Doug Nye: the most dramatic moment in Goodwood history
Thinking back over Goodwood’s motor sporting history – as we do constantly – one of the most dramatic and spectacular incidents ever to occur there was the Aston Martin pit fire, during the 1959 Tourist Trophy race.
Team director John Wyer recalled the incident like this painting in the background from his company’s great win at Le Mans in which the victorious DBR1/300 sports car was co-driven by Roy Salvadori and the Texan Carroll Shelby.
John recalled: "As a result of Le Mans, we found ourselves in an interesting situation. In the year in which we decided to compete in only one major sportscar race, we were second in the World Championship of Makes, two points behind Ferrari and one in front of Porsche. The Championship would be decided in the only remaining race, the Tourist Trophy at Goodwood. If we won and Ferrari finished second we would have an equal number of points but we would win the Championship on a technicality because we would have won more races. To score a clear victory it would be necessary for us to win and for Ferrari to finish no higher than third. So once again our carefully laid plans were set aside and, to the detriment of the Formula 1 programme, we decided to go to the TT in full strength.
“The 1959 Tourist Trophy at Goodwood will be remembered as the occasion of the second Aston Martin fire. The first time, in 1952” – during the inaugural Nine-Hour race – “…was entirely our own fault, the result of clumsy pit work. In 1959 there were, I think, extenuating circumstances, because the refueling equipment provided by the organisers was thoroughly dangerous, consisting of ordinary gate-type valves which could all too easily be knocked on and off. I warned the organisers before the race that I considered the equipment to be lethal and threatened to withdraw the cars unless it could be changed, but my criticisms were tempered by the fact that (team manager) Reg Parnell was a member of the council of the BARC and was anxious not to cause too much trouble.”
In his excellent autobiography ‘The Certain Sound’ (published by Automobile Year SA, 1981, and today a highly-prized collector’s item), John continued: “In the event we set fire to our leading car driven by Moss and Salvadori, when it came in to be refuelled. The fire was extremely spectacular while it lasted and there was a good deal of confusion, but with exemplary coolness Reg Parnell brought in our second car driven by Shelby and Fairman and put Moss into it to finish the race, which he won by over a lap. The first Ferrari finished third behind a Porsche, so we also had our clear victory in the Championship.
The Shelby/Fairman car which Stirling Moss took over after his own No. 1 car had been burned is seen here at its final refuelling stop - with the fire-ravaged pits self-evident - the contentious refuelling hose and its stop-cock handle can be seen clearly here.
“Helped again by the genius of Moss, we had recovered from disaster and come back almost like Phoenix from the flames but as I was to say later in a much-quoted aside ‘There must be some way of winning at Goodwood without setting fire to the place!’”
Back in the 1952 9-Hour race the inferno then had been caused by an oil sealer failure in the final-drive unit in the slab-bodied 3-litre works team Aston Martin DB3 roadster, being co-driven by Reg Parnell and Eric Thompson.
“The oil which escaped ran into the undertray where it became incandescent. We saw a thin film of smoke from the back of the car and when it came into the pits we examined the problem while the car was being refuelled. Unfortunately, the mechanic who was doing the refueling spilt several gallons of fuel into the undertray where it was immediately flashed by the smouldering oil. The whole car seemed to explode in an enormous whoosh of flame.
“When this happened I was bending over the final drive unit so I received the full blast. I must have put both hands over my face because the imprint of my fingers was clearly visible between the burns and all the skin was removed from the back of my hands. I ran out of the flames, completely blind, and bumped into John Bolster [Technical Editor of ‘Autosport’ magazine and himself a former racing driver] who led me to an ambulance. After some considerable delay, because the ambulance had to drive across the track while the race continued, I was removed to Chichester Hospital with two mechanics, Jack Sopp and Fred Lown… After all this we fluked a lucky win…”
In the case of the 1959 TT pit fire, driver Roy Salvadori told how: “petrol poured over the car and myself and in a moment we were ablaze. I leapt straight over the bonnet, kicking mechanic John King on the head as he was changing a front wheel – that was the first he knew of the fire! I found myself on the thin strip of grass dividing the pit road from the track and just rolled over and over, trying to put out the flames. Then a St John’s Ambulance man rushed up and wrapped his coat round me, dousing the fire except for my right hand. He wrapped his cap round that, and I was ‘out’…”
The re-fueller himself, Aston Martin competitions department test engineer Brian Clayton recalled: “I don’t really know what I was doing there… but Reg was on the Race Committee, or something, and he persuaded the organisers to allow four mechanics and a re-fueller to work on the car during pit stops. We were also using compressed-air jacks for the first time.
Just for once it wasn’t Ferrari who had “a Chinese fire-drill” pit-stop - this is Tony Brooks’s works Testa Rossa being fuelled just fine – see the big stop-cock handle on the filler hose… John Bolster in deer stalker, background, and the narrow grass divider strip on which Roy Salvadori landed to the right...
“Very shortly before the start, Reg said to me, ‘We need somebody to do the refueling. Will you do it?’. I agreed, and tried each fuel hose. They didn’t have a ‘dead man’s handle’, just a lever that turned on and off. The lever on one hose was nice and free and the others were quite tight, so I took the one with the easier action. The fuel hose was pretty rigid and quite heavy, with a heavy metal spout and lever. So I had this under my right arm, and a di-stick in the fingers of the same hand (Reg wanted to know how much fuel had been used between each stop), leaving the other hand free to open the flap covering the filler-cap. I then had to open the cap, dip the tank, put the spout in and fill it.
“Whenever our cars came in, just before the driver got out, there was always a small blow-back of flame through the exhaust. This time, when Roy came in to hand over to Stirling, I rushed forward to start my procedure and, as I did so, somehow the lever got knocked on – I still don’t know how. The first thing I saw, as I was fumbling with the body-flap over the filler cap, was a flicker of flame running down the back of the car, between the headrest and the wheel arch. I thought, ‘That shouldn’t be there!’. I was staggered, then suddenly it went ‘Whoof’ and, I must admit, I just dropped everything and ran. Then I realised that petrol was still gushing out, so I pulled the hose towards me, turned off the tap and laid it out of the way. For this race we had reverted back to the side exhaust and it was obvious that fuel from the open tap had coincided with the exhaust blow-back…
“Later, I went back to the pits and Reg Parnell and (company owner) David Brown were standing on the grass strip separating the pits from the track. Reg swore at me ‘You stupid so-and-so!’ in front of everybody and I felt terrible. I was very upset about that remark… After the race I walked up to John, a little bit in fear and trembling, and said, ‘I’m very sorry Mr Wyer but what can I say?’
“‘Nothing’, he said, “I’ve forgotten it, now you forget it!’”.
Hard-nosed, you see, just flat, unemotionally, realistic. That’s The Real Racer’s way…