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Michael Cotton Talks To.... Kenneth Acheson

Three times on the podium at Le Mans, what more could a racing driver wish for? A victory, of course! Kenny Acheson was on the lofty gantry after finishing second with the Sauber Mercedes team in 1989, third with Silk Cut Jaguar in 1991, second again with Toyota in 1992. Was he a ‘nearly man’ like Bob Wollek, or a driver who persistently under-rated his own performances and counted his many blessings in endurance racing? Definitely the latter!

The Kenneth Acheson you meet today has seemingly aged no more than a year or two since he retired from competition after a mighty crash in the Lister Storm at Daytona in 1996. A few more grey hairs, a smart suit that befits an extremely successful businessman, but still you hear the engaging Ulster lilt and a fund of anecdotes and recollections. Oh, not Kenny, if you don’t mind.

“When my name was painted on the side of my Formula Ford back in 1977 some bright spark thought that Kenny sounded more racey, and it stuck”. But Kenny retired, and over the past 20 years Kenneth and his wife Fiona have built up a beauty care business from scratch, today employing 170 people in their factory on the outskirts of Trowbridge, in Wiltshire. From there they shipped out 12 million jars and tubes of skin care products last year, with no fewer than 600 products supplied individually to Marks & Spencer, John Lewis and Sainsburys. Nowhere, though, will you see the names ‘Acheson & Acheson’, as these are sold by the stores as ‘own brand’ products.

Kenny’s story begins at Kirkistown, where he drove his father’s Crosslé Formula Ford for the first time at the age of 19. “You shooed the cattle off the track, tucked your jeans inside your socks, put on a helmet and away you go!” Well enough for his father, Harry, owner of a brickworks, to buy him a new Crosslé if he would foreswear smoking and drinking. That done, Kenny won the Northern Ireland Formula Ford championship in his first season, 1977, and was then invited by Rory Byrne to drive Alan Cornock’s  Royale in Britain. It was a triumphant season for Kenny in 1978 as he contested three Formula Ford championships and won all of them, notching up no fewer than 29 victories in the season and being named for a Grovewood Award. In all he competed in 58 races and was sponsored by Ready Mix Concrete at £50 per race, “so it worked out not too bad.”

He progressed to Formula 3 in 1979, winning three races, and contested the Vandervell Formula 3 Championship in 1980, in a March run by Murray Taylor Racing. He led the championship “pretty much the whole way” but was caught at the end of Stefan Johansson, driving a Ralt “which was way quicker” run by Ron Dennis. He lost the title to the Swede at the final round. “March said that if I stayed with them I’d get a works Formula 2 drive the following year, but that never happened. What will be, will be. I always thought that I under-performed, or maybe I over-performed in 1978, but looking back on it maybe I did have the talent but I simply lacked the confidence that a racing driver really needs to go on up the ladder.”

This hint of modesty recurs, but Kenny’s career suffered a massive blow at Pau in 1981 when he crashed into a wall and shattered his right leg in 20 places. Driving the Docking Spitzley team’s F2Toleman, Kenny started the race from pole position with Michele Alboreto alongside. “Michele said to me before the race ‘let’s be sensible today’, and he led from the start but on the second or third lap he went wide at the hairpin and got into a big slide, so I got up the inside of him. I was three-quarters of a length ahead and he just drove into me.” It got worse. “We went up the hill side by side and he was slightly ahead, but our wheels were interlocked. If I backed off he would have had a nasty shunt. By this time I had two wheels on the footpath, and I had nowhere to go. He needed to give way to me because we’d never get round the next corner together. I took off, hit the wall and landed upside down with my leg broken to bits.”

He was out for most of the season, but the black cloud did have a silver lining as Robert Fearnall offered him work at Donington Park, and “there I saw this beautiful girl working in the press office. She was Fiona, the girl I ended up by marrying.” His weight dropped to seven and a half stone (48 kg) and he hobbled around on crutches all summer, but was back in the cockpit for the last race of the season, at Mantorp Park, where he finished third. He then drove a number of races in Japan, driving for Yokohama with Kunimitsu Takahashi, and this lifted his spirits considerably.

Kenny drove for Ron Tauranac in 1982, teamed with Jonathan Palmer in Ralts. It was a season that he looks back on with a shudder, because the car was “massively over weight” and he had a personality clash with the Australian designer. “Ron is absolutely brilliant but for some reason we didn’t gel, he didn’t like me and there was nothing I could do about it.” Kenny is admittedly not an engineer, and Tauranac clearly preferred to tech-talk with Palmer, who was the first to get an updated car. Even so, Kenny finished ahead of Palmer in the European F2 Championship, seventh, allowing that the Englishman had a big shut mid-season.

The Ulsterman made something of a comeback in 1983, finishing second in the F2 race at Pau with Maurer Motorsport. “I count Pau as a good circuit despite my crash, I like road circuits and Pau is one of my favourites. Every young driver dreams of Formula 1, but not perhaps of Kenny’s baptism in John MacDonald’s RAM team March which was cumbersome and failed to qualify for six successive Grands Prix, making the grid only once in South Africa.

That’s an hour of the interview completed, there’s a lot of tape on the cutting room floor, and we haven’t even mentioned sports cars. There was a ‘jobbing’ year in 1984, which included an entry for the Indy 500 in a four-year old Eagle, which was too slow even for Kenny to attempt to qualify. He headed to the Land of the Rising Sun in 1985, to drive for the Advan/Nova Formula 2 team with Kunimitsu Takahashi as his team-mate. Clearly he loves Japan, the people, and the racing scene out there, and it became like a second home to him. John Fitzpatrick invited him to drive two races in his Porsche 956, at Monza (the race that was stopped by a fallen tree, in high winds), with Jo Gartner, and at Le Mans.

His baptism at Le Mans was a nightmare, the Porsche being almost out of control on the Mulsanne. “For the first time I was really scared. The car was all over the place, the C2 cars were overtaking me at twice my speed. Jean-Louis [co-driver Schlesser] told me ‘it’s always like that when you go to Le Mans for the first time’ then he went out and came straight back in again. He hadn’t even got out of fourth gear on the Mulsanne, said the car was undriveable.” 

Neither had qualified, and on Thursday evening Dudley Wood went out first in the 956 and crashed at the kink on his out lap, breaking his leg. “I was so relieved I didn’t have to drive at Le Mans, I swore I would never go back.”

After Manfred Winkelhock’s death in Canada in 1985 the Ulsterman received a renewed invitation from John MacDonald’s Ram-Hart team in Formula 1, starting in Austria. He qualified safely in 23rd place, alongside his team-mate Philippe Alliot, but retired at half distance with an engine failure. He then failed to qualify at Zandvoort and at Monza due to mechanical problems, which included blowing up two engines practising and qualifying for the Italian GP, then breaking the gearbox on the second lap. “I wasn’t being paid, nobody knew if I was any good, I was at the bottom of the heap whereas in Japan I was being paid and I was making a name for myself. So on Monday morning I told John that I was finished with Formula 1, I’d be better off  without it.”

He returned to Japan to end his sports car introduction driving Richard Lloyd’s Canon Porsche 956 at the monsoon-hit Fuji 1,000 Kms, with Johnny Dumfries. They qualified well but, along with most Europeans, pulled off the track after a number of laps behind the safety car, their tyres unsuitable for the standing water on the track.

“If I hadn’t had offers from Japan that would have been the end of my motor racing career” Kenny recalls. Tetsu Ikuzawa saved the day, inviting Kenny back to Japan in 1986 to drive Toyota sports cars, which were fast but unreliable. He had his second major shunt on the main straight at Fuji when a rear tyre exploded at full speed, the car becoming airborne when it spun around. “I remember thinking ‘oh, this isn’t too bad’ but I was still in the air and I hadn’t hit anything yet. It was a huge, huge shunt. When the car stopped, upside down, I looked at my hands, they were alright, so I undid my seat belt and fell on my head!”

Kenny spent a full season in Japan in 1987, in Formula 3000 with Advan Alpha and in the Japanese sports car championship with the Nova Advan Alpha Porsche 962, which he shared with Kunimitsu Takahashi. “He was 50 that year and he was a fantastic person, someone I was privileged to know, and a wonderful driver.” Together they won the series with two wins at Fuji, both 500-milers, and a second and third at Suzuka.

He moved across to Vern Schuppan’s Omron sponsored Porsche team in 1988, sharing with Price Cobb and, for one race when Cobb was busy in the States, with Emanuele Pirro, making his sports car debut. “Just think, he went on to win Le Mans five times” says Kenny with a touch of pride for the Italian he rates as “a top person, a top driver, and a really good friend.”

Out of the blue, Kenny got a call from Max Welti inviting him to drive for Sauber Mercedes at Le Mans. “I asked for good money because I really didn’t want to go there, but they agreed the fee and I still didn’t want to go. Eje Elgh asked me about it, and told me I’d be a fool if I didn’t accept the offer to drive for Mercedes. It would be the end of my career, he said.”

After racing at Suzuka, and having his flight diverted, Kenny arrived in the paddock on Wednesday morning, went to the Mercedes camp and nobody knew who he was! “Max Welti asked me what was my best result at Le Mans, and his face was a picture when I told him I had never raced there. He was wondering what he’d let himself in for.” Straight away, though, the Sauber felt “fantastic” and he was fourth quickest in the opening session, putting Welti’s mind to rest.

But then his co-driver Klaus Niedzwiedz went out in the car and soon experienced a rear tyre blowout on the Mulsanne, fortunately without crashing. ”There was a big conference and I gathered they had been expecting a problem. They really didn’t want to do the race and withdrew the team. That was great because I got the money and didn’t have to do the race, but there was regret because the car was amazing, I could have enjoyed racing it.”

Kenny was offered a drive in the Sauber Mercedes team at the Fuji 1,000 Kms in October, the team supporting Schlesser in his bid to win the world championship. The Ulsterman added another tick to his cv by leading the race in both cars, but Baldi’s was eliminated by an exploded brake disc which put co-driver Philippe Streiff into the barrier at Turn 1, and Schlesser’s was delayed by a faulty sensor. The result put Schlesser, Mass and Acheson in fifth place overall, while the driver championship went in Martin Brundle’s favour, in the Silk Cut Jaguar team.

Kenny then signed a contract to drive for the Sauber Mercedes team in 1989, the V8, turbo powered C9s now painted silver and properly backed by the Stuttgart manufacturer. Prior to the start of the season two cars were taken to the Paul Ricard circuit for a full 24-hour test, a simulation for Le Mans. “None of the French drivers wanted to drive at night so I finished up driving both cars for more than 16 hours, and at the end I was crying because I felt so emotional about having completed this test.”

The season opened at Suzuka, a circuit Kenny knew intimately, and he was paired with Baldi while Mass would partner Schlesser. Mass, though, was in fever and couldn’t focus properly, so after qualifying in 30th place he was declared unfit to race. Baldi was immediately switched to partner Schlesser, while Kenny was designated to the second car and told he would be expected to drive the full 480 kms distance solo, completed in 2h 48m. “After the Ricard test I knew I could do that but I was terribly disappointed as I stood no chance of winning, next to zero. All my friends were there and I thought I was going to let everybody down.” But trainer Willi Dungl gave him encouragement: “Today will be a good day, it will be a day people will remember you for. What you will do today will be special.”

And so it was. At the end of the first stint Kenny had moved through the field to sixth place and by the end of the second he was up to second, behind Baldi, despite being held up most of the time behind Oscar Larrauri’s Porsche on a high boost setting. He then closed on Schlesser in the third stint and passed the team leader, pulling away. “I knew what would happen next. I was told to slow down. But I didn’t, not straight away, and next time round I got another message, a bit more urgent. So I did slow down but on the straight, where everybody could see. The circumstances were good, the car was fantastic, and anyway I made my point and all my friends could understand my situation.”

The next round of the FIA World Sports Prototype Championship took place at Dijon-Prenois, where Reinhold Joest’s Porsche team achieved a surprising victory, the Goodyear tyres lasting better than Mercedes’ Michelins in high ambient temperatures. Schlesser and Mass were second, Baldi and Acheson third, and then it was time to return to Le Mans.

This was Kenny’s third visit to the Sarthe, but his first race there. He, Baldi and Brancatelli believed they had a real chance of winning. Competition was strong, as ever, from Jaguar, Porsche, Nissan and Toyota but the Saubers were up to the task, Acheson’s leading on Sunday morning but then Baldi, in a lapse of concentration, spun out and went three minutes behind Mass, Manuel Reuter and Stanley Dickens. “Mauro didn’t want to drive in the night and Brancatelli was too slow, so I drove for 11 hours. I had just started my last double stint to the finish when the gearbox jammed, and I was stuck in fifth. They spent 18 minutes working on it in the pits but couldn’t fix the problem, so I had to drive the last 80 minutes all in fifth gear!”  The smell of burning clutch plates was alarming as he pulled out of the pits, but the clutch soon recovered and Kenny asked for a lap time he needed to finish the race without stopping again, without risk of being caught by the Joest Racing Porsche in third place.

“I was lapping about a minute off the pace, around 4 minutes 10s I think, and second place was mine until we made our formation for the run to the finish line. I caught up with Schlesser and he was going really slowly. The marshals were in the road waving their flags, something I had never seen before, and I was shouting on the radio because I was going to stall the car at Arnage, which is the slowest corner on the track  If I didn’t get to the finish line I wouldn’t be classified as a finisher, but luckily Schless got the message.”

Next time out, at Jarama, Baldi and Acheson were delayed by a brake problem and finished fifth, two laps behind winners Schlesser and Mass, but victory was sweet at Brands Hatch where they had an untroubled run to the flag ahead of the Joest Racing Porsche. Schlesser and Mass were delayed by a tyre failure and finished a lap down in third place.

The Swiss-German team went into overdrive at the Nürburgring and Donington, the two cars claiming first and second positions with Schlesser and Mass just ahead of Baldi and Acheson, so wrapping up the teams championship in emphatic style. Baldi had to win at Spa in order to challenge Schlesser for the driver title, and the Italian was “unbelievable” in driving for victory.

Schlesser or Baldi? The title would be decided in Mexico, the first man to the flag would be the champion. This was a tense outing for Kenny, especially has he had been tipped off that his contract would not be renewed in 1990. Not that he had disappointed Sauber Mercedes in any way at all, but young drivers Michael Schumacher and Karl Wendlinger would be drafted into the team as ‘cubs’, to be mentored by Mass. “For some reason Mauro was not very quick, he was struggling. Schless just disappeared up the road, he was 10 seconds ahead at the stops, and I took the car from Mauro on worn tyres. I had to catch Jochen if we were to stand any chance. I did catch him, I passed him and led the race but my tyres had no grip. I was power sliding through the corners, catch the car half way round, but then I caught up with Tiff Needell in a Porsche and just lost the back end. It went round, and I crashed.”

This was a massively disappointing way to end the season, all the more because Kenny knew, as others did not, that it was his last drive in the silver Saubers. “Mauro was in tears. They had a big party in the evening, Mauro and Schlesser were up on the stage and Juan Manuel Fangio was there, too. I had been introduced to him at the Nürburgring but I didn’t expect him to remember me. To my amazement he came down and walked up to me, I was pretty much in the background, and told me through his interpreter that I should not be disappointed today. ‘Mr Fangio says he knows exactly what you were trying to do, and there is no greater thing than to try to win a world championship for your team’ she told me.

“At least I had the consolation of being kicked out of the team to make way for Schumacher and Wendlinger, both of whom went on to make their careers in Formula One, as I had long since got out of F1. They were so nice when they told me they wouldn’t renew my contract in 1990 I couldn’t be annoyed about it, they had been good to me throughout. They told me I had been a good team man, and I knew I had been quick enough while I was driving for them. It wasn’t a performance thing.”

Kenny drove for Nissan in 1990. “The car wasn’t too bad but it was very political and looking back, that year, and the year with Ralt, were the worst two of my career.” Le Mans was a “total disaster” as the gearbox on his R90C failed on the warm-up lap…another 24-hour race that he failed to start!

Driving for the Silk Cut Jaguar team at Le Mans was the highlight of Kenny’s 1991 season, sharing an XJR-12C with Bob Wollek (“one of the most clever people in motor racing, he was highly intelligent, a wonderful person”) and Teo Fabi. The Jaguars, burdened with extra ballast, were outpaced by the nimble Mazda 787C, but Kenny’s Jaguar was trouble-free and earned him third place on the podium.

Back to Toyota in 1992, drafted into the team for Le Mans, and another visit to the podium after finishing second with Masanori Sekiya and Pierre-Henri Raphanel. Kenny rates that as one of his best drives as he was the quickest driver on the track when conditions were wet, and they managed to give Jean Todt’s Peugeot team a good contest.

That was his final result at Le Mans, his return with Toyota in 1993 ending with a broken gearbox on Sunday morning, and with the SARD Toyota team in 1995 with total brake failure after just 14 laps.Kenny was now evolving into Kenneth the businessman, ploughing his race fees into the body care manufacturing business he and Fiona were developing. His final race was in Laurence Pearce’s Lister Storm GT at the Daytona 24-hours in 1996, which was running well until he was crossed by a back-marker and pitched into a terrifying barrel-roll at the back straight chicane. “I think that’s a message” he said afterwards, and never looked back.

Michael Cotton