"At one stage I was one of 36 drivers in the world with a Formula One Superlicense! I have driven so many fantastic race cars – most drivers just dream of."
Driven by Desire: The Desiré Wilson Story
Author: Alan Wilson, Track Designer and Desiré’s Husband
by Ziva Allen
Frustration and triumph are two words that immediately come to mind to describe this book. The story of Desiré Wilson, not only one of the greatest female race car drivers of all time, but arguably one of the greatest race car drivers of all time, male or female, is wrought with missed opportunities, sabotage, and mistreatment. But what really stands out in the end is none of that. What stands out in the end is the sheer strong will, over-the-top perseverance, never dying spirit, and downright guts of Desiré. Desiré is one of the premier race car drivers of a past generation, not as famous here in the states in her day, but known on every other major world stage known to racing fans.
In one brief period during 1980, Desiré bested some of the great racers of our youth. In the Aurora Series Easter Monday Championship race at Brands Hatch, Desiré won over Elisio Salazar and teammate Kevin Cogan to become the only woman to win a championship race in a Formula 1 car. Also in 1980, and jumping into Alain de Cadenet’s sports car at the Monza 1000, they won the race, defeating none other than Eddie Cheever, Ricardo Patrese, Walter Rohrl, Jurgen Barth and Henri Pescarolo. And all this in older, lesser equipment. In fact, to raise money before this endurance race, de Cadenet sold off the air jacks and compressed air-powered wheel nut equipment. Their two-man mechanic team had to use hand tools to change tires in the heat of race competition. Cheever, Patrese, Rohrl, Barth and Pescarolo were driving for factory teams. During the final two hours of the race, Desiré passed Pescarolo and then dueled head-to-head with him through rain, tire and fuel stops to come out on top.
Fourteen days later Desiré and de Cadenet won the World Championship 6 Hour race at Silverstone where they beat Porsche 935s and 908s being driven by none other than John Cooper, John Paul Junior and Jurgen Barth. By the way, the car they won in? A de Cadenet! A what? Later that same year, Desiré drove for the first time at Le Mans in the same de Cadenet and in her first practice hit 219 on the Mulsanne straight and had a top ten lap time among all drivers.
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE STORY
Unfortunately, the world in 1980 was not ready for a champion female driver. Author Alan Wilson relates one scenario after another wherein Desiré is blocked from succeeding by the male-dominated racing establishment. That top ten practice time at Le Mans? The officials in charge of that race broke the rules to block Desiré from participating in the most important racing opportunity of her life, even though she qualified in the top ten.
After Jacques Laffite ran Desiré off the track at the 1980 British Grand Prix, Renault team manager Jean Sage told Alan after a race that “Laffite is telling everyone that he drove Desiré right off the track...He’s saying that no fucking woman belongs in Formula 1 and he’s going to do whatever he has to, to keep her out.”
In yet another example related by Alan, Alex Blignaut, the godfather of South African racing “called me to tell me to take my fucking wife and get her the fuck out of South Africa back to fucking England. My surprise wasn’t at the crudeness with which he spoke, but the intensity and the message he was delivering.” Years later Alan found out why Blignaut had been so adamant. Alan was approached by the former president of the Sports Car Club of South Africa who explained that the reason Blignaut wanted his wife out of the country was because of the cigarette companies. “They didn’t want Des in the series,” he told Alan. “They told Alex that if she raced they would pull all their sponsorship.”
During the days of the “Marlboro Man,” such were the obstacles that faced a potentially great female driver. An example of Desiré’s tenacity in the face of so many obstacles came when her car died on the last lap of a race. She got out of the car and pushed it uphill across the finish line to take the flag. At almost 100 degrees Fahrenheit, Desiré immediately collapsed and needed to be attended to by emergency medical workers.
DESIRÉ’S HUMBLE BEGINNINGS
Desiré grew up in South Africa where her father had been involved in motorsports his entire life, first as a successful racer himself, and then as a motorsports mechanic due to multiple injuries that ended his racing career. Desiré was born with racing in her blood. She began racing micro-midgets as a young girl. It was during these early years that Desiré developed into a “fast, aggressive, and very uncompromising driver for whom patience wasn’t her strong point,” writes her husband.
Alan, also a racer in South Africa, recognized early on that his wife was the star of the family and put his energies into supporting her racing career. “As she pulled away to close-in on the race leaders, I realized that my wife-to-be had a level of determination, courage, and sheer ability that was beyond mine, and that, while I might be an acceptable race driver, she had the talent to become a star.”
Without money, it is incredibly difficult to make it to the pinnacle of racing success and the Wilsons were always in the position of having to scrape money together to support their own racing efforts. “It took a while but we managed to rustle up the equivalent of £12,000 to take with us to England, where we arrived at the end of February 1976, to begin the adventure that has consumed the rest of our lives.”
In order to drive in the Formula Ford 2000 series, the Wilsons made a deal so as to get a car to compete with. “Our job was to assemble every single one of the Crossle chassis, including the 24th, which was to be ours.” Desiré made it to the very knife’s edge of racing success with no bankroll and in the face of political and gender biased obstacles of tremendous proportions.
IN DESIRÉ’S OWN WORDS
Q. Desiré, when you look back during the years when you drove competitively, what do you come away with? What are the positives and the negatives and how do you think those experiences have shaped your professional decisions going forward?
A. A person will always look at the negatives first – what if?? Missed opportunities or just plain bad luck – so I will move forward as they are the past and can never be changed.
The positives – At one stage I was one of 36 drivers in the world with a Formula One Superlicense! I have driven so many fantastic race cars – most drivers just dream of. Winning the World Championship Endurance races overall with Alain De Cadenet in 1980, and finishing 7th overall at the 24 hours of Le Mans in a Porsche 956. Having the opportunity to race Formula One, Indy Cars, World Championship Sports Cars – with almost no sponsorship – just Mentors.
Having come from a lower income family, and seen what I did achieve gives me great pride and what can be achieved in one’s life. The same drive and passion I had for racing cars, I have put into the rest of my life. Always looking for opportunities in business, never looking back, moving on to the next project and making a success of it.
Q. I am very inspired by the perseverance you inhabit, which was so well captured in the telling of your story. I’m not sure there are many equals to you when it comes to this trait. What and/or who do you attribute this to?
A. As a little girl in South Africa, I strived to be better in everything I did. From racing Midgets at the age of 5, to being the best in high school at track and field, winning every event, to racing cars. I never knew what was next for me, but I always gave my best. I strived for success. My mother and father always supported me in whatever way they could. My husband, Alan, my greatest friend and supporter also gave me the stability and courage I needed to move on, especially during adversity. I was born with an inner strength and passion to be the best I could be.
Q. What was the greatest pass you remember ever making on the track during a race?
A. I wish there was only one that stood out – but there are so many. At Sebring driving a Saleen Mustang and passing the leader on the final turn of the last lap to win the 6 hour Escort Endurance event.
Passing my teammate Eddie Cheever in the 1981 South African Grand Prix in a Tyrrell, and later Nigel Mansell (Lotus) at the same race.
Passing Sigi Brun (Porsche 908) in the closing stages of the Silverstone 6 hour World Endurance Championship race to take victory.
Passing Henri Pescarolo (Porsche 935) with one lap to go to win the Monza 1000 km World Endurance Championship race to take another victory in the De Cadenet-Cosworth DFV both in 1980.
Too many to list. There really is nothing like passing to take the lead and maintaining it!
These days Desiré and Alan focus their energies on Wilson Motorsports where they design race tracks and racing facilities. Desiré continues to provide private coaching and is a perennial invitee at the Goodwood Festival of Speed where she drives great race cars from the past in vintage races against other historic champions.
Alan Wilson’s book about the life and racing career of his wife offers a window into the racing world of an earlier era. As is so common, women tend to not be mentioned in historical references and books for accomplishing greatness if the greatness achieved happens to be in a male dominated arena. Alan Wilson knew the importance of getting his wife’s story down on paper before it would be lost to future generations and future race car drivers. This book captures the career of one of the great drivers of our time and is a great read for driving enthusiasts.