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NOTICE OF DEATH - CHRIS CRAFT (1939 - 2021)

We very much regret having to report that Life Member Chris Craft died last Saturday morning. He was 81 years old and had been suffering from the effects of dementia for some time. 

Although born in Cornwall, it was with the Ford Motor Company at Dagenham that Chris first found employment after leaving school – as a mail boy. Ambitious to become a racing driver, he soon gravitated towards the competition department where he was pointed towards the, for him, less appealing rally section. Undeterred, in his spare time Chris built up a 1340 cc Ford Anglia with which he went racing for the first time at Mallory Park in 1961. It was almost the last time too since he crashed, damaging the car beyond effective repair so he built another one, installed a 1650 cc engine, painted it bright orange (which would remain the colour of Chris’s crash helmet to the end of his career) and began to be noticed on the national scene.

The Mk 1 Ford Lotus Cortina was the main weapon of choice by some quick drivers for the 1964 BRSCC Saloon Car Championship, led by the Team Lotus entry for reigning F1 World Champion Jim Clark. Standing out among them by reason not only of its bright orange colour but also its speed was Chris’s version, his performances in which attracted an invitation towards the end of the year from Team Lotus to share one of its Lotus Cortinas with David Hobbs in the Road America 500 in the USA. Chris was also invited by Alan Mann Racing to drive a 1000 cc Anglia in the final round of the European Touring Car Championship in a bid to defeat the hordes of Fiat Abarths on home ground, only to run out of fuel on the last lap of the four hour race!

Without the means to continue running the Cortina in 1965, Chris joined the Superspeed team of 1300 cc Anglias as team mate to Mike Young, running in class A against numerous Mini-Cooper Ss. In dry conditions the rear wheel drive Anglia was a match for the quickest of the Minis but in the wet it struggled. Best result was a third place at Crystal Palace. A highlight of the 1965 season was an invitation to share the DR Fabrications Jaguar E-type with Jackie Oliver in the Brands Hatch 1000 miles, the duo finishing third overall and winning their class.

Touring car regulations changed to Group 5 for 1966 when Chris stayed with Superspeed and its 1300 cc Ford Anglia Supers. John Fitzpatrick won the BRSCC championship in a 1000 cc Broadspeed Anglia while in the 1300 cc class Mike Young finished second to the Cooper S of John Rhodes with Chris third. This was the year in which Chris dipped his toe in the cauldron that was 1000 cc Formula 3 but, although his name appeared in a good few F3 championship entry lists to drive a Merlyn Mk 9, it was only at the end of the season that the Merlyn made it to a starting grid before retiring after one lap with gearbox problems.

Undeterred by the Merlyn experience, at the start of 1967 Chris headed for Italy to drive a works BWA T324 in the Italian F3 Championship, following in the wheel tracks of Jonathan Williams and Boley Pittard. While Jonathan had dominated the 1966 Italian Championship in a De Sanctis, in June 1967 Boley was grievously and fatally burnt when his car caught fire on the grid at Monza and Chris, who to that point had a couple of sixth places in F3 heats to show for his BWA efforts, returned to Essex to spend the rest of the year in the BSCC with a Superspeed Ford Anglia. For 1968 Chris moved from Superspeed to Broadspeed to drive the new Ford Escort 1300GT as team mate to 1966 champion John Fitzpatrick. Chris’s car was not ready until mid-season and in the meantime he enjoyed himself by ruffling the feathers of many drivers of more potent machinery in a 1000 cc Anglia.

Despite the BWA experience, Chris had not given up on his single-seater aspirations and acquired a Tecno TF68 with which to contest as many British F3 Championship races as he could fit in around his saloon car racing. A second place in the Anerley Trophy at Crystal Palace behind F3 ace Roy Pike and third place on the Silverstone Grand Prix circuit in a classic slipstreaming screamer of a race were his best results. Other highlights of the 1968 season included some races for Tech-Speed in a Chevron-BMW B8 with which he finished second overall and first in class in the Birthday Cup at Croft behind only the Lola T70 Mk 3 of Frank Gardner and ahead of such Chevron GT regulars as John Lepp and their creator Derek Bennett. Chris also won the 2-litre class in the sports car race supporting the Oulton Park Gold Cup and shared a Ford Escort 1300GT with the great rally driver Roger Clark to win their class in the Nurburgring 6 Hours round of the European Touring Car Championship. At the end of the season Chris was offered the chance to drive Sid Taylor’s Lola T70 in Austrian airfield races at Aspern and Innsbruck, finishing third at Aspern behind a pair of Abarths and going on to win overall at Innsbruck. He was also given the chance to drive Sid’s prototype Formula 5000 Lola T140 at Phoenix Park where he succeeded in breaking the lap record. To cap it all, Chris was chosen to receive the third Grovewood Award in recognition of his achievements and future prospects.

Tech-Speed switched from its pair of Chevron B8s to a singleton Lola T70 Mk 3 for the 1969 season, retaining Chris as its principal driver. He rewarded them by winning the Martini Trophy at Silverstone and the Wills Trophy at Croft, the latter success following a week after with David Piper he had won the Vila Real 6 Hours in David’s Porsche 908/02. There was more success to come in the Autumn with the Porsche, Chris finishing second with Alain de Cadenet at Mantorp Park, second in the Barcelona 12 Hours and third in the Paris 1000 Ks at Montlhery, the latter two with David again. And in amongst all this sports car activity, which had brought him second place in the RAC Sports Car Championship, Chris also continued to drive for Broadspeed in the British Saloon Car Championship, ending the season by finishing second overall to Alec Poole’s class-dominating 1000 cc Mini-Cooper S and winning the 1300 cc class on the back of six class victories and three second places.

Into the 1970s Chris established himself as one of the UK’s best sports car and saloon car drivers. He began the year in Argentina sharing David Piper’s Lola T70 Mk 3B with Richard Attwood in the Buenos 1000 Ks from which they retired  before going solo the following weekend in the Buenos Aires 200 miles to finish 11th. With Alain de Cadenet’s Ecurie Evergreen Chris contested sports car races around Europe although it was not until the Swedish Sports Car Grand Prix at Karlskoga that the first race win came along with the team’s Cosworth DFV-powered McLaren M8C. In the team’s little Lola T210 Chris won a RAC Sports Car Championship round at Brands Hatch, half a minute ahead of the next car in a 20 lap race, and finished second in an Interserie race at Thruxton against some much more powerful machinery. The McLaren delivered another strong result with second place at the Nurburgring at the end of the season. And all this while Chris was continuing to compete in the British Saloon Car Championship, still with Broadspeed but now moving up to class C with an Escort Twin Cam. Again Chris was class champion on the back of six victories, which gave him fifth overall in the championship standings.

Broadspeed had planned to take Chris into Formula 5000 in 1970 but the project was a disaster thanks to a wrong choice of chassis initially and problems with the Ford Boss Mustang engine which culminated in the whole plot catching fire after a Chevrolet engine had been fitted to a McLaren M10B chassis which should really have been the starting point. This was not the end of Chris’s involvement with single-seater racing. During 1971 Alain de Cadenet acquired one of the Brabham BT33 chassis from the factory which was entered for the Oulton Park Gold Cup and the Canadian and US Grands Prix for Chris to drive. In the combined Formula 1/Formula 5000 Gold Cup Chris brought the Brabham home third of the F1s and fifth overall. The trip to America was less happy, the car failing to qualify in Canada and retiring at Watkins Glen. The BT33 was soon to become the donor car for the Gordon Murray-designed Duckhams de Cadenet which went so well at Le Mans in 1972 in the hands of Chris and Alain.

Chris’s main commitment for 1971 was as factory driver for Chevron with its B19 sports-prototype in the burgeoning European 2-litre championship and the RAC Sports Car series. After winning the opening RAC round at Oulton Park ahead of his good friend John Miles, Chris only visited the podium twice more across both championships, finishing second in the Nurburgring 500 Ks to Vic Elford’s Lola T212 and third at Silverstone. With the Ecurie Evergreen McLaren M8C Chris won at the Norisring in the infamous race in which Pedro Rodriguez lost his life, and finished second in the Coppa Shell at Imola. Chris’s introduction to the Le Mans 24 Hours also turned out well with fourth place sharing American driver David Weir’s ex-Steve McQueen Solar Productions Ferrari 512M. In total Chris contested Les Vingt-Quatre Heures 14 years in succession. Only once did he finish higher than at this first attempt when he claimed third place in 1976 with Alain de Cadenet in the latter’s Lola-DFV T380 in one of the most outstanding achievements ever by a true privateer team at Le Mans.

A couple of third places with David Piper’s Porsche 917, in Interserie races at Keimola and Hockenheim, were the most notable results in 1972. However, in conjunction with Martin Birrane plans were being made to run a Lola T292 in the 1973 European 2-litre Sports-Prototype Championship which was at the peak of its competitiveness. In the season of eight races, only two drivers won more than one race, Chris being one of them with victories at Misano and Imola. Together with second places at Clermont-Ferrand and Montjuic Park, Barcelona Chris emerged as champion ahead of John Burton’s Chevron B23. If the Sports-prototype campaign had gone very well, the same could not be said of Chris’s last venture into single-seaters as team mate to Teddy Pilette in the European Formula 5000 Championship with Team VDS in a Chevron B24. A fifth place at Zandvoort was the best result and Chris ended up 17th in the points whilst his team mate Teddy won the Championship.

Chris took his champion’s #1 to Abarth for the 1974 2-litre season but was beset by various car problems and left the team before the end of the year. His best result was his last one with a fourth place at Enna behind the invincible Alpine-Renault A441s. For the next couple of years Chris kept his hand in at Le Mans driving Alain de Cadenet’s cars before returning to the BSCC in 1977, as usual with a Ford but this time a Capri backed by Hammonds Sauce. While Gordon Spice with four wins won the 3000 cc class, Chris finished runner up with three victories. It was in 1977 that Chris was elected a Member of the BRDC.

In 1978 running as team mate to Gordie in the Autocar-backed Capris, Chris won just once. Over the next few years, he concentrated on endurance racing, principally with Ford Capris with which in 1979 he finished fourth in the Spa 24 Hours with Jeff Allam and fifth in the RAC Tourist Trophy with Gordie Spice and Pete Clark. He played a major role in the development of the Dome Zero RL sports-prototype which he qualified third for the 1979 Silverstone 6 Hours. However, tyre problems in the race meant that he and team mate Gordie could only finish 12th. Chris was seventh in the same race the following year in a Ferrari 512BB with Steve O’Rourke and Vic Norman and third in the Brands Hatch 1000 Ks in 1981 with Derek Bell in a BMW M1. His last race came at Le Mans in 1984 when he shared a Porsche 956 with Alain de Cadenet and Allen Grice which ended in retirement out on the circuit on Sunday morning with Chris at the wheel with engine failure.

Active in property development during his racing career - Chris was one of the first to realise the potential in the London Docklands - Chris teamed up with Gordon Murray to create the Rocket Roadster which its designer reckons is to this day the lightest road car in the world. Quite a few of these unconventional cars were sold by The Light Car Company which Chris and Gordon set up.

Despite its length this tribute to Chris Craft perhaps only scratches the surface of the remarkable career of a driver who was highly-regarded within the sport and who was able to perform at the highest level whether in sports cars and saloon cars.  To his wife Jill and son Luke, the BRDC sends its most sincere condolences.

The Club regrets to report the death of Alistair Walker, who was elected as BRDC Member in 1993
The BRDC regrets to report the death of John Aley, who was elected as a BRDC Member in 1963
The BRDC regrets to report the death of Peter Blond, who was elected as a BRDC Member in 1956
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Notice of Death - Chris Craft (1939 - 2021) | 22-Feb-2021
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