A LIFETIME IN MOTORSPORT...A DREAM FULFILLED AT DONINGTON
In April 1993, at a rain-soaked Donington Park, one man stood proudly on the podium alongside Ayrton Senna, Damon Hill and Alain Prost. With a broad smile and waving his top hat to the crowd, his sheer delight and pride was clear for all to see.
That man was Tom Wheatcroft, the man who saved Donington Park and ensured that it continued in its role as the one active UK circuit in the 21st century with a history dating back to 1931. And that landmark day in Donington's history was just a part of his remarkable story.
When he hitched a pillion ride on his first trip to Donington Park as a 13 year old lad, little could he have imagined that it marked the start of a lifelong obsession with the world of motorsport, culminating in him acquiring the circuit almost forty years later.
Speaking in February 2008, he said, "I'd heard a bit about Donington, so when I got the chance to go, I couldn't resist. I lived with my parents in Knighton on the outskirts of Leicester at the time and I'd been helping a chap with some plastering work. One day in 1935 he suggested we go to one of the meetings at Donington and he offered me a lift on the back of his AJS. Unfortunately we never got there. He took a corner too fast and we hit the kerb and ended up in hospital! We were knocked about a bit but not badly hurt. I didn't let that put me off though. The next opportunity later that year was the Donington Grand Prix. I went on my pushbike and arrived safely, all in one piece!"
Racing at Donington Park had started in 1931 with meetings for motorcycles, and the pioneers who brought racing to the cinder tracks around Donington Hall were Alderman John Gillies Shields JP and Fred Craner of the Derby and District Motor Club.
Such was the success of these meetings that the circuit was improved and extended and in 1933 the first car race was held there. Tom's first visit was the Donington Grand Prix of 1935, won by Richard Shuttleworth's Alfa Romeo.
"It was quite a distance on my bike from home to Donington...about twenty miles. But it didn't seem far then and I made the trip many times. I'd really caught the Donington bug. Donington was a magical place...the sounds, the aroma of Castrol "R", the incredible Grands Prix when the Auto Union and Mercedes-Benz teams came over in 1937 and 1938. I'd never seen anything like it!"
Donington Park was taken over by the War Office in 1939 and became the biggest military vehicle depot in Europe, the track now lined with hundreds of army trucks.
Tom served his time in Iraq, India, North Africa, Holland and Germany and at the end of the war rapidly advanced from his pre-war status as a plasterer to take advantage of the post-war building boom, constructing thousands of houses, hotels, office blocks and factories in the Leicester area.
Then, one Sunday afternoon in 1971...
"My son Kevin and I were enjoying a drive out in the country when we came across the Donington circuit, now derelict and overgrown...there were even a few army vehicles still there. The gate was ajar so we drove round the circuit. I came across Major John Gillies Shields, grandson of Alderman John Gillies Shields J.P., who owned Donington Hall when the track first opened.
A few days later we met again at the Donington Park Farmhouse Hotel (now run by the Major's son, John). We couldn't agree on the price so I said, "Toss up for it". We did. We used a two bob piece. I lost. But I'd got what I wanted.
The deal was done and Donington Park was mine. About six years later, in 1977, racing was back. It was worth all the effort to hear the sound of racing engines at Donington for the first time since I saw - and heard - Nuvolari win the Grand Prix there 39 years earlier!"
But Tom's involvement in motorsport didn't just involve Donington Park itself. In the late 1960s and early 1970s he ran a successful racing team under the Wheatcroft banner with drivers such as Derek Bell, who was to go on to become a multi-winner at Le Mans.
Tom's brilliant protege was Leicester-born Roger Williamson, who swept all before him in F3 and F2 Championships and he was on the brink of greatness in F1, having tested for BRM. Roger's tragic death in the 1973 Dutch Grand Prix, only his second race for the Wheatcroft Racing F1 team, hit Tom very hard. The pair had been extremely close.
But Tom's dogged determination and enthusiasm, which had seen him rise from apprentice plasterer to millionaire businessman and circuit owner, saw him through those difficult times. In 1973 he opened his amazing Donington Grand Prix Collection to the public, a world class attraction which went on to become the largest collection of Grand Prix cars on the planet.
In 1993 Tom realised his ambition and staged a World Championship event at the circuit, the European Grand Prix, a race won by Ayrton Senna in appalling weather conditions and one which has gone down in motor sport folklore as one of the most amazing Grands Prix ever held. It was then that this proud man stood alongside some of the greatest drivers in Grand Prix history.
But above all, Tom was just an ordinary bloke, a true enthusiast who loved the sport and showed it through his laughter, a distinctive loud bellow which almost drowned the sound of his all time favourite car, the BRM V16. He enjoyed motorsport so much and he wanted everyone else to enjoy it with him.
Donington has again experienced some difficulties in recent times but in an uncanny repeat of history, it is Tom's son Kevin who has saved the circuit from dereliction and possible extinction and it now echoes to the sound of racing engines once more...what a tribute to one of British motorsport's most iconic figures.
Tom Wheatcroft...it is now time for us to raise our hats to you.
Words: John Bailie
A limited number of copies of Tom's much acclaimed autobiography, "Thunder in the Park", are available from the Donington Grand Prix Collection. Each copy is signed by Tom and numbered.
Published by Live Wire Books. ISBN 0-9542860-5-7
(Click image above)