John Cordts: Man of talent and passion

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VICTORIA, B.C.—“Do you happen to know where I could find the home of John and Linda Cordts?”

I had pulled off the rural road well lost. The woman walking her dog was full of smiles and friendly.

“Do you mean John Cordts, the carver?”

“No. I am looking for John Cordts, the racing driver,” I said smiling, knowing full well that John was now a well-known wood carver.

“This can’t be the same man, but I can show you where the carver lives and perhaps they will know where the racing driver lives.”

I took the directions. When I got to the white house that sat on a hill overlooking the island countryside, a tall, slim, white-haired man stretched out his hand and softly said, “It’s been a long, long time.”

I had known John Cordts when I was a teenager. Little did I know then that I would one day sit and chat with him about his life in racing, when the thunderous roar of a Canadian-American Challenge Cup series car would thrill thousands of fans across North America.

Here are excerpts from our conversation.

Allan de la Plante: It’s been a while since we last met John.

John Cordts: It was the mid-’60s. You came up to my house in North Bay to look at my Elva racing car. I think you also took my Jag out for a bit of a thrash.

AdlP: You were well into racing by then. When did it become part of your life?

JC: I started getting interested in making things go fast when I was about 10. By the time I came to Canada at 19 (from Sweden, 58 years ago), I had raced motorcycles a bit. I got into car racing at a track called Green Acres (near Goderich).

AdlP: What were you driving?

JC: I started with an Austin Healey, but there were hardly any around to make up a class, so I drove an MGA. I then started racing at Harewood Acres near Hamilton.

AdlP: When Harewood Acres closed in 1970, the (outright) lap record was held by you.

JC: Oh yeah, in a Formula 5000 car. That’s good!

AdlP: So walk me through getting to Can-Am.

JC: It was just really dumb luck. I stuck my neck out a mile and a half and bought a Corvette. That Corvette won almost every race I ever entered except the first one. We did really well. It was sponsored by Gorries Golden Mile Chevrolet in Toronto. David Billes of the Canadian Tire family, he also had a Vette and we raced together. I guess he was impressed. The following year, he decided to become a sponsor and give up driving so he got me to drive his new Mark I McLaren ( a very large smile covers John’s face).

AdlP: You did quite well in Can-Am. The grids at that time had some serious competition with the McLarens and Porsches, and drivers like Bruce McLaren, Denny Hulme, Jackie Stewart and Peter Revson, to mention a few.

JC: I was always fast, but hardly ever finished. I had more bad luck than anyone deserves and got a reputation as a car-breaker. Most of the time it was little things like a broken magneto — which never breaks!

AdlP: I don’t recall any serious off-track excursions.

JC: Well, I did roll one of Dave’s cars into a ball once on the back straight at Saint-Jovite (le Circuit-Mont-Tremblant). It was a McLaren. Nobody really saw it other than when they brought the car in. It was pretty serious. I was caught inside the car and it was upside down with a fire in the engine compartment. I thought for certain I was dying.

Both fuel tank lids opened up and the gas was running all over me and the ground. With the fire behind me, I was just waiting for the big boom! Then, after a while, I thought: “Well, I’m not dead yet.” I undid the belts and I must have lifted the car as there was hardly an inch clearance for me to get out. So here I am.

I’ve had many close calls where I should have been dead. I don’t know why. I guess somebody is looking after me.

AdlP: Fans just don’t realize how tough the competition was in Can-Am. Tell me about the time you were second in a Can-Am race.

JC: It was at Atlanta, Road Atlanta in Georgia. It’s just a twisty track. My kind of track. I also came in second at the last Can-Am in Elkhart Lake. I had decent cars and could race with any of those guys. I had a lot of experience. I drove a lot of inferior cars and that’s how you learn to drive.

AdlP: You were racing against some very high-rollers. There was a lot of money around those drivers. How was it for you?

JC: I was absolutely starving! Totally starving! I needed a job, but I couldn’t have a job and be a race driver at the same time. I wanted to be a race driver and nothing else. My heart was in racing. I was living on nothing for a long time.

“I built a log cabin in the bush and ate turnips and rabbits that I was able to catch. I was really poor, but I never felt sorry for myself. When I went to the track I lived in a pup tent behind the pits.

“Later on, I started to make a little in the prize money. I would have done it for nothing, but you still have to eat. I did a lot of freeloading and sponging off friends, but I survived.

AdlP: You now are an accomplished artist with your wonderful wood carvings. Was this evident when you were racing cars?

I’ve been doing this since I was a little kid. I did some when I was just 9 years old — carving faces in a bit of wood with a jackknife. I was just a kid whittling on a stick.

I’d stop for years, then pick it up again for a couple of years. I was doing this when I was race-driving in my spare time, which I had lots of.

AdlP: Do you think there is a relationship between racing and art?

JC: I don’t know. Somebody did a survey on racing drivers, and what makes a racing driver, and he came up with (the fact that) some are big and fat, some are tiny, some are tall, some are short, but every one of them had special eyes. You got to have those eyes.

Me, I’ve got mean eyes (he squints and a twinkle takes over). So that’s maybe it. Good eyesight and, of course, a total lack of fear of the car. I’m afraid of everything else in the world, but I was never scared of driving 350 km/h in the car. That was just good fun.

AdlP: I’m going to ask you about a grid you sat on with the best the racing world had to offer: Jochen Rindt, Jackie Stewart, Piers Courage, Bruce McLaren, Denny Hulme, Jean-Pierre Beltoise — all of the big names were there.

JC: I know which one you’re thinking of: the Formula One race at Mosport — the (1969) Canadian Grand Prix — but that’s one race I’m not proud of. The car I was in was a nice little old Formula One car with well-worn tires. It was totally out of date. It was just not competitive at all.

AdlP: Yet you qualified the car 19th on the grid and an oil leak took you out on the 10th lap while you were running 16th. You were moving up!

JC: I didn’t see it that way. I saw it as something very embarrassing. I was glad when I was able to park the car and get the heck out of there. Most races I’m not embarrassed by, but that one I was. But I made some money! I needed money so badly that I was willing to embarrass myself.

AdlP: It certainly didn’t embarrass your fans. You’ve still got a tremendous fan base.

JC: We do get a lot of mail, but a lot of people are interested in a Formula One driver. I never call myself a Formula One driver. I just drove one around for 10 laps.

AdlP: So what is it about winning?

JC: Well, you keep your job if you are sponsored. I don’t know . . . I’m so competitive when I’m out there, I have to do anything I can to get to the front. You don’t really think about the money when you are out there, it’s just the competition.

Is there any particular turn that caused your stomach to jump?

JC: No. Really sharp turns, I never really liked because there wasn’t much you could do in a hairpin. You just slow down and get around it.

I was always good on S turns, where you could do 150 m.p.h. I would usually beat everybody around that.

(There was) no turn that really scared me, except maybe Daytona up on the bank. It’s a little scary until you get used to it. Definitely scary up there.

AdlP: What about Turn 2 at Mosport?

JC: Yeah. Never did like Turn 2 much.

AdlP: What is it about that turn?

JC: It slopes the wrong direction. I spun my Corvette there once. A complete 360 and kept going. Over the sound of my engine, I could hear the people cheering!

AdlP: Do you still think about racing?

JC: I still dream of racing every night and it’s just like the real thing . . . most of the time, I have nothing but car problems!

AdlP: One final question John: what about Formula One drivers today?

JC (with a big smile on his face): Strap 700 horsepower to their arse and take away the downforce and see what they think!

John Cordts was inducted into the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame in 2003.

He is being inducted into the North Bay Sports Hall of Fame this weekend.

Allan de la Plante is the photographer and author of Villeneuve: A Racing Legend.

  • John Cordts: Man of talent and passion
  • John Cordts: Man of talent and passion
  • John Cordts: Man of talent and passion

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