John Campion, champion of Irish motorsport, dies aged 57

Campion had been building a collection of the greatest Irish racing cars

John Campion (left), through his CJJ Motorsports organisation, had been backing the careers of such as James Roe Junior (right)

John Campion (left), through his CJJ Motorsports organisation, had been backing the careers of such as James Roe Junior (right)

 

The passing of John Campion, at the age of 57, will come as a blow to all involved in motor racing in Ireland. Campion, originally from Cork, made his fortune in the US.

Initially, he worked as a roadie, carrying kit for the likes of Michael Jackson and AC/DC, but really struck paydirt when he set up a company that provided outdoor, mobile power generators. He then began indulging his fortune in collecting some of the greatest racing cars of all time.

This shouldn’t be seen as some rich guy playing with big toys, either. Campion’s collection, until recently, included some of the greatest Lancia racing cars ever - LC2, Delta Integrale, O37 - all decked out in the white, red, and blue of Martini sponsorship. The cars were, and are, all runners but the collection was closer to art than to mechanics.

More recently, he had decided to do more for Irish motorsport, both celebrating the past, and building for the future. The Lancias were been sold off, and the Campion collection took on a new, specifically Irish, focus.

“The idea was to change the focus of the collection” Campion told The Irish Times in June of this year. “We wanted to tell the story of Irish motorsports physically, through the cars. So we started off with the March 811.”

That 1981 Formula One car, was driven in period by Derek Daly, and is still resplendent in its original Guinness livery. Campion, although weak from his battle with leukaemia, drove the car at last year’s Mondello Park Historic Festival, a potentially foolhardy exploit that he said actually helped give him strength.

“So we had the Guinness car,” said Campion. “Next we bought the Billy Coleman Mark II Ford Escort that won the West Cork Rally in 1980. Then we got the Ford Fiesta R5 that won the Irish Tarmac Championship last year.”

The buying up of historic Irish-linked racing cars arguably peaked with Campion’s purchase of first a Jordan 192 F1 car, from 1992, and then a 1991 Jordan 191. This car, decked out in green-and-blue sponsorship from 7-Up and from Bord Failte, began the Jordan legend in Formula One and even kick-started the career of Michael Schumacher.

John Campion, although weak from his battle with leukaemia, drove the 1981 Formula One car at last year’s Mondello Park Historic Festival
John Campion, although weak from his battle with leukaemia, drove the 1981 Formula One car at last year’s Mondello Park Historic Festival

It’s also generally agreed to be the prettiest F1 car of the 1990s, and was itself designed by an Irishman, Northern Ireland’s Gary Anderson. Other recent buys include a last-of-the-line Lola, made when the late Martin Birrane still owned that racing car constructor, and the A1GP car that Adam Carroll and Niall Quinn campaigned for Ireland in the short-lived ‘World Cup Of Motorsport’.

The idea, though, was not merely to collect Irish cars with motor racing history. It was to use those cars to publicise and promote Ireland’s rich motorsport heritage, and use that as a launchpad to help push forward new Irish talent, a new generation to take on the challenges of Formula One, Le Mans, Indycar, and rallying.

Campion, through his CJJ Motorsports organisation, had been backing the careers of such as James Roe Junior, and Nicole Drought, both of whom have been seeing significant success in recent years. “Motorsport in Ireland isn’t hugely recognised anymore” says Roe. “There isn’t the huge following that used to be there. It was very different in the 1970s and 1980s. You look at photos of Mondello Park back then, and every seat in the grandstand was full, every grass bank was full.

“That’s changed now, certainly for my generation, but look - we’re here now, and what could be better than us kicking off a change, a change in the image of Irish motorsports. It wasn’t just about burning money or to have a bit of fun. It’s structured, it’s funded, there’s a plan in place. We want to see someone get to the pinnacle with a shamrock on the back of their helmet, and that’s what I hope to do.”

In June, Campion told The Irish Times that: “We’ve started working with the Irish Government and Nikki Daly, and we have think called Go Girl, Go which is designed to put 1,000 girls aged between 13 and 16 into go-karts in Ireland in the next year. If you’re a farmer’s daughter, growing up in Tipperary then you’re kind of going to be a farmer’s daughter growing up in Tipperary. If somebody puts you behind the wheel of the go-kart, if somebody gives you that, you know, suddenly the world opens up for you.

“At some stage in all of our careers, we’ve had someone give us a hand, give us a help up.” Campion used his wealth and his enthusiasm to take that help and pay it forward. He will be sorely missed.