Just after I scheduled today’s BLAST FROM THE PAST to go up today I learnt of Chris Amon’s passing, making Kieran’s fantastic painting even more appropriate as we lost the last of the three kiwi legends who filled the top two steps at the 1966 race.
Chris Amon was not only a racing legend, however, he was also a truly lovely bloke.
I had the enormous pleasure of spending time with Chris on many occasions over the last decade that I have been writing about cars, at various media events and track days, as well as the immense privilege of being driven around various New Zealand race tracks by him. Not only was the speed still very much there, but also the incredible smoothness and precision that only the extremely talented possess.
The first time I met Chris Amon was at a Toyota event in Palmerston North around 10 years ago. I remember nervously introducing myself to this absolute legend who was wandering around quietly on the fringes of the crowd like he was just an ordinary bloke. He shook my hand, smiled warmly and said “Oh yes, I have been reading your work.”
He knew who I was? This rattled me. “Oh, thank you…” I stammered, before realising that there wasn’t actually a compliment in there. He chuckled at this stupidity and we chatted for a while about Allan Dick (my then employer at DRIVER Magazine) who Chris knew very well indeed, with me feeling like an utter tool and him not caring in the slightest.
Not the greatest way to meet one of your heroes, but certainly not the worst. However, much better was to come.
Several years later, following the demise of DRIVER, I was freelancing for Top Gear NZ when the editor, Cameron Officer (who you will no doubt recognise as one of my co-hosts on the NZ Motoring Podcast. When we actually do one, that is…), asked me if I would like to accompany him to Palmerston North to do a story on the then-new Toyota 86.
The idea was we would collect a brand new 86 and a classic Corolla AE86 from Toyota in Palmy, then drive both up to Taupo where we would meet Chris Amon at the race track and get him thrash the 86 around for a bit. My job was to drive the AE86 (a fantastic experience in itself) to Taupo and interview Chris about his time with Toyota NZ and his thoughts on the new 86.
Needless to say, I eagerly agreed and what happened next is still one of the most striking memories I have from my career so far.
Chris turned up at the track at the agreed time in his white Land Cruiser. He was dressed pretty much as you would expect a 60-something year old farmer to dress; jeans, a work shirt and an old cardigan with a hole in the elbow. As always, he was warm, friendly and utterly unassuming.
As we chatted he told us he had brought a couple of fuel containers in the Cruiser so he could pop into town and get some diesel after we had finished at the track. He looked at the 86 sitting in the pitlane and said “I might go out and do a few laps, just to get used to the car.”
He then proceeded to fire off some of the most incredibly fast and smooth laps in the wet I have ever seen anyone do around Taupo. Everyone stopped what they were doing and watched as the bright orange Toyota streaked around the track in a startlingly undramatic, but staggering fast fashion. And he was only warming up.
After Chris had his time with the 86 and the photography was done, we sat in his Land Crusier to do the interview. As usual he modestly downplayed his achievements with a gentle chuckle and glossed over the whole “unluckiest man in Formula 1” thing (Mario Andretti once said that if Amon became a funeral director, people would stop dying!) with an utter lack of regret, saying that he felt blessed to have lived the life he did and incredibly lucky just to have made it out of F1 alive, as so many of his friends didn’t.
I still have the recording of that interview somewhere and will endeavour to dig it out and run it here. In the meantime, however, today we will leave you with a fantastic interview with Chris that the brilliant Peter Windsor did over the weekend of the 2011 Festival of Motorsport that celebrated Amon’s career.
Chris Amon MBE 1943 – 2016
The Amon family regret to advise that Chris passed away on the morning of August the 3rd in Rotorua Hospital. Chris had celebrated his 73rd birthday a fortnight prior to his passing.
This year marked the fiftieth anniversary of the victory for Chris and Bruce McLaren at Le Mans when the Kiwi duo won the famous 24 hour race in a Ford GT40. That victory did not go unnoticed at Ferrari and for 1967 Chris was signed to the famous Italian marque. He remained for three seasons during which he won the Daytona 24 hour race, the 1000km of Monza, the New Zealand Grand Prix twice, and the Tasman Championship in 1969; however consistent car breakages with their Grand Prix cars caused him to reluctantly quit at the end of that year.
Having established himself as one of the very best drivers in the world, he went on to drive for March and Matra in Formula 1, and for BMW in the European Touring Car Championship. He retired from Formula 1 in 1976, and from all motor racing in 1977 when he returned to New Zealand. He married Tish and went back farming. While motor racing was never forgotten, it went on the backburner as he settled back into life in New Zealand after 15 years away. They were soon joined by daughter Georgie followed by twins James and Alex.
For many years Chris has been a consultant to Toyota and the winner of the Toyota Racing Series receives the Chris Amon Trophy. Chris Amon was widely regarded internationally as not only the best driver never to win a Formula 1 Grand Prix, but one of the best drivers never to be crowned world champion. Chris was awarded an MBE for his services to motorsport in 1993, and was inducted into the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame in 1995.
Chris battled cancer in recent years but retained not only a close interest in Formula 1 – and his very wide range of favourite topics – but also his wonderful sense of humour complete with infectious chuckle.
The family request privacy at this very difficult time.