MMR Blog

Sandy on Assignment:
Conversations with Vic Elford

Posted on September 22, 2012 Comments (1)

Last April, clutching my Amelia Island program with the dreamy race car driver on the cover, I hung onto every word at the Great Endurance Drivers seminar. In August, at the RM auction in Monterey, I was blown away at the $10M hammer price for the Le Mans’ camera car, the Ford GT40 Gulf racing car, used for the high-speed close-up action driving in Steve McQueen’s epic racing film. The other day, I came across the Porsche High Performance Driving School brochure and added it to my bucket list.

Vic Elford

When the call came from Miss Amy inviting me to the Porsche Club’s Concours at Larz Anderson and dinner with the guest speaker, I was honored. When she said it was Vic Elford, I was ecstatic. It was a young Vic Elford on the program cover being honored at Amelia this year. It was Vic driving the camera car and it was Vic who started the Porsche High Performance Driving School. I was about to be treated to an experience of a lifetime…conversations with Vic Elford.

It’s easy to Google someone famous like Vic Elford and get his race stats. I was curious to learn what was between the lines. What inspired him to race? Why did he start so late in life? Was his goal to race Porsches? Was racing stressful? What was the secret to his rally success? What makes a great driver? Vic was most gracious, sharing his racing career and personal life stories over his two-day visit to Boston.

“Kids today are in go-carts at six. People forget there was a war going on when I was growing up in Britain. My father was away much of the time”, related Vic, when comparing his exposure to racing and today’s generation of racecar drivers. Then his face lit up, as he shared the single event that shaped his life. In 1949, already 14, his father took him to the races at Silverstone. “I was passionate from the moment I saw the drivers racing on the track and knew that’s what I wanted to do”, recounts Vic.

Vic Elford joins Sandy Cotterman for kickoff dinner to Northeast Porsche Club weekend Boston

Despite his strong passion, Vic said he knew he needed to make a living, so he took his keen interest in math and pursued a degree in civil engineering. How he applied that analytical side shines through in all you read about his accomplished rally and race career. With a “trust me” attitude, he pushed through design changes on the cars he raced.  He capitalized on his photographic memory, giving himself an edge in strategizing both rally and track courses. During his early rally driving, he mastered dictating pace notes, rally shorthand used to document everything and anything, yard by yard, during a practice rally run…shadows, fallen limbs, curves...anything. Sounding like a Jay Leno monologue, he recounted the scene with his team navigator shouting back the notes during the rally, to the point where he could almost anticipate the course with his eyes closed!

Vic’s stories on and off the track held me spellbound. I couldn’t help but think: How stressful. When I finally asked if it was, both Vic and Amy exclaimed, in unison, “No, not at all!”  Like anything, when you know what you’re doing, you’re in control. Vic went on to share what the moments were like before a race, waiting for his turn to drive. “Some drivers liked to talk to reporters and fans, but I would go off to a corner, not even noticing a person walking by, and relax and have a smoke.”  

Vic Elford's Top Favorite 1965 Porsche 911

So why Porsches? Vic said he actually asked Porsche if he could rally with the 911 in the Tour de Corse at the very beginning of his rally career. Vic was confident in what he could do with the car. Rallying was a new experience for the 911, and driving the narrow streets in the 911 was a challenge for Vic. As for the other Porsches in his life, as the opportunities to race came, he just accepted them. I guess it’s no surprise that Vic was asked to develop the High Performance Driving School after he retired from racing and moved to the States. Quick to tell me, Vic said I would learn everything I needed to know from his Handbook, now in its second edition, when I take the course!

On the grounds of Larz Anderson that sunny afternoon, Vic Elford was walking among the Porsche Concours cars, looking for his “favorite”. Starting to dabble a little in judging myself, I was curious what criteria Vic was using. “I’ll know it when I see it. I’ll just like it”, commented Vic. When he announced his favorite over the loudspeaker, I was thrilled.  It was mine too! The shiny red 1965 911 in the back row had caught my eye. Milling around the car at the time I walked by was the owner’s daughter. I asked her to tell me about the car. She said her Dad bought it before she was born, 32 years ago, when they lived in Colorado. Originally an “awful green color”, her Dad had it painted red. The black and white plaid seats are the original design. So how many miles on the car?”, I asked.  She laughed and said, “A gazillion”. Up at the winners stand, Vic was presenting Rob Nadleman, the owner of the 911, with the poster he had commissioned by Nicholas Watts of his 1970 Le Mans victory in the 917. Before Rob could slip away, I asked him how many miles on the car. “Somewhere over 400”.  “400,000?” I asked. He nodded.

Vic presents the Nicholas Watts print of his 1970 LeMans victory

So what does it take to be a great racecar driver? Balance in the control of the car and excellent eyesight, per Vic. I knew it, at least on the eyesight. There’s hope for me yet!  Vic headed back home to Florida the day after the Concours. I hope I can tell him I checked another item off my “bucket list” and have read his Handbook, cover to cover, the next time we meet. 

Sandy Cotterman
Motorsports Enthusiast