Certain products and brands are intrinsically linked with motorsport, the blue and orange livery of Gulf sponsored machinery for example, or the big money heyday of tobacco sponsorship. The tobacco brands are of course all gone, but we are still familiar with the colours and logos of alcohol companies emblazoned across the sides of some of our favourite racing cars. Whilst drinking and driving are not recommended bedfellows via the respected ‘drink responsibly’ programme, the relationship of alcohol brands involvement with motorsport of all varieties stretches back possibly even further than the cigarette manufacturers. With the upcoming Scottish Malts on the horizon, it seemed a good time to examine the links of whiskey and our sport.
No doubt one of the most famous associations with motor racing is Martini, probably seconded by Champagne – especially since Dan Gurney decided to drench Henry Ford II and his new bride with the stuff at the ’67 Le Mans. Whiskey’s association though is probably less well known, although it’s always been there. In fact, NASCAR has its routes firmly rooted in the high proof moonshine of the prohibition era. ‘There ain’t nothin’ stock about a stock car’ of course, but these modified machines first came about when bootleggers would alter their cars to make them faster so as to better evade police, and later the revenuers to distribute their illicit liquid. But towards the end of the 40’s organised races began to be held in the Southern US, and would eventually attract the attention of William France Sr. He sussed out that the masses might enjoy watching these modified cars race, and sought to bring the machines to Daytona Beach, talks which ultimately led to the foundation of NASCAR in 1948.
Of course, to mention American Moonshine, indeed American whiskey, in the same sentence as Scotch is blasphemous in the extreme, “we’ll nay have any of that rye pxsh here”! Indeed, there is still a special cell in Peterhead Prison for anyone caught with bourbon over the border. Thank fully for those who demand a dram of the proper stuff, Scotch whiskey has also had a great history with motorsport. Johnnie Walker, the official whiskey of F1, had their famous logo appear on McLaren’s machines after the ban on tobacco sponsorship and former McLaren driver and proud Scot, David Coulthard, has even worked with Highland Park to create two single malts sold for charity.
Various other brands have been involved with motorsports top table as well, but the Johnnie Walker story is probably the one that goes back the furthest and is certainly the most hands on, with Johnnie’s great-grandson, Rob Walker, being involved in more than just a marketing deal. His father was heir to part of the Walker fortune, although the company itself would become part of The Distillers Company in 1925 and never pass into Roberts hands, his father dying four years before that at the tender age of just 32. Rob though, after witnessing his first motor race as a child only ever had eyes for cars and racing. He acquired his first car, a bullnose Morris at the age of 10, that he would drive in the grounds of the family home. Some years later, and already into the 20’s on the number of cars he had owned, Walker bought a Type 135 Delahaye that he would make his racing debut with at Brooklands and later race at the 1939 Le Mans and finish 8th overall, despite burning his feet for the majority of the race on exhaust gasses that were released into the cockpit by a leaking gasket.
After a stint as a pilot in the Fleet Air Arm during the war (despite being banned from flying after some ‘antics’ in a Tiger Moth some years previously), Walker would get back to racing, although this time as a team manager. He would become involved in single seater racing and Formula 1 and would run some of the most famous drivers not just of a generation, but that ever graced the sport, including Peter Collins, Tony Brooks and Stirling Moss. The latter would help Walker achieve his first Grand Prix win at the Argentine G.P. in 1958, when Moss drove the whole race without a tyre change. It was not just the first win for Walkers team, but also the first win for the Cooper car they were using, a similar feat was achieved in a Lotus in 1960, in a Monaco Grand Prix that became the stuff of legend.
Moss was always extremely effusive about going racing for Walker, and the two famously only ever did things over a gentleman’s handshake. Indeed, Walker listed his profession on his passport as “Gentleman” and it was in the playground of ‘gentlemen’ that Moss delivered victory in the Monaco Grand Prix for Walker in an underpowered, out-dated Lotus, despite being pushed hard by the likes of Jim Clark and Phil Hill in the shark nose Ferrari for three hours. In 1962 the Walker team had been in line to run Stirling Moss in a Ferrari, an unheard-of deal and an incredible surrendering of control by Enzo Ferrari. Sadly, after Moss had his Goodwood accident it was not to be, although Walker continued with motor racing for several more years and still running some of the top talents, including Graham Hill. Success included winning the 1968 British Grand Prix with Jo Siffert at the wheel. Eventually as Grand Prix racing became more expensive, the pesky ‘garagistas’ as Ferrari had once dubbed them were struggling, and Walkers team would merge with John Surtees outfit where they would run another bike racing world champion in Mike Hailwood. Sadly Rob Walker would walk away from the team when his contract expired in 1974, after an astonishing and varied a career in the sport as could be hoped for.
Walker died in 2002, and three years later his family name would be involved in motorsport once again. As surely as water flows through the peat and the glens in bonnie Scotland, time moves on and new associations and adventures begin. Walkers story is truly a remarkable one, but who knows what wheels could be put into motion over the sinking of a wee dram in early September this year when we thread our own way responsibly around the casks of Scotland.