John Grant is the top man at the BRDC, with a successful historic racing career as well. Recently he tried his hand at Regularity Rallying on HERO Challenge Two, so we took the opportunity to catch up with John and chat rallying, racing and his career so far.
It’s funny how the mind responds to a crisis situation, psychologists would have us believe that we react in two ways, fight or flight, and who am I to argue. But there are examples of people that can seemingly take crisis in their stride, even in the extreme. Have these individuals developed beyond these evolutionary survival characteristics? Well, no, but for whatever reason the threshold at which a crisis develops appears to be much higher than it is for the rest of us. One such person is John Grant, Chairman of the British Racing Drivers Club and, on one occasion in 2010, passenger in a Can-Am clothed missile, careering towards the Brands Hatch Armco at 160 mph; his thoughts at the time? “Oh bugger, this is probably terminal”. Thankfully, by some miracle, this wasn’t the case, but begs the question, how did he end up here?
‘Here’, in the now, is talking to me over a coffee, our meeting convened after John, who as well as being the BRDC Chairman is an accomplished racer in his own right, recently tried his hand at Regularity rallying on the recent HERO Challenge Two event. He’s regaling me with the story of his life, where the what is often much easier to describe than the how. The how seems somewhat inconsequential though when you’ve experienced as much as John has. The Brands Hatch shunt has clearly been a pivotal moment in the tapestry that John is verbalising for me, well it would be, making peace with one’s maker before finding you’ve survived, but being trapped in a wreck that is currently on fire is bound to leave an imprint on anyone’s psyche. But whilst it may have been pivotal, it certainly wasn’t defining, but listening to John describe the incident, in his gentle tone of voice, with just a hint of his Northern Irish origins, there are some clues as to how the man who has been in his fair share of sticky spots approaches some of the more challenging aspects of life.
But to appreciate the point of arrival, we must first examine beginnings, and for John this is upon his father’s shoulders, at Dundrod, watching Stirling Moss on his own march to greatness, an inspiration then, but someone John would also get to know many years in the future. Those first exposures to motorsport awakened something within John, as it does in so many of us, and would see the boyhood passion cultivated within his school’s motor club (sans cars), which in his role as secretary he managed to arrange for a certain Paddy Hopkirk to come and talk to the members. Of course, as soon as cars came along there was some impecunious motorsport, auto tests and rallying and the like, often in his Mini Cooper daily driver, and even some experiences sitting in the navigator’s seat on the Circuit of Ireland, all of which he describes as ‘lots of fun’.
Stage Rallying would feature again in an RS2000, but further down the line, as by his own admission once John was married “that put a stop to everything”. Of course, the candour of the statement upon the page hides the humour behind it, marriage may have come along, but so had work and it was this that was demanding more and more of John’s time as he climbed the ranks at Ford, working on the financial side of things initially, but eventually moving into business strategy and ending up in the States after an opportunity to head up corporate strategy for the entire business. It was during this time that Ford completed the acquisition of Jaguar, that John describes as being ‘partly my fault’ and so being culpable he was dispatched swiftly back to Blighty to, as he puts it, “sort out the mess”.
John’s tales of Jaguar warrant an article in themselves, including being involved in the racing program in somewhat of a glory era for Jaguar at Le Mans. It was the beginning of the end of his story with Ford though, but it must be noted this was not an egregious exit, the time was just right for John and his family. The experience of fixing Jaguar may certainly have been one of the most vital in his quarter of a century or so with the American manufacturer and set John in good stead for almost everything that came next. First it was a move to Lucas, another company that required fixing and all of these experiences and successes would prove essential when John eventually picked up the BRDC mantle. Before that though, there was some racing to be done.
This return to motorsport would be on the circuits, although John did consider some rallying as well. He began racing humble Caterham’s on the UK’s circuits, as well as some endurance races on the continent including a 500 km race at Paul Ricard, which he describes as ‘a lot of time on the rev-limiter but epic fun.’ After seven years of Caterham’s John found himself moving into historic racing, which he was introduced to by Chris Aylett. The Caterham was sold and a Chevron B19 arrived, a different beast entirely but one that John very much enjoyed in the Super Sports series racing against other 2 litre cars and some CanAm machines on some of the best circuits in Europe such as the Nürburgring, Spa and Magny-Cours. John found a mentor during this time in John Burton, a man who had raced in period as a works driver for Chevron against the likes of Lauda et al, who he credits with teaching him many of the finer points of running and racing a proper racing car. Before that could happen though, and just a few short weeks after his first race in the B19, John received a call asking if he would like to share a drive in a Jaguar XJR-12 at the upcoming Silverstone Classic with Nick Rini. For many of us the step up from Caterham’s to historic prototype racing cars would doubtless have proved difficult, but to then jump into the seat of an ex works TWR 7.4 Litre Group C beast shortly afterwards is almost unimaginable, but not for John, who’s mind was more concerned with working out the financials of the situation and ultimately seized the opportunity.
Clearly though there is some ability at the wheel, and multiple trophies and a Super Sports championship win prove this fact, and I wonder if John ever thinks about what could have been? “No, not at all” he says, “there’s a big difference between being moderately quick in historic racing to having the speed to compete professionally, this is just a bit of fun.” An honest appraisal, that perhaps some would struggle to come to. After five years racing the B19 other cars and opportunities presented themselves, including some historic Formula One action in a Shadow and also a road legal Chevron B16 on the Tour Britannia. Eventually the opportunity to own the McLaren M8C Can-Am car came about, which would result in the fiery mess at Brands, a car that John describes as trying to kill him on a couple of occasions but one that he also loved driving over the years that he had it.
Through the mixture of racing and business other opportunities presented themselves to John, including being asked to take over as Chairman of the MSA, which it turned out was another mess that needed fixing, which he duly took on and succeeded at. This then offered up the chance to become an associate member of the BRDC, something that John is immensely proud of, but the involvement in this great old institution wouldn’t end there, as some years later the then chairman Stuart Rolt asked if John would consider being on the board to help with the sale of the club, shortly before Stuart himself would leave the role of chairman. “It was in a bit of mess, and they needed some help, although I was reluctant to get involved but said that if it was only for a year then ok – that was nine years ago. I also told Stuart that I was not interested in becoming chairman, I was too old and too busy elsewhere. Then a month or so later I found myself as Chairman.”
The period of the BRDC over which John has presided has seen much change, and he along with his team have transformed the fortunes of the organisation and he is justifiably proud of his time there. I ask him if with the opportunities that have come his way whether part of him just can’t help but seize them, with the escalation of the BRDC involvement being the case in point. “It’s something like that” he says, “it was just such a wonderful opportunity I couldn’t say no.” Opportunity seems to be a common theme throughout our conversation, and it seems to me that there are parallels to be drawn between John’s racing and his professional life. He agrees, stating that there was never really a plan for the racing, just to have fun and do the best that he could and that it escalated beyond his wildest dreams. His work life too is similar, and looking back at the positions held he wonders just “how did that happen?” John also subscribes to the theory that you create your own luck as well to a certain extent, and it is worth keeping in mind that some of the opportunities which he has seized would have perhaps triggered a flight response in many of us.
I am interested to know though, after such a packed working and racing life what John might consider his greatest achievement? Without hesitation he tells me “Having a happy family. We’ve three kids, four grand kids, we all get on really well and to have that after such a busy business career is a real treat.” The answer makes complete sense to me, and it is then that I notice all of the photographs and grand kids’ toys that festoon the room we are talking in. So, what then, after having such a busy career and spending time racing, does John think his kids would say about him? “I think they admire the fact that I haven’t really grown up but have worked hard and had a bit of success in tandem.”
But now then, the man with so much circuit experience and a life lived in the fast-paced world of business has switched the pit-board for a trip meter and tried his hand at regularity rallying, with a future entry on the upcoming HERO Challenge Three. “It’s an experiment” he tells me with a wry smile, “I’m not decided on it yet, I really enjoyed the Tests, but I think I need better navigation to enjoy the regularities.” A guarded review then, but this from a man I have come to learn is quite understated, but also someone that can’t seem to help but grab an opportunity and take something as far as he can take it either. I’m no betting man, but I’ve a sneaky suspicion we might see some more of John Grant, perhaps on a Per Ardua or Rally of the Tests. If that prediction does come to pass, I’ve no doubt John will line up at the start and think to himself, “how did that happen?”.