A few days ago I spent a morning in Ruthin. My car needed some work and the nearest main dealer is there, so I dropped it off and went for a walk.
Ruthin is a small town in North Wales, built on a hill to judge by the roads. If you did your driving test there you’d have lots of practice at hill starts. It has some antique shops and a fair number of empty shops. I found estate agents and a pub, and there’s a 15th century house in the town. There is a castle and a gaol. The castle is now a hotel, and the gaol a tourist attraction.
The main square is shared by an imposing Post Office, an old church (St Peter’s, C of E) and the Castle Hotel (Wetherspoons).
Halfway down the steep Clwyd Street I came across a memorial to Tom Pryce, a Formula One racing driver I’d not heard of. The legend reads:
In memory of Thomas Maldwyn Pryce
A boy brought up in the Vale of Clwyd, Tom Pryce became a racetrack star of the 1970s. Quiet and unassuming, he was a Grand Prix driver of almost peerless brilliance. On the brink of winning every prize his career could offer, a marshal ran into his path at the South African GP Kyalami and both were killed. A true countryman at heart, he remains the Prince of Welsh racing drivers.
Curious, I looked him up. Tom Pryce was born in Ruthin to Jack and Gwynneth Pryce. Jack had been tailgunner in a Lancaster and joined the police after the war; Gwynneth was a district nurse. The story is that, aged ten, Tom was driving a baker’s van and then said to his parents that he wanted to be a racing driver. It was to be another ten years, but after a try-out at Mallory Park in 1969 he got into Formula 5000 and then the Daily Express Crusader Championship, where races were at Brands Hatch and Silverstone alternately, and all drivers used Lotus 51 Formula Ford cars. Tom won the series in the last race, at a wet Silverstone, and Sir Max Aitken gave him his prize, a Formula Ford Lola T200.
At this time Tom was competing against, and beating, drivers whose names we know today including James Hunt. And he had his share of injury, such as at the support race for the 1972 Monaco Grand Prix, when he stopped in Casino Square. He got out to fix the fault, and another driver hit his car and knocked Tom into a shop window where he broke his leg. He was racing again two weeks later.
Tom drove for Ron Dennis’s Rondel Racing team, and then got into Formula One with Token Racing. In 1974 he was refused a drive in the Monaco Grand Prix on the grounds of inexperience, so the team put him into the Formula 3 support race, and he made his point by winning with a margin of 20 seconds.
At the end of the 1974 season, Tom was in equal 18th place in the drivers’ championship, joint with Graham Hill.
Alongside Formula 1, in 1975 Tom entered the Tour of Epynt rally backed by Dave Richards, another Ruthin lad, later of Prodrive and BAR. He won the 1975 Race of Champions at Brands Hatch, beating John Watson and Ronnie Peterson by thirty seconds in a very wet race.
In the 1976 F1 season, Tom scored 10 points, 59 behind that year’s champion James Hunt.
In 1977, Tom posted the fastest time in a wet Wednesday practice for the South African GP, a second ahead of Niki Lauda. The track dried up and Tom started the race in 15th place.
On Lap 22, the car driven by Renzo Zorzi caught fire, and he stopped just after a hill. In those days, drivers had an oxygen supply in case they were trapped in a fire. From the opposite side of the track, two marshalls ran to help Zorzi with fire extinguishers. At that moment, two cars came over the crest at 170 mph, Hans-Joachim Stuck leading Tom Pryce. Stuck was able (just) to avoid both marshalls but Tom wasn’t. He struck Frederik Jansen van Vuuren, aged 19, who was carrying a 40-pound fire extinguisher. Frederik died instantly and his fire extinguisher hit Tom and the impact sent it over the grandstand and into the car park.
Niki Lauda won the race, his first win since his big accident in 1976.
In later years, Dave Richards chaired a trust to create a memorial to Tom Pryce and this was funded by an auction of pit lane passes in 2009. The memorial was unveiled on 11th June that year on what would have been Tom’s 60th birthday.
Thinking about it, Tom had no worse an accident record than his contemporaries, names that are now racing legends. Niki Lauda’s horrific crash in 1976 is one among many from those times. But Lauda and co survived, albeit at great cost, while Tom’s life was cut short that day in 1977.
And then I walked back to the garage, where they had fixed the air conditioning, and drove home in a pensive mood.
© Jim Walshe 2020
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