We are sad to report that another great racing driver has passed away. Vic Elford, often referred to as ‘Quick Vic’, died on March 13 at the age of 86 after a bravely fought battle with cancer.
Vic didn’t come from a motorsport background. He was born and raised in London where his parents ran a modest working men’s cafe. As a youngster he had very little money so he wasn’t able to enter motorsport until he was 26, and then as a rally navigator because he couldn’t afford a car of his own.
But once he got behind the steering wheel, he was a demon and proved to be an incredibly versatile driver. He was one of a rare breed that could jump into any car, drive it to its maximum from the word go and often win. He was soon rallying works Porsche 911s and won the 1967 European Rally Championship. Porsche then gave him the opportunity to race their mighty sports racers which only the best and bravest drivers could master.
As an example of his versatility, in 1968 he won the arduous Monte Carlo Rally in a Porsche 911, giving the German manufacturer their first victory on the event. A week later he won the 24 Hours of Daytona in a Porsche 907, their first win in a 24-hour race. He then won the fast and dangerous Targa Florio road race in another 907 and in his first ever Formula 1 race came 4th in the French Grand Prix in a Cooper-BRM behind maestros Ickx, Surtees and Stewart.
He went on to win the Nurburgring 1000km three times, the Sebring 12 Hours and finished first in class twice in the Le Mans 24 Hours. One of the reasons he did so well on the long road race circuits was, as he told me in a generous and interesting interview in 2006: “I put in the homework and I’ve got a pretty photographic memory for roads. I remember things very well. When I was practising for the Targa Florio I would describe the roads to myself in rally pace note terms. Then because of my memory, when I was driving I would be reading these imaginary pace notes back to myself, out loud. It just came naturally without my thinking about it. But it only works if I say it out loud.”
Vic also rubbed door handles with the likes of Richard Petty, David Pearson and Lee Roy Yarbrough in NASCAR’s Daytona 500 three times. He drove Jim Hall’s Trans-Am Camaro to victory at Watkins Glen in 1970 in only his second TransAm start and took over driving duties from Jackie Stewart of Hall’s innovative and controversial Chaparral 2J ‘sucker’ Can-Am car.
This unconventional-looking beast of a car was powered by a 465cu in aluminium Chevy motor with an auxiliary 247cc two-stroke engine that drove a pair of fans that sucked the air out from under the car, sticking it to the tarmac like a limpet. Vic recalled: “I started testing down in Texas at Rattlesnake Raceway. I got quite a lot of time in it then and I did the first race at Road Atlanta where I was on pole by miles. We had a problem when the little engine broke. I did finish but I had two or three pit stops which you can’t do in Can Am. The following year, after the sucker car got banned, Jim got really pissed off and he said: ‘That’s it. I’m giving up motor racing.’ So he just stopped.”
In 1970 Vic spent three weeks after the Le Mans 24 Hour race helping out with the driving sequences in Steve McQueen’s film Le Mans. He told me: “That was great fun and Steve was a very good driver.”
Vic then witnessed tragedy at Le Mans two years later. The open-top Lola T280 of his good friend Jo Bonnier tangled with the slower Ferrari Daytona of amateur racer Florian Vetsch, flew off into the woods and Jo was killed. The Ferrari burst into flames. Vic, racing an Alfa Romeo 33, came across the scene, stopped and rushed over to the fiercely burning Ferrari to rescue the driver. He opened the door but Vetsch had already baled out, suffering burns to his hands. The episode was captured on film. Vic said: “That went on French TV. After that I was awarded the Chevalier de l’Ordre National du Mérite, which is the second highest decoration you can receive in France as a private person. It didn’t take guts at all. It didn’t occur to me. I wasn’t going to stand there and watch a guy burn to death.”
Vic quit full-time racing at the end of that season and retired altogether in 1974. He went on to manage the ATS F1 Team, moved to the US in ’84 and became involved with driver instruction. He tutored a young Juan Pablo Montoya who went on to race in F1 and NASCAR and won the Indy 500 twice. Vic spent his later years attending many historic racing events around the world including several visits to the Goodwood Festival of Speed.
Godspeed ‘Quick Vic’.