It is with a profound sense of sadness and loss that I must share that long-time contributor and friend Mike Lawrence has passed away at the age of 78. Mike preferred to say, “…that highly qualified medics were fighting the cancer on his behalf, with his body as the battleground,” but after many brave months of battle he passed away, at home, surrounded by his family on Dec. 21st.
Mike contributed his first “Last Lap” monthly column in our June 2000 issue of Vintage Racecar, and I have to say we hit it off right from the very beginning. Over the years, Mike and I developed a rapport that included a pun-filled form of “verbal jousting” that was immensely satisfying. It was like playing chess with Gary Kasparov, you knew you were the underdog, but when you landed a solid blow, you really felt a sense of accomplishment!
Mike’s writing, whether it was for us or any number of his myriad books, was always erudite and academic, yet slightly cynical with a dry wit—think Denis Jenkinson meets Monty Python.
After a year or two of corresponding only by email, we finally got to meet in person, when I ventured to the UK for one of the first Goodwood Revivals. Since Mike lived right there in Chichester, we spent the better part of the weekend together. Undoubtedly, one of my all-time favorite memories—of anything I’ve done in the past 22-plus years in conjunction with this magazine—was a dinner I shared with Mike that weekend. For some reason, the conversation turned early on to all the behind the scenes stories in Formula One that few if anyone has ever heard about. For the next several hours, Mike regaled me with outlandish and sometimes salacious tale after tale—the Formula One drivers sleeping with owners’ wives, the team’s smuggling drugs and diamonds across Europe in the fuel cells of their racecars and the team principal who was attacked by two thugs with a cricket bat in an alley, coincidentally after having a change of heart on a business deal. At some point in time I told Mike, “Jesus, you’ve got enough here for a best seller, let’s publish the book!” Mike agreed and thought it should be titled, “Grand Prix Babylon.”
I returned to California and immediately started to press Mike on the book. However, after a period of hemming and hawing he finally admitted that he had gotten cold feet. Mike confessed, “A lot of these people are still alive. We probably shouldn’t publish this until after they’re gone…besides I don’t want to be the next in line for the cricket bat!” Sadly, Mike was not able to outlive the statute of limitations on some of the most “choice” stories.
Last year, Mike told me he was going to have to take a break from his column so he could undergo treatment for Lymphoma. While he was often too sick to write even an email, I was able to keep in contact through his son Mark. After Mike passed, I told Mark that I was a little ashamed of the fact that after working with his father for over 20 years, I had to confess to not really knowing that much about his life before we met, other than the fact that he had a Ph.D. in Shakespearean Literature. A fact I used to often taunt him with, since we both shared the same advanced degree that neither of used any longer!
Mark shared the following:
“Much of his determination and self-belief probably stemmed from his early successes. He won several awards for plays and poetry in his twenties, and commissions from BBC television. His poetry was romantic and accessible, and the awards given to him were handed over by the likes of Robert Graves and Philip Larkin.
His play ‘Beeston Craig’ was a Frankenstein-like satire that broached media and race relations. The story is that a white media pundit is killed in a fight and his brain is transplanted into the body of a black ‘full body donor’. It was well ahead of its time and, at one point, it looked as though it would transfer to Broadway. Unfortunately, oil-crisis linked currency fluctuation forced the main investor to withdraw.
By the mid 1970s, he temporarily stopped writing and turned to teaching full-time, becoming the head of department in a particularly rough ‘sink’ comprehensive school, where the pupils revered him. They identified with him as a working class man like themselves, yet who was both deeply learned and pugnacious. I remember him receiving a salute from a garage attendant who had been a former pupil.
Around this time he joined with a friend Rob Widdows, to produce “Track Torque,” a motor racing radio program that gained a cult following. He soon made the leap into full-time motor-racing journalism. It was a rather glamorous life, staying at five star hotels in Monaco and Switzerland, while being coddled by motoring PR. He also accepted the (acting) editorship of ‘MotorSport’ magazine, which fulfilled a long held schoolboy ambition of his.
By the ’90s, the excesses of motor promotion seemed to have been reigned in, and he was somewhat jaded by it. He felt that the real Golden age of motor-racing had passed. He channeled his abilities into earning a doctorate in Literature at the University of Sussex, chosen I suppose because it was relatively local, he could easily have completed it in Oxford or Cambridge. His dissertation was on the staging of illusion and magic in the plays of Shakespeare and Ben Johnson.
The thing I most wish I’d inherited from him was his photographic (eidetic) memory. I asked him whether he used any menmotic techniques but no, it was simply an innate ability. When recently someone mentioned a racing manager to him, Mike reeled off the name of his wife and children, without effort. Similarly a walk around a town or cathedral would produce a stream of facts and observations about the subject.”
Amazed, but not surprised, by his early successes, I lamented to Mark how I wish I had known these details (and seen those press clippings!), when he was still with us. It would have been grist for a righteous email exchange!
While Mike has moved to the great beyond, I take some solace in the knowledge that Mike has joined his lifetime idol, Sir Stirling Moss, in the great paddock in the sky. One can only imagine the tales the two of them must now be sharing!
It pains me, but Dr. Lawrence has truly exited… stage left.