For the last few years, Rea has been battling pancreatic cancer. He actually has no pancreas, and so is Type 1 diabetic, to add to his problems. He estimates that he is crunching, conservatively, 15 pills before each meal. Painting, his family, and a normal life in his village keep him sane these days, plus, as ever, his music and his cars. Rea, as well as being the singer-songwriter behind huge hits such as Driving Home for Christmas, Fool if you Think it’s Over and Road to Hell, is a racing driver, and has raced several times at the Goodwood Revival. He has also spannered for the F1 Jordan team, changing Eddie Irvine’s wheel during the 1995 Monaco Grand Prix. His latest project spans cars and music: La Passione is a beautiful coffee table book and DVD collection all about Wolfgang Von Trips, the Ferrari driver whose death at the Monza Grand Prix denied him a shot at the Drivers’ Championship that year. His car flipped into the crowd, killing 15 spectators; he was thrown onto the track. Rea has been obsessed by Von Trips since he was a boy; one of the DVDs in the collection features a lot of unseen footage that the family handed over.
“Ghosts is what I think of with Goodwood”, Rea says. “I’ve sat there at the circuit and imagined all the Spitfire boys. Amazing.
“That right-hander, off the straight, before the chicane”, he tells me: “I’ve been doing that for 20 years and I still haven’t got it right. I always turn in too early”. Rea has raced at the circuit in his 1954 Lotus VI and Morris Minor many times, and has the bug; when we met in April, he was half eyeing up the chance to race at Revival this year.
I tell him one of my favourite tracks of his is Daytona, and that, having been to watch the 24-hour race there, his song is deeply evocative of the crazy speedway. “Never been”, he tells me, to my amazement. Turns out he hasn’t been to Le Mans either, despite that race sparking his lifelong passion for cars.
“The first year they did the first live Le Mans [on TV], I was brought downstairs at a ridiculous time of night. It was 1961 I think. That was what started it. We switched on, and it was just headlights, in black and white. My dad was imagining around the black and white. I’ve never been the same since.”
How, I wonder, did a lad from Middlesborough end up supporting a German aristocratic Ferrari racing driver? “Times were different then”, Rea says. “There were no politics. It was a fairy story, and my dad could tell a good story. Now people would have him.”
Although his fascination with Von Trips led to his first car, a 1968 Ford Anglia, being painted red in homage, and the ownership subsequently of many Ferraris, nowadays he eschews the prancing horse in favour of a Caterham 7 620, Fiat 500 Abarth and BMW X3 Alpina. “The F12 I had was an unbelievably lovely car but I can’t turn left at the bottom of my drive in one, coz I’d have to go through my village, and I’m not going through my village in a Ferrari,” he says. “I’ve got daughters, family and I’m trying to be normal, you know? Going to the Indian in a Ferrari… I can’t bear all that.”
The car he mosts regrets selling was a Lotus Cortina. “It was very unique; it was a Colin Chapman car. It came with a letter from Jim Clark telling his secretary to tell Colin to get stuffed, because Colin had put in a racing seat and Clark didn’t like it, so he asked for another seat, and Colin Chapman charged him £5-something for changing the seat, so Clark told him to get stuffed. I think that piece of paper had more value than the car. It was a 1963 car I think; one of the first A-frames.”
Still, things aren’t so bad these days. Rea is in sanguine mood; a prolonged brush with death can have that effect. The singer/racer/painter has an immense determination about him, to battle the bad times and embrace the good. Don’t rule out another appearance on the Revival grid next year.
Photo courtesy of Andrzej Barabasz (Chepry) via Creative Commons