Tommy Byrne: The greatest driver you never heard of

Very few sporting lives have skirted as often, or as wilfully, with drama and danger as Tommy Byrne’s.

Self-proclaimed as the greatest driver you’ve never seen, Byrne competed in an era when cigarette companies had their wares plastered all over motor racing circuits and health and safety was a fire extinguisher and a few rubber tyres along a hard bend.

Great he may have been but he learned the hard way.

Byrne offloaded his motorbike as a teenager in Dundalk, safe in the knowledge that he would be dead sooner rather than later if he didn’t. He was a panel beater who spent weekends destroying his first racing car, an old 16F Crossle.

Weekdays were for hammering it back into shape. It was no different when he made the leap across the Irish Sea to the big, bad world of British Formula Ford. A cocksure, know-nothing hothead, he must have crashed 20 times that first year and he continued to seek space where others saw none on his ascent up the ladder.

“I spent three years crashing,” he admits. “The problem is that I never really listened to anybody because I always thought: ‘hey, what do they know? I’m faster than them’. ‘Slow in, fast out, Tommy’. It was all the same old crap that they teach you.”

That he came through it all physically unscathed is an achievement in itself.

Sift through the records from the 1982 season, when Byrne juggled the demands of the Formula Three championship and a Formula One drive with Theodore, and the potential price to be paid for living life at full throttle in the early ‘80s is obvious.

Masazi Iso was competing in his home F3 race at Suzuka that March when his car spun on the first corner during practice and stopped on the grass. Iso walked away unscathed but he was hit and killed by another car. He was just 20.

Formula 1 would know disaster only a few months later.

Canada’s Gilles Villeneuve was killed in qualifying at Zolder in Belgium when his Ferrari crashed into another car, barrel-rolled and threw him out. Just over a month later and the Italian Riccardo Paletti careered into a stalled car in Montreal and burst into flames.

“I never got injured in a car,” says Byrne. “Never. Never. I crashed. I was upside down, I was up in the air, I got my head banged a couple of times and my knee but I never broke anything. It was only when I got on a bike that I started to get injured.”

It’s a decade since Byrne first turned to pedal power. People talk about a life of regrets - his lost shot at F1 and the times he came close to making the Indy circuit in the US - but up there with them is the fact that he only found mountain and road biking in his late forties.

He loves both pursuits dearly, not least for their part in holding back any middle-aged spread, but the relationships have been stormy. Byrne has chipped teeth and broken numerous bones. He’s cracked ribs and had any number of stitches.

Even an old lady ran him over one time.

He’s 58 now and coming up to a quarter of a century removed from his racing apex and his brief flirtation with Formula One and the American exile is open, honest and engaging company as he sits down with the ‘Irish Examiner’.

The documentary on his life charts the story of a man whose ability to make any car dance to his tune was matched only by a willingness to sing his own praises, a say-it-like-you-see-it personality that struck the wrong chord with far too many folk in the racing world.

Byrne states ruefully at the end of the film that the failure to kick on and secure a competitive, prolonged drive in F1 cost him “100 million dollars” but he was always up against it in a sport where drivers habitually pay to play.

He was born in 1958. “I was basically white trash,” is how he puts it. He remembers leaving work as an apprentice covered head-to-toe in grease and dirt, washing just his face with a towel and then collecting his girlfriend Caroline for a date. That’s just how it was.

He wonders now what she must have made of him rocking up for a night out with a ring of dirt around his neck but he simply didn’t know any better and that lack of grace and etiquette would act as drag as he made for the moneyed racing world of England to pursue his dreams.

Byrne hadn’t a bob to his name, he knew no-one and he partied hard. But his talent was undeniable. He blazed a trail up through the tiers of racing and was one of the two most exciting young drivers in the country at the time. The other was Ayrton Senna, a teammate for a spell at Van Diemen.

Senna was rich and urbane and fitted into the racing world like a hand a glove. Byrne lived hand-to-mouth, rode his luck, consorted with some shady characters and indulged in a playboy lifestyle away from the track.

The question remains, as one reviewer of the film has put it, whether it was Formula One’s snobbishness or Byrne’s hubris that ultimately cost him his shot at the big time and the man himself falls somewhere between the two stools when asked.

But all too often lost amid the ‘what ifs’ are the achievements.

Byrne rose from being a nobody in Irish stockcar racing to a seat in Formula One in the space of just four years. He blitzed all-comers across Formula Ford and again in Formula Three - winning the championship in the latter in 1982 despite missing a host of races to his brief F1 duties.

And nothing became him like the manner in which that F3 title was won.

Streets ahead before having his head turned by F1, Byrne reached the grid at Thruxton for the last F3 race level on points with Enrique Mansilla for the Drivers Championship, only to find himself boxed in behind Dave Scott for 13 of the 15 laps and with his Argentinian rival clear up ahead.

Scott was basically “blocking the shit” out of the Irishman - and would apologise for it belatedly on Facebook a few decades later - but Byrne eventually found the gap he needed and overtook both the Briton and Mansilla inside the last two laps to win.

It still looks sensational on YouTube.

“It was some change from a Formula One car where you are sitting in front of those big wheels outside and then go back and get into a Formula Three car with the little bicycle wheels. Half the size, quarter the horsepower.

“Nobody had ever done that before. Nobody had raced Formula One and Three in the same year and won a championship. Then I would get fed up because nobody would ever say it. Then I would have to say it myself. The difference! Pretty impressive.

Truth is he was glad to be shot of F1 at the time. The Theodore car was a box on wheels. It was all he could do to keep it on the track, never mind compete, but the team pointed the finger of blame his way and, ever the mouth, he responded in kind.

It all came to a head after the Grand Prix in Las Vegas when he had a blazing row with the team manager. True or not, Byrne claims he considered having him shot by some of his less respectable friends back in Blighty.

The only other avenue open to F1 for him after that then was a test drive for McLaren.

Ron Dennis’ team was contractually obliged to provide the gig but it emerged years later that the team mechanics had been instructed to give Byrne less than full throttle while a friend at Brands Hatch that day claimed they added a full second on to his actual lap times.

None of it mattered.

Byrne blew all comers, including Thierry Boutsen who would drive for a decade in F1, away with a stunning, record drive, but word of his antics in Las Vegas and elsewhere had already begun to corrode his sales pitch and his ambitions were left running on empty.

A year later and he would decamp for the US where his drinking and partying would reach new levels. His competitive career eventually burned out in a blaze of madness in Mexico where stories of a crazed, gun-toting team boss and prostitutes trumped any on-track exploits.

He tells great stories about his time in Mexico. Most of them are unprintable but when he looks back now at his descent from the contrails of Formula One to the abyss that was Mexican F3 he claims no bitterness.

It’s just days since news has broken that Ron Dennis has been forced to relinquish his duties at McLaren after 35 years transforming the operation into a giant of the industry.

Byrne could gloat but he doesn’t.

“I haven’t supported his team all these years because of him. Because of what he did to me. What he did to me was not giving me the proper car for the test. Maybe it wasn’t him but he went along with it. “No drive, no big deal. But why would he do something like that when it was the biggest test of my life? It’s like when Donald Trump got in. I wasn’t a Donald Trump supporter but what’s the point? You can’t fight it so Ron Dennis is out.

“Hey, the guy has half a billion dollars but he is very unhappy because he’s not the boss of McLaren anymore. I’m not going to kick him when he is down. I’m not being diplomatic, I just don’t care. Now I can watch McLaren again because I know the guy who has gone in, Zak Brown.”

Brown and Byrne worked together at the Mid-Ohio Driving school outside Lexington 20 years ago. Byrne still teaches there and gets as much of a buzz now out of that and the odd amateur race as he ever did back in the day.

It took time to flush the bitterness of the F1 chapter and the toxins of Mexico from his system - and he wasn’t helped by the collapse of his first marriage in the mid-nineties - but Florida is home now and, while he’s no millionaire, his second wife and kids want for nothing.

He’s good. The past has been digested and the publication of his memoir ‘Crashed and Byrned: The Greatest Racing Driver You Never Saw’ in 2008 has at least led to a belated appreciation of his talents and the film that opened in cinemas in Ireland and the UK yesterday.

That said the documentary and publicity tour around it haven’t been easy. One of his sons watched it and told him that he saw none of his dad’s spark in it and Byrne has found it to be a difficult watch. Some memories are clearly still raw.

“Did you ever watch yourself on the big screen? With 200 people watching it? When I seen it first, to be honest I was expecting something a little bit more upbeat and a lot of rock ‘n roll music. More of the happy things. And of course it turned out that the truth was told.

“That’s why I can’t watch the last 20 minutes of it. It’s good up until then and then it is ... just true. That’s thirtysomething years ago and I have been doing well for twenty years now so… I just thought the ending was: ‘poor Tommy, he’s dead’. And I’m not.”

Regrets or no, few lives have been so well-lived.


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