Desiré Wilson Racing Career
Desiré Wilson enjoyed a 58 year career in racing which took her from micro midgets in South Africa at the age of five to the edge of a Formula One factory drive, Indy Cars and great success in World Endurance Sports Cars. During this time Des drove more than 130 types of race cars on 100 tracks in 18 different countries, making her by far the most versatile woman race driver of all time as well as the only lady to have won in Formula One cars and in the World Endurance Championship and to have raced at Le Mans and in Indy Cars.
DESIRĖ WILSON was one of the world’s leading woman race drivers for more than 30 years, earning the praise of many leading journalists who nominated her as the “Best Woman Race Driver of the 20th Century”, in several leading motor sport magazine summaries of the first 100 years of motor racing.
Desiré Wilson was born in South Africa and began racing at the age of 5 years in micro-midget cars on the dirt tracks of the East Rand, winning many races and championships before leaving racing at the age of 12. After she had finished second in the South African Micro-Midget Championships, to 16 year old future multiple South African motorcycle champion Les Van Breda. Wanting to become a normal teenager, she focused on athletics, becoming multiple school Victor Ludorum Champion over a number of disciplines, and becoming an avid local horse jumper and polo player.
As soon as she turned 18, Des took to the tracks of South Africa, initially driving Formula Vee cars, built at home by her father, former South African motorcycle champion Charlie Randall, finishing 4th and 2nd the South African Championships. She graduated to Formula Ford 1600 in 1974 and became the first women in the world to win a national racing championship by taking the South African FF1600 title in 1976.
The South African FF1600 title also won her the 1976 Driver-to-Europe Award, which she used to move to Holland to race FF2000 in Europe and in England, again winning several races and emerging as one on the top up-and-coming race drivers of the period. Her success led her to move to England in 1978 where she proved again that she was one of the top new drivers, earning many fastest laps and lap records, as well as winning several races.
Half way through 1977, while still racing her FF2000 car, she graduated up to Formula One, testing a 3 year old March 751 in the tire test days prior to the British Grand Prix, running quicker than the factory March drivers in their newer cars. This led to her being asked to drive for the Mario Deliotto team in their 1976 Ensign MN04 for the rest of the British Formula One season, during which she finished 3rd, 4th and 5th in the five races in which she competed.
1978 saw her competing in a one year old Tyrrell 008 in the British Aurora AFX Formula One Championship, in which she became the first woman ever to lead a Formula One race (at Zolder where she also took the lap record and finished 3rd), as well as scoring several more third place finishes during what proved to be a very testing season, as her older Tyrrell found itself in competition with several newer ground effects cars.
Her most successful year of racing followed in 1980, when she became the first (and still the only) woman ever to win a Formula One Championship race. Driving the Theodore racing 1977 Wolf WR4 against much more modern Williams FW07’s and other ground effects cars at the Brands Hatch round of the Aurora AFX British series. She followed this win with a great second at Thruxton before losing the drive mid-season due to lack of funding, when lying second in the championships.
Her career however, changed course when she drove the
DeCadenet-Ford DFV with its owner, Alain DeCadenet, at the 1980 Brands Hatch World Endurance Championship race, where they finished 3rd. They then went on to win both the Monza 1000 Kms and Silverstone 6-Hour WEC endurance events, beating the factory Lancia and Porsche teams in their privately entered and underfunded car. They then went to Le Mans as one of the favorites to win, but Des was unable to start the race after an accident in practice. The team then ran out of sponsorship, so her season came to a virtual end in mid-year, leaving her with very few opportunities to further her career.
1980 also saw the most disappointing race of her career when she failed to qualify for the British Formula One Grand Prix at Brands Hatch. She practiced a Williams FW07 run by a private team in the tire test days three weeks before the Grand Prix, running a time that was 12th quickest of 24 drivers, even though she did not get to run on the qualifying tires used by other teams. However, the team changed the chassis before the actual Grand Prix, bringing an older Aurora specification car that had been badly repaired after a crash the previous weekend. Despite trying her best, she could not get within 1 second of her tire test times and then had to sit out the final fifteen minutes of the final session when the wheels fitted with the qualifying tires (over a second quicker than the ones she had been using) failed to fit the car!
After half a season with barely any driving, Des was asked by Ken Tyrrell to drive his Tyrrell-Ford 010 at the 1981 South African Grand Prix, as team mate to the experienced Eddie Cheever. Despite no pre-event testing, she qualified just behind her team mate, then, after stalling on the grid and finding herself fifteen seconds behind the last car at the end of the first lap, she drove through the field, overtaking her team mate, Nigel Mansell in the factory Lotus, and several other experienced drivers to reach 9th place, before spinning off the track while allowing race leader Nelson Piquet to lap her, ending her race, and her Formula One career. Despite this accident Ken Tyrrell tried very hard to find sponsorship for her to continue with the team before finally giving her seat to Michele Alboreto.
1982 saw Des arrive at Indianapolis to compete in a one year-old Theodore entered Eagle-Cosworth, as the second woman ever to drive at the Speedway. The car proved very unreliable, but after a mere handful of laps in the Rookie test she was granted the license to race in the 500. As luck would have it, she was drawn as the first car to attempt to qualify, but her team waved off her first run (which would have qualified her for the race) as they firmly believed she would get much faster during the rest of the sessions. However her team mate, Gordon Smiley was then killed in one of the most viscous accidents ever seen at the Speedway, leading the team to withdraw from the rest of the first weekend of qualifying. The final week of practice became a nightmare for the team as they lost three engines in practice and were unable to make the final weekend of qualifying, leaving Des to watch a race in which she had every reason to have expected to make the field.
The rest of 1981 and 1982 found Des with very few drives, and no important single seater races, but opened the door to more sports car competition. She raced a factory Ford C100 in the 1981 Brands Hatch World Endurance Championship event with Jonathan Palmer, giving the car its best ever finish (4th). She drove her first ever Porsche (a Kremer 935 K5) for the American Swap Shop Team at Brands in 1982, in which the car suffered oil cooler damage but came back through the field to finish 8th. She also drove a similar Porsche in the Kyalami 9-Hours race but again the car failed to finish.
These drives led to her racing the Porsche 935K3 again in 1982 at the Daytona 24-Hour and in several IMSA GTP races, also driving the GRID GTP car with Emilio De Villoto, as she changed her focus to racing in the USA, establishing herself as a leading driver in this very competitive series.
In 1983 Des and Alan moved to the USA, when she established herself in both the IMSA GTP and the CART IndyCar series. However the highlight of the year was her drive at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in a new Porsche 956, sharing the car with Alex Plankenhorn and its owner Jurgen Lassig. Qualifying thirteenth in a very competitive field, Des and Alex had the car in third place at 2am, before it suffered a misfire, but made up time after several pit stops to finish a fine 7th.
The 1983 season also saw Des drive a March GTP-Porsche for the Moretti Momo team in three races, substituting for regular driver Sarel van der Merwe when he was rallying in South Africa. The car failed to finish at Riverside when she had it up to 4th. She then drove it at Lime Rock, qualifying second despite having no previous time in the car (featuring an amazing jump when she took the crest of the hill flat out). The car failed to finish, after which they went to Brainerd where she again qualified the car second. Taking over in fourth place, she un-lapped herself and had it back up to second when the front suspension failed. The car hit a cross road that was seven inches proud of the grass, went end-over-end and then barrel rolled multiple times before stopping, upside down and on fire 500 yards from the start of the accident. Des suffered a broken leg and badly sprained foot.
That was the end of the IMSA season for Des, but 1983 also saw her race in the PPG CART Indy Car series, driving for the Wysard team. Her first race was at the Cleveland 500 in their March 83C, where she finished tenth after a nearly four hour race in 100°F heat and close to 100% humidity, which saw many far more experienced drivers replaced by substitutes after suffering heat exhaustion. She arrived for the next race at Road America, with her leg in a cast, three weeks after the Brainerd crash. Des qualified 12th of 36 cars, ahead of drivers like Rick Mears, Danny Ongias and Tom Sneva, and then had a terrific race in a group fighting for eighth place, until Tom hit her in the rear, flew over the March and broke its front suspension. Her next IndyCar race was at the Pocono oval, where the team failed to provide enough fuel for her to complete her qualifying laps, so she started 23rd and made her way up to 18th before an accident brought out the pace car. Pitting quickly, she emerged in the lead and made a good start to enter turn one over a hundred yards ahead of Mario Andretti and the rest of the field, only to have the right rear universal joint break, sending her head first into the outer wall at over 180mph. The rest of the season saw the team’s back-up March 82c fail to finish any races and it was not until the final race at Phoenix, in the repaired 83c that she was able to complete a race, in 13th place.
She had a few more races in IndyCar in 1986, driving the Machinists Union team’s March 86c after its regular driver had been injured. The car was not very competitive and she failed to finish the last IndyCar race of her career at Laguna Seca later that year. This final Indy Car race was the last major single seater race she ever drove, and her professional racing career basically came to an end as she struggled to find sponsorship to secure a place with a front running team.
Her race career slowed dramatically during the following thirteen years, with very few drives of any level. However she made a career for herself during this period driving in the PPG Industries Pace Team at IndyCar races throughout the USA, Canada and in Australia. She did however still run a few WEC Endurance races, typically as her only race of the year, driving Porsche 962’s at Brands Hatch for the Kremer brothers (4th in 1984), and with Tim-Lee Davey at Brands Hatch in 1989.
Perhaps her best ever drive took place in the pouring rain at Fuji later that year in Japan. Again driving Tim’s Porsche, she arrived to find it still being repaired after a major crash at the previous race, so she had no pre-race practice and even missed qualifying. The car was allowed to start at the back of the grid, based on her previous WEC wins, and she took over after the first hour with the car in 15th place, just about to be lapped. She came out of the pits into heavy rain right behind the first three cars, passed two of them, and immediately latched onto the rear of race leader, Bob Wollek (then recognized as the best sports car driver in the world), in his Joest entered Porsche 962. For the next hour she stayed right behind him as he led the race, driving on a track she did not know and with almost zero visibility. The race was subsequently stopped due to the poor visibility.
In 1991 Desiré had one last drive at Le Mans in the Japanese entered and run, Women’s Le Mans Team, driving a Spice-Cosworth. The team suffered a car destroying accident at the start of the first practice, and had to rent a second chassis and combine the two to present a car for qualifying. Des then qualified the extremely bad handling car much faster than either of her two team mates. After a group of English mechanics broke into the garage the night before the race to get the car set up correctly, Des was able to drive through the field up from the back of the grid to 18th place in her first stint, before handing over to her team mates. Then the car began to suffer handling issues that eventually caused it to break its suspension just as Des drove it, slowly, out of the pit lane. That was the final race of her international sports car career.
While her international career slowed down, Des took part in a series of National races, driving Ford Mustangs for the Saleen team for three years (1986-1988) in the SCCA Escort Endurance Championships. Winning several races, including 24-hour endurance events, she helped the team to be one of the series front runners until the final six hour race at Sebring in 1987. Here she was paired with Ford factory Trans-Am driver, Scott Pruitt, who handed the car over to her for the final three hours, in second place. Des made up huge amounts of time in the rain, then closed the gap until she passed the leading Porsche on the last turn of the last lap to clinch the race, and the SCCA Manufacturers Championship for the Saleen Team.
With no more major championship races available, Des essentially stopped serious racing between 1991 and 2000, driving only at the famous Goodwood Festival of Speed and Goodwood Revival events each year between 1999 and her final race there in 2012. These were great events for her to wind down her career, driving many different famous and historic cars in front of enthusiastic crowds and the many fans who welcomed her to the events, seeking autographs and bringing memorabilia from her past English racing successes
The list of cars she drove is nothing short of incredible, ranging from Shelby Cobras and Daytona Coupe’s to an Aston Martin Zagato DB4GT, a Ferrari 250GTO, Lotus Elite, Cooper-Jaguar T33, and several Jaguar E-Type light-weight coupes, including the very first one built and raced, and a wide variety of saloons. She was ultra-competitive in everything she drove and thoroughly enjoyed these waning years of her career. She also drove E-Type Jaguars in several of the 50th year celebration championship races at tracks like Silverstone and Brands Hatch, always racing close to the front of the field.
The Final Fling. When Des and Alan moved to Salt Lake City and the new race track Alan designed there,
he and she had fun racing two different Ford Mustang GT’s before moving on to Porsche GT3 Cup cars. While Alan mainly focused on regional races, Des also took up the challenge of competing in the national Pirelli Porsche GT3 Cup series, earning several class and overall wins, driving their four different Porsches. In her final weekend, at the age of 63, she finished a fine second in her Porsche 991 to close out her racing career. This some 58 years after starting her first race in the micro midget her father had built.