Leinster Leader 25/9/1976
Naas driver bids for big-time motor sport
By John Lynch
Michael Roe, the 21 year-old motor racing star, who is having his most successful season to date, has his sights set on becoming a world-class race driver. Next spring he will be going to England to pursue his career on the racing circuits there.
Michael, son of Veterinary surgeon Michael Roe and Mrs. Rose Roe, Sallins road, won his last three races in convincing fashion at the Mondello track and will be competing in his first big – time race, a grand prix on the international Silverstone track in England on October 2nd.
Cars and racing are Michael’s life. He is working at a local tyre centre to enable him to have enough money to keep on racing. Fair-haired Michael, whom I spoke to last week, has been interested in cars for as long as he can remember. When Mondello Park opened in 1968 it gave young Michael the chance to indulge his fantasies.
“I went to every meeting there as a non-competitor up to 1972 when I built a grass-track car with a Volkswagen engine. In 1973 I won the Munster championship. I gave up grass-track racing because it became too expensive driving around to meetings which were held all over the country. Last season I saved up enough money to buy a Formula Ford car. This year I was offered a works deal by the Royale factory which supplied a car at cost price. The Aldon firm supplied the engine free but I have to return it at the end of the season”
He wants to follow in the footsteps of Irish racing driver John Watson who is now driving in the world’s premier racing league – the formula one. “He won the same trophy – the Dunboyne cup – which I won at Mondello last Sunday week. That was ten years ago when he was starting out in Ireland. There’s really no future here for a driver who wants to race full-time. There is only the Mondello track and a couple of circuits up the north where it is not really safe to go now”.
He has no illusions about being successful in England. He competed in four races there last year and won one. “I want to go to see if I am good enough for the big-time. I want to make racing my career. There are over 60 races in the two championships there during the season; so I should have plenty of opportunity to find out how good I am”. But if he does not make the grade, he intends to retire from racing altogether.
“I would never take it up as a hobby or a past-time: it’s much too expensive to be involved in it at that level”, he says firmly. However, if he is successful in his first English season, he reckons that it will be five years before he can dice into formula one racing – into the big-time and into the big money.
Motor racing is generally regarded as a rich-man’s sport. That, says Michael, is true to a certain extent. “Anyone starting racing would need a lot of money, but once you get to know the ropes it is not so expensive. The increased price of petrol has not deterred so many from racing
You only use £1 worth of petrol on the track. The expense is incurred if, unlike me, one has to travel a long distance to a meeting”.
Nevertheless a racing car in the Formula Ford class would cost – complete with engine- around £4,200, although much of that can be recovered by selling the car at the end of the season. Then there is the cost of maintenance and repairs – a new set of tyres is needed after every three races.
Competitive racing for a season Michael estimates, would cost £12,000 in England and £5,000 here without sponsorship.
Competitors at Michael’s grade are not so much worried about the dangers of the sport (if they were they would probably not be involved) as the cost of repairs if they crash. “If one races like I do – out to win every race – one always finishes in the first four. It is there that the risk of collision is most dangerous as the cars are so close together. Every 3 or 4 races one gets a bit of a shunt and a broken front corner can cost £300 to replace”, he explains.
At this stage in his career Michael has to be mechanically skilled – largely to enable him to carry out his own repairs – thus saving money and because he has to take a job in England on the mechanical side to earn enough to continue racing.
The deal that I am working out is that I’ll be working in a racing car factory. When I’m not racing I’ll be working on my own car and when finished I’ll be working on customer’s cars. It’s the only way I can keep racing. As well, over there I can get spares at reduced prices from the factories and keep up with all the developments in racing cars”.
He has had a couple of “spills” while racing – the worst being at Kirkwood track up north when he was bruised and the car badly damaged. Only a few weeks ago he was unhurt in a collision at Aintree.
Racing at his present grade is not considered dangerous. Although a lot of people have been injured, only one has died in Britain or Ireland. Mondello he regards as being very safe with plenty of grass on top to stop a car if it goes off the track. But the English tracks wee more dangerous as an out-of-control car would hit the safety barrier protecting spectators.
How did his family feel about his involvement in such a potentially dangerous sport?
“Well my father did not mind – being interested in it himself – but my mother opposed it at first. Now she does not mind so much and the family come along to most of my races”.
His brother James helps out with pit signs at races. Even if there had been total family opposition he would have continued his career because he feels motor-racing is in his blood. “It’s the only thing I want to do” he asserts.
Winning for Michael is the real incentive in the sport. “”One could be involved in a less expensive way by being content to race and remain down the field where the risk of collision is minimal. But I am out to win. Besides that, I like the speed”. His fastest speed has been 145 miles per hour at the Phoenix Park. At Mondello he does about 110 m.p.h on the straight and says an average race speed is 76 m.p.h
“It is not so dangerous because the cars, which are built for those speeds, are thoroughly checked out. It’s safer in a way than driving on the road. We’re all going in the same direction, and one does not have to look out for lorries or cars sneaking across junctions”. It would make one a safer driver on the public roads although Michael has no ordinary car of his own as he sold it to continue racing.
He travels to meetings in a converted coach which carries two racing cars and he and the crew live in a section of the coach. The money in racing is improving here – about £100 for winners – and is probably better than for the same racing in England. But he does not see himself earning any kind of a living completely from driving unless he breaks into formula one.
He has the example of John Watson, who he reckons earns £200,000 a year from racing alone, to follow. As well, 3 Irish drivers went over to England this season where they are sweeping the boards in their class. He has no doubt that given the breaks he can do better. “I hope to move into formula three racing after a while and that’s next to the formula one grade”.
There were 10-12 top drivers in his present grade in England and 4-5 in Ireland. About 25 drivers were in the top world league.
He admits it will be a tough struggle needing total dedication to get anywhere near the top in the racing world. But he has that quality. He works on his car every night. His work keeps him physically fit: for a week before a race he gets plenty of sleep to make him mentally alert, “I win here simply because I put in the effort”, he says. He often goes to a track the night before a race to “get the feel of it”.
Racing at the top ironically does not require the detailed mechanical knowledge of the racing-car that he of necessity has to have now. “The top driver just drives to win and nothing else. Normal racing careers at that level come to an end at about 35 but they could come a lot earlier if the driver is not consistently successful. There are hundreds of drivers just waiting to take a top driver’s place. The pressure for winning comes from the sponsors to the makers, who in turn put the squeeze on the driver”.
What tends to make the sport a rich mans hobby in Ireland is the lack of total sponsorship. Michael says that is because few races are televised. As well, there are not enough spectators at events to justify a firm spending so much money. All one can get is partial sponsorship: he was sponsored by a local draper for his race at the Phoenix Park on September 18th.
Most of those involved in Ireland are working at the motor trade. “They are mostly mechanics and panel-beaters who can carry out their own repairs and maintenance. There are a few rich people involved but they usually don’t do any good as they mostly are content merely to compete. About 50% of the drivers of Formula Fords (so called because they have a Ford Mexico engine of 1600cc, developing about 106 brake horse power) are from the North, and about 30% of the remainder from Dublin. Michael has been in the first four in every race he has contested and in the 14 he took part in the Formula Ford grade since last season he has won 7. He acknowledges his success this season is due in great measure to his partnership with John Murphy of the Mondello Racing Drivers School. John is the agent for Royale cars in Ireland and ensured that Michael got the model which has brought him to the top in Irish racing. He helps him look after the car – an RP21 – and after the Aintree crash both of them rebuilt the car in time for the following week’s Mondello meeting.
With such a total commitment to motor-car racing, Michael is certain to go far in the sport. If he does no reach the top it will not be for want of trying. He is certainly a name to look out for on the English tracks. One hopes that his dream of competing in the world’s top-class events will come true, bringing honour both to Michael and his native town.