Terry chatted with Jalopnik’s Alex Lloyd about Ayrton Senna and why of all the racers he would go onto dominate, Terry Fullerton was the one driver he could never master.
It was August 1980, in Jesolo, Italy. Ayrton Senna, aged 20, lay in a deck chair by the hotel pool—steely-eyed, angry. He had been beaten the day before in one of the world’s most prestigious karting events, a race he had dominated until the final lap.
Today, Fullerton, 63, lives in a small house in Leicester, England, with his wife Nilda, 11-year-old daughter and two dogs. By his own admission, he has very little money, and few people outside the world of professional karting know his name.
His profile did raise when the “Senna” documentary aired in 2010. In it, an interview was played from 1993, where Senna—then a three-time F1 world champion—shocked the media by declaring not Prost or Mansell or Piquet but Fullerton the most satisfying driver he ever raced against: “He was fast, he was consistent, he was for me a very complete driver,” Senna said.
In fact, Fullerton recently received a letter from a longtime secretary of Senna’s, noting how the Brazilian F1 great talked of Fullerton as the best all-round driver he ever competed against. The reason he picked that time in 1993 to speak of his admiration, the letter said, was to do justice to all that Fullerton achieved, stating he deserved credit as the brilliant racer he was—something to that day he had never received.
It begs the question: if he was so blindingly brilliant, the best driver Senna ever raced against, the only man the Brazilian could never beat, then why did he not become an F1 superstar like his rivals?
To understand, you need to go back to 1964, when Fullerton was just 11-years-old.
Regardless, Alec yearned to compete, and for the next couple of years he spent all his money on bikes and racing. By age 19, Alec was living on a shoestring, barely able to pay his bills. His parents begged him to move back home, something he reluctantly did. After a few heart-to-hearts, his father decided to calm his strictness, get on board with Alec’s racing, and invest a little of his own money into helping his oldest son live out his dream.
It became a family affair, with dad preparing the bikes, and Alec soon rose to the point where he was considered a junior rider to watch, one with the potential to hit the big leagues. The Fullertons, however would soon have their world tipped upside down.
Having been to numerous races with his brother over the years, Fullerton admits that, despite the accident, by then, the racing bug was well and truly sown. He was passionate about it, a passion that somehow retained a connection with his lost brother.
His father, knowing this, steered his son away from bikes and into go karts, a sport that remained considerably safer than motorcycles, where hundreds of kids were killed each year.
It was clear from the start that Fullerton was gifted. In his very first year of karting he won the 1966 British Junior Championship, a series he would win the following two seasons, rewriting history along the way.
“I must have been a bit of a natural,” Fullerton admits, speaking in a way that suggests even after all this time he hasn’t yet figured out what made him so successful. “It all came a bit too easy, to be honest.”
He was simply spectacular.
This was the moment a move to race cars should have ensued—a path to stardom, financial freedom and, perhaps, Formula One greatness himself.
“At that stage, there were three or four F1 drivers that were dying every single year,” Fullerton explains. “I didn’t fancy that at all. I suppose what happened to my brother was a catalyst to that thought process.”
It wasn’t that Fullerton was scared, but he couldn’t risk his parents losing another son to motorsports. In those days, the odds of surviving a career to F1 were stacked against you. Karting, by comparison, felt safe. People weren’t dying; the worst injury Fullerton suffered in his career were a few broken ribs. And he was building a reputation within the paddock; young drivers admired him, they looked up to him, and teams offered modest payments for his services behind the wheel.
One young driver that looked up to Fullerton was a 17-year-old Brazilian, named Ayrton Senna da Silva. He was teammates with Fullerton at DAP in 1978—Fullerton the paid professional, Senna the paying newcomer. “I first met him when he was hanging around the DAP factory,” Fullerton recalled. “He wasn’t like a normal driver, he was very intense—a bit quiet, a bit solemn. He was very bright though.”
But Fullerton wasn’t concerned. He knew karting inside-out—he could work on a kart better than the mechanics, he could build engines better than the engine builders, he knew more about kart design than the designers. He was incredibly dedicated to every aspect of the sport, and his confidence as a driver was unparalleled.
Senna would often be quicker at the start of a weekend. Out of the gate, the Brazilian and his mechanic would bolt on their best setup with their best engine and go for the fastest time possible. Fullerton recalls being a few tenths slower after testing, Senna smugly going back to his hotel room feeling confident that he had the measure of the Londoner. But Fullerton had been methodically working through his program, testing different things while not using his best engine, only putting all the pieces together when it really mattered.
I asked Fullerton whether he believes the intense dedication Senna was known for in Formula One was in part due to what he learned from him as a teammate, but Fullerton told me he couldn’t be sure. “People close to him told me over the years that that was the case.”
Fullerton’s will to win was exceptional. I know firsthand. Back when I raced karts in 1999, he was my driver coach. He took me from a quick kid that had never won a race to a British Champion in less than a year—a kid that should have won the European Championship had it not been for someone spiking our fuel.
I remember once finishing second to Oli Jarvis, now a works Audi driver at Le Mans. It was a last lap battle between the two of us, and by a few inches, Jarvis came out on top. Back at the truck, my family and team were high-fiving, congratulating me on a great result in the first of two finals. Fullerton, however, pulled me aside.
“That was unacceptable,” he told me, sternly. “If you’re in a one-on-one fight, you must never lose. NEVER!”
That was Terry Fullerton. A man with a dedication to winning I’d never before witnessed. And I’ve never seen anything like it since.
During the 1978 and ’79 season, the Senna/Fullerton relationship was good. Senna often asked Fullerton for advice on his driving, and Fullerton would explain that he was “overdriving,” going in too hard, scrubbing speed on the exit with the rear tires sliding.
By 1980, however, things came to a head. Senna was then experienced, gunning for the number one position. But no matter what he tried, his DAP teammate always had the edge. That day in Jesolo was the tipping point. After Fullerton’s aggressive last lap maneuver, the pair rarely spoke again.
For Fullerton, though, he never thought of Senna as his main rival.
“He was one of three or four,” he said. Someone you’d pay attention to, but by no means the only one. In 1980, Fullerton won ever single race he competed in. The only exception was at the World Championships; with a large lead, his motor blew with seven laps to go. Senna never managed to win a World Karting Championship.
Prost, of note, was never rated by Fullerton in karts: “He was quick,” he remembers, “but never someone I was worried about beating me. Same with Mansell. There were plenty of other guys, like Senna, that I’d focus on more.”
What would have happened if Fullerton made the move like his aforementioned colleagues? Would that level of dominance have continued to F1, or would a race car—and the different driving style required—simply not have suited him so well?
“A little bit,” he admitted. “I’m 63, working every day, trying to teach kids how to drive go karts, and I’ve basically got no money. But the fact that he (Senna) mentioned me at the end of the film—that was brilliant. If I regretted the decision not to move into cars before, that made me think, ‘no, I don’t really regret it.’ I’ve got all the kudos and credit I would have gotten anyway.”
Senna was killed in an accident at Imola in 1994, a tragic reminder that—with the commitment Fullerton made to his parents—his decision to stay karting was probably right.
@Alex_Lloyd is Head of Content at Beepi, a radically new way to buy, sell and own cars. A racing driver who competed in the Rolex 24 at Daytona twice and the Indianapolis 500 four times, his column Three Wide is about the culture of speed.
- Original Article – Jalopnik.com