It was during the course of last season that there was the chance to spend some time with Matt’s father Steve to look back at the way in which his career.
It would prove to be a somewhat lengthy chat – which should come as no surprise to anyone who knows Steve – meaning it’s taken some time to be able to sit down and transcribe it into the tale below.
A quick word of warning. You might want to pop the kettle on and make a coffee before sitting down to read this one…
Steve, you raced yourself so how did you get into motorsport in the first place?
I actually got into motorsport by having a fairly hefty motorcycle accident that was followed by many months in hospital. The insurers made a claim against the other vehicle that was involved and I was awarded £1,500 in compensation. That was in 1959, so it was a lot of money back then. Not being very clever, I went out and spent some of the money on a racing car.
There was £500 that I spent on a Formula Junior Kieft that had been built for a guy called Chris Summers. He was a big guy who weighed something like 18 stone, and he carted the car round on the back of a lorry alongside a barrel of cider, which he would consume over the course of the day at the racing – and it wasn’t a small barrel!
Because it had been specially made for him, it had the biggest cockpit going but was short in the legs so I would stick out above the screen of it. I did a bit of racing with that and then I had a 1500cc engine fitted to do a bit of Formula Libre. Truth be told though, I got fed up with it.
At that point, I had a road going Mini and started to mess about with that instead alongside a local garage mechanic, but we didn’t really understand what we were doing with it. I went to see a guy called Jim Whitehouse, who ran Arden Conversions and was a serious engine tuner. I did a deal with him, he took the Mini off me and I went off and bought a Cooper S. In the meantime, he converted the Mini from me into a 1400cc fire-breathing machine and asked if I wanted to drive it. I did, and it was great; we won quite a few club races with it.
I’d got married by then and by about 1965 had been doing some rallying with the local club. I’d done a few RACs and then went off and did the Monte Carlo Rally. It was going well, but I got buggered up going over the Col du Turini as the car got lifted off the ground with the snow that was lying down between the tracks. We got to the end but weren’t classified, which was a shame as we had been leading privateer up to that point. It was only by luck really, as I’d put snow tyres on earlier than anyone else, but still…
Jim then converted the car into a racecar and I went off to compete in the British Saloon Car Championship. We watched it go from Group N to Group 3 and Group 5. We made our own cylinder heads and components for the engine and it was reasonably successful.
In 1967, I could beat the works cars, so BMC and Cooper came to me and said would I drive for them so I went to join John Rhodes in the works team for 1968. At the end of the year, I’d done well in the European Championship and I was offered the choice to stay with Cooper or to join British Leyland to run with John Handley and John Rhodes. I was offered the third drive there but signed for the Britax Cooper team where Gordon Spice joined me.
We had good fun although we didn’t get on very well. His wife was particularly foul mouthed and used to give me a right mouthful. But we had a laugh along the way.
So it was while you were busy racing that Matt arrived…
Matt was born in 1966 and we bought a new house for the family in 1967. It cost me an arm and a leg, but it was an opportunity that was just too good to miss. When Matt was a baby, he was dragged along to some of the racing but not that much, as a team like Cooper was very professional.
At the end of 1968, I was actually offered a drive in their Cooper Formula 1 car, the one with the Maserati engine that was useless. I had to find £50,000 to do the European part of the season and we found a Japanese company that was prepared to put the money in, but then it never happened. That was all because Cooper was starting to get into a rocky position financially as the British Leyland Competition department was taking work away from them.
We had a race at the end of the year at Brands Hatch on the GP circuit and were running in mixed classes as we did in those days. Brian Muir was driving a Camaro and it pissed petrol out everywhere whilst I was behind him going through Dingle Dell. I hit the petrol and went straight on into a tree that was protected by a straw bale, which did nothing to stop me. I damaged the lens in my eye and lost my binocular vision, which basically ended my serious racing career. I had a chance to carry on but said I wouldn’t do it and then I did some GT racing.
I’d started a business making leather steering wheels and had to focus on that while I was doing some Chevron driving, which I enjoyed as it was with a bunch of amateur guys having fun. I made about 10 grand from doing it, which is how I ended up being able to buy the nice big family house!
Was Matt interested in cars when he was little?
Matt would kick a ball around with the gardener and then when he was six, I bought him a go-kart with solid wheels and some handlebars and he soon got the hang of it in a little orchard that was next to the house. He wore the grass out doing laps round this little track, so I set him up with a twists and turns circuit to see how he got on. I don’t know how he did it, but he would just slide through it with opposite lock. All the little girls used to come and watch him. When he was a bit bigger, he had a kart with a motorbike engine that he would use up and down the drive. It was pretty crap to be honest, but he soon got the hang of driving it.
At what point did he say he wanted to follow you into racing?
He had a pal who was four years older than he was and they would hang out all the time. They would make choppers and then got into bikes. They used to ride around the garden on this old thing but I said they needed to have something better, so I bought them a little Honda to use instead. It was a great bike and then when he got to 16, I got him a 50cc motocross bike and he went off on that. By 17, he had a car but his big interest was in motocross so him and his mate both bought a Honda 250 and would go off riding at weekends. They’d borrow a van from work and away they went.
Matt also played at second row for Worcester Warriors and had the chance of a trial with the England U18 team. He was a big lad with plenty of muscle and I thought there was a chance he was going to end up playing rugby for England. Matt went off for the trial and when they got there, the guy in charge told them to get stripped off, get their kit on and then do three laps of the pitch – on their stomachs.
Matt came back from the trial and said there was no chance. Others were more dedicated to the cause but he just wasn’t up for it so I asked what he wanted to do and he said he would try again with the bikes. Unfortunately, he had a fall and broke his leg but he got himself sorted and then when he was testing for the start of the season, he suffered a compressed spine and it was at that point that his mum said enough was enough.
I knew some old racing boys up in Rochdale, Harry Ratcliffe and Jeff Goodliffe, who were running a team Fiestas, so I asked them if they had a car that would be any good for my lad. Jeff said he would find one, so we ended up going into that when Matt was something like 19 or 20.
His first race was at Snetterton, and there was something like 40 cars entered which was too many for the circuit. They basically took the fastest 20 and put them into the race, and then the rest had a qualifying race which Matt started from pole. He made a good start but then he got a bit too excited on the back straight and his foot slipped off the accelerator. He went from first to something like tenth in the blink of an eye, so it taught him a lesson!
How did he go from there to the next level?
He made good progress with the Fiesta and we did the Winter Series and then looked around to see what we could do next. Jeff had a few guys racing for him and I suggested we could get hold of some BMWs and do a bit of Group N racing. I knew Nick Whale and he sold us some cars, which Jeff prepared and Matt drove along with these lads Jeff had brought in.
The cars were basically road cars that had been converted and one day we were out testing at Oulton Park. Going through the left handed into the Shell Oils Hairpin, Matt got overtaken by an F3 car, which then hit the brakes and left Matt with nowhere to go. His car was launched over the wheel of this F3 car and he went flying over the hoardings and down a massive drop, which wrote off the car. In a way, it was a blessing as we were able to buy a new shell, take all the shit out of it, and build a better car that was more competitive.
Matt went on to win the Willhire 24hrs in it in 1990 and when I had the chance to buy a Nissan Skyline from Jan O’Dor at Janspeed as he had the contract for touring cars and Kieth was moving on to race in them. Matt went well in the car and won the Esso Saloon Car Championship and then, having seen what Kieth was doing, we decided to make the move into touring cars.
So how did the touring car adventure begin?
Matt did the odd race in 1991 and then I went to see Vic Lee who was running the BMWs in the Securicor livery and did a deal to buy the car that Will Hoy used to win the title that season.
I bought the car off Vic on the condition that we took it as it finished the last race, which is the only way to buy a race car. We took it apart, then built it back up again; finding more power after replacing the exhaust system which was bloody rubbish.
Matt got in the car and he did okay with it. He was pretty happy with things but then one day at Donington Park, he was going down the Craner Curves and his foot went to the floor when he went for the brakes. One of the mechanics hadn’t tightened something up on the car and the end result was that Matt hit the wall at something like 130mph and destroyed it.
That was going to be it until Ray Bellm mentioned to me that Prodrive were shutting up shop and selling their cars and asked if we wanted to have a go with them.
Between us, we did the deal and set up a team with Daily Express backing for Matt and a rich kid who Ray had found.
It was around then that Vic was jailed for drug offences, so Ray and I bought the engine build company he had been running from the receivers and named it as Team Dynamics. Steve Soper was a minority shareholder and he was going to get us the contract with BMW in Germany. It didn’t happen in the end and whilst things were okay for a while, we knew we weren’t going to win with the BMW because of what we were up against.
That was the point at which Matt had his first trip away from the family team…
Matt went off to race with Mazda in 1994, which was a complicated deal to put together. I had a deal to run the ‘Crinkley Bottom Racing Team’ based on Noel Edmonds TV show and the sponsorship was going to come from a football pools company. Andrew Marriott [now a well known motorsport journalist and broadcaster] was working for a sponsorship company and he had been negotiating this deal with the pools company and also with Mobil.
Everything had been done and the plan was to launch it all at the Bluebird Club in London, but 24 hours before, the board of the pools company pulled the plug and it all collapsed.
At that point, Mazda had already committed to it but not fully as they had been relying on the Crinkley Bottom deal. It meant that they went into the season and Matt and David Leslie in the cars without the funding they needed.
The car wasn’t really competitive but it was going okay until Silverstone, when there was a bit of a fracas coming out of Copse when Chris Goodwin tried to get between Matt and David. There wasn’t space and the end result was that Matt got sent into one of the biggest BTCC accidents caught on camera. It damaged his back and broke some ribs so that was his season over.
David continued as best he could but the team wouldn’t make it to the end of the year.
For ’95 it was then back to Dynamics again…
That’s right. We ended up getting hold of a Rouse Mondeo from Ford in France. It had been built on the cheap but Andy Rouse knew what he was doing and I have a lot of respect for him for the way he did things.
Matt did as well as he could when you consider that he wasn’t allowed things like works tyres and he was also a lot heavier than the other drivers. He was always on the back foot.
We then built another Mondeo but it was a nightmare. The steering was all wrong and the car was undriveable; Matt hated it. We dumped the car and Alec Poole who was running the Nissan project said I had to give Matt a chance in a decent car. He offered to rent us one at £7,000 a meeting, which set him on his way.
The Nissan years was when things really started to take off wasn’t it?
Things started to equal out a bit between the works teams and the privateers. We started to get some upgrades and would get a new car, even though it was always a year behind the factory team. Thanks to Barry [Plowman] and his expertise, we were able to get more and more from the car and quite often we would match the works cars despite not having all they goodies they had.
I remember once having an engineer from the works car come over to tell us what a fantastic job Matt had done compared to their car. He said he couldn’t go into details about the reasons why, but that it was impressive.
Then came the win at Donington in 1999.
That was a fantastic day, but at the same time, it would also prove to be very unfortunate for us. We had our own people doing the engines in our car whereas the factory cars had engines from AER. Alec told us that if we gave them our engine, we could have the same engines as the works team for free. We had no choice really and AER were able to benefit from all the work our engine guys had put in and built a better specification motor. In the end, we lost out as we found ourselves being turned down and the engine guy who was put on our car just wasn’t very good.
We did some races in Europe and I think Matt’s win at Estoril was the last for a Super Touring Car in Europe. This was when that era was drawing to a close and Richard West had taken control of the BTCC from Alan Gow and new rules were coming in, so it was all change for 2001.
By now, Vic had been released from prison and he had been working on something with Peugeot. Steve Soper was involved so Matt agreed to drive but the whole thing wasn’t very nice. Matt left early as the car was shit, and it nearly killed Steve when he had an accident later in the season that ended his career.
Matt moved away for a while with Vauxhall and Honda and that was when things took a turn again.
Matt spent a year with Vauxhall before switching to the Hondas that were being run by Mike Earle and Arena, and then we took them on ourselves in 2004.
At the end of the season, I was in the USA at a show and saw this Acura Integra sitting on a stand. I took a look at it and could see that it was basically a Civic with a different body on it. It was the perfect touring car.
Alan Gow was now back in control of the championship and had made some tweaks to the rules that meant that a car didn’t have to be on sale in the UK anymore to be eligible. I bought two cars, shipped them over and then we put the bits from the Civic into them.
Truth be told, what Mike had done was very good – it just hadn’t been executed very well. We built a car that was better, and was almost impregnable. Jason tried to do everything he could to push Matt off and to destroy the car but he came out on top in 2005 and then did it again the next year.
It was a fantastic achievement and all the emotions came out when he defended the title because of the heartache and hard work that had come before.
So do you think it’s easier or harder to run Matt in a car given the relationship between you?
I don’t see a lot of difference now to be honest. With all the years we’ve been doing it, you get hardened to things and it’s the same with Gordon to an extent now. He came along to us in 2006 when he was a raw rookie and Matt took him under his wing and helped to bring him on. Now he is almost like a second son, the only difference is that he can escape me sometimes whereas Matt gets stuck with me all the time! The pair of them are very close which is good, and they do a lot together. Even when there is a mishap, like Snetterton, there is no ill feeling from it.
Has his longevity surprised you?
Not really, and he’s going to be around for a long time to come yet. Matt is more of a businessman than I ever was, and I think that will serve him well going forwards when he finally decides to hang up his helmet; although I don’t think that will be soon.
He isn’t a youngster anymore but is still very fit for his age and is doing what he loves. He knows that Gordon is younger and quicker than him, but while he is still enjoying it, he’ll continue. Maybe when that enjoyment isn’t there, that is the time when he will take a step back to focus on running the team and I know there are drivers he has his eye on when that time comes.
A few years back, I gave the team to Matt and Barry as they needed something for the future and they work well. With the experience of Eddie Hinckley and with Gordon, there is a core team there that can continue to enjoy success for years to come. Gordon for example is 12 years younger than Matt and he could be a champion in the BTCC for the next decade.
Do you see elements of yourself in Matt?
I do. When I was younger, my father wasn’t very supportive of my motorsport as he was into horse racing. I don’t think he even knew I did it for ten years, which may have been for the best. I love motorsport, and it’s great to have been able to help Matt both financially and in terms of moral support across the years. To work together and to achieve what we have achieved has been fantastic.
What do you see as the defining moment of his career?
Even though he won back-to-back titles, and then added a third, everyone will always think of that race at Donington Park with the £250,000.
To be honest, that will probably stand as the defining moment of his career as that is when he really got recognition as a BTCC driver; it was when he became known. It wasn’t always a smooth road to get there, and things weren’t always that good to support his racing and to do what we wanted to do, but that has to be a high.
What do you think the future holds?
Well like I said, he still isn’t finished in the BTCC yet, but his sons are now racing as well as there is also a growing interest in historics; I can see that being something big for the future. As well as racing them like him and Gordon do now, it’s something that makes sense on a business level as well, because some of the classic cars are going up in value and it is a way in which he can make money from motorsport in other ways.
Whatever he does in the future, Matt has that maverick streak that will help him go far when the time finally does come around to hang up his helmet.