James Weaver raced for thirty years before retiring in 2006. He had 100 career wins and over 200 podium finishes, the bulk of these triumphs accomplished during his twenty-year career with Dyson Racing. He was a fearsome competitor and one of the sport’s best set-up drivers. His graciousness, irrepressible humor and affable personality made him a favorite of the fans and racing’s best ambassador. We have not interviewed him since his retirement, which has been our loss. To rectify that, here is the first of a three-part Team Chat with James Weaver:
How did you get started in racing?
“In 1965, when Jim Clark won the Indy 500, my dad took me to Crystal Palace, which is a small circuit down south of London. It was a Formula Two race and Jim Clark was there and he was on the back of a big Ford Galaxy convertible and waving to the crowds celebrating his Indy 500 win. I was ten years old and just remember enjoying it so much. That Christmas, we won an electric slot car set in a Christmas raffle and it was those two things that set the hook for me.
“I can’t say I was very good at school. It seemed like all the clever people wanted to do boring things like being lawyers and bankers. So I thought I would be a train driver, film star, or racing driver. And I was going to be a train driver, but steam trains stopped about than, so racing driver it became.
“I went to work for a chap who built Formula Ford cars and swept the floors and worked on the lathe and capstan, and just worked my way up to the point where I was allowed to work on the cars. After a couple years, I got enough bits together to build my own car and started to do Formula Ford racing.”
Did you know you were good right off the bat?
“Well, I had a lot of accidents! I really wanted to be an engineer/mechanic. Even though I was interested in driving, I was more interested in the engineering side. But when I watched everyone drive, I went, ‘hold on a minute, it can’t be that difficult, can it?’ so I thought I would give it a go. The first race I did, I started from the front row and led, so I thought I must have some ability. But Formula Ford is so competitive: it was very hard to get to the final in those days. You would have three heats and it would be ninety cars out of which thirty would get in the final, so it was quite a battle just to get in the top thirty. The aces in Formula Ford – they my as well have been world champions when you were just starting out. All the really quick guys were absolute super stars in Formula Ford. They were so much better than I was. You were really doing it for the love of doing it and if you did well, that was an added bonus.”
Did you have any training?
“I did half a course at Jim Russell, but never did any racing since I could not afford to complete the course. So it was very much a jump in the car and hope for the best kind of thing. Which is how everybody did it in those days. It is a lot more organized now.”
What did you study in school?
“I did math and physics, both of which I was interested in and utterly useless at! I wanted to be an engineer, but I was not quite good enough to get the exams and start an engineering career.”
How did you start driving for Rob?
“I first met Rob in 1986 at Le Mans when he and Price Cobb drove for Richard Lloyd. Mauro Baldi was the lead driver there and Rob and Price joined them and I was driving for Nissan, which Richard was running for the Nissan factory. When I went over to America in 1987 to drive for Bob Akins, the first race I went to was Riverside which Price and Rob won. Bob Akins and Rob where very good friends and when Bob stopped racing, Rob took me under his wing. I drove for Rob a couple times in ’87. My first race for him was Road Atlanta and we won the race. I say we – the win was Price’s and the team. It was such a great opportunity. I remember being so nervous of making a mess of it and so keen to do well. Sometimes when you want to something really badly, you are in danger of choking, but luckily I managed to avoid that fate and never looked back.”
What was it like driving for Rob?
“It was a huge amount of fun. I should not really say this – it was like being paid to be on holiday. You are being paid to do your hobby. You stay in nice hotels and travel around the world doing what you absolutely love doing. You would cut off your arm to get in a racing car, and yet here you are getting paid to do it. Rob is always very gracious, and generous and civilized. To be honest, it is hard to get across what an enormous privilege it was and how much fun it was. Rob is a very interesting guy as well – he is very well read and highly intelligent. He knows a huge amount about a huge amount of things, so he is always interesting and exciting to be around. He has his own individual style which I really like because you never know what he is going to do next.”
How would you describe his style?
“He never actually tells you what to do. I once said to him, ‘you know Rob, you are a good driver, why don’t you ever tell me how to drive,’ and he said ‘James boy, if I employ somebody to use broom, I do not expect to have to tell him how to use it.’ And he never tells anyone how to do anything. He just has a natural feel on how things should be done.”
You would stay at his farm when you came over for Lime Rock. Did he make a conscious effort to make you feel part of the family?
“No, it is just so relaxed and Emilie is just such a wonderful hostess as well, that when you go there, you feel like part of the family, but without being made to feel like they are making an effort. It is so natural and civilized you just think like you have always been there.”
What makes Dyson Racing different than other teams?
“I would say Rob’s passion for the sport. A lot of people come into the sport for a few years and than go away. But Rob still has as much passion and love for the sport now as he did over twenty-five years ago. He is a massive enthusiast. There is no hidden agenda to it, it is just pure passion and enthusiasm for the sport.”
Is there a common denominator to all team owners, or is he truly unique?
“I think American team owners are a lot more laid back than European ones. They are a lot more pragmatic when it comes to the inevitable crashes and disasters. I would say that Rob never really gets upset. He might say ‘OK, we did not do well and we are going to have to do better,’ but it is always ‘how do we do better.’ You always feel he has confidence in the people who work for him. Because you feel that confidence, nobody wants to let him down, so the whole team raises its game. Many team owners try to get the best out of their guys by putting pressure on them, and making them feel worried about their jobs. Rob does it completely the other way around. It is how it should be done, but very few people have the ability to do it.”
Ever do any serious damage to his cars?
“If I had been paying for it, maybe I would have considered it so! I don’t think I ever knocked a corner off one. I think I did some bodywork damage in the odd scuffle to get by. I never removed any suspension bits. I reckon my accident bill per year was about $5,000 – the odd scrape and odd wheel rim.”
Your favorite car driving with Dyson Racing?
“Probably the Riley and Scott. That was such a stunningly good car. Bob Riley was a super clever bloke and the car was absolute dynamite. When it came out, it was a third of the price of a Ferrari, and every bit as quick. It was completely reliable and gorgeous to drive. Rob was around the team a lot and he was still racing and Andy and Butch where there, and Chris had just started – good all around days at Dyson.”
What makes for a good race car?
“From a driver’s point of view, when you get in the car, it is like putting on a pair of trousers. You do not think any more of it than that. You just wear the car and it will take a lot of input from you and the car will do what you want it to. To get a car like that – you need somebody like a Bob Riley with a massive intellect to actually build it for you.”
Can you take a bad car and make it good?
“You can, if you spend enough money and time. But the moment you are behind in lap time – you are behind in time to get it right as well. Because you are under the gun, you try to do a lot of development in a short period of time. Invariably with a bad car, you are always going to be behind with it.”
What was the 962 like to drive?
“At the time, it was quite intimidating because it had a lot of horsepower. It did not have much low-speed grip. It had a fair amount of downforce when you were going along at 150 or 160. It had a lot of grip at speed, but at slow speeds, it was like being on a skid pad. At the time, it probably did not feel as much like that, but today’s tires are so much better than they were 25 years ago. They are just a massive amount quicker now. So it would be interesting to drive a 962 with modern tires and see what it is like. It was quite intimidating because it moved around a lot. It had a huge amount of horsepower. To put it in perspective, in many ways it was closer to a NASCAR stock car than it was to a single-seater car.”
So that Rob could drive it quickly was a testament to his ability?
“Rob was always very quick. He could drive a desk in Manhattan all week and turn up for the weekend and still be right on the pace.”
What did you parents think of you becoming a race car driver?
“My dad thought I was going to harm myself and my mum thought, ‘well that is good fun.’ She was up for it, but am not sure my dad was too convinced.”
Did they ever go to the races and see you run?
“About three or four times – but my father was such a nervous wreck. I remember when I did Le Mans in ’85, my father listened to the race on the radio. He went out in the garden at 4:00 when the race started. We were running first and second for most of the race until we had a problem and we eventually finished second. But anyway, Dad decided to make a garden bench and table and he was making it all night listening to the radio, I think he must have had a few beers, because not one leg was the same length! So whenever we went home, it was a standing joke and it was forever afterwards called ‘The Le Mans Garden Bench.’”