Tom Wheatcroft: Motor racing promoter who fought the sport's governing body to bring Formula 1 to Donington Park
Tuesday 10 November 2009
Frederick Bernard "Tom" Wheatcroft was an ebullient and charismatic man who loved nothing more than a good scrap, as numerous petty-minded planning officers and councillors found over the years. A successful builder born and raised in the Castle Donington area, he had his passion for motorsport ignited in the 1930s when he cycled from the family home to watch the mighty Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union "silver arrow" grand prix racers of Rudolf Caracciola, Dick Seaman, Tazio Nuvolari and Bernd Rosemeyer competing in the British Grands Prix at Donington Park.
"They hit 170mph long before they got to the end of the straights," he remembered, before guffawing with a noise like an old tractor trying to start up: "The noise and smell were sensational!"
Years later, in 1971, he lived a boyhood dream when he acquired his beloved Donington Park after buying part of the vast Donington Hall estate for £100,000. During the refurbishment there was an incident when one man who ran a business from one of the rented premises that he now owned didn't evacuate them as requested. Wheatcroft, a tank driver in his army days, had a solution.
"We bought the bulldozers up, and at five o'clock we went right from one end, right through the buildings. There were tea cans and jackets still 'anging up, and we knocked the lot down, and they were begging and praying for us to stop. They got the police and everything. There were a civil case, and that 'elped me a lot, because this fella, 'e were there without planning. The company 'e worked for made pylons, and they were in two days later moving all the steel and everything. Then I had no trouble getting all the others out. They were saying, 'Will you give me three weeks? Will you give me five weeks?' And I 'and't even thought of getting all the others out!
"So that problem didn't last long! My solicitor always tells me the pen is stronger than the bulldozer, but I have proved to him many, many times that he's wrong. I've always found that the bulldozer is stronger! If you're in the right, you do it."
Bitterness was never part of Wheatcroft's make-up, but you made an enemy of him at your peril. Every failure to achieve his other boyhood ambition to stage a grand prix simply strengthened his resolve, even when legal appeals cost up to £40,000 a time.
"I bought the circuit and had it homologated for a grand prix. Then I applied and applied and got nowhere, which was very difficult. You imagine Silverstone and Brands Hatch, they shared it and they weren't gonna let it go. So I were getting nowhere. Then after a great long fight, in 1983, they gave me a date five years in front. Then when '88 come the RAC changed their mind, but why you will never know. I would imagine it was the old pals' act. And it was the time of one circuit per country. Five times I were promised the race, and for some reason or another, it could never come."
He was a resourceful character. In the early Eighties he went to Ireland, to assess the possibility of running an Irish Grand Prix at Donington. "They said yes they'd like to run a grand prix, nay trouble. Got it all fixed up. They applied for it, and RAC MSA came up to see us and said that no way would we have two grands prix. They said, unofficially, 'We want to run one grand prix, and one grand prix only. And that's at Silverstone.' And that was when Brands Hatch had it as well, when they shared it. They said there'd never be two grands prix run in this country. I asked why and everything, then out of the blue they give John Webb the European Grand Prix. You couldn't believe that. That's when I decided to start putting the pressure on. I was going the other way after that, because that were stabbing you."
Wheatcroft finally got his race in 1993. Fittingly, the rain-spoiled event generated one of his hero Ayrton Senna's greatest drives. Tom himself demonstrated his mighty pre-war Mercedes W154, from his fabulous Donington Collection of historic racing cars that he had built up over the years and displayed in a distinctive building shaped in plan like a crankshaft. He was unconcerned even when he spun off the wet track, or that he'd had a third heart attack the previous week.
Wheatcroft will also forever be remembered as the man who nurtured the career of the up-and-coming Leicester racer Roger Williamson, and who suffered so much when the tough little fighter died at Zandvoort in late July 1973. They had been an irresistible combination in Formula 3 and Formula 2, and Wheatcroft regarded him like a son. They were on the verge of going Formula 1 together full-time for 1974.
Wheatcroft never held back when he talked to me about it for the book The Lost Generation, which covered the brief lives of Williamson and his rivals Tom Pryce and Tony Brise, who also suffered premature deaths while on the threshold of brilliant careers. In the foreword, he wrote: "I can remember where I was and exactly what I was doing on the days each tragedy took their toll. The feelings of anger and despair still haunt me. I knew Tom and Tony well, we had competed against them, joked with them and shared that motorsport camaraderie. And Roger; as each year passes and July 29th stares at me from the calendar, I still get that overwhelming feeling one gets deep inside as emotions build. They don't get any less."
He had supported Derek Bell's career, and later helped Brian Henton and Richard Morgan, but he admitted: "It weren't really fair on anyone else. Nobody could take Roger's place in my heart."
Tom Wheatcroft was a tough adversary but a fantastic, generous friend. He adored motorsport and did so much for it. His indomitable, buccaneering spirit is irreplaceable.
Frederick Bernard "Tom" Wheatcroft, motor racing promoter and builder: born 8 May 1922 Castle Donington; married 1946 Helena "Lenchen" Morgenstern (deceased; two sons, four daughters), 2004 Sheila Andrews; died Arnesby, Leicester 31 October 2009.
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