Drivers Slash International Speed Records at Monza: May 1966
Autodromo Nazionale Monza
Five drivers: Nine international records
Ford Motor Company's decision.
In 1966, Ford Motor Company (in the United Kingdom) had a major problem. Their car dealerships were full of Zephyr / Zodiacs - a car based on the American Ford Fairlane - and they just wouldn't sell.
Ford main dealer and experienced rally driver Eric Jackson knew exactly why this was and he had no hesitation in explaining the problem to Ford. He said:
"It was far too big for our customers' garages and really, it just wasn't a very good car."
The Ford publicity team certainly had a challenge on their hands. The now legendary Walter Hayes, Ford's public relations executive, consulted his best men and eventually a plan was developed to attempt to beat the seven day- seven night driving record.
Jimmy Hill at Castrol was the instigator of this idea explaining that a team of drivers would keep a single car on a racetrack for a week, driving round the clock. As he said casually:
"We have to beat one hundred miles an hour for seven days and seven nights".
'Oh, is that all?' the five drivers no doubt muttered.
Meet the drivers
John Beckhart, Michael Bowler, Ken Chambers, Eric Jackson and John Maclean were the chosen drivers. All were experienced in racing and rallying. What they didn't have though, was extensive experience of the highly dangerous, banked Monza circuit.
The old Monza circuit
A banked oval
Anyone who watches Formula One these days is familiar with the Monza circuit but it was certainly a very different place in 1966.
The track had been built originally in the nineteen twenties but had been revamped in 1954 - twelve years before the Ford record-breaking attempt took place.
During the fifties, there were concerns that flat-out racing on the high-banked oval was far too dangerous and many drivers and top teams simply refused to race there.
There had been many deaths at the circuit. In fact, in the year just before the Ford attempt, two drivers had been killed there in separate accidents. The great Alberto Ascari had lost his life there some years previously.
The 1961 Italian Grand Prix, just a few years prior to the Ford assault on the record, sixteen people - one driver and fifteen spectators - had been killed. That was the very last time that Formula One used the steep and treaturous banked circuit.
Despite the ghosts and the track's reputation, the drivers weren't concerned. Racing drivers are a strange breed. They can be incredibly superstitious but also ridiculously fearless.
I know this at first hand. Eric Jackson had a rallying and racing career which lasted for over twenty years. Because he also happens to be my dad, I'm very familiar with the racing driver psyche.
Read about all Eric Jackson's adventures as he travelled round the world.
First, repair your circuit
Eric Jackson took the standard Mark Four V6 car around the circuit for exploratory laps. The noise and banging in the car was terrific. It transpired that the circuit was in terrible condition.
Before embarking on their record-breaking attempts, the drivers had to buy cement and repair the surface themselves before they could begin.
Evaluate the dangers
The drivers were surprised to see just how high the banked sections of the track were. Monza is a highly wooded area and if a car left the track, it would fly into the treetops then plummet to the ground.
Now, deal with fog
The circuit was dangerous enough during the day. The drivers took two-hour driving stints and it was even more dangerous at night. It was even worse when one night a thick fog descended over the track. Just two drivers were affected, Jackson and Maclean.
"I can assure you that going into a banked circuit and a hundred miles an hour in a car we referred to as 'the shed' in the fog was very frightening indeed."
Even if a car left the track on the other side - the lower section of the oval or one one of the two flat straights - it would hit sturdy trees. Scroll down to see the video.
Fun and games
Fun with Agip
Eric Jackson tells about a little fun that he and another two drivers had one night. All around the grandstand at the circuit were fifty two Agip logos.(He counted them).
This logo, which has its origins in an old Italian legend, shows a six-legged black dog with a flame coming out of its mouth. When the drivers discovered paint in an old shed at the circuit, they decided to adjust the logos so that the flames were coming out of somewhere they deemed far more suitable for a racetrack - the 'exhaust'.
You can see what I mean in the collage below.
Success for Ford Motor Company
Nine international records were set during the event. The previous record holders did not even reach one hundred miles per hour (97 and 78 mph).
When Eric Jackson write his biography recently he says that he is pretty certain that the records set by the five drivers in 1966 has not been broken to this day.
He also remarks wryly that there had been two previous attempts by other teams but they had been forced to abandon their efforts due to broken suspensions on their cars. As he says:
"No-one else had thought to get stuck in and do the work to repair the circuit".
Petrol in My Blood
The autobiography of Eric Jackson
I've already mentioned that Eric Jackson is my dad so naturally I'd like to urge you to buy his fascinating autobiography.
When I tell you that the Monza story takes up only four and a half pages in this three hundred page-plus book, you'll get some idea of the many adventures and stories it contains.
As we read, his adventures take us to Africa, America and Australia. We'll go to India, Hawaii, the Congo, Afghanistan and just about everywhere in Europe. As for the people included in the book - a glance at the index reveals Winston Churchill, Jackie Stewart , Grace Kelly plus just about every racing driver you've ever heard of.
There are fantastic photographs throughout, the earliest dating from the First World War. Oh and the stories are simply brilliant.
There are funny stories, sad ones, adventurous tales and of course, some rather risqué ones too.
Find out more at Eric Jackson's website.
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- Petrol in my Blood - book review of a true story
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- London to Cape Town record
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- Petrol in My Blood
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See what the oval was like in 1966
© 2014 Jackie Jackson