As someone with a long connection to motorsports both personally and professionally, the stories that often intrigue me the most are those of unfulfilled promise, and sadly, there are plenty of them.
For every Senna, Schumacher, Gordon and Franchitti, there are legions of racers like Tommy Byrne, who burst onto the scene seemingly out of nowhere and disappear from it almost as quickly, leaving us with little more than hazy memories and questions about what might have been.
I'm in my mid-40s, so Byrne's brief dalliance with Formula One in the early 1980s was a bit before my time, but my colleague and friend Jerry Priddle sent along the following release about a new documentary, Crash and Burn, that chronicles the life and times of the Irishman who shot up into Grand Prix racing on the strength of a British F3 title and made five starts for Theodore Racing in 1982 (without recording a championship point), before his career unravelled in a haze of sex, drugs and booze.
Byrne would never get another shot in F1, and his flameout in Europe seemed to follow him to North America where he managed to amass 10 wins in 55 career starts in the American Racing Series (the forerunner to Indy Lights) between 1986 and 1992. Despite an impressive resume in that series, which included runner-up finishes in 1988 and 1989, he never raced in Champ Car.
Byrne lives in Florida now, and makes his living as a driving instructor at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.
Crash and Burn will be screened by MiniGrid at the Regent Theatre in Toronto on April 7 and 8 and Byrne will be in attendance.
For screening details and additional info, see the official release below.
CANADIAN PREMIER OF ‘CRASH AND BURN: THE GREATEST RACING CAR DRIVER YOU’VE NEVER SEEN’ COMES TO TORONTO’S REGENT THEATRE APRIL 7 AND 8
Documentary Subject Tommy Byrne Will Attend Toronto Screenings
‘Forget Schuey and Senna. Tommy Byrne was the best of them all.’
TORONTO (March 24, 2017) - For a brief moment in the early 1980’s, Tommy Byrne was arguably the world’s greatest driver - the motor racing equivalent of George Best and Muhammad Ali rolled into one. His rise was meteoric and his fall spectacular. Crash and Burn is his story – how he became motor racing’s bad boy, who rose from humble beginnings in Dundalk, Ireland to be one of the hottest prospects of early 1980s Formula One, mentioned in the same breath as Ayrton Senna, and how it all went wrong.
MiniGrid, Toronto’s motorsports enthusiast store, is presenting the Canadian premier of Crash and Burn at the Regent Theatre (551 Mt Pleasant Rd, Toronto, ON), shows Friday, April 7 (7:30 pm) and Saturday, April 8 (1:30 pm & 7:30 pm). Tommy Byrne will attend the screenings, along with producer David Burke and join in Q & A sessions after each show.
Tickets are $20 (includes HST) and are on sale now at MiniGrid (608 Mt. Pleasant Road, Toronto, ON), by phone (416-488-7663) or online.
The feature length documentary, which has received strong praise from fans and critics during its European premiers, is directed by award-winner Seán Ó Cualáin.
Byrne went from driving a Mini Cooper in stock car racing to the big-time in Formula One in a little over four years, securing five championships along the way. He was a cocky, aggressive driver from humble roots and the F1 glitterati simply didn't like the mix. But he was fast!
Eddie Jordan, the former F1 team-owner, who worked with both Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher, will tell you: ‘Forget Schuey and Senna. Tommy Byrne was the best of them all.’
Byrne’s 1982 British F3 championship title earned him a test with the powerhouse McLaren F1 team. That test has become the stuff of legend, because Byrne’s time wasn’t just good, it was unbelievably good. It was the fastest time any McLaren had ever recorded at Silverstone, including the qualifying times set by former World Champion Niki Lauda and John Watson in the same car at that year's British Grand Prix. Why McLaren didn’t offer him a drive is still a matter of debate to this day.
"I wasn't the type of driver that Ron Dennis (the McLaren F1 team boss) was looking for. He was looking for a yes man - he knew probably after a couple of interviews that it probably wouldn't have worked, " said Byrne, adding that he found out his car was slowed down 24 years after the fact.
Then there was his taste for sex, drugs and booze. Jordan suggests that, had he played the game, Byrne may well have risen to the very top, despite McLaren’s snittiness. Happily, Byrne appears to have found peace now.
He currently lives in Florida, teaching Honda Teen/Adult Defensive Driving, Advanced Defensive Driving, Acura High Performance and Acura Advanced Performance Driving during the race season at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington, Ohio.
Crash and Burn shines a light on one of professional racing’s most dashing and charismatic talents and a glittering career that was doomed before it ever began - the story of the greatest F1 driver never to emerge.