20 July, 2012

Reminiscence: Crushing the Cream of the F1 Crop

As a 10 year old watching his 1st Formula 1 race, the 1969 Canadian Grand Prix at Mosport, I was on top of the moon. The daring heroes I'd read about in my few short years were there in front of me, literally screaming past a dozen metres from where I sat in the bleachers. Following the race we had an opportunity to walk along the track; thankfully my father was in no rush to leave, and I soon found myself on the hallowed ground the missiles flew over just minutes before. The same ground that vibrated in unison with my chest cavity as Lotuses and Ferraris swooped past, intercepted my life's orbit and launched me on a new trajectory.
Mr. Hill, airborne somewhere in Europe, c.1969

Like pilgrims toward Mecca, a group of us followed the asphalt path to the paddock, a staging area where the crews, vehicles and heroes gathered to prepare for, and recover from, the scheduled events. Transporters and tents defined the staked out zones for each team. In those days spectators could wander quite freely, the hard-core capitalism that recognized we'd gladly pay extra for getting close up to the cars and drivers hadn't yet caught hold with the organizers. I was like a kid in a candy store, and wasted no time harvesting the autographs of whichever drivers could be found milling about the area. I descended on Jackie Oliver straight away, then a few minutes' wait outside his trailer rewarded me with soon-to-be-champion Jackie Stewart's signature.

When it was clear our time was winding down, I scoured the area for any final opportunities. Just then an untied flap waved in the breeze behind one of the colossal garage tents, as if beckoning me to come closer. I obediently traipsed over and slowly peered through the gap. Cars were parked in various states of disassembly, being prepped for shipping, mechanics hunched over them going about their business. Peering the other way, I saw that only two figures were just standing and talking - lo and behold one of them was none other than reigning World Driving Champion and Hero of Mine, Graham Hill. This was a moment every kid dreams of... their superstar hero just a few steps away from them, free for the taking. Yes, he was talking to someone, but he could surely be dispatched with the boldness only found in a passionate 10 year old fan's heart (in retrospect, as I think about it, it was likely team manager, Lotus founder, and designer extraordinaire, Colin Chapman).

With no further ado, I barged through the opening, wound my way between the toolboxes and jack stands, and inserted myself between the two men as soon as there was a sentence break. I stepped right up to Graham Hill, Driving Champion of the World, thrust my paper and pen forward and said, "Mr. Hill, may I please have your autograph?"
I waited breathlessly.
I also learned an important lesson in comic timing from a master:
Graham Hill, World Driving Champion of the Entire Universe, sized me up, glanced to his mate with a smile and wink, his pencil-thin moustache debonairly arching wryly, and then turned back to me with his reply: "I will if you get off my bloody foot."

With the horror only someone who inadvertently pushed the Queen down a flight of stairs could relate to I looked down, and saw, indeed, my right foot squarely on top of his leather driving shoe - mercifully, the clutch foot, not the throttle one. Time stood still. My heart caught fire. As if from far off I heard Graham Hill, Supreme Champion Driver of Drivers and his sidekick Maybe Colin chuckle. I sprang back, mortified; I am certain a passerby at that moment would have confused me with one of those garden jockey sculptures frozen in a half stride holding a lantern.

Somehow in this tragic unravelling of my life, though I don't recall it happening, he must have taken the paper and pen from my petrified hand and signed off on my loutish visit, because to this day I still have his autograph as proof I didn't destroy him entirely. For the rest of that season I followed all of the remaining Formula One races religiously, hoping against hope Graham Hill OBE never had to retire from a race due to a sore clutch foot. I am only now able to talk about it. That is likely why, to this day, I can always be found wearing slippers or soft-soled running shoes, even if it's to weddings and funerals.


  1. What a fantastic story. You lucky kid. I was also a huge Graham Hill fan and then, obviously a Damon Hill fan. Graham was one of the true 'gents' of that era. Sadly a few of the modern ones do not seem to have the same upbringing!

  2. Thanks, Sally, glad you enjoyed it.
    Yes, when we could know there was a colourful character under the helmet it really made for a more satisfying experience while spectating.