When the Special Saloons & Modsports Series returns to Donington on September, the grid will be missing one of its Midland Stalwarts, Pete Stevens, who sadly passed away earlier this year during the midst of Coronavirus pandemic. With a touching moment of silence held by all in the assembly area at Thruxton, now fellow competitor and friend, Special Saloons & Modsports Series rep Ricky Parker-Morris, pays tribute.........
I never thought I would have to bring pen to paper to do this, sitting here in tears of disbelief that this wretched disease actually got me, by spitefully taking one of my long standing friends from the tarmac, it was certainly not in the script…
However, I’m more than honoured to be asked to tell the story of my acquaintance with one of the most iconic clubman racing drivers of modern times; a European Ovals Champion no less, British Champion in Pick Up Trucks and of course, Thundersaloons, which is where my story begins…
Although Pete and I hit it off in the very late 80’s, there’s no doubt I was just a fish in the ocean when it came to his motorsport friends, with a mountain of mates generated way before my menial existence, and a whole lot more after that for sure. But it wasn’t just Pete’s amazing skills as a driver that attracted these folk, nor me for that matter, as anyone will tell you Pete was one of the most lovable characters of the circuits, humble to his ability, although armed with the amo of usually being at the sharp end. Pete would boast a seemingly permanent, beaming smile 99% of the time, in the pits, paddock and of course the bar. Only 1% of the time would he be found with a frown of seriousness whilst concentrating to fix a rare breakage, along with his trusty team who stuck by him year after year, a mixture of family and long term friends, all Brummies of course. I can hear the accent now, “clear as a bell our kid…”
On many a warm, sometimes damp and eerie evening we would gather around the Thundersaloons cars in the pits, only to hear, “wanna little green bottle kid?” sung in full Birmingham song, and so the banter would begin… reminiscing epic battles won and lost, but always with a good ending. (Little green bottles were a healthy stock of French beers stored in Pete’s motorhome!)
Of course this was back in the day, when race track bars stayed open til late, where the prize giving was held at places like Brands in the Kentagon, with ‘driver-of-the-day’ awards and such like, the hype pumped to the max by the likes of Brian Jones, probably the greatest commentator of all time, alongside Murray himself of course. Brian would be amongst us, have a genuine interest for the series, and knew all of us on first name terms, both on track and in the bar.
Pete and Team Sertec Carlton often reaped the financial benefits of being winners on so many occasions; money for attendance, completion of first lap, fastest lap etc, all adding up to a nice tidy and healthy cheque at the end of the day. Celebrations sometimes on a Sunday night getting way out of hand, meaning the drive home Monday would be hampered by sore heads on more than one occasion…
Unfortunately this all fizzled out with the recession of ’93 when funds became tight and Thundersaloons lost its sponsors. Things were never the same again, except for that is, Team 309’s bond with the Midland Carlton boys, who seemed to ignore the demise of ‘good-times’ and continued to party in the paddock for a while, until time and the economy finally took its toll, and Thundersaloons sadly faded away.
Now when I think back, maybe we kept the Peugeot, as did Pete the Vauxhall, so we could do it all over again when the CSCC Special Saloons & Modsports Series revived us both in 2011. Although my brother Danny and I lay pretty dormant over those years between, Pete did not of course, carrying on with many a win in the GM monster and of course total success with Sonny Howard's Pick Up Series in the golden years no less, where another heap of people befriended Pete and the team who equally enjoyed his smiles, camaraderie and banter.
Never did we lose contact with each other, ten regimental phone calls a year kept the friendship going, one in early January to check which day we’d meet at the NEC Autosport Show, one mid morning on the day to see where each other was, one around 13:00 hours to see which bar to meet, one about 5pm to see if one was lost, and one the next morning to see if both were safe! Latter years this was duplicated in February for Race Retro, with chase up calls to enter meetings after that.
Who would ever of known 2020 was going to become the shambles it is, probably the worst year in motorsport since the day it began post war, let alone tear friends and family apart. It now has become one of the saddest years of my life, a year that was meant to have been a bumper year of racing, with new rules to open up our series, ‘more little green bottles,’ more fuel for banter and my 60th year at that…
One thing that will always stick in my mind, probably the most influential statement of my racing life, something Pete used to say at every meet, his stamp on why we all do everything we can to get out and race our beloved cars especially as none of us are getting any younger, “you’re a long time dead kid". Ironically, he used to say, no more, no less, but these few simple words had so much meaning then, and now sadly even more-so, but true to those words, did Pete fulfil his life at every possible chance by racing pretty much most of it.
Sadly the story ends here, with Donington being his last race with the CSCC, five years ago. Life will truly be different, but be assured Pete, we will remember you and raise ‘a little green bottle kid,’ with pride, wherever we meet…
Good bye mate, good bye, til we all see you again one day… xx
www.specialsaloons.co.uk, Dave Smith, gives a career overview of one of the category's biggest stars....
Pete came into Thundersaloons from Hot Rods, as did many others from the ovals such as his long time rival Rod Birley, the other 11-season Thundersaloon man. Pete was always in the top few in Hot Rods and won both National and European championships. Many who follow the sport regard him as the best driver not to have won the World Championship, finishing 4th twice between 1979 to 1985.
Thundersaloons - Ford Escort (1985-86)
Pete and his old Hot Rod friend Neil Facey paired up and took to circuit racing in 1985, to compete in the new BRSCC Thundersaloon Championship. A wide-arched Escort MK.2 with BDG power was used, and the pair competed in class B for 2-litre cars. For 1986 the pair took the class title with class race wins at Brands Hatch twice, Donington and Oulton Park. The pair had taken to full circuit racing brilliantly and at the end of the season had the chance to step up to the big class.
Thundersaloons - Opel Senator (1987-90)
The car Pete bought for 1987 was the reigning outright championship winning car, the ex-Peter Brock Holden Commodore as raced by John Cleland and Vince Woodman to the big class title, re-badged as an Opel Senator to help promote the European based GM product names of the time. Favourites to retain their title, but with the brand new Dave Cook-built Vauxhall Carlton with 500 bhp 6-litre Chevrolet power, were the rising star Cleland and the experienced Woodman.
Sure enough it was the fastest car in Thundersaloons, but the Senator of Stevens and Facey were always just right behind them, a credit to the privately run team Stevens had created to keep up with the Vauxhall 'works' outfit. When the new Carlton lost 3 potential race wins through mechanical issues. it was Stevens and Facey who came through to win the championship. The pair scoring 51 points to Rod Birley Sierra`s 42.
1988 and 1989 were leaner seasons for Stevens in the Senator. In 1988 the Cleland/Woodman Carlton fulfilled its potential, winning the title. Stevens drafted in Chuck Nicholson for round 1 in 1989 before Facey returned, but the season ended abruptly at Snetterton on May 29th with a huge shunt that side-lined the whole project. Stevens guest drove with Terry Nicholls in the latter's 450 bhp Gartrac Capri to 5th at Castle Combe to keep his hand in.
For 1990 the twice championship winning Carlton was sold by Vauxhall to Joe Ward who was actually already competing for the 2-litre class in his existing car. Vauxhall and John Cleland were increasingly looking at the British Saloon car championship. Who could fill the void left as more and more exotic machinery joined in the hunt? Thundersaloons had really taken off and Stevens was back in the rebuilt Senator with new co-driver Chas Millard (Nicholson again covering). After another superb season, Stevens won his second championship and the Senators third, 60 points to Jim Mensley`s 52 in the Honda legend.
Thundersaloons - Vauxhall Carlton (1991-95)
Stevens persuaded Joe Ward to sell him the Carlton for 1991 and won first time out at the Brands opener. The team won 3 of the first 4 races in fact, and it was noted that slick pit work often came into effect during these 35-minute races. This time the rivalry was with the Jerry Mahoney/Lawrence Bristow Sierra and the 2 crews each scored 5 race wins apiece and each had 10 top 3 finishes, so close a match were they. Unluckily for Stevens he lost the title due to having to drop a score (3 points) on a tie break, so lost 64 points to 67.
For 1992 Thundersaloons enjoyed new sponsorship from Auto Express, and BHL relaunched the format for single drivers only over 2x 20-minute races per round. The prize money tempted new cars in too with a generous £12k purse at EVERY round, plus another £3k for the champion. The reigning champion's Sierra was unable to defend its title and Stevens took full advantage driving solo to his, and the Carlton's, 3rd title. "It`s a beautiful car and it`s a big crowd puller", he remarked. Double wins came at Brands plus Snetterton, staving off the rapid Birley/Wilson Mazda RX-7 which came good to catch Stevens going into the final races. Another double win at Oulton was vital as the Mazda faltered and Stevens secured it at the Brands finale.
For 1993 came more regulation changes. The smaller cars in class B were gone, as were cars out of production by 3 years in what was a controversial move by BHL. Stevens faced his old rival Rod Birley again, but he now had the beautiful new Jim Morgan-built Honda Prelude Cosworth to wrestle the crown from Stevens. Stevens again started strongly winning 3 of the first 4 races before the Prelude won at Combe. Then the rivalry was cranked up a notch. Autosport reported that Stevens had won both legs of the Snetterton round only to be excluded from the results after a protest by Birley over the Carlton`s doors and window vent. "There was no point in appealing", remarked a surprisingly philosophical Pete, "All I can do is get the car squeaky clean and go and blow the doors off him next time".
The Brands Hatch weekend possibly marked the pinnacle of Thundersaloons, with almost 26,000 sun-drenched spectators present thanks to free admission courtesy of The Daily Express. The Honda though increased its championship lead, and despite Pete winning both 'gripping' races at Mallory, was still behind coming into the Donington finale. Stevens' 2 more wins still weren't quite enough and the Honda won, 247 points to 239. Credit to Stevens and the car for still being as competitive against newer machinery. "It was well built in the first place and just gets faster and faster" he said. Some very expensive wonderful machinery had tried and failed to be as fast or reliable as Pete in the Carlton during the heady days of Thundersaloons.
1994 was probably the beginning of the end for the championship with just 6 starters at the opener and round 2 cancelled before grids thankfully returned after work by the Thundersaloon Drivers Association. Birley and Stevens renewed their rivalry with the Honda retaining its crown. Autosport reported in summary that 'Pete Stevens' almost historic but very fast Vauxhall Carlton V8 took 6 wins but the Birmingham man wasn`t championship registered'. The wins were spread at Combe (X2), Snetterton, Brands and Mallory.
1995 was the final Thundersaloon season and Stevens' 11th. Some of the older or smaller-engined cars were added plus recent 2-litre BTCC cars and run alongside simpler modified saloons to keep the numbers up. The series was now being over shadowed by the BTCC but it was back to winning ways to end on a high as Stevens won Class A and outright, 121 points to both Andy Clarkin and Stewart Morton's 94. This being Stevens' and the Carlton's 4th championship.
Formula Saloons was the brainchild of Brian Sheridan and hosted by the BARC with sponsorship by Mercury Autoparks, and very much started where Thundersaloons had left off. Stevens reappeared in the trusty Carlton, now with smart yellow centre stripe and dark blue flanks, and yes indeed won the inaugural title to add to the collection. Race wins at Thruxton, Oulton, Donington, Brands and again Mallory showing the versatility of the car. The car was then retired other than the odd appearances such as Goodwood until the CSCC announced a revival meeting at Mallory Park in 2011.
The CSCC Revival
With the announcement that the CSCC was holding a Special Saloons and Modsports revival meeting at Mallory in 2011, Pete and his Carlton were tempted back into competitive action.
Pete went on to compete in a total of 31 CSCC races, with 2 outright wins, 8 class wins, 2 fastest laps and 2 pole positions. By 2014 and 2015 the car started to become less competitive (partly due to an aging set of slick tyres!), but Pete always made things exciting by making steady, cautious starts before coming on strong at the end of the race, with fully warmed up rubber. He would continue to chat to the club about making a return, all the way up to early 2020, before Covid waved the chequered flag for the final time.