‘My plan was always to make $1m; I didn’t in the end but that’s okay’

Wild Geese: Tommy Byrne, Florida

Born en route to hospital in the back of a car, racing driver Tommy Byrne was in a hurry from the start.

"It was 1958 and my family didn't even own a car. I think it was the neighbour's car," the Dundalk native says.

“I loved cars and all things involved with them. As a child, I worked on a farm just so I could drive the tractors. When I was 15, I drove a VW Beetle across a field.”

After finishing school, Byrne studied to be a mechanic.

“But my real dream was always to move to the US and become a welder. I never thought of racing cars. It wasn’t a thing back then.”

A stint driving stock cars gave him a taste, but it was a trip to Mondello Park to drive in a single-seater racing car that changed everything.

“I spun out several times, but I knew that was what I wanted to do.”

In 1976, the year James Hunt won the Formula One World Championship, Byrne bought his first racing car – a PRS Formula Ford 1600 – and went racing at Mondello Park. Race meetings in the UK followed.

In 1978, he got his first drive as a works driver with the PRS team to race in the Formula Ford1600 championship for £25 a week and subsequently moved to Milton Keynes.

“It was the golden era. We were all banging into each other, no wings, everyone was nuts. It was the best driving I’ve ever done. Health and safety wasn’t high on the agenda.”

His early career was full of promise, and Byrne won the British FF1600 title and the British and European 2000 championships, driving in Europe at prestigious tracks including Hockenheim and the Nurburgring, competing against a soon to be household name – Ayrton Senna.

“Senna was always intense and insanely driven, I liked to have fun. We used to hang out in the place called Ed’s Cafe in Norfolk. Right beside Snetterton race track. But they were looking at Senna and they were looking at me.”

In November 1981, after winning the Marlboro World Cup – in Senna’s 1600 Formula Ford car (much to his disgust), Byrne secured a drive in the Formula Three Championship with Murray Racing the following season.

He subsequently won the Formula 3 championship and got his first Formula One drive, debuting at the British Grand Prix in 1982 for Theodore racing.

But his F1 dream wasn’t to be after a poor performing car and securing no race points that season. Despite testing for McLaren for the following season, and getting the fastest lap time, he failed to get a drive for 1983.

“In hindsight, a lot went wrong and the variables didn’t work in my favour. “

He went on to complete in two further Formula Three Championships in Europe, driving with Eddie Jordan’s team. The ex-Jordan team boss famously said: “Forget Shuey and Senna. Tommy Byrne was the best of them all”.

Despite his successes, Byrne gave up on his Formula One dream and moved to the US in 1985 to “make a million dollars”.

At first he drove in the American Racing Series, coming close to winning the series several times. He also raced a Greenman Racing Porsche 911 GT3-R and spent a stint in Mexico City driving Formula 3.

“I arrived in 1993, racing in front of 40,000 people each weekend. I didn’t win the series, but things got heady after an incident with a gun and I left in 1994, moving back to the States.”

Having previously lived all around the US from New York to California, he moved to Lexington, Ohio where Byrne became a professional race car instructor at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

“I’ve been working for them ever since.”

He also became a TV broadcaster at ESPN and a product specialist for car manufacturers. In 2000, Byrne formed “Crash or Byrne” driver development. which specialises in the development of young drivers starting out, while honing the skills of established drivers.

Eight years later, Byrne became an independent contractor for Diablo Drifter, which teaches advanced driving skills necessary to remain safe on the road.

“I designed the drift mechanism that can be taken to parking lots and tracks to teach car control.”

When he decided to write an autobiography in 2008, friends joked ‘who’s going to read that?”.

“It’s pretty raunchy, more about me, less about the racing.”

Critical acclaim

But Crashed and Byrned: The Greatest Racing Driver You Never Saw, which he co-wrote with sports writer Mark Hughes, won the William Hill Irish Sports Book of the Year in 2009. A documentary, also called Crash and Burn, was released in 2016 to critical acclaim.

“There’s been talk of a movie too.”

Byrne, who now lives in Florida, has clients all around the US, so he travels a lot. “I normally fly, but due to the virus, I’ve been driving cross-country.”

A recent trip took Byrne from Daytona to Pennsylvania. Because of Covid 19, his client wanted him to drive, not fly.

“It’s grand. I don’t mind driving. I get to drive through the fantastic countryside. In Florida things got back to normal pretty quickly after the Covid 19 lockdown, though there’s too many conspiracy theories about.”

Byrne still races for fun, at events like the 14-hour champ car series in Daytona. "Anyone can take part. Normally I drive with Michael Fassbender, but it was cancelled this year."

Since the book and documentary came out, Byrne comes back to Ireland more often, racing in a Ford Fiesta race in Mondello every year.

But Byrne loves the US.

“There’s an awful lot going on here at the moment. I’ll never move back home though.In the end I came to America. I even became a welder in my spare time. My plan was always to make a million. I didn’t in the end, but that’s okay.”

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