The life of racing driver Tom Pryce, who would have turned 70-years old today, will be celebrated at the Historic Sports Car Club race meeting at Anglesey Circuit this July.
The Tom Pryce Memorial Race Meeting on 13-14 July will honour the memory of a hugely popular driver who had a meteoric rise to fame and a flourishing Grand Prix career that was tragically curtailed by an accident in the 1977 South African Grand Prix.
Thomas Maldwyn Pryce was born on 11 June 1949 in the small town of Denbigh in North Wales, the son of a local policeman and a district nurse. He sparked his own interest in motor racing from around the age of 10 and was later inspired by his hero Jim Clark. From school he took an apprenticeship as a tractor mechanic but had already set his heart on being a racing driver.
At the age of 20 he went to the racing school at Mallory Park and then entered a Daily Express-backed series for cars from Motor Racing Stables. The prize was a brand-new Lola T200 Formula Ford and Tom won the deciding race at Silverstone in the rain in March 1970.
He took the Lola to Brands Hatch where he started working at the race school and he kept the Lola in an old building in the paddock. He quickly showed his tremendous natural ability and within two years had made his Formula 3 debut with Royale in an RP11 and famously beat all the star names in the support race for the 1972 Race of Champions at Brands. Bob King and Alan Cornock were major supporters of Tom through the junior single-seater categories.
In 1972, he also raced in Formula Atlantic with the Royale team but plans for an F2 campaign in 1973 alongside Manfred Schurti faltered through lack of funds. The RP15 was the designation for the car and the initial plan was for Schurti and Pryce to race for a two-car works team but the whole project ended in a financial mess.
Instead, Pryce was snapped up by the Rondel Racing squad, headed by future McLaren boss Ron Dennis, to race in Formula 2 and he led at the Norisring in Germany until brake problems developed. Nevertheless, his pace and obvious natural talent was recognised when he won the annual Grovewood Award for young racers at the end of 1973.
Tom’s first Formula 1 chance came in 1974 with the fledgling Token team of Tony Vlassopulos and Ken Grob and his first F1 race was the Silverstone International Trophy early in the ’74 season. His World Championship debut followed in the Belgian Grand Prix at Nivelles but resulted in a non-finish after a clash with the Tyrrell of Jody Scheckter. Despite the retirement, the quiet Welsh lad had gone from tractor mechanic to F1 driver in barely five years.
Ironically, he was denied an entry for the 1974 Monaco Grand Prix as the organisers deemed him inexperienced. Instead, Vlassopulos decided to make a point and entered Tom for the Formula 3 race in a March 743 from Ippokampos Racing and he won the race by more than 20 seconds.
That performance earned Tom a seat in the Shadow team and it was in the US-owned team that his F1 career really started to flourish. By the Dutch GP, Shadow needed a driver to replace Brian Redman and Tom was called up. Instantly, he showed his true ability in the effective DN3 by qualifying 11th, only four-tenths of a second behind experienced team leader Jean-Pierre Jarier.
He qualified a sensational third in France and scored his first points with sixth place at the Nurburgring and his speed secured him a full season with Shadow for 1975. Once armed with the latest DN5 design, Tom was a major contender and famously won the early season Race of Champions at Brands Hatch after deposing Ronnie Peterson and Jacky Ickx. He thus became the first, and only, Welsh driver to win a Formula 1 race. He took pole at Silverstone and claimed his first World Championship podium in the soaking rain of Austria.
He stayed with Shadow for 1976 but changes to car regulations cost the DN5B some of its competitiveness and results were mixed. However, a podium in Brazil and more points on home ground at Brands Hatch were high points and there was cause for optimism ahead of the ’77 season as the new DN8 would be raced by Pryce and his new team-mate Renzo Zorzi.
Tragically, Tom would lose his life in the second race of the season at Kyalami in South Africa when a young marshal called Frederik Jansen van Vuuren ran across the circuit carrying a heavy fire extinguisher after Zorzi pulled off with an engine fire. Sadly, Hans Stuck and Pryce crested the brow flat out just as van Vuuren tried to cross and as Stuck jinked to the right around the marshal, Tom had no chance. Both men died instantly and a glittering career was cruelly cut short.
Tom was just 27-years old at the time. His funeral was held at St Bartholomew’s Church, Otford, Kent where Tom had married Nella only two years earlier. It was a devastating loss for Tom parents, who had lost their first son David to illness at the age of three.
The sport mourned the loss of a hugely popular and talented young racer who could have gone to the very pinnacle of F1. His loss was deeply felt in the close-knit community in North Wales and came in a four-year period when British motor racing lost three of its finest young racers: Roger Williamson (June 1973), Tony Brise (November 1975) and Tom Pryce (March 1977).
This summer, the HSCC and Anglesey Circuit will honour the memory of a quiet, unassuming character who had an amazing natural talent. He will be fondly remembered and quietly celebrated over the weekend of 13-14 July.