Words by James Edmonds/Photographs courtesy of The Smith Family Archive
(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.
JE – How does this year’s car differ from last years?
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
“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.
“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!”
“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’.
“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!”