The second of these interviews sees Dennis Wharf chatting to four times Midget challenge Champion, Peter May. Equally admired for his expertise behind the wheel and superb engineering prowess, Peter is perhaps even more highly regarded by those involved with the sport, for the way he so patiently advises and helps drivers when problems and difficulties occur with their cars.
"It was a Sunday morning in 1959", Peter explains, "when my brother asked, ‘shall we go to Brands Hatch for the day?’ to which I replied, ‘yeah OK great’. With the family home in Cheam it wasn't that far and about halfway there I asked, ‘so what happens at Brands Hatch then?’ It was the Kentish 100 meeting for F2 cars with Chris Bristow, Jack Brabam, Stirling Moss, Graham Hill, all the aces driving Coopers etc. Anyway, it was a great day and by the end of it I'd made my mind up, no question, I was going to be a racing driver. To be honest though it was the sports cars in one of the supporting races that really sold it to me, cars like the little Lotus Elite, wonderful."
As our conversation started, I realised that the next hour or so was going to be captivating; unravelling the web of personalities synonymous with club motor sport from the sixties right up to today, so many of whom started their racing careers behind the wheel of an MG Midget. However, Peter May, a modest, most likeable man, who has achieved so much (BRSCC Modsports Champion in 1975, Midget Challenge Champion of 1986, 1991, 1993 and 2002 for example) and who has prepared engines and gearboxes for a clientele which includes such names as Ed Reeve, Gil Duffy, David Weston, William Smallridge, Richard Wildman, Christian Andrew, Stuart Bullas, Gary Waite and Andrew Actman appears somewhat bemused that anyone would be interested in either him or what he has achieved.
Although he didn’t return to Brands Hatch for some time, the seeds had been sown and with schooling finished Peter accepted an apprenticeship with Morris Commercial Cars at Adderley Park in 1963, moving to the west midlands to take up the opportunity. “Commercial Division were the poor relations in the old BMC set up of those days, but it was here that I met many of the people I'd be connected with in one way or another for much of the future and who, among other things, I went racing with." Looking over his glasses, Peter adds, "You could say that everything went downhill from here! I shared living accommodation with Karl Barras and Bob Neville who were in the same year as me, along with Roger Enever and Alec Poole, who was a year older and Arnie Poole, Alec's brother, a year behind us. It’s amazing really because we all had the same desire to go racing and Midgets were the preferred machine: predictable with the right wheels being driven and relatively cheap, they were just perfect. Although I did drive a few other things on occasion, I always felt happiest in a Midget, but that wasn't necessarily how I thought things would turn out. There were others at Morris Commercial who were racing, Robin Locke for example, Howard Darby and John Dellbridge with Minis and quite a few aspiring rally drivers too, so quite a hotbed of really talented people. It was an interesting time."
One of the flats they shared was at the infamous 73 Wakegreen Road where just about everyone to be associated with racing MG Midgets would pass through or stay at some stage. The big old house, now long gone, was divided into flats and bedsits and at any time had an equal number of Austin and Morris apprentices in residence. “While we were there we had a couple of lads from Longbridge who were doing some work on the chassis for the Austin Le Mans cars, about eight others from Morris and then finally on the top floor were two flats occupied by some very attractive nurses. So a pretty good reason to have a party, which we did about once a month or more often if the money allowed. The other notable thing about that place was the kitchen, where you only cooked if in desperation. We mainly used it for engine preparation because you see we had a bit of a mice problem. The little fellows would enter by means of a gas pipe which came in through an outside wall, our only satisfactory defence being to grease the pipe and place a bucket of water beneath it. The familiar 'plop', as yet another rodent fell to an unexpected bath became quite a feature. No, you didn't eat there unless really forced!" Infested with mice or not Peter built one of his best 1000cc engines in that kitchen which was destined to go into his first Frogeye, a car he later lost in a card game to Bob Neville. Recalling, "it’s amazing what a couple of Mackeson's could do to you in those days".
It was during this time that Peter went racing with Roger Enever and Arnie Poole as their mechanic, “I didn't do a great deal, as Arnie knew a lot more about cars than I did, but I was learning all the time". Once out of his apprenticeship with more funds available his own driving career began, "originally with the 1000cc Frogeye already mentioned, then I had Roger's old Midget, the re-shelled 138 DMO, which I comprehensively destroyed in the banking at the MGCC Silverstone meeting in 1971. Beyond easy repair I removed all the mechanical components from the car, presented Bob Neville with the somewhat re-shaped bodyshell, then bought another correctly shaped one for about £3.00 and built my own car. This was followed by John Brittens Arkley. Of course these were all Modsports cars which, although not as developed as today's class A cars, were nevertheless pretty quick machines being, I suppose, closer to today's class B cars. I was John Britten's service manager and team driver and during that first year in the Arkley, 1972, I enjoyed some good dices with Andy Bailey and Mike Donavan. The following year I bought the Arkley from John and continued to enjoy success with it. I then went to France for a year entrusting the car to Bob Neville, who had nothing to race at the time, and then on my return in 1975 took it over once again to win that BRSCC Modsports Championship, running it with an 1150cc engine." He finally sold the car in 1976 to Mark Birrell, at which point they realised it still had the original roll cage fitted, discovering it was nothing more than a couple of Midget exhaust pipes simply welded together! "I also built a Turner Modsports car with a 1500cc Ford engine at this time selling it to Clive Rowland who worked for Chris Montague – more people connected with Midgets."
By now Peter was selling and restoring Morgans for Mike Duncan, for whom it seemed he was making a lot of money, "I felt I could do this and so set up my own restoration business just as the mid seventies recession started to bite. So I didn't make much money out of Morgans, but it’s funny how things turn out; on returning from France I'd built a Fiat 124 Coupe Modsports car which Mark Hales went on to win the 750 MC Championship with. Well, I'd swapped that Fiat with Mark for an old Modsports Midget complete with a pile of spares which I advertised in the local paper, and the first person to ring up and come along for the spares was David Carey who was racing a Midget and wanted somebody who knew about them to look after it for him. And that’s how it all started, it was never my intention to make a living out of racing Spridgets, it just happened that way."
Now with a business to run chasing championships played second fiddle for a while, with Peter only racing a Midget when time allowed in the occasional prodsorts event. Always aware of what was happening, however, due to the preparation of customer David Carey's car, he then, in 1985, decided to have a serious look at the Midget Challenge series, the first year for class B cars. "Class B really appealed: powerful engines on six inch slicks, they were not much different to the old Modsports, anyway, I decided to build a car to the new regulations and was pleased I did as it was a fairly successful season, finishing third behind Tony Dowler and John Prince. I learned a few things that first year which were to pay dividends." They certainly did as the following season he took nine wins from nine starts, set seven lap records and won the series by a staggering 45 points!
"The following year I enjoyed more really good racing finishing third overall", what he doesn't add, however, is that he had so much work as a result of the previous season's success he only started half the races! And so it went on; in 1988 he came second to Mark Ellis by just a single point, and 1989 saw old apprentice and flat mate Karl Barras come home second to Steve Westwood in a Peter May prepared car. He then had another runaway year in 1991, doing the same again two years later. His last championship came in 2002 at the wheel of his highly developed class A car. During all this time of course Peter had built many of the engines powering the cars he was racing against, "during the second half of the eighties I was often the only supplier of class B engines which was very good from the championship point of view as we all had the same power, they weren't quite the ultimate but we enjoyed total reliability. I also supplied class A engines there being about a 50/50 split between A and B, which in fact continues, it being pretty much the same split for this year on the engine front."
Drawing from his racing experience and engineering background Peter has developed and marketed a number of ready to fit Spridget parts, for example: nine and ten inch front disc kits, rear disc kits, lowering kits, rose jointed front anti roll bars, panhard rods, sophisticated clutch release mechanisms, roller bearing and hydraulic tappets, remote clutch bleeding kit, front damper rose jointed top links, rear wheel double bearing kits, comp half shafts, the list goes on and on. But, when asked if any of these ideas and developments have given any particularly pleasure, again he becomes quite reticent explaining that there have never been any "eureka moments", it’s simply been a process of looking to see what might work and engineering it to do so. And work they do, for the majority of the cars now racing are fitted with these kits, on top of which Peter May Engineering has prepared more race winning engines and gearboxes than any other supplier consistently for over thirty years.
Owing to just how long these cars have been racing I ask Peter if he sees changes in store for the series in the future. "No not really, I think for as long as we have a thriving MG Car Club the racing should continue largely unaffected. I suppose there might be some rulings in the future that might change things but I don't see anything on the horizon currently, after all, that is the strength of the series, its stability, with all three classes being clearly defined by their regulations.” And while we are on the subject I ask, having competed in all three classes, was there a favourite? "Oh," comes the immediate reply, "class B, with almost the same power as the class A cars but with considerably narrower wheels, you can set the car up to understeer or oversteer just how you want, and believe me although it might sound old hat, there's nothing better than drifting a car through a corner, simply nothing. Having said that I've had some great races in my class A car, none more so than at Spa-Francorchamps, especially against Paul Sibley. We've had some really great times there, where the sheer speed of the Midgets amazed even us. On two or three occasions we've been setting consistent 2.53 minute laps, while the historic five litre GT40's could only muster three minutes. To be seven seconds a lap quicker than those things with just 120 bhp is quite something. However, the standard of driving on the Continent can sometimes be questionable, something we rarely have to worry about here at home fortunately".
So with Spa confirmed as a favourite circuit abroad what about at home? "Donnington; a lovely, flowing race track. Oh and Oulton Park too." And as for Brands Hatch where it all started? "No I wouldn't consider Brands a favourite, although I currently hold the lap record there, but I think William Smallridge has got other ideas about that." Then thoughtful for a moment Peter adds, "Although you know the most satisfying moment of all was winning the Steve Everitt Trophy at Brands in 2000. Not only does everyone want to win the Everitt trophy, but it was such a good race, passing Chris Ashby on the last corner of the last lap and winning by just 1/600th of a second. It doesn't get better than that. So as a race alone it was very satisfying, but winning Steve's trophy made it simply fantastic. I had a cracking race with Richard Wildman at Donnington in 2001 also, when we changed places about two or three times a lap, but that Everitt Trophy race, truly a high point."
Having been racing now for approaching thirty eight years obviously I ask, is he going to continue? A short pause and then quietly he answers, "I would think so. Every year at the end of the season I say, ‘that's it, I'm retiring’, but then when I've got all the customer work completed and the season is about to begin, about April time, I think ‘hmm its time to get the car out’. After all why not? I still enjoy the sport and the preparation work, so yes I see things carrying on much as before. It’s what I do."
Away from the business of motor racing and engine preparation, however, Peter does have another interest, and one that is as far removed from engineering as is possible: the theatre. "I'm part of a group who help run productions for local theatre companies. Having always had an interest in the theatre, it’s lovely to do something completely away from cars. We are a voluntary group and provide all the sound, lighting and staging at about ten amateur theatres and various town, civic and village halls, all around the west midlands. I did my bit on stage some time ago and now my contribution is firmly behind the scenes and has been now for nearly twenty years. During what I suppose you could call the quiet season, from October through to late winter, drama productions up and down the country are running at full strength and they all require lighting, sound and staging, which is where our group comes in. It’s fascinating and it dovetails nicely with the racing season. It’s something I think I'll always be associated with."
It’s been a fascinating conversation, weaving this way and that, and towards the end I ask Peter if he could have raced any other type of car, either now or from the past, what would it have been? Again, that decisiveness shines through and, without hesitation he answers "full ground effect three and a half litre group C cars. They were phenomenal. I watched those things whenever time allowed and would have loved the chance to have driven one. Being a fuel formula too, of course, it was green, and would be so right now if re-introduced. And those cars, didn't they just look great with their low drag bodies, low wings and deep side pods? What I call simple aerodynamics, so much better than today's cars with their barge boards etc. Mind, I have thought of fitting some barge boards to our class A car, as a wind-up, trouble is the following weekend everyone would have them, thinking I'd found some 'competitive edge' or, as Roger Penske would say, ‘the unfair advantage!’ But why shouldn't they? It’s competition and, Midget racing, believe me, is as competitive now as ever." It’s fairly obvious that so too is Mr May.