoked a cigarette or drank a beer in my life. I didn’t need anything like that…I just needed to have a drive! I never had any advances in my driving career, because I didn’t have the money to commit to it. I was working five days a week, then sneaking out Friday afternoon to go and practice.”
Robin Hamilton’s team came over to the USA in 1983 to do a season in the IMSA GT Championship, having had a difficult time in Group C in Europe. Sponsorship was obtained from Pepsi at the eleventh hour, and the “Pepsi Challenger” was born. Two cars were entered for the Daytona 24 and drivers included AJ Foyt, Darrel Waltrip, Drake Olsen and Lyn St. James. Following that race, the cars were entered for the Miami Grand Prix, which was a shortened race due to the sodden conditions.
“They found out that the cars wouldn’t sink, but they wouldn’t float particularly quickly either!”
Robin needed a place to keep the cars as a home base, and local Aston dealer Palm Beach Motorcars seemed to be an ideal spot, as they had plenty of available workshop space. Lucky for Reggie, he was friends with the owner, who invited him over for a look around. The cars were there, and Reggie nonchalantly enquired as to who would be driving them at the Sebring race which was coming up. Due to the serious lack of funding (don’t forget that we are talking about a private Aston venture here – it couldn’t be any other way!) in part a result from the apathy of British industry which had shown an almost total lack of interest in sponsorship, and the rift that ensued between Hamilton and the British motoring press, the rides were being given to those who could bring money with them.
“That made it simple…I didn’t have any, so I kept asking, ‘How are you doing with your rentals?’ The yellow car (now with sponsorship from “Seahawk” boats) had enough rental income that they would be able to run it at Sebring. So I said, ‘What about that one?’ pointing at the other car, and was told there wasn’t enough money to run that one.” But Hamilton was a keen and optimistic enthusiast and wanted desperately to run the full season with his cars.
By race week, the second car still had no paying drivers, but Reggie kept hounding Hamilton, who at the last minute agreed to take the other car to the event, just in case “something might happen.” Using all his powers of persuasion, Reggie told Hamilton he thought that the driver lineup for the yellow car was one which may not be too sympathetic on the machinery, and that an early retirement was, in his opinion a real possibility.
“I told him to give it some thought. ‘You know you could put someone in there’, I said with a big smile, ‘who knows his way around the course and isn’t known for clanking up cars. It’s a twelve hour race, and I’ve very seldom seen the fastest car that starts the race go on to win it.’ Robin was a very nice chap, but under a huge amount of pressure. To make matters worse, I said that I didn’t know if the car was going to blow up, but with the people you have in the car….it may not finish, and to be honest, at two o’clockin the afternoon, you’ll be washing up. If you start the other car….? So he said he’d give it some serious thought.
Reggie with family before Sebring 1983. Little Doug would go on to race also.
“Friday morning the day before the race, my phone rings at the house in Fort Lauderdale. ‘Reggie? It’s Robin. Well, I might be seeing your point. We’ve put about four noses on this car now.’ and it wasn’t because they’d been falling off! He asked what I was doing, and I told him that I was going to work! ‘Can you take a day off ? Maybe you’d like to come up here and take the other car out. We’ll see if we can get you round and get the car qualified.’ It didn’t take me long to say I think that’ll be a good idea!”
Reggie and his wife jumped in their little Chevette and motored up to Sebring right away. Upon pulling into the paddock, Reggie spotted the yellow machine all polished and looking pretty, but couldn’t see the silver car anywhere. Finding Robin he enquired as to the whereabouts of his steed, and looked in the general direction of Hamilton’s pointed finger. What he saw must have raised his eyebrows and put his heart in his throat.
“Back in those days, the paddock was just red dirt. The car was filthy dirty – you couldn’t even see the paint. It had just been standing there since they unloaded it. It had a flat tire and in white shoe polish on the windscreen it said, ‘For Let’.
“The mechanics, who were all really great guys (and not yet called technicians, as today) were asked to see if it could be cleaned up and started so we could knock out a couple of laps. So they hosed it off, aired up the tires, and amazingly it started! It didn’t sound perfect, but it was alright.”
So after a brief fitting, Reggie was dispatched out onto the track to get a feel for the car. Until now, his racing experience had been limited to a few MG’s and a couple of Formula Fords, so to find himself behind the wheel of a Group C car with almost 600bhp meant that Reggie wisely decided “not to do anything real stupid here”.
On his first lap, and treading carefully, the engine stopped at the hairpin. Suspecting a fuel injection problem (it wouldn’t have been the first time in a Nimrod!), he was able to coax the V8 back to life, whereupon he returned to the pits with the engine running on half it’s cylinders. The engine didn’t appear to be damaged, but certainly was not in the best of health. Reggie didn’t have a hotel room, so went back to Fort Lauderdale that night (a good three hour drive!) and was told to report back the next day, “I was nervous as could be, as I knew that this could be either Cinderella or King Kong!”
Reggie duly arrived back at the track on race morning and was told that the car had been out with one of the other drivers that morning and that it felt great having been sorted the night before. (Lyn St. James would be co-driving, with Drake Olsen and Victor Gonzalez in the yellow IMSA spec car). After morning practice, Robin was still in two minds about running the car, so Reggie had to keep his fingers crossed and just hope for the best. A drivers’ meeting was called, and it was decided that the car would be sent out for a couple of practice laps to establish some times, then be pitted in the hopes “that somebody in one of these hot shot cars will go out and blow to bits, then come down and rent the ride!” Despite being hopeful about the situation they were in, Reggie knew that his lowly position of 48th on the grid (in large part caused by the car’s general lack of tune during qualifying) didn’t bode too well for him. The other car started a respectable 13th (unlucky as it turned out).
“There I was at the wrong end of the grid, with one mechanic, sitting on a bare aluminium tub while the other car had properly formed seats, a drinks bottle, everything….like a race car. But I was happy as a clam. I couldn’t wait.” The race started and Reggie was off! He kept his eye on the pit board and noted that although his times were several seconds off the pace of the sister car, once he settled into a rhythm they started to come down. “I had been in the car for a while, and I was doing 45’s to their 38’s. I wasn’t going quite as slow as STP on a cold morning, but I was wondering where I was losing the time. At that time the track had a long straight, followed by a ninety degree corner, then another long straight. It was one of those corners that somehow you had to do fast in and fast out.
“My father was one of the race organizers, and I had always obeyed regulations as a youngster. I knew that airport rules meant that you didn’t put your wheels over the painted line. I didn’t want to break the rules, or get embarrassed or arrested or anything. So I would come down to the corner, fifth, fourth, third, turn the corner then start accelerating up to fifth gear, then I’m at the end of the next straight. I was doing that for a while and passing some of the slower stuff. Suddenly a couple of the leaders came by. And they didn’t just come by – I was rounding my third gear corner and they came by me doing about 80 mph faster! That’s interesting I thought. I obviously don’t have the hang of this car!”
It didn’t take long to figure out that the other drivers were not as mindful of the course markings as Reggie, and were able to take his third gear corner as a flat out sweeper! So next time around, he tried the same thing.
“I had been getting up to about 160, but after that I was going considerably faster. I thought, ‘That’ll show ‘em!’. So I looked in the mirror to compliment myself on what I was doing, and I saw nothing but white. ‘Man I blew it up! I can’t believe it!’ And I really didn’t do anything wrong. I didn’t miss a shift or anything. How did this happen? So I switched it off and coasted into the pits. ‘What are you here for?’ they asked. ‘Look at all the smoke. It must’ve blown up’. So they jacked it up, pulled off the bodywork to have a look, but found nothing wrong! So I started it up, it sounded perfect. They sent me back out and told me to try it again and see what happens. So I was a little cautious, but this time I noticed that when I got to 5900 revs, the nose got down on the ground and the wing top mirrors that weren’t particularly well adjusted started pointing skywards…well suddenly realized I was not seeing smoke – I was seeing the clouds!”
Reggie Smith Aston Martin Nimrod Sebring 1983 pace lap
Starting the race with the intention of running only a couple of laps, Reggie had lost time learning the car and the track, as well as wasting time in the pits. The race had been on for a while now, when he saw the pit board out that said “GAS”, and assuming it was for him, brought the car back in. He was ready to jump out, but was greeted by the same “what are you doing here?” again. There was no other driver ready, so they filled the car and he was out again! Reggie opened the race with a double stint, on a hot Florida day with no water bottle, no seat insert and sitting on the alloy floor of a very hot closed coupe.
When he handed over at the next fuel stop, Lyn St. James was ready and took over. She wasn’t out for long when “I heard a plane crash in the back yard! It turned out to be the other Aston. There was a huge hole in the side of the engine. There’s a sequence in gear changes, and he was supposed to be going up!”
The sister car was dragged back to the pits, while the other car soldiered on. Not gaining or losing ground, but holding station. It was ordered in for a fuel stop and driver change, but Reggie was told to take his time, as they were going to fit the bodywork from the retired car. Of course, being hand built race cars, the nose and tail sections took quite some time to fit from one car to the other. Both cars were very attractive in their own right, but I’m not sure the silver and green car looked too sexy with yellow panels fore and aft. I’m sure that more than one race fan could have been forgiven for thinking that the car was in for crash repairs, but that was not the reason. Robin was an honorable man and was willing to sacrifice a better finishing position in order to give his Seahawk sponsor maximum exposure!
The next few hours were thankfully uneventful, but as night fell, Drake Olsen from the other car took over, as he had only driven one stint before his car was retired. Reggie was not in any position to negotiate, so sat by and watched as his car went out. It was not out for long before returning with a punctured radiator. With no spare to install, the tubes were pinched off and soldered, before the cooling system could be slowly filled, as it was of course very hot. And more time lost. The car went on reliably, and steadily climbed up the leader board thanks in no small part to the drivers’ adherence to the rev limit. John Wyer would have been proud.
“Final analysis. We were first GTP, fifth overall. We didn’t change tires the whole race. We didn’t change brakes. I think those tires had even been on the car the year before at Le Mans where the car went upside down! We weren’t driving an economy run, but we were getting fantastic gas mileage because we weren’t being silly – we were driving an endurance race. Today you couldn’t win like that, but you couldn’t win by driving faster than the car was able to survive either. So it’s not always the quickest car that wins.”
Reggie went on to become the sales manager at Palm Beach Motorcars and had a few more races, but none that touched that of his 1983 Sebring race. It’s easy to wonder where he might have finished had the team been given the chance to properly test the car and that some of the long unnecessary stops could have been avoided. They finished only seven laps down, so who knows?
“The history of Aston Martin at Sebring in the early 50’s and my drive in ’83 carried significant charm for me. I will admit that Saturday morning this year, as I looked at the Gulf colored Lola-Aston Martin standing on the grid before the start, I felt a major wave of nostalgia and wished for a moment I was standing in a driver’s suit waiting to climb in.”
This is what memories are made of.
Photo’s Smith family archive