Kissing the Blarney Stone with Paddy Hopkirk – MotorWerks Magazine
I think the word legend tends to get overused these days, it may be because of social media and how easy it is for people all round the world to acknowledge even mediocre accomplishments. But one gentleman who deservedly can claim the title of ‘living legend’ or a ‘legend in his own time’ is Belfast born rally icon Patrick Barron Hopkirk or as he is known Worldwide, Paddy Hopkirk. I recently joked with him, that it really should have been Baron at the front of his name as I considered him rallying royalty. Typical of the man he played it down and told me to quit talking rubbish. It was typical Scots, Irish ribbing between two people who had a just had a great weekend at Watkins Glen International reminiscing of days gone past, of great drivers and great cars.
The main focus of the weekend was the Watkins Glen International Mini Festival VIP Experience presented by Towne MINI and our Grand Marshal was none other than Paddy Hopkirk. The VIP Experience idea emerged when Mini race event supremo Rachel Nelson told us about Mini being chosen as the featured Marque for the Hilliard United States Vintage Grand Prix at Watkins Glen International in NY. She thought it would be a great event to have a Mini/MINI get together and with MotorWerks Magazine’s experience in organising the MINI USA Corrals it made sense for us to get involved. So, in late 2017 we started negotiating with WGI to come up with a VIP Experience that would be one to remember. Those that know me have probably heard this a million times, but MotorWerks Magazine is only what it is because of our West Coast Editor, Norman Nelson and his wife Jesse. They are two dedicated MINiacs who have known Paddy for many years, having first met him and Rauno Aaltonen at a MINI United event in Europe. It created a friendship that continues to this day and when Norman asked Paddy if he was interested in coming over for the MINI Festival and be the Grand Marshal of the VIP Experience all it took was a check into his diary and a resounding, “Hell yes.”
Growing up in the UK in the 60s, the name Paddy Hopkirk was well known to me, not only as a rally driver to other motorsport enthusiasts but to the general public when his accomplishments on the 1964 Monte and 1968 London to Sydney rallies not only had him on the evening TV news but at the London Palladium in front of 20 million viewers on live television. You were always reading in the motorsport press about Paddy and coupled with name recognition of his business enterprises, he was truly a household name. Imagine asking the British public to name a British rally driver in this day and age. Chances are it would still be Paddy Hopkirk’s name that would come out.
It is interesting that Paddy made a comment similar to Grand Prix Champion Jackie Stewart in that when he won, he was British and when he lost he was Scottish. In Paddy’s case he believed being Irish was always used to communicate something negative and his most famous remembrance of one of those occasions was when HM Customs came after him and decided that charging him with smuggling would be a good way to tell the British public they don’t care who you are, they will come after you for not telling them about that extra little something you bought on vacation. So that nice little camera that Paddy had procured while abroad turned into some negative press but he laughs about it now.
Laughing is something you see Paddy doing often, he could actually have a second job as a stand up comedian, his delivery is perfect, with a dead pan face and then the audience erupts at the punch line. Over the five days we spent with him at the track, at dinner and over a few aperitifs at Patti Ely’s fabulous B&B, Dragonfly Dreams we heard many stories and typical of his age group he had no problem with any that made fun of himself or the Irish. It was refreshing not having to be politically correct like many of the lefties want us to be now. We were all quite surprised when he said, “You know I’ve seen these American Victorian styled houses on TV and I am really glad I’ve stayed in one before I die” Then he laughed his head off.
For a guy in his mid 80’s Paddy is super fit, he would wander off on his own at the racetrack to get his exercise, in fact a couple of times we had to put out a search party. But it was no big deal, some people had recognised him and he simply chatted away to them. The title of this piece says Kissing the Blarney Stone with Paddy Hopkirk; according to legend, kissing the stone endows the kisser with the gift of the gab, and Mr. Hopkirk has it in spades. Throughout his career he has talked with royalty like Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Ranier and Princess Grace of Monaco, dealt with CEOs of multinational companies and the fans lining up to get an autographic. He treats them all the same.
Currently he is President of the British Racing Drivers Club, a job he says he took because nobody else would. His primary focus is to get the new owners of Formula 1 to understand the BDRC is not joking when they say they will walk away from hosting a Grand Prix if it means that have to go into debt to do it. It is sad indeed that Grand Prix the likes of Germany and France have been missing from the calendar in recent years but unlike all these new locations who have their governments fund their events those two and Silverstone has something way more important, history. And let me tell you this Liberty Media, history equates to fanbase and if Silverstone is lost so will a myriad of fans too. So why is Paddy so passionate about racing when he was a rally driver? Well like many of the motorsport greats back in the sixties many racers competed in many disciplines. Scottish F1 World Champion was one, rallying on the 1966 RAC Rally, winning the Indy 500, sports car racing and so on. Paddy is in good company and I really feel honoured to have made his acquaintance.
Till the next time Patrick Baron Hopkirk.
With Norm Nelson’s wife, Jesse Nelson acting as the maitre d and photographing each visitor with Paddy, I patiently waited my turn. I was a bit nervous about taking too much of his time, with others waiting. When my turn came, his handshake and smile were disarmingly warm and genuine. There was no hint of him wanting to rush the moment as we chatted. Jesse took our photo and I was a happy guy. But a photo just wasn’t enough and Paddy graciously continued the experience, unhurried as he moved from MINI to MINI on this hot and muggy morning, meeting and talking the the excited owners.
Coming a way with a photo was a nice touch, but having one’s MINI Cooper signed by the legend took experience to a new level. I photographed him putting his autograph on my bonnet stripe that I posted on Facebook. I chuckled to myself as I received several replies wondering if I would wash the car again. Some even suggested I get a new bonnet and have this one on display in my living room. Their words did get me thinking of how best preserve his signature, but in the moment, it slipped into the background, for now.
On a MINI high I left Allentown, for the 200 mile trip to through the hills of Pennsylvania to the scenic farm land of New York’s finger lake region, arriving eventually in the sleepy village of Watkins Glen. It wasn’t a surprise that all the hotels and motels booked. So, I ended up lodging in nearby Ithaca giving me the added benefit of a daily 25-mile commute, along a two-lane ribbon of a road, with ups and downs and plenty of curves. The views were scenic while the road was largely free of traffic. This allowed motoring at a healthy pace while also allowing me to “Walter Mitty” along the way, imagining myself a rally driver. Needless to say the drive was a fun one.
Arriving at the Glen, I was waved through the gate after a quick check of my credentials. Making my way through the tunnel that ran under the track, I could hear the roar of engines at high RPM’s sounding like angry bees! The ear shattering sound and smell of exhaust just added to the excitement at being there. Locating the VIP Mini suite was next on the agenda. The MotorWerks Magazine crew had packed the weekend with a great line up of speakers and events for all us YIPs and I was ready for it. We were treated with great racing stories from David Hobbs, a former Formula One , Indy Car, IMSA racer and a LeMans veteran; current TransAm driver Marc Miller, and of course, my favourite Paddy Hopkirk. We had Mini and MINI racers show up to talk to us. Andy and Rachel Nelson run Minis in SVRA event and at this race they had multi-time SCCA Champion Doug Peterson drive their Fortech Mini. BMW MINI owner were not left out as Randy Smalley and Mark Congleton of RSR Motorsports brought out their R53 cars that they ran in the Grand-Am series.
For 40-minutes, Paddy entertained us with fun stories from his days as a rally driver. I found his memories of road side repairs particularly fascinating. He shared memories of the mechanics, who did their magic on the side of the road. One such event was at the 1966 Acropolis Rally. Paddy’s Mini needed the CV-Joints replaced. With no lift handy, mechanics simply performed this repair by turning the Mini on its side, gaining access to the undercarriage and proceeded to fix the Mini. Paddy shared his feelings about the old Mini Coopers and the new MINi s. “They often smelled of petrol and were very uncomfortable when compared to the new ones” he said. One feature of the new cars particularly appealed to him now that he’s getting older. “I like the new “heads up display” at my age I don’t have to look around, with this feature I can see my speed, even navigation,” he said. “It also allows me to see the accident that is about to happen in front of me”!
He detailed how his 1964 Monte Carlo win while driving a Mini translated into gigantic sales for the original Mini’s. “The Mini really bridged the class gap.” he said. “After our win it was common to see a Mini Cooper S in the drive way of a rich Lord, and a Cooper in the back that was owned by his cook”! Paddy’s Irish charm, wit and warm smile, all made his stories charm his audience. Some are born with old souls, while it was quickly evident that Paddy, now well into his eighth decade, has a very young one. Through the entire weekend there was always someone wanting something from Paddy, which he freely gave. He shared stories, autographs and always posed for photographs. His enthusiasm never lagged, he treated everyone like an old friend, listened to their stories with full attention, too. Saying this was a weekend I couldn’t have imagined in my “wildest dreams” does not fully describe my weekend at the Glen. As I pictured the event this past spring, I thought I might get drive my MINI on the fabled track. I also hoped to meet Paddy and get an autograph. I never imagined that my experience would end up with having several conversations with him, not all of them about Mini’s or racing. We talked of family and even some about my time in the Navy. But the icing on the cake for me was when he presented me with, one of the last remaining copies of, his book “The Paddy Hopkirk Story”! Then, he asked me for a copy of my book Serendipity – The Chronicle of a Navy Photojournalist. His gift and request humbled me and left me without words -something those who really know me might not ever believe!
And it just gets better. After the closing events on Sunday, Jesse Nelson invited me to a small party at Patricia Ely’s Bed and Breakfast, where the Nelsons and Paddy were staying. It was a small birthday party for the owner, Patti. It was a small gathering with Ian and Janis Rae, Jesse and Norm Nelson, Craig Nelson along with Susie and Gary Daniels, the other Nelsons, Doug and Gail Peterson, and of course Paddy. For all of us, getting to party with Paddy the Mini and rally and racing legend , was like partying with our favourite rock or movie stars. In all it was an incredible weekend, one I will never forget!
Meeting a Legend!
Irishman Paddy Hopkirk is a legend many have never heard of. However, for those neck deep in MINI Cooper history and lore, he is a figure on par with other greats of history, contributing to motor history, for example, as the Beatles or Frank Sinatra did in the world modern music. Now, just imagine if you could spend a weekend with the Fab Four or Sinatra, listening to their stories and you’ll begin to feel why an early September weekend became a “bucket list” event for me. Fellow MINI enthusiast Norm Nelson e-mailed me this past spring with the news that Ian Rae, editor of MotorWerks Magazine, was planning a weekend event at the Watkins Glen International racetrack where MINI Cooper faithful would be allowed to drive their own vehicles around the historic track. Driving my MINI in a parade lap around that track was quite appealing, but what sealed the deal for me was that Paddy Hopkirk, would be there as the headline act of the weekend. It was like Christmas morning on Sept. 6 when I pulled my MINI out of my Virginia Beach driveway and headed towards Allentown, Penn. where the weekend would begin with meet and greet with Paddy at MINI of Allentown. Arriving around noon, I was greeted warmly in the showroom by “motoring advisor” Lauren Leaman, who is not only a top sales person at the dealership but also tops in the nation. MINI showrooms are always a fun place to stop and look at the newest kids on the block. That day, MINI of Allentown, was no exception, pulling out all of the stops, displaying brand new Clubman, Countryman and Cabrio vehicles. Peppered between those new offerings were a lessons in history — restored classic Mini’s looking showroom ready just as they did when so many decades ago. My eyes had just settled on a a pristine 2006 MINI GP, when I saw a the replica of Rauno Aaltonen’s 1967 Mini. Pure Heaven! Manoeuvring through the motoring magic, I spied Paddy and a line of people waiting for him.