I was Michael’s Double
Someone who looked suspiciously like our contributor Mike Cotton was seen in
Ottaker’s bookshop in Cheltenham last Thursday, signing his new book titled
"Blue and Orange", the history of Gulf Oil’s sponsorship in motor racing from 1939
Has he a double? No, Mike was taking time off from the circuits to launch this
glossy volume, which is promoted by Martin Allerton and his Polygon Solutions
company in Cheltenham. A former employee of Gulf Oil, when it was
headquartered in the Regency style Gloucestershire town, Martin rounded up a
large number of former colleagues to help him launch "Blue and Orange".
He and his colleague Steven Pockett have promoted the book heavily in the
motoring press, so you should hear a lot about it between now and Christmas.
Gulf has a big history in motor racing, dating back to 1939 when the Pittsburgh
company paid for Harry Miller’s innovative cars that competed in the Indianapolis
500. They were ahead of their time, and dogged by ill fortune and lack of
development, but they had pioneering features including a form of disc brakes,
involving friction plates. Brian Laban contributed the opening chapter, having
prepared the material meticulously for another book, which fell by the wayside.
John Wyer’s involvement with the Ford GT40 programme captured the interest of
Grady Davis, an executive vice-president of Gulf Oil in the 1960s. First Davis
ordered and took delivery of a GT40, up to race specification although he intended
it for road use, then he initiated the sponsorship arrangement with JW Automotive
that garnered spectacular success.
Gulf first sponsored the JW Automotive Mirages, streamlined versions of the
GT40, then, when the regulations changed, the GT40 team which won the World
Championship for Manufacturers in 1968, Le Mans in 1968 and again in 1969.
Pedro Rodriguez, Lucien Bianchi, Jacky Ickx and Jackie Oliver were the Le Mans
winners in those two years, driving the same powder blue and orange Ford GT40.
Such was their success, Porsche invited JW Automotive to run the official ‘works
supported’ team of 917s and 908/3s in 1970 and 1971.
Never had endurance racing been so popular! At circuits like Monza and Spa the
Porsche 917s were even quicker than the contemporary Grand Prix cars.
Rodriguez, Jo Siffert, Brian Redman, Leo Kinnunen and Derek Bell reached
legendary status, with strong supporting roles from Oliver, Richard Attwood,
Herbert Muller and Gijs van Lennep, all of whom drive the Gulf sponsored cars.
Racing is Life…………..
The most famous driver of all, though, was Steve McQueen, who used the Gulf
Porsche 917s in a starring role in his film, ‘Le Mans’. True, McQueen didn’t race a
Gulf Porsche, though he did finish second at Sebring in a 908/2 owned by his
Solar Productions company, driving with Peter Revson.
Never, in the field of sponsorship and promotions, has a budget been better
spent than Gulf’s with John Wyer. Spectacular successes on the circuits remain
fresh in the minds of countless enthusiasts, and the ‘Le Mans’ film, panned by
critics in 1971, is now regarded as a classic production, repeated many a time.
Bruce McLaren gave Gulf Oil huge prestige in America, the company sponsoring
his orange Can-Am cars, Indycars, and his Formula One team. The "Bruce and
Denny" show dominated Can-Am racing between 1967 and 1971, although
McLaren himself was killed in a testing accident in 1970, leaving Denny Hulme
and Peter Revson to maintain the run of victories.
Gulf continued to sponsor the Mirage team, under the management of John
Horsman, between 1972 and 1975, culminating in another Le Mans victory for
Derek Bell and Jacky Ickx.
Bringing it all Back Home
There was a natural break, until Gulf Oil UK sponsored Bell driving a Kremer
Porsche K8 at Le Mans in 1974. He finished sixth, with Juergen Lassig and Robin
Donovan, and that entrée led to full sponsorship of two McLaren F1 GTRs in
1995-96, those of Ray Bellm and Lindsay Owen-Jones which won many rounds
of the BPR Global Endurance GT Championship. Former rival Thomas Bscher
joined the Gulf team in 1997, bringing additional sponsorship from Davidoff.
Gulf Oil celebrated its centenary in 2001 by sponsoring Stefan Johansson’s Audi
R8 at Sebring, Le Mans, and in the European Le Mans Series (ELMS), which the
Swede won. "It really is the most outstanding race car I have ever worked with"
Johansson declared at the end of the Gulf book. "The engineering is absolutely
flawless." From a man with his huge experience in several fields of motor racing,
that was praise indeed.
There was a lot to tell in the 208 pages, and the story covers the whole range of
Gulf’s sponsorships over a period of 60 years. The recommended retail price is
£39.95 from all the leading motoring bookshops, and ‘Blue and Orange’ is well
worth the investment.
John Brooks and Michael Cotton