At one time or another, we’ve all dreamed about running away and joining the circus. Not many of us actually do, of course, but there are exceptions.
Today — the eve of the first race of the 2014 Grand Prix season in Australia — is the perfect time to tell you about a Toronto man who came close. John Dennie didn’t walk a tightrope for Barnum & Bailey but he did become a mechanic for Frank Williams in Formula One.
The year was 1970 and a 19-year-old Dennie had just graduated from high school. He travelled to Le Circuit-St-Jovite in the Quebec Laurentians for the annual running of the Grand Prix du Canada, carrying with him ambitions of landing a job in the world’s top racing series.
Dennie, now a semi-retired aircraft accident investigator who lives in Etobicoke, was nuts about motor sport.
“I lived, ate and breathed it,” he told me in a recent interview. “I delayed dating, I delayed girls, I delayed everything. All I cared about was cars and racing.”
A member of the North Toronto Motorsport Club, he’d been a grid marshal and a paddock marshal at Mosport, so he knew his way around the sport when he headed to Quebec to look for work.
“I had a plan,” Dennie recalled with a laugh. “It was well after midnight when I got to the village and I went to the Mont Tremblant Lodge, where I knew the teams were staying. I knew if I walked in there and said I was from Toronto and was looking for a job in Formula One, they’d have thrown me out.
“But I faked a British accent and said I’d just arrived from England and I didn’t want to wake up my team, so could I sleep on the couch? And they said, ‘No problem.’ When I woke up, I opened my eyes and there were two people sitting at the other end of the couch from me — Helen Stewart and Pedro Rodriguez.”
At which point Dennie got a flash of cold feet.
“I sat up and looked at the carpet and I thought, ‘Is this a good idea? Should I just go home?’ There was one stairway from upstairs; there was no elevator. And who should come down the stairs but Frank Williams (who was in partnership that year with Alejandro de Tomaso; their driver, Piers Courage, had been killed at Zandvoort and Tim Schenken was finishing the season).
“I walked up to him and I said, ‘Mr. Williams, my name is John Dennie from Toronto and I wonder if you need any help?’
“He put his briefcase down on the front desk and, without saying anything, opened it and gave me a Formula One pass. ‘The mechanics’ names are Tony and Mike,’ he said. ‘I’m going for breakfast; I’ll see you in an hour.’
“And that was it. I was in Formula One.”
The business of Grand Prix racing back then was a far cry from today’s world of human resources departments and per-diems. If you wanted a job in racing, you’d pretty much pack up your tools and head for any number of racer hangouts — particularly a pub called the Engineers Club in Reading, near where the Williams shop was located in England.
“The way things worked in those days was very casual,” Dennie said. “Somebody would say, ‘I’m looking for work,’ and somebody on one of the teams would say, ‘When can you start?’ ”
This worked well for Dennie, who would leave the Williams team after the end-of-season U.S. Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, N.Y., and head back to Toronto for the winter, where he would attend university in pursuit of an aeronautical engineering degree. Come spring, he’d travel to England and join the team for the European season.
“I never went to South Africa for the races in January, or any of the South American races they had in those days,” he said. “A typical F1 team with two cars back then had six or seven employees. Now, they have 60 to 80 at every race and more back at the factory.
“It was loose change then. Guys came and went. Half the time, the guys who started the season weren’t there in July. It didn’t matter. Somebody would pull up and say they had their tools in the boot of their car and somebody else would say, ‘Bring it around and we’ll help you unload.’ ”
That was pretty much the way it was his first day on the job in 1970.
“I got myself to the circuit and my next hurdle was what Tony and Mike were going to think? I walk in and I walk up — it’s a big tent, not a garage; the tent had a great atmosphere — and I tell them who I am and what has transpired and they both hugged me and said, “Thank Christ! We’re getting some help.”
And then they sent Dennie down to McLaren to borrow an engine.
“I didn’t know anybody,” he laughed. “But I could recognize the team principals and I knew of the drivers. So I go down to McLaren and the first person I see is Peter Gethin, who was driving for the team after Bruce died, and he jumps up and grabs me around my neck and asks me how my moose is. I must have looked confused because he said, ‘You don’t know what a moose is, do you?’
“Here I am, a 19-year-old kid from Toronto and I’ve just lucked into a job in F1 and I’ve been there 15 minutes and a world-famous driver is asking me how my moose is. So I said no, I didn’t know what a moose is and he roars, ‘It’s a f—–g woman!’
“Okay, so I say to Denny Hulme, ‘I’m John from Williams, here to get the engine.’ I never thought to ask how I was going to get it back — an F1 engine is a significant weight. He pointed to one that was bolted into a wooden frame with castors on the bottom, so I rolled it back.
“The three of us — me, Tony and Mike — changed that engine. Nobody asked what I could do and what I couldn’t do. They just expected me to pitch in.”
That was the beginning of five wonderful years, travelling around Europe and being on the inside of all the great races. Dennie has dozens of stories, from meeting the legendary Juan Manuel Fangio in the pit lane at Monte Carlo to Vittorio Brambilla’s nickname being “Bam-bia” because of all the times he crashed.
The best racer of the period? “No question, it was Jackie Stewart, because he used his head.” The fastest? “Ronnie Peterson.” The greatest character? “James Hunt. His obnoxiousness grew with his confidence. If you had a pretty girlfriend, and you found yourself in a bar with Hunt, particularly after he’d had a drink, you’d better hope your girlfriend really liked you.”
His worst moment came at Watkins Glen in 1973. He’d gone back to the garage area for a forgotten piece of equipment and bumped into the Tyrrell driver, Francois Cevert, who was changing into his overalls before practice and qualifying started. They walked out to the pits together.
“We had a brief conversation — nothing big. The session started — there were 31 cars there and most were out on the track — and suddenly there was nothing coming by, and then they started coming in. We weren’t far from the Lotus pit and I heard Chapman say, ‘The esses,’ and ‘Cevert.’
“Then Ickz, who was driving for us, came in and said, ‘Francois, mort.’ ”
Dennie first met Cevert at that first race in Quebec in 1970.
“Williams and Tyrrell were the last two teams using Dunlop tires,” he said. “So we wore those nice blue coveralls. A guy in a suit came up to me and said, ‘Excuse me, but I have a message for Francois Cevert; could you give it to him?’ It was a handwritten thing.
“I was about to say I work for Williams but I said, ‘Sure, give it to me.’ So I went down to Tyrrell and I walked up to Francois and gave him the message and he looked at it and at me. His jaw dropped. I found out later it was from Brigitte Bardot.”
Dennie left F1 after the 1975 season for two reasons. He’d met the woman who was to become his wife and he wanted to settle down. And Frank Williams was going through a difficult period and, although the team would likely continue to race under another owner, Dennie wasn’t fussy about being a part of it.
“I didn’t see Williams recovering (as happened in the late 1970s with Saudi airline money and Patrick Head) and I didn’t want to be part of the new scene. So I left.”
His interest in the sport hasn’t wavered, however, and he has strong opinions about what’s happening currently.
“If you’re powered by Mercedes, you’re looking good,” he said. “If you’ve got a Ferrari engine, you’re okay. And if you’re powered by Renault, you’re in trouble. With the new engines, the new gearboxes and so-on, the FIA hasn’t given the teams enough time to test.
“If only seven cars finish the first race this weekend, it wouldn’t be a surprise.”