The cocky Co Louth racing driver who was ‘better than Senna’

The lively Louth driver who shoulda coulda been a superstar gets his own movie

Crash and Burn is a new documentary from Men at Lunch director Seán Ó Cualáin. The documentary is based on the life of Tommy Byrne, 'the greatest racing driver you never saw'.

 

By any number of accounts, he’s the greatest racing driver you’ve never heard of, the sport’s answer to George Best, a driver, who, by Eddie Jordan’s account, was better than “both Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher”. So whatever happened to Tommy Byrne, the cocksure Co Louth kid who could have been a contender?

Crash and Burn, a new documentary from Men at Lunch director Seán Ó Cualáin, brings together various hypotheses from various bystanders and friends: Byrne lacked the money and sophistication for the big time. There was too much “drinking and hooring”. He annoyed the wrong people. He was too arrogant, notes Jordan. He lacked focus, according to technical director Gary Anderson.

“All these guys talk a bit of shit,” smiles Byrne. “I was never told by Eddie Jordan when I was going to all his parties to stop doing what you’re doing. I was never told by Gary Anderson to stop drinking. I wasn’t doing anything different to anybody else at the time. It’s only after I knew that Formula One was over for me: that’s when I let my hair down.”

Byrne took up mountain biking 10 years ago – and he’s got the injuries to prove it. “There”, he says, pointing to a chipped tooth. “I’ve broke my collarbone. I broke my finger. I got ran over by an old lady. I got 15, 20 stitches. I got more injuries in my first year on a bike than I ever did driving. I love it for fitness. But I’ve been injured so often, I’ve been going around the mountain as often as I’m going up.”

Anything with wheels

Twas ever so. Rather conveniently for mythological purposes, Tommy Byrne, one of six children, was born in 1958, in the back of a car speeding towards Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda. Thus began a beautiful friendship with things that go: “Anything motorised. Anything with wheels. Anything with an engine.”

Tommy first climbed behind a wheel aged five: “A pedal go-kart. With an impossible push-pedal mechanism. Me and my brother Peter put one of those big Chinese tea boxes on it. I was either too lazy to push the pedals or it wasn’t going fast enough. So I would make him push. When it was his turn, I’d push him about five feet; when it was mine he had to keep going.”

Does he remember the first time he actually drove a motorised vehicle? “I think I was 10. I was helping out on a friend’s farm. So I would have got to pull along turf and that kind of thing on a tractor. Then the first time behind the wheel of a car was with a Volkswagon Beetle. I was so small that some of the farmers said, ‘We seen the car going on its own out in the field today’.”

A job in a local petrol station meant Tommy was the first kid in town with a chopper bike, a gateway vehicle to his first motorbike.

“When I was 15, I was riding around Dundalk on a motorcycle, watching myself in the windows with the scarf flying. By 16, I decided myself that I had to get rid of it or I was going to die.”

When he was 18, he’d scrubbed together £25 – just enough to cover 25 laps around Mondello Park. With the assistance of his mother, who told the bank the money was for a house extension, he borrowed £2,500 to buy an old 16F Crossle, which he tricked up so it could beat much smoother rides.

Meteoric rise

Fast-forward six years. Byrne was a double British Formula Ford 1600 champion, a British and European Formula Ford 2000 title holder, and the newly crowned British Formula Three champion. In Crash and Burn, contemporaries and colleagues marvel at his unprecedented and meteoric rise through the sport. How does he account for it?

“From the first time I drove a car in Mondello Park, that’s was it, I was in love,” he says. “I was in love with racing from 1977 until 1981, every single day, from the minute I woke up. I made lots of friends. I kept hustling. I knew I was the best driver. Many times over the years I heard it was the car, not me, and I proved them wrong every time. Until I got to Formula One. And they were just too powerful.”

Much has been written about the fateful day in 1982, when Byrne tested for McLaren. Did he really tell McLaren’s Ron Dennis, seppuku-style, that his car was a “piece of shit” and that Dennis could kiss his ass?

“Ron Dennis wasn’t even there that day,” he says. “I was a goofball. At any time shit would fly out of my mouth. I hear stories about myself all the time and I think, hey, I did something much worse that day. But for once, I got out and never said a word. I knew there was no drive in Formula One in 1983. They were all taken. I knew there was no drive but I still wanted to go fast in the car.”

We’ll never know just how fast. McLaren had timed his last three laps at 1m 10.01s. But one of his friends, Joey Greenan, had clocked Tommy half a second quicker. A decade ago, mechanic Tony Vandungen claimed that the pit-lane had been instructed to hold back the throttle while preparing Byrne’s car.

“Even 20 years later, I was devastated,” says Byrne. “They were McLaren. I believed them. They came up with some excuse. Ron Dennis said we didn’t want Tommy to crash Niki Lauda’s car. But, three years ago, Leo Sayer gets in touch with me. He drove the car the next day. So did Nick Mason from Pink Floyd. Leo said they were still talking about how fast I was.

“Mentally that made a difference to me. In retrospect, maybe I’d have done the same thing to me. Maybe I’d pissed off too many people.”

The boozy years

With Formula One behind him, Byrne ventured to the US, where he experienced a few boozy years, bouncing from IndyLights to Mexico F3, meeting such colourful characters as Orchio, a “rich playboy alcoholic manic-depressive bisexual” along the way. These days,Tommy is a driving coach, a job he wishes he had taken up years ago.

He recounted his incredible journey in a memoir, Crashed and Byrned: The Greatest Racing Driver You Never Saw in 2008. Retelling his story on film, he notes, was a very different business.   

“When I wrote the book,” he says. “I was happy. I’d usually be in a good place. Like on a first class flight. But with the film it was, ‘Okay Tommy, tell us about that time . . . ’ and I’m not in the mood to talk about that time. I don’t come across smiling and happy like I usually am in the movie. It took it out of me. My spark was gone.”

Harder than the hardest turn, naturally. “I always loved hard turns. I loved the fast turns. I loved the dangerous turns. I loved the rain. Because that’s when the better driver wins.”

 Crash and Burn opens on December 2nd.

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