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'When I didn't die from my buddy shooting me, I knew it was time to get out'

Tommy Byrne, the greatest race car driver you’ve never heard of, tells The42 about his incredible life.

hdf Source: Crash & Burn

SILVERSTONE, 1982

IT WAS OCTOBER 1982. Unable to buy his way into the Formula One ranks, like his adversary Ayrton Senna could, Tommy Byrne had earned his shot to drive for McLaren.

He had blazed a path through motorsport’s junior ranks, winning the British Formula Ford 1980, British and European Formula Ford 2000 ’81, British Formula Three ’82 championships en route to his first shot at Formula One. It arrived just four years after starting out as a race car driver.

An unhappy spell with the uncompetitive Theodore F1 team, which was operating on a shoe-string budget, saw Byrne return to Formula 3 ranks. He won the F3 championship, which sealed a test drive for McLaren, and Byrne viewed it as his best route back to F1.

But he felt he had little chance at winning a place on the McLaren team.

It wasn’t because of speed. Byrne was fast. Faster than Michael Schumacher and Senna, claimed former F1 team boss Eddie Jordan. But Byrne had insulted McLaren chief Ron Dennis by turning down his previous offer to be a test driver. His cocky attitude also rubbed up some people the wrong way.

“I knew two months before that I wasn’t going to be signed because Ron Dennis told me,” Byrne tells The42.

“I knew that wasn’t coming. And I knew that all the other drivers were taken. So all I wanted from the test was to go super fast – which I did – and at least get a decent write up in the magazine, which I did.”

download Source: David Burke/Dot Television

Dennis didn’t even turn up to watch Byrne drive, but bringing a couple of girls along to the test drive probably didn’t help his case either.

Byrne had been out the night before with a friend, and they showed up at Silverstone with two female companions.

“I mean, she looked like a whore,” Byrne later wrote about one of the girls in his book. “She wasn’t, but she wore lots of make-up and a skirt that barely covered her arse.”

Despite all that, Byrne lapped Silverstone faster than anybody in a McLaren had ever done before. Byrne later found out that the car was tampered with to slow him down, as the team feared he might crash. A friend of his even suggested the official time was slower than those clocked on independent stop watches.

“Very few people get to make it. I’m sure if I had a different personality, if I came across not as cocky, maybe possibly I could have gotten something with McLaren. But that wasn’t the way I was.

“I got to where I got to…I had a lot of friends,” Byrne continues. “Lots and lots of friends. And again as I keep saying, you don’t get to where you got with no money without having friends.

“It’s just who I was and I just didn’t fit what Ron Dennis was looking for. He was looking for a Senna or Martin Brundle – somebody who was easier to control.”

Source: Tommy Byrne/YouTube

The call never arrived from McLaren. “Byrne fast but too cocky,” was the headline in Motoring News magazine. He realised his dreams of making F1 were over.

“I was a funny cocky. I’d just crack jokes and people ask me how good I am and everything. I was just funny.

Senna was the same way, but he was just arrogant. It was just two different ways of going through it. People may have thought I wasn’t serious because I joked around so much.

“Laughed and joked and still jumped in the car and did my job. So they were thinking, ‘well he’s not…’ But deep down, underneath…That was just my way of going along.”

How would things have turned out differently if McLaren had signed the Dundalk man?

“I’d probably be a four or five time world champion. Living in a different place. Probably not here right now.”

****

MEXICO, 1994

Byrne is standing at the bottom of the stairs after hearing gunshots from the bedroom.

His friend Ocho, “a playboy, alcoholic, manic-depressive bisexual” appears, fully naked, at the top of the stairway with a gun in his hand.

“Hey Ocho,” Byrne says. “¿Qué pasa?

Ocho points his gun at Byrne and pulls the trigger. Luckily for Byrne, he misses.

fasdfsdf Source: Crash & Burn

Two unclothed girls run down the stairs past the crazed-Mexican, screaming.

“Tommy help me, help me. He’s loco. He’s loco.”

Byrne runs to his room, locks his door and packs his bags. He never returns to Mexico.

“I knew,” he says. “I knew that I had to go. When I didn’t die from my buddy shooting me, I knew it was time to get out. I would probably have died drinking (anyway). God knows what they put in some of it.”

After a stint in America attempting to make it as an IndyCar driver, Byrne was offered a job racing in Mexico in 1991. His life quickly spiraled out of control. It was three years of mayhem as he refused to give up on his racing dream.

“It was crazy. It was just me and a bunch of crazy bastards. A lot of drinking, a lot of partying. It was at the end of that when I decided I better get my act together and get a job.

“You just go along. Every year you think, I’ve still got a chance, I’m still young enough. I can still make a bunch of money in this stuff. Because driving racecars and winning is a great way to get paid.

“It doesn’t happen that often in life. Usually it’s hard to go to work and make money. But the second best job is teaching. It’s what I do now.”

sadfsd Byrne's office in Daytona. Source: Crash & Burn

These days he leads a far more serene existence in Daytona as a race car instructor. But that doesn’t mean he’s lost his need for speed.

“I regret (that) I didn’t start mountain biking 20 years ago. That’s my new hobby. I just love it. But I’ve injured myself more in the last year than I have in racing all my life. I fell off and broke my teeth two weeks ago. Broke my finger, broke my collar bone. I do it for fitness and now I’m just going to try and go around it.

“As far as racing regrets so I can’t. I’m trying to come up with something. By the way that’s not the first time I’ve been asked that question. You’ve seen the movie. No I’ve been fine. Since I decided to start working for a living in 1994, things have been good.”

What advice would he give to a kid that raced around the track like Tommy Byrne?

“I wish I could fine one. I’m not being cocky, that really is the truth. It’s just very hard to find. I thought everybody could drive like me, they just didn’t get the chance that I got.

“And then I went to America and I started teaching, which is very hard to teach. Because I don’t think it’s that hard to drive, but to try and teach. There’s a place where you break and you turn and you gas, there’s way more to it than I realised. I just did it automatically.

“But I thought that everybody could drive like I could. It turns out they can’t and it’s hard to find a superstar. Peter Dempsey was the last great driver that I found.”

Formula One ... Ayrton Senna Tribute Michael Schumacher drives past a tribute to Ayrton Senna in 1995. Source: EMPICS Sport

Tommy Byrne did plenty of undesirable things in his life, but there was no denying his talent.

“Forget Schuey and Senna,” Eddie Jordan once said. “Tommy Byrne was the best of them all.”

Was Jordan right?

“I don’t know,” says Byrne. “He said that. Back in the day, if it was a one on one, with me, Senna and Schuemacher, yes I wouldn’t have a problem.

“I would have been there right with them. But that’s what Eddie said.”

Eight years on from the release of his incredible book, a documentary on Byrne’s life is now in cinemas. In typical Byrne fashion, he pulls no punches when he describes his feelings while watching himself on the big screen.

“No fun. It’s embarrassing. I wasn’t expecting this. I just signed up for a documentary I didn’t know it was going to go this far. So it was very hard to watch the first time with a couple of hundred people watching your life story being told. Now I just don’t watch it.”

***

Crash & Burn is in cinemas nationwide now. 

Source: WildCard Distribution/YouTube

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Kevin O'Brien

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