Ken Fildes – racing driver whose skill propelled him to the top of Irish motorsport
Ken Fildes: While circuit racing was his primary discipline, his versatility made him a winner in rallies, hillclimbs and sporting trials.
Ken (Kenneth Oliver) Fildes was a supremely gifted natural driver whose talent and engineering understanding propelled him to the top of Irish motorsport, almost from the moment Mondello Park opened in Naas, Co Kildare, in 1968. Ken drove an array of Crossles and other cars and competed in the European F2 series and won the Leinster Trophy, the Sexton Trophy and many other accolades in the first era when serious, regular motor racing could regularly take place in the Republic.
While circuit racing was his primary discipline, his versatility made him a winner in rallies, hillclimbs and sporting trials.
Ken was born in Belfast but the family moved to Nutgrove Park in Clonskeagh in Dublin in 1947 when his father Jackie started work at the motor assembler Booth, Poole & Co, which sold Wolseley and MG cars. Ken attended the High School in Rathgar and went on the study motor engineering in Bolton Street. He spent time in the 1960s learning his trade with Frank (now Sir Frank) Williams on building racing engines and loved his time with the great F1 constructor.
Car racing was in the blood as Jackie Fildes was a leading competitor when the Dunboyne Races (1958-1968) were in their heyday, even if racing the boss’s sons Alec and Arnie Poole made life complicated for the Wolsey Hornet drivers.
In the mid- 1960s Glasnevin garage owner Luke Duffy drove some of the new generation single seaters, and when he acquired the latest Holywood, Co Down-built Formula 2 car, a Crossle 19F, he asked Ken to give it a shakedown run. Ken, by then a qualified motor engineer, showed instant mechanical sympathy which prompted Luke to leave the driving to the quicker man and assume the role of sponsor.
Motor racing was a popular spectator sport at the time – with up to 100,000 people attending the season highlight at the Phoenix Park each September. Competition was intense – with Brian Nelson from Hillsboro being a close rival while John Watson, Brian Cullen, Dave Furlong and Tommy Reid were always in the hunt.
Ken competed against future world champion Jochen Rindt and future Grand Prix winner Ronnie Peterson in a one-off Swedish F2 race in early 1970. In 1971 he won the Phoenix Park Grand Prix – and then went on to win the coveted Leinster Trophy in 1972. He set the outright lap record of 101 mph for the motor racing circuit in Aintree, which still stands today. He won the Sexton Trophy in 1974, the pinnacle award of Irish motorsport.
Formula 2 (just one rung behind F1) was much too expensive for Irish privateers so Formula Atlantic was introduced in an effort to curtail costs. Commercial sponsorship began to arrive and as Luke Duffy reduced his involvement, Ken switched his attention to hillclimbing – a fearsome discipline of sprinting up a hill road from a standing start to a maximum terminal speed. Ken generally prepared the cars himself and they were always beautifully presented. He was the national hillclimb champion in 1980 and 1981.
Ken was genial, modest, affable and helpful to many young drivers and the motorsport fraternity treasured his company on and off the track. He inspired and helped the young hotshots of 1975 at Mondello Park – Eddie Jordan, Derek Daly, David Kennedy, Bernard Devaney, Michael Roe and others.
He ran a successful Citroen dealership beside the homestead in Clonee and was an early identifier of the beauty of boating on the Shannon, having a yacht in Glasson from the early 1980s. His superb crafting abilities were directed toward woodwork in recent years and he honed magnificent wood carvings with the same delicate skill that he had build the finest racing engines in the 1960s.
In the 1980s he became one of the film industry’s most in-demand precision drivers and did stunts all over Europe and further afield, standing in for Pierce Brosnan, Brendan Gleeson and others.
Family was key to Ken. His wife Valerie and children Jonathan, Sonya and Karen were immersed in his car-racing exploits and later he in theirs. He had skirmishes with cancer in the last 20 years but recently his life was greatly enriched by the arrival of his grandchildren Ben, Jeff, Jack, Craig Isabel, Roslyn, Rachel and Hannah. Ken Fildes: born July 21st, 1944; dies October 31st , 2018