Birmingham is at the very heart of the midlands, a sprawling mass of old industry and new chic, where different cultures collide, dappling the steel and concrete bedrock with a mix of communities, ideas and endeavours that have shaped much of what makes Britain what it is. It’s been the heart of industry, music, car and motorcycle production and its streets have even provided a circuit for motor racing. These roads, and the railways and canals, that have bought Birmingham’s exports to the world wind tightly around the metropolis, and the thing about roads is that if you’re the type of person to head down one, you’ll likely head down another and another. Life’s a bit like that, a perpetual journey of different roads, and if you’re prepared to take a risk and turn down the new ones offered up, you’ve no idea where they might take you.
One pair of Brum exports many of us will be familiar with are Su and Ian Butcher, and roads, whether literal or metaphoric have played a big part in their lives together as I would find out when I caught up with them in January. I know them as the consummate double act, always together on event and always seemingly involved in different jobs. Like all great partnerships each is the ying to the others yang; Ian is always quick with a story or a recollection and Su is the quieter of the two, and whilst more economical with the chatter than Ian, is certainly productive when a line is delivered, which during the course of our interview was often to correct Mr Butcher!
The journey with motorsport begins before they were together though, certainly for Su, who was fascinated with the Le Mans 24 Hours growing up and achieved a life long dream of visiting the famous Circuit de la Sarthe and riding the iconic Ferris wheel during the race to celebrate her retirement from teaching, a race that Ian fondly remembers as being in the diesel era and a stark contrast to the Formula One cars that they have also both enjoyed watching over the years. Ian’s path to motorsport was taken a little later than Su’s and didn’t begin until the age at which his gang of friends began getting into cars. One friend in particular was responsible for Ian’s transformation into a petrol head, an American chap whose father was working in the UK temporarily. He took Ian and Su to the 1971 Grand Prix at Silverstone, a eureka moment for Ian and the beginning of an extended stay in the UK for his friend, who had received his Vietnam call up papers. His father never did take the family back to the states.
The following year Roger Clarke won the RAC rally and rallying was thrown into the media spotlight and a lifelong love would begin for Ian, and continue for Su who had already experienced a road rally on Epynt whilst at college, she describes the moment that Will Sparrow rolled a Mini in front of her as being pivotal in her love of the sport! It’s fair to say they both had the bug and visited all sorts of events, and were even season ticket holders at the Mallory Park circuit, at that time a much bigger concern than it is these days. The same American friend had taken them to Chequers Motor Club where they were further educated in the ways of rallying, PCT and Autocross, and where they would also meet a chap called Mike Adams. In 1973 the couple were married and somewhere around 1975, along with Mike, Joined Quinton Motor Club where they would gain even more experience with Marshalling and event organisation, but time behind the wheel also beckoned.
“My competition ‘career’ started in 1976 when Mike Adams and I bought a fully prepared Lotus Cortina from a mate of Bill Skermer” Ian tells me. “We did night rallies, autocrosses, sprints and anything else that took our fancy, sharing navigating and driving equally. In 1980 Bill Davies (the D of D&W Tyres) offered us sponsorship so with the help of Olly Bayliss a Mk2 Escort (ex-police panda car) was combined with the bits from the Lotus Cortina to produce a Mk2 Escort Twin Cam.”
Ian would have some success as well, twice becoming club champion and their stage rally champion. But, as with all good things, they must end and in 1983 the rallying career came to an end as kids arrived for Su and Ian and any spare cash for rally driving was quickly hoovered up by the next generation! It wouldn’t be the end of competition though, with Ian grabbing the opportunity to become a co-driver instead, first off in the Lada Challenge with Ken Benefield at the controls. This led to national and international competition, taking a class award in the International Welsh Rally and winning the Lada Challenge as well. Many passenger seats were graced during the late 80’s and early 90’s, including a memorable partnership with Ricky Evans competing in the Peugeot Challenge that opened up closed roads stage rallying on the continent that Ian refers to as “an unforgettable experience, mainly because in trying to keep up with Richard Burns, we kept going off”. Perhaps the pinnacle of the co-driving experience was achieved in 95, when, in a Group A car that Ricky had built, the pair retained their BTRDA Gold Star Championship, that they had first won the year before. Again, Ian tells the story better than I could, “We won in ’94 but didn’t feel we had shown our true speed, so in ’95 we drove flat out on all the events, won the first 7 and retained the title on the Quinton Stages, which gave me a real buzz.”
It wasn’t only Ian living out his passions during this time, Su was involved with the sport in almost every other way and through following Ian around the various events could be found marshalling, servicing or spectating and would hold much more senior clerical roles as well. “I was event secretary for what would become the Nicky Grist stages for 13 years from 1980 and would reprise the role in 2008” she tells me, with some pride. There is more as well, time spent as the event secretary on the Acropolis Rally, ten years as editor of the ‘Full o’ Chat’ magazine and goodness knows how many typewriter written letters of correspondence produced, all whilst working as a special needs teacher and whilst Ian built his career as a quantity surveyor.
It’s a vast CV for them both, and with the depth of experiences built up in professional and during their extracurricular activities it is no real surprise that they were well suited to the work that they both do for HERO, when that path presented itself to them. “That happened at Race Retro” says Su, “We walked past the stand and were asked if we had a car, to which we replied ‘no, we go marshalling.’” Before they could say regularity, they were helping out on the 2009 Summer Trial, and whilst they had gained some experience with the historic sector of the sport before, thanks to their daughters involvement with the Tour of Cheshire (a chip off the proverbial!). This was followed by the first Throckmorton Challenge in 2010, an event that will be remembered through gritted teeth by those on the organising team, but you’ll have to ask them about the finer details of that! It did offer them both the opportunity to draw on their years of experience though to get the event through a bit of a sticky wicket, and demonstrate to all involved what a valuable asset they both are.
From here on in the story with HERO gathers pace, and retirement for both allowed them to be more and more involved in something that they both love. “We really enjoy the people” they both tell me, and have been able to visit places they had only ever dreamed of, including being at the hands of the 48-hour car during last years New Zealand Classic, which was a very different experience than that of manning controls. “We loved it” says Ian, “we met so many people and learned so much about New Zealand that we otherwise wouldn’t have done.”
The HERO chapter is of course one we are all familiar with though, for all of us reading this we might imagine that neither is ever not clad in the orange livery of the motorsport marshal, so what else do they like to fill their time with? There is a big clue that I can see on the shelves behind them during our Zoom call, a row of ordinance survey maps and sure enough walking is a pursuit that they both love. “We also have a Porsche Boxster” says Su, “It was either that or a classic car and we chose that.” So, any chance of a return to competition, perhaps even together? “No chance” says Ian, “we would argue too much!”. This comment is of course to be taken in much jest, and is illustrated on more than one occasion as we chat as faux disagreements about the dates of this and that perpetuate our conversation. It’s a true sign of a successful partnership, who have taken the opportunities that life has provided with much enthusiasm and, with their positive attitude no doubt engineered their own opportunities along the way.
There is simply far too much to commit to type on these pages, as evidenced by the 20-page motorsport CV that Ian sent me to help with my research for this piece, save it for the book Ian! I would heartily recommend seeking out the company of both of them next time you have the opportunity on an event though, it will be half an hour well spent. That is if you can find them outside of their natural habitat, out on the road.