I lunched yesterday with Sir John Whitmore, PhD – a phenomenal racing driver from the mid-sixties and today an acclaimed lecturer and best-selling author. Sir John was famous for his drives for Alan Mann (mostly in Lotus Cortinas) but he was also a Shelby Cobra man extraordinaire. His drive in the 1965 Tourist Trophy at Oulton Park with the Alan Mann Shelby Cobra Roadster – and particularly his four-wheel-drifts through Old Hall – live in the annals of time.
For a leaking exhaust had left Sir John weak and nauseated after the first heat of that TT in early May. He spent the two-hour interval breathing through an oxygen mask. Emerging from the medical room (there were no “Centres” in those days!) John was greeted by these words from Alan Mann: “John. You’re going to win the GT class. I’ve studied your lap times from the first heat. If you hadn’t stopped for tyres and fuel you would have won it. And that’s what we’re going to do now. I’ve calculated that if you’re careful enough with the fuel and tyres, but still quick enough, you’ll run out of fuel on the last lap…” John didn’t want to drive; he still hadn’t fully recovered. He trusted Mann completely, though: and so he climbed into the left-hand seat of that Cobra and raced it with such touch and feel that he was able to run non-stop, just as Mann had predicted. In the pits, Mann faked a countdown to a pit stop that would never happen: “L10…..L5…..L1…..IN….”. John stayed out. He was having difficulty breathing; his vision was fading; but he crossed the line to win the GT class and to finish fourth overall behind the pure racing machinery driven by Denny Hulme (Sid Taylor Brabham BT8), a brilliant David Hobbs (Harold Young Lola T70) and David Piper (Ferrari 250LM). And Mann had been perfect in his predictions: the Cobra ran out of fuel on the slow-down lap and its tyres were worn to the canvas.
“That was the race of my life,” said Sir John yesterday. “If I have to look back at a day on which I was able to do something remotely heroic, this was it…” We talked about the recent passings of both Alan Mann and Carroll Shelby. And this framed picture on his office wall caught my eye. It is signed by Sir John’s colleague and friend, Jack Sears; by Sir John and Alan Mann; by the artist, Bill Neale (far right); and by Carroll Shelby. The inscription from Carroll reads: “Best Wishes and thanks, John. Your friend, Carroll Shelby”.
Sir John also showed me the helmet (below) he wore at the Targa Florio in 1965, when he drove an open (Alan Mann) Ford GT40. Unusually, the Bell Magnum carried a reversed Ford logo. “Why?” I asked. “Ah. That was an idea of a friend I met in California called Kenny Howard,” replied Sir John. “He thought it would be fun for the drivers I was about to pass to see what sort of car I was driving! He was an artist – a wonderful guy who worked in Bud Ekins’ motor-cycle shop. I met him through Steve McQueen because Bud did the stunts in the Mustang featured in ‘Bullitt’. He painted the helmet for me and then signed the back of it in the name by which we all knew him at the time – Von Dutch. He died in 1992 but I gather the brand he started has gone on to be a huge multi-national success….”