Vern Schuppan a Le Mans winner’s extraordinary life. From Booleroo to Le Mans. Vern Schuppan overcame the odds to carve out a successful racing career. James Elliott tells his remarkable story. Photography LAT/Owen Daley/Nigel Snowdon.
Go home, son!” The words of Aussie engineering legend Ron Tauranac when approached by a fresh-offthe- boat ‘young’ hopeful from his homeland in the mid-1960s.
“The guys are so good and so fast over here, you’re not going to get a look-in,” he added. “Don’t waste your money on a race car, spend it on a flight home.”
And that was before Tauranac knew the full story. Not only was the ‘lad’ in question 26 years old – even then rather ancient to be embarking on a frontline competition career – but, crucially, he had never even raced a car. The fact that our man ignored the Brabham maestro – if anything, it was the biggest pep talk he could receive – and within two years would be qualifying a BRM for a Grand Prix is the stuff of Hollywood.
Previous photo: heading for third place at Le Mans in 1975. This photos, from top: Ensign F1 time was not happy; with Mike Hailwood and Howden Ganley; in the Can-Am Tiga Chevrolet; pole and win on first Formula Atlantic outing.
Indeed, the story of Vern Schuppan’s whole life is a bit of a rollercoaster ride – the South Australian repeatedly making good, but then repeatedly hitting the depths and each time springing back again, an endless cycle of rags to riches that runs until this day. Offer the big West Coast studios a biopic script and you could imagine them rejecting it for being too implausible.
Scene 1. Flashback. Having emigrated to Australia from Prussia in 1856, the Schuppan clan worked as farmers. Generations later, they ran a garage business in the tiny town of Booleroo Centre, 200km north of Adelaide. Four weeks after Vern was born in March 1943, the family moved to Whyalla close to Spencer Gulf.
Young Vern, brought up surrounded by cars, became obsessed with them: “Dad let me sit on his lap and steer the car when he and my granddad went on fishing trips, and I found that I could both slide it and correct it. I was five or six at the time.” Magazines and trips to Rowley Park Speedway in Adelaide just fanned the flames.
Schuppan left school at 14 to work at his dad’s garage. With the help of Garrie Cooper of Elfin, he started to get together the bits to build a car, but his father wouldn’t allow it. Instead, Vern was permitted to try karting and “before you know it the whole family was racing them”.
Interlude. Schuppan had planned to tour the world and make his racing fortune as early as 1965, but his trip with a mate was curtailed because Vern had met a girl and was scared of losing her if he was away too long. Jennifer lived five doors down in Lacey Street and the pair married in 1967. It was a crucial turning point. Following in the footsteps of his heroes Jack Brabham and Frank Gardner, Schuppan and Jennifer decided to head to the old country. The couple bought a Ford Thames van and, in 1967, booked a passage from Adelaide to Southampton. They set themselves a limit of two years to make good or return home. Given the reaction to the news that they were leaving – Vern’s father had said: “If you go, don’t bother to come back” – Schuppan wasn’t going to let that happen. They arrived with £2000 in their pockets and most of their possessions packed into that van. Through karting, Vern knew hillclimber Murray Rainey, who not only gave him a job but introduced him to other Antipodean ex-pats including journalist Eoin Young and Tauranac. Young took Schuppan to see Ken Tyrrell, who proved to be a career-long mentor.
Clockwise, from main: heading for a famous win at Le Mans ahead of the Ickx/Bell sister car in 1983; with Gurney on Indy debut; first F1 drive, fifth at 1972 Gold Cup in P153.
Things then started to move very quickly. “I couldn’t afford an F3 car so I spent £950 of our money on an Alexis,” says Schuppan, “and told myself that if I didn’t have a decent seat in F1 by the time I was 30, I’d call it a day.”
Joining the Formula Ford circus was hard work, but a fabulous weekend at Lydden Hill (third in the Formule Libre race having started at the back) brought him to the attention of many. Schuppan was soon doing FF Temporada races in Brazil, and Palliser signed him up to run in the new Formula Atlantic series for 1971. He got off to a winning start, receiving £72 for his first victory at Brands Hatch on 7 March, and went on to take the title after securing six poles in the season.
All Schuppan wanted was suddenly there on a plate, and two years ahead of schedule. In 1972, after coming fifth in the Oulton Park Gold Cup – his first-ever drive of an F1 car – he became BRM test driver and managed to qualify an ageing P153B for the Belgian Grand Prix… only for Helmut Marko to take over the car for the race. Was he bitter? “Actually, I never really dwelled on it until you asked. In fact, I had almost forgotten! Thanks for reminding me.”
It was another Austrian who dealt a more severe blow, however. Having gone home to South Australia a local hero and with a signed BRM contract for the 1973 GP season in his briefcase, Schuppan returned to the UK to find that his seat had been taken by (well, ‘sold to’) Niki Lauda. Thanks to Rush and the recent media infatuation with Lauda, this has proven rather harder to forget, although Schuppan insists: “I was particularly proud of my time at BRM.”
Momentum was lost and, after sitting out the championship for a year, stints with Ensign, Embassy-Hill and Surtees did not pay dividends. What might have been the end was actually a new beginning, and set Schuppan on the path to his biggest career plaudits – namely 18 Le Mans starts from which he secured four podiums and a win in 1983. But it still took time for Schuppan to mentally adjust to the new discipline: “Losing the BRM seat was the first really big setback. I had got so close to everything I desired and I still wanted to be a single-seater driver. Sportscar racing was great, but if F1 was where you wanted to be it wasn’t much of a consolation. That might sound arrogant, but I was no different to anyone else; no one in Formula Ford or Atlantic was thinking about being in sports cars.”
Schuppan was still plying his trade all over the world. He was Rookie of the Year in the 1976 Indianapolis 500, and would go on to finish third at the Brickyard in 1981. He loved F5000, too, but his drives at Le Mans in the Mirage with Jean- Pierre Jaussaud (third in 1975), Derek Bell (fifth in 1976) and Jean-Pierre Jarier (second in 1977) were leading inexorably to a works seat with Porsche – the discipline’s grand overlord to be.
“Porsche was the opposite of Mirage,” he recalls. “The cars were bulletproof in comparison, but the attitude was completely different. With the Mirage it was a real team effort, with a lot of driver input. At Porsche, there was an air of: ‘We have built a car and it is the best, we are paying you to just get in and drive it, nothing more’. That was true, of course, but getting them to change anything was almost impossible. Derek was brilliant at it; he always had that charm that meant he could get what he wanted.”
Surely he started to take it seriously at some point? “Sports car racing started off as just a bit of fun and a money earner. I loved sports cars because it was much more laid back and never as intense as racing single-seaters at the top level.”
Schuppan’s first Le Mans had been in 1973, sharing the Mirage M6 with Mike Hailwood: “He was really good and a real team player. He could could jump in any car, bumble round and do the same time as anyone else. Anyone else. I had so many co-drivers over the years and I always come back to Mike because he was the first.”
A pair of DNFs at Le Mans was followed by the run of impressive results with the Gulf team and Grand Touring Cars before being snapped up by Stuttgart. “You suddenly realised how hard you had been working,” says Schuppan. “It was just so easy in the Porsche to do the same lap times straight away. But the team dynamic was completely different to being with the Johns, Wyer and Horsman. Porsche never asked you anything because they never expected anything to break. Wyer had a different perspective. During a pre-race briefing, he used to say: ‘The only circumstance in which you can pit is if you are not going to make it round the whole of the next lap.’ My time at Mirage was amazing, even if the Porsche years were rather more fruitful.”
Which brings us to the 956 in 1983, a race that went down to the wire. “There’s nothing better than winning Le Mans,” says Schuppan. “At that stage, Mass, Ickx and Bell all preferred to have just one co-driver, but Porsche wanted to run the Americans [Al Holbert and Hurley Haywood]. It turned out great because we worked well as a team and beat Jacky and Derek despite us finishing with a seized engine. There weren’t really team orders, but we were aware that Porsche would have liked Jacky to win.”
Schuppan continued to race at La Sarthe until the end of the decade, but then hung up his boots except for a few recent outings in historics. His life has remained as frenetic off the track as it was on it: in the ’80s, he was instrumental in bringing Formula One to Adelaide. “The government here was getting nowhere with Bernie,” he says, “so they asked me to call him. He said: ‘You must be the only guy in Australia who doesn’t get it. We’re not interested in having a Grand Prix down there and especially not in Adelaide. If we did, it would be in Sydney with the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House in the background.’
“The thing is, if he doesn’t put you off at the outset, Bernie does listen to people that he likes or respects – and I had a headstart because he tends to respect drivers – so I persuaded him to at least come and have a look. I think he was swung by the passion for it in Adelaide.”
More recently Schuppan found himself managing Indy hero Scott Dixon and co-running an IndyLights team until his relationship with ex-F1 driver Stefan Johansson turned sour. Schuppan insists that there are no hard feelings. What is amazing, in fact, is that he talks with the same equanimity and amiable charm about everything, whether it was zenith or nadir, friend or foe. There is, however, one subject where he is visibly riled and emotional: the 962CR.
The machinations of how this bid to create a thinly veiled 962 for the road are far too complicated to explain in a few sentences, but basically his backers didn’t pay for their own cars and then bankrupted Schuppan for not paying the rent on the factory that they were leasing to him to build the cars they hadn’t paid for. Only six of the 600bhp, 230mph monsters were completed.
Now as retired as you suspect he ever will be, Schuppan enjoys a small collection of classic cars – he is besotted with a 1929 Alfa Romeo 6C-1750SS sold new to Australia – but he hit the news in August when the ex-Steve McQueen Ferrari 275GTB/4 he had converted back from a Straman NART Spider made $10,175,000 at RM Auctions in Monterey. Pan camera to beaming Australian punching the air as he hugs Jen, the “endless support and rock” that he is still with after nearly 50 years. The end! Roll titles.
Hold your horses, Hollywood. The Ferrari sale came in the same 12 months as his Barossa Valley home burned to the ground in a bush fire, and you sense that there will be plenty more twists and turns to come. Cue Kipling: “If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat both those imposters just the same…”
From top left: celebrating Le Mans success with Haywood and Holbert; back at La Sarthe in a Porsche 917 for 2010 Le Mans Classic; Austrian GP in 1977 with Surtees.
SIR JACK BRABHAM
“I didn’t meet Jack until we went out to Singapore in 1971. He was my hero and we were staying in the same hotel. This was just 18 months into my racing career and I was totally overawed. Like a child.”
“We are still good friends: he exuded superstar quality and was obviously the star of the team, but don’t be mistaken – he was also deceptively competitive.”
“Big Lou may have dealt me some pretty duff cards at times, but this is the man who put me in an F1 car at Oulton Park and a Can-Am car at the Nürburgring when I was just starting out. That’ll do for me.”
THE ENSIGN N174
“It was an absolute disaster. Mo Nunn couldn’t comprehend that the car was no good; he just assumed that all the drivers were w***ers.”
ON JOINING ENSIGN
“The warning signs were there from the moment that Mo said: ‘I don’t rate Brian Redman.’ That should have been a red alert, but I just thought ‘I’m going to be in F1 again’. That was all I could think.”
“I first met him back in the 1970s. He is an amazing guy and very loyal; I appreciate the fact that he has always made time for me when he didn’t really have to.”
“He did so much for me and I always took his advice. He once told me: ‘Just get a good tyre contract because I can work on a chassis for a year to gain a second – a new type of tyre can save two instantly.’”
THE INDIANAPOLIS 500
“You used to get all squashed out of shape in those cars as you got hit by the g-forces. It wasn’t always fun, but it was an amazing, unforgettable experience.”
PORSCHE 936 AT LE MANS
“German efficiency didn’t always go to plan, like when I blew a tyre in qualifying at 236mph. It was the first time that they’d used tyre sensors – not only did the sensor not warn me what was coming, but it actually caused the blow-out!”
HAVING NO REGRETS
“The whole thing has been the most incredible experience. I drove a lot of bad cars for some not particularly good teams and then, just when I thought I might as well give up, along comes Porsche.”