Always referred to as the ‘friendly championship’, the MGCC Midget Challenge goes into its 32nd season, as buoyant as ever, with an eleven race program planned for those on the very full grids to look forward to. Originally somewhat underrated it’s amazing just how many people have an enormous soft spot for these little cars, and at any race meeting, not only MGCC meetings, everybody anticipates watching these machines in action, with more often than not the Midget race being voted 'race of the day'. So why is this series, sponsored for a second year by Lenham Cars & Cornwall Surveying, so popular? Clearly there is no one better to ask than the originator of what can arguably be described as the most popular racing series ever run by the MG Car Club, Larry Quinn. Not one to seek public acclaim, this modest man keeps a steady hand on the tiller ensuring he is well abreast of any impending legislation likely to threaten the all important stability of the series. And with the little MG's forerunner the Austin Healey Sprite celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, there seemed no better time to find out.
Originally from Northern Ireland Larry moved to Essex in 1969 due to his employers, the Ford Motor Company, requesting him to transfer to their Dunton research establishment, where he continued to work as a development engineer, until retiring four years ago. Soon after joining the club in 1971 I met Larry at our local natter, the Cricketers in Danbury, by which time he was already racing fairly regularly with his standard Tartan Red 1275cc 1969 MkIII Midget. "In those days" he points out "the Midget wasn't really regarded too highly, but I felt differently and used mine in the traditional way, competing with it at weekends, and driving it to work and back midweek. Of course driving a standard car I couldn't enter modsports races, the most popular sports car events at the time, so I simply looked around for races where other MGs would be running and would enter them". Pickings were thin at this time as a bog standard Midget was simply outclassed by other production sports cars like Lotus Elans, Davrians, Ginettas and particularly Caterhams. Nevertheless he enjoyed his motor sport and would, on occasion, enter up to three races on the same day, particularly at BRSCC or 750MC run meetings, providing there was enough time between each race. As he says, "in the early seventies providing you had a laminated windscreen, a fire bulkhead and a crash helmet you could go racing. Things were very relaxed and great fun back then, my race preparation once at the circuit consisted of nothing more than over inflating my crossply tyres that we all used (this would allow the car to drift), changing the soft plugs for some harder ones, and then simply pushing down the radio aerial!"
By 1976 the lack of regular close competition was becoming more frequent despite the fact that other Spridget drivers were racing in small numbers at their local circuits around the country, but rarely travelling to other tracks because nothing was organized. Aware of this, Larry pondered if it were possible to bring them all together and remarked upon it one night at the Cricketers to T-type racer Stuart Dean. After listening for a while Stuart asked, "Why not start your own championship just for MG Midgets?" and Larry explains "I said to Stuart ‘I can't do that!’ but Stuart insisted: ‘Of course you can, go and see Gordon Cobham and see what's involved.’ So I gave it some thought, formed a few ideas and did indeed put the whole thing to Gordon, who gave it his immediate blessing, even offering me financial assistance if it were needed." A smile, then he adds, "It never was." Just prior to this Larry had taken over writing the Modern Midget Notes for Safety Fast! from another of the Cricketers regulars, Mike Rayner. Mike, a successful auto-tester also at the wheel of a Midget, would seek out Larry whenever anything technical was raised within the magazine, finally convincing him that he should take the job over as he was far more qualified to answer the many queries coming in each month. This was fortuitous for he was then able, within the Notes, to mention the forming of a Midget Racing Championship, suggesting a date and place, once the season was over, for those who might be interested. "I remember that meeting very well for two main reasons," recalls Larry. "Firstly, it was a bitterly cold and windy November evening and I'd suggested meeting in the old club house at Silverstone which in those days was nothing more than a tin shed, believe me, it was bloody freezing. And secondly, and far more importantly of course, because we had about twenty drivers turn up which was really encouraging."
Among those who attended was David Page who at the time was racing a modsports Midget. This was interesting as Larry had not expected a driver of one of these machines to be interested, however the modified Caterhams were having the same effect upon modsports racing as their less developed brethren had been else where, decimating the grids previously made up of E-type Jaguars, TVR Tuscans, Elans, Sunbeam Tigers, Ginettas and much more. Subsequently it was decided to have two classes within the championship, one for road cars and the other for fully race modified cars. "I decided on a standard road going class simply because my car complied" adds Larry. “It’s for sure I wasn't going to eliminate myself before we had even started. I also stipulated that to comply with 'road going', entrants had to drive to and from the meeting in their race car for which they received an extra point, and that was it, all I had to do now was get on and organise the thing, which I was convinced wouldn't last more than a season, if that!".
The first race, a Rochester AC meeting held on the 4th April 1977 at Brands Hatch, saw ten modified cars and an equal number of standard cars line up. Among those on the grid that day were Paul Bernal-Ryan, who still races the same car (MG 3) to this day, Ed Reeve, Mike Chalk and Jeff Weekes, along with the very knowledgeable Barry Jones commentating. "Steve Everitt won the modified class" Larry recalls, "and I the standard class, it was a fine race and great to be out among a competitive field of cars at last. By the time of the second meeting at Mallory Park, David Page joined us along with Mark Hales and Lawrence Cutler, the race on this occasion being won by James Thacker, yet another driver still competing today".
There were nine races that first year with the fully modified cars on average just outnumbering the standard cars, resulting in some pretty close racing. It didn't go unnoticed; the following year grids were up by an appreciable percentage. Unfortunately, however, that first season didn't end the way Larry would have wished. With the standard class already wrapped up and under his belt, he went to the last round at Brands Hatch on a cold crisp 28th November in high spirits. Practice went fine but by the time of the race it had been raining and with temperatures just below zero the wet track was icing over in places. Some of the full race cars were still running on slicks and so it wasn't long before the inevitable happened: on the third lap coming through Clearways Trevor Styles lost control and rolled, the race being stopped. By the re-start it was now raining harder and going down Paddock Hill a few cars got out of shape, collecting others on the way resulting in several going off. The race was stopped yet again, in fact it was to be stopped no less than three times with just nine cars finally making the finish, the eventual winner being Dave Shepperd driving a standard road car narrowly beating Steve Everitt's fully modified machine by the smallest of margins, the only time a road car has ever taken overall honours. In amongst what now resembled a breakers yard spread across either side of Paddock Hill was Larry's once pristine MG, taken out in that second shunt. Barely able to be driven, he eventually limped the car home to retirement.
The series continued to gain in popularity so much so that by 1985 it was decided a third mid way class should be adopted, as a step towards the fully race modified cars which had by now been developed into seriously quick machines. It got off to a shaky start with just nine contenders in that first year, but by the following season it had grown to thirteen and by 1987 was proving to be yet another roaring success.
During the heyday of modsports racing in the late sixties and early seventies some Midget drivers had tried supercharging as a way of gaining more power from their engines, and in 1980 Ed Reeve tried this approach again racing with a 1070cc (due to the RAC's forty per cent ruling), supercharged engine on three occasions. This highly stressed unit being very powerful but also somewhat unreliable. At about this time also Richard Ibrahim, who had previously competed in 1978 and 79, came up with probably the ultimate modsports Midget ever to turn a wheel, but which was in fact not a Midget but a Mallock U2 Mk 8 spaceframe clubman’s car, wearing Midget glass fibre panels, plus an enormous ex-Wolf Formula 1 car rear wing. Powered by a 1500cc Ford twin cam engine and running through a Lotus Cortina gearbox, the car was built to contest the Special GT racing series, however a bit tongue in cheek, it appeared at the MGCC's Silverstone meeting that year. It did race, but following a steward’s inquiry the car was disqualified. However, much to everyone’s surprise, Richard had great fun pointing out that nowhere in the regulations did it say that to compete in the Midget championship you actually had to drive a Midget! These cars and a few others like them led to the standardization of the classes, which since 1981 have been established thus. Class A: the full race cars are allowed spaceframed rear ends and other modifications to the basic shell, use glass fibre body panels, have no wheel rim limit, use racing tyres, are allowed long stroke cranks in the A series engines which can be taken up to 1500cc, and use racing gear box internals. These cars produce between 120 to 140 bhp, with limited slip diffs, and are very, very quick. Class B: the semi modified cars have to keep the basic steel shell, but are allowed fibreglass panels. They run on six inch wide slicks but with no LSD, use full race engines on a single Webber, and produce about 115 to 120 bhp. And finally, class C: standard cars which utilise an all steel shell apart from the front panels, run on classic replica Minilight wheels (on safety grounds), and road tyres, but are restricted to a standard engine although they are allowed any cam. They produce between 90 to 100 bhp, using standard SU carbs.
The series has produced some terrific drivers and great characters over the years none more so than the impossible to dislike Steve Everitt, who, just days after winning the final race of the 1987 season at Snetterton, sadly died when on holiday in the Greek Islands. "A lovely bloke against whom never was a bad word spoken he just loved motor racing and life in general", recalls Larry. Steve from Sevenoaks in Kent, started racing in 1976 having purchased David Strange's modsports Midget the previous autumn. He went on to drive this car for the next twelve years amassing seventy first places, taking the Championship six times, being runner up twice, third once and forth twice. His 1964 car, although damaged a couple of times, retained its quarter-elliptic shell as it still does to this day now owned by Ed Reeve. Richard Wildman is the only driver so far to be crowned Champion in all three classes, and probably the smoothest driver ever to race a Midget, reckons Larry, is Tim Cairnes. "Only using a 1340cc engine in his class A machine Tim could beat the best, including Everitt, taking the title from Steve on two occasions. You know he possessed a Jenson Button style of driving, smooth, clean and unspectacular but devastatingly quick, he never wasted a millimetre of circuit using the meanest and quickest line lap after lap, with all four wheels planted firmly on the ground working one hundred percent of the time, I always thought he would have been great in any category or formula". Interestingly Tim is coming out again this year driving a class C car.
"Whilst on the subject of drivers" Larry continues "I'd like to add how the driving standards have been maintained at the highest level. I sometimes have to remind new drivers that Midget racing, indeed all MG racing, is a non contact sport. I explain that if you start barging, make contact and come to grief its going to be expensive, and that’s not why we are here. And they all drive accordingly, consequently we very seldom have any red flag. Plus with the likes of Ed Reeve, Peter May and Gill Duffy taking part, respect is bred among the drivers, of which there has probably been more than two thousand in the series since the we began". A good number of whom are keen to keep in touch with Larry. "What’s nice is how many drivers come back after going away and doing other things, Paul Sibley springs to mind, competing in formula three and BCV8's, and now talking of racing a Midget once more, also Chris Westall, one of the original Championship contenders, following a twenty year break came out again a couple of years back, using the same car from all that time ago".
"A lot of this I think is due to the atmosphere I've tried to maintain, which centre’s around having fun. You remember how much fun we enjoyed with our cars back in those heady days at the Cricketers? Well I try to keep that spirit going, so if a driver has mechanical difficulties all the others will gather round and lend a hand to ensure the car is fixed for the race, with folks shooting off to find the necessary parts, much in the same way as we all helped each other at the pub, and although there are other championships for Spridget drivers, the FISC and the MGOC for example, which should on the face of it be a threat, in fact they work in our favour. We visit all the major UK circuits and have never compromised by allowing other MGs to compete with us, but above all I think, because it’s fun. When you enter the series you know what to expect, because the regulations are so well developed now. Two carburettors a distributor, four cylinders and push-rods, that's as technical as it gets. Everybody knows what they are racing against and there is no opportunity for cheating and the best man wins. With this philosophy we've kept costs low and enjoyment high. I don't think there is a cheaper form of motor racing anywhere at the moment, even though the cars are way beyond what the designers had in mind back in 1958. The fully modified cars have performance levels such that on track days these machines will see off anything, including the Caterhams, but also Jaguars, Porsches, Ferraris, you name it," with a wide grin he continues, "they cause quite a bit of embarrassment in some quarters, the little MGs being looked down upon as insignificant until out on the tarmac!" This is very true for on occasions these cars have competed in Europe at circuits such as Spa, where in 1993 for example David Brooker-Carey won his class in the Trophee des Ardennes, beating all the 400bhp AC Cobras, and GT40s, finishing just inches behind an ex-Le Mans Lola T70 with a 5700cc Chevrolet engine installed. Not bad for a little 1460cc MG producing just 120bhp!
Does Larry regret not continuing his racing following the accident in 1977? "Well not really. You see with the ever increasing popularity of the Championship, and the time required to run it, I doubt I'd have enjoyed racing in the same way, plus a year or two later either the RAC or MSA, I can't remember which, decreed that if you ran a Championship you couldn't compete in it, so that would have scuppered me anyway. Also you have to bear in mind that with so many drivers taking part, I was running two championships, one for the road going and one for the modified, each of which at one time had seventeen rounds and not always at the same circuits or on the same day, so with up to thirty four races to organize each year my free time has been pretty well accounted for. I thoroughly enjoy it though, and wouldn't change a thing. Fortunately Ford, my employers with a strong motor sports background, were very understanding of what I was doing with my spare time, and allowed me to use photocopiers and the telephone without question, so I was lucky in that respect. I think it was very good of them. They took the attitude that if an employee was doing something in motor sports that was good thing, no matter what you were driving either. It was a very liberal attitude and I appreciated it very much."
So what of the future? Well it would appear much as before, with this ‘quietly robust’ championship going ahead, stronger than ever, and this year for the first time with a control tyre via Yokohama, who will supply all three class contenders with rubber to further keep costs in check. With the newly re-written Blue Book for this season requiring Larry to double check through seventeen pages of regulations now out of the way, the season will open in a few weeks time with all the old camaraderie and energy carried on from those far off Cricketers days. "Oh," Larry adds with a warm beam, "and one last thing, if you were to ask me what I think has been the best, most versatile, proper sports car available since the war, it has to be the Austin Healey Sprite and MG Midget as made MG at Abingdon. Totally unpretentious, but boy aren't they fun." I think we can all agree with that.