THE RACING CAREER of Whitney Willard Straight reads like the plot in an Indiana Jones movie script. He rode motorbikes, drove cars and learned to fly before he was 17, bought and raced a Grand Prix
Maserati at 19, set up his own team of three GP Maseratis when he turned 21 and retired from racing at amazingly young age of 23, having turned down an offer to drive for Auto Union in 1935. The truth was, he did want to drive for Auto Union in 1935 but their works car was tricky to handle, being a 16·cylinder with 450 kW (600 bhp) that weighed 610kg (12cwt) and spun its wheels up to 260 km/h. With that in mind, Straight considered it self preservation by turning down the offer.
That Straight was good enough to be offered an Auto Union drive as
Richard Seaman was offered a berth in the Mercedes-Benz team shows the respect with which the young driver was held by the works teams.
Straight enjoyed a natural talent that needed little in the way of honing or moulding, a flair like a Clark or a Stewart, or a Nuvolari. Straight would later assert that he could match Nuvolari
in the rain when both were driving 8CM Maseratis in 1934. "He was the man I most wanted to beat and I found that I could always be quicker than he was if it was wet because he was frightened of the wet, but in the dry he was faster than I was
Whitney Straight was born in New York in 1912. His father was a remarkable man who had gone straight from Cornell University to China having learned to read, write and speak Chinese. He joined the Chinese customs service, became the American consul in Manchuria and later became a representative for the J. P. Morgan banking Company in China. He died of
influenza in Paris during World War 1. Whitney's mother subsequently married an Englishman and the family settled in England in 1925. Straight became a British citizen when he turned 21 and in England he was the toast of the racing set, winning the International Trophy at Brooklands
, the Donington Park and the Mountain Championships once again at Brooklands
. Hillclimbs held a special fascination. In 1933 he had broken Stuck's Shelsley Walsh record which had stood for three years, and he took the 8C to Mont Ventoux where he smashed Caracciola's record for the hill! He stormed the heights of the 21.7 km (131fz-mile) shingle climb in 14 min 31.6 sec, beating Caracciola's record set the year before by 40.8 sec.
Whitney's first car was a Model T Ford
which he super-tuned and pounded round the fields of the family estate. The family finances comfortably covered motorbikes, cars and flying lessons. Straight flew solo when he was 16 and got his flying licence on his 17th birthday. Students at Cambridge were forbidden cars but college regulations said nothing about aircraft. While he was 20 and still at Cambridge he bought Tim Birkin's 2.5 litre 8C Maserati and confounded authority by flying out to races in Europe on Friday afternoons and back in time for classes on the Monday. He started racing with a Brooklands Riley, taking it to Shelsley Walsh hillclimb in July, 1931, for his competition debut and ending the afternoon with 3rd place in the 1100 cm3 class.
His first race was at Brooklands
in August 1931 and he finished fourth. His first event with the Birkin Maserati was an ice race in Sweden in February, 1932, but he tangled with a Mercedes and after stopping to straighten the front wheels he rejoined the race and was gathering in the leaders on the frozen lake when he skated off on a 190 km/h corner and slid under a bridge.By the time he had turned 20 he was getting enormous pleasure from racing with the best drivers in the world. Some pundits thought he was getting above himself, and in a reported incident was once ticked off by Sammy Davis at Brooklands
for driving too fast. He said to Davis: "Look, this is what I am here to do. I haven't damaged anyone or myself, so therefore I will drive as fast as possible within those limitations ...
He went on to underline his faith in himself by setting new records for the Brooklands mountain circuit. His car was painted black with silver wheels and when he bought an 1100 cm3 MG K3 it was painted in the same distinctive colors. His early successes came on the mountain circuit at Brooklands, a course generally reckoned to be more difficult, if less dangerous, than the sheer speed required for the banked outer circuit. Not that Straight wasn't man enough for the bankings. He borrowed an Indianapolis Duesenberg
, then owned by the Ferrari stable, which had run in the 1933 Italian Grand Prix
driven by Count Trossi. The car suffered on acceleration but it seemed to Straight that it could be long-legged enough for an outer circuit record. Straight would later rate his attempt on the record as the most dangerous thing he ever did on a race track. "The Duesenberg wasn't a particularly fast car - and I was proud to set a time second fastest to Cobb's Napier-Railton
". Ultimately his attempt fell tantalizingly close, with a speed of 223 km/h falling just short of John Cobb's record.
Driving for the Italians, not as an Italian
The banked circuit at Brooklands was a treacherous beast - we have even seen a photograph showing a car with all four wheels off the ground. Straight's speed was 223.4 km/h (138.78 mph) - 3.46 km/h (2.15 mph) short of the record. In 1933 he won the Coppa Acerbo at Pescara in the MG
, taking delight in beating the Italians on their home ground. In a later interview, Straight commented "I remember afterwards taking the Fascist party boss of the area around the circuit. He sat there saluting with his hand up but then I started to plant the throttle and he was shouting 'piano, piano'
. Circumstances were to change by 1934 when Straight went back to Pescara with his Maseratis to face the might of the German works teams. "It more or less said: 'We don't care whether or not you kill yourself, we expect you to uphold the honor of Italy .. .'
- a big ask of someone who was driving for the Italians, not as an Italian!
Straight raced in an era long before the F1 groupie of today - and so it was not uncommon for parents of racing drivers to be attend the events. However Straight's mother was never a race fan, and only attended a few Brooklands events, and the Monaco Grand Prix
in 1934. "During practice I had a close shave in the tunnel. My times hadn't been as good as I would have liked and I was advised by Chiron and others that you could go through the tunnel flat. When I eventually tried it I came out backwards at 190 km/h but fortunately the car parked itself at the side of the road undamaged. A second or two later Chiron flashed past. Apparently it was alright in a Bugatti but not in a Maserati which didn't enjoy the same stability.
He raced the ex-Birkin BC Maserati (and the K3 MG from time to time) in 1933 and earned himself a reputation as something of a playboy racing driver, either flying to and from events in his own plane or driving his eight-litre Bentley. But it wasn't all show and no go. Straight was laying plans for a professional Grand Prix
team of his own in 1934 and formed Whitney Straight Limited with workshops in Milan and three transporters. He ordered three of the new three-litre 8CM Maseratis from the factory and took delivery of two for the start of the season. These two 8CMs were passed over to Reid Railton for custom modifying at Thomson & Taylor. The modifications included different fuel tanks, different cockpit arrangements and the installation of a Wilson preselector box. The Wilson self-change (automatic) gearbox worked well and the team only had one failure, but that failure cost Straight the Casablanca Grand Prix
in 1934. On the very last lap the gearbox started to slip while Straight was leading and Chiron went on to win. The self change gearbox was a definite advantage at Monte Carlo where you didn't waste time changing gears, instead simply pushing straight through but on a circuit with long straights it cost the Maserati up to 25 km/h on top speeds, because it absorbed a lot of power.
The most striking external difference with the Straight Maseratis was the replacement of the slab-fronted Italian radiator
with a stylish heart-shaped cowl which was to become the Straight trademark. Only two of the new 8CMs were delivered initially so the 8C was retained as a back-up. Straight signed Hugh Hamilton, Marcel Lehoux and Buddy Featherstonehaugh who fitted in with Straight's value of a man by being an accomplished tenor sax player as well as a racing driver. The others involved in the running of the team were Giuilio Ramponi, F. R. W. ("Lofty") England, Reid Railton and Bill Rockell. Straight could have fielded the team for himself but in those days there were often races on the same weekend in different parts of Europe and with good starting money it became practical as well as profitable to attend as many races as possible.
Straight getting the Chequered Flag as he crosses the line
at East London in his famous 8CM Maserati, to win what
is arguably the very first South African Grand Prix.
The performances of the Straight team have to be viewed in the context of the strong German opposition they faced at the time. Privateers with second-string Maseratis could not really hope to finish higher than sixth or seventh in a Grand Prix. Rated this way, Straight's team acquitted itself well. Whitney was second in the Vichy Grand Prix,' third in Comminges and fourth at Casablanca and Montreaux. Hamilton and Featherstonehaugh scored a one-two in the Albi GP, a race where Straight had finished second the year before with the 8C.
Everything was not champagne successes in 1934 however, as Hugh Hamilton was killed in the Swiss Grand Prix
at Berne towards the end of the season in the Straight Maserati. Although no one - Straight included - was aware of it, his racing career was coming to an end, but the young maestro was to bow out on a rousing note. He had agreed to enter his Maserati in the "Border 100" at East London, a race that would eventually become known as the first South African Grand Prix.
By way of adventure, Straight decided to fly down to East London in a De Havilland Dragon accompanied by his younger brother Michael and Dick Seaman. Michael had never raced before and was entered in a four-litre Railton sports car while Seaman was driving the ex-Straight blown K3 MG. Overloaded with fuel and racing spares, the plane ran out of runway while taking off in Rhodesia and landed in a ditch.
It was not enough to stop the team from making it to the race, a handicap event over six laps of a 24.4 km circuit. Whitney was conceding 22 min 24 sec to the limit in an Austin Seven sports car, Seaman was off 5 min 54 sec, and Michael was off 7 min 57 sec. Seaman was troubled by a faulty hand fuel-pressure pump and made several pit stops but by the fourth lap the back markers were slicing through the field and Michael and Whitney were running fifth and sixth. With a lap to go Whitney was up to second place and closing on the leader, J. J. Case in a Ford V8 special. By the time they reached the checkered flag the order was Whitney at an average speed of 153.6 km/h (95.43 mph ), two minutes ahead of Case at 122.4 km/h (76 mph) and Miachel was third in the Railton having averaged 130 km/h (81 mph). Seaman was fifth. So Whitney Straight won his last race on December 27, 1934. He was 23 years old, he had obvious racing talent and he had an offer from Auto Union to drive for them in the 1935 South African GP with the possibility of further drives in Europe.
But he retired. Lesser men might have leapt at the Auto Union contract and probably not lived to discuss it 40 years later. It must have taken extraordinary strength of character to abandon all Straight had built up but the door was closed on a copybook career in racing where an American-born his racing peers. Instead Straight switched to the world of civil aviation and with the outbreak of war in 1939 flew Blenheim bombers and then Hurricane fighters with the Number 601 City of London Squadron. He was shot down over France and spent 10 months in a concentration camp before escaping and making his way back to Britain. He was awarded the Military Cross, Distinguished Flying Cross, Norwegian War Cross, American Legion of Merit, the Companion of the British Empire, he was Air AdC to the King, and he returned to command the largest Royal Air Force RAF Group in Europe which subsequently became British European Airways after the war.
Straight was to be Deputy Chairman of a succession of major companies, first BEA, then BOAC, Rolls-Royce, and he was Deputy Chairman of the Post Office until December, 1974. It was in his capacity as deputy Chairman of Rolls-Royce, while visiting Peking, Chinain 1958 that Straight was horrified to discover that the Russian Mig 15 planes had counterfeit versions of the Rolls-Royce Derwent and Nene engines. Russia had been provided with 40 of these engines under an export license provided by the government of Prime Minister Clement Attlee after the war. Straight tried unsuccessfully to claim back £200m from Russia in royalties. Whitney Straight died in Fulham in 1979 at the age of sixty-six.
Also see: Whitney Willard Straight (USA Edition)