Motorsport.com’s Nick DeGroot got the chance to talk with the driver Ayrton Senna preferred racing against over anyone else: karting legend Terry Fullerton.
He did not say Prost, Mansell, Schumacher, Patrese, Berger, Piquet, or any other Formula One star. He named Terry Fullerton. For those of you that don’t know much or anything about Terry Fullerton and his relationship with Ayrton Senna, you are in for a treat. I was fortunate enough to procure an interview with the man behind the name. Here’s a quick little back story for you. Fullerton is an English racer who earned the Karting World Championship in 1973 and became Senna’s first, and according to Ayrton, his most formidable opponent. How did Senna and Fullerton initially meet? Well, it was the year 1978. Senna became his teammate for the Italian based DAP factory team. It didn’t take long for Terry to perceive that this 17 year-old had a uniqueness about him.
“First time I met him, I was 25, he was 17,” Fullerton told Motorsport.com. “He turned up at the DAP factory in 1978. We were preparing equipment to go test for the World Championship, probably two or three weeks before that race. He was just a young kid; 17 years old. Quite slim, lean, hungry looking kid almost. He was quite intense. You could tell there was an intensity about him. He was working away, helping his mechanics. Really seemed like a nice kid. He was quite focused on what he was about to do though.”
“We went testing at a place called Parma, in Italy, which was about 50 miles from the DAP factory. He was very, very quick on the first day. So immediately, you realized you got quite a gifted little driver.”
Senna wasn’t perfect though; at least not yet anyway. “He wasn’t born a complete driver. He learned to be one and it was his determination and his obsession really, that was the driving force in learning those things.” Only after three years of racing in Europe did Ayrton learn to take all that raw speed and control it, or use it more wisely, if you will.Even at the age of 17, Ayrton was displaying his innate capacity for racing cars and his unrelenting determination to reach the top. “There were a couple of times on the track where it really ingrained into me, very strongly, how much feel he had for the grip and that sort of thing,” he explained.
“He was in Europe for three years now and he had improved, had developed into more of a complete driver. He wasn’t just raw talent anymore. He was thinking and planning and organizing a bit better.”
“He didn’t lift. He was past the level of being rational”
An example of just how much experience and logic would have helped Senna in his younger years is epitomized by this enthralling story of when Ayrton pushed the limit just a little too far at an Italian track in 1979.
“Near the end of testing, the track was getting grippier and grippier. If you wanted to be fast, you had to adjust the car. You had to go wider on the rear track just to keep the car on the floor because we were two wheeling; there was that much grip. I came in and stopped. They adjusted my kart, going wider, but he (Senna) didn’t do that.”
“He was trying to put in a time before qualifying. He came around on tires at what was just about a flat-out corner. He went on two wheels, but he didn’t lift. He should have lifted and steered out of it a little bit so the kart would come down, but he didn’t. He was so focused on trying to be as fast as possible. He didn’t lift and the kart went right up and he went right into the fence with him first and the kart after; running about 70 or 80mph (110 or 130 km/h). So that was unusual. A shock really.”
“He was past the level of being rational,” Terry explained to Motorsport.com “It was a horrendous accident. I jumped the fence and ran up to him, and he had knocked all the breathe out of himself. His eyes were starring at me in fear almost. I calmed him down under his helmet, told him to breathe and he did start breathing after about 10, 12 seconds. After he caught his breathe, he got up and he was fine. That could have been a very bad accident.”
While talking to Terry, I found out what he calls his most satisfying battle with Ayrton Senna.
“There was a big race in Italy called The Champions Cup (in 1980). It came down to the last lap of the last race. If I passed him and I won, then I would win the championship. If he stayed in the lead, he would win the championship. I managed to kind of force my way past him in quite an aggressive move, so I won the race. That was very satisfying, my most satisfying race probably ever.”
The rocky relationship they shared as teammates
Being teammates and fierce rivals, I pondered what kind of personal relationship the two had. Was it a resentful, edgy relationship like the infamous Prost/Senna years at McLaren or a more benign, friendly environment when the two were around one another? Apparently, it was a little of both.
How much did their relationship fluctuate from being amicable to not quite-so harmonious? Well, Senna did shove Fullerton into a pool once.”That first year and most of the second year, it was quite an amicable relationship. But then it became a bit more intense. He became a little bit more distant.The relationship then became less friendly, less amicable. He saw me as a competitor more and more; someone that he was quite desperate to beat and he was struggling to do that. It got a bit an uneasy (the situation). Not on my side though. The way he dealt with it was by making more distance between us, being less friendly.”
“On that Monday (after The Champions Cup in 1980), he was still livid. From my point of view, it was a fair overtake. It was hard because he was defending hard so I had to be kind of forceful. I didn’t punch the back of the kart or anything. I passed him fairly as far as I was concerned. We touched, he went a little wide, and I went on to win the race.”
“So the next day at the hotel pool, I was messing around with my mechanic. Obviously, I was very happy and content with my race the day before and he was the opposite. He was sitting there, watching me, and I didn’t pay much attention really. He was looking and seething about it; not very happy. There came a certain point when I turned away, he jumped up and rushed at me, and pushed me in the pool. I was fully clothed at the time. When I surfaced, I heard him sarcastically laughing and walking away.”
“I was quite shocked,” Fullerton added. “I didn’t know what the hell it was all about. It was obviously in his mind, some kind of revenge for what I had done the day before.”
“He adapted very quickly to the conditions”
Everyone is well-aware of Senna’s remarkable Formula One drives; things that defied logic and made him into the icon he is today. However, Formula One was not the only place he did extraordinary things with a car.
“I do remember one race we were doing in Switzerland,” Fullerton recalled to Motorsport.com. “We were on slick tires. Just me and him were in the running to win this race. It was quite a big race. Either he was going to win it or I was going to win it. In one of the heat races, it began to rain and we were on slick tires. I was very impressed at how fast he was able to feel the grip level available, and use it not 99%, but 100%.”
“I was behind him at the time, reasonably comfortable when it wasn’t raining. But when it started to spit with rain, it became a point where I was just really hanging on. I was not in a position anymore to think about overtaking him. He changed his line, adapted very quickly to the conditions, which I’ve never really seen from anybody else before.”
“It was stupid. It was crazy. They were just dropping like flies”
At this point, you’re probably wondering, if Terry Fullerton was so good, why didn’t he ever make the leap to Formula One?
“It was stupid. It was crazy,” Fullerton asserted bluntly. “They were just dropping like flies. It would have been the most dangerous sport in the world at the time. In the late 60’s, early 70’s, it was a lethal sport. I was having a great time driving karts, traveling all over the world. I was a professional getting paid and really enjoying my life.””My brother was killed racing motorbikes,” Fullerton explained. “My parents would have hated it if I had tried to move into cars. So they would have been living in fear every time I got in the car. At that particular time when I won the World Championship in 1973, the five years previous to that, there was an average of about three or four Formula One drivers dying each year. Not just having bad accidents, but actually dying. You had something like a two or three chance of dying in a Formula One car.”
His reasoning is certainly understandable, but with how talented he was, I was curious to know if he ever regretted that decision.
“There are times, he admitted. “It’s always when I look back and think about why I made the decision not to try to move into cars. I can’t say that my thought process was wrong at the time or even when I think about it now.”
“The only thing I really have regrets about now is that most of the guys I raced against made their fortune and got plenty of money. I haven’t. I still have to work. I’m not a wealthy man at all. When you make a decision though, you have to go with it. I don’t really regret it.”
“Who knows what would have happened if I had done it. There’s a very good chance that I wouldn’t be here. I’ve got a nine year-old daughter. I’ve got a life I enjoy. I’ve got a lovely wife.”
“None of them ended up as formidable as Senna”
Since he never moved out of Karting, Terry was fortunate enough to race against many drivers who went on to be Formula One stars. With that in mind, did he ever come across a driver that he felt was as formidable as Senna? The closest in his opinion was the 1992 Formula One World Champion Nigel Mansell and 1982 Monaco Grand Prix winner Riccardo Patrese.
“None of them ended up as formidable as Senna,” Fullerton clarified. “At the time, you may have said so. Actually some, even more so because they were complete drivers. They were older and more experienced (than Senna). Riccardo Patrese – I won the World Championship in ’73, he won it in ’74. So we raced against each other a lot in that period of time. He went on to be a very good F1 driver, but not quite in the class of Senna. A very good driver nonetheless. I had a lot of respect for him. I thought he was a very good all around driver.”
“The other one I raced against when I was much younger was Nigel Mansell. I raced against him for three years in England. He had his ups and downs in the lower Formula cars but he was very determined to succeed and eventually, he did. He actually had to sell his house to get the money to keep racing, so he was obviously very determined and got to the very top at the end. So he was another one that was a bit special.”
Later on. he added that as a driver coach, he’s come across some very talented, very gifted racers, but none quite stack up to the level of Ayrton Senna. (Has coached the likes of Allan McNish, Dan Wheldon, Anthony Davidson, and Paul Di Resta) “All drivers are different, have their idiosyncrasies. He (Senna) had his weaknesses and his strengths as well. One thing with driver coaching, you leave the good bits alone and identify the bad bits, and improve those. That or make them go away.”
“But no, at the end of the day, of all the people I’ve raced against, he was different,” Fullerton admitted. “I can’t really compare anybody to him in that respect. There was a certain speed in the karts so on any given day, there would be ten or fifteen guys that could go around the track within a tenth of each other. That wasn’t what made the difference. What made the difference was intelligence, strategy, and planning. That’s what made the difference; not just your raw speed around the track.”
In terms of why Senna chose Terry when answering that question, Fullerton believes it had something to do with the fact that he was a complete driver when they raced against each other; something Senna strived to be at the time (and obviously achieved).Fullerton was obviously thrilled when Senna named him as his most satisfying opponent to race against, saying “I was impressed with the way he said it because he pondered about it, thought about it very clearly, and then slowly gave his answer. It wasn’t rushed into at all. It was very calculated. I was delighted that he said it to be honest because it was kind of a recognition of my skills and my ability at the time so it was great.”
“He was impressed by me because at the time, I was a complete, professional driver. I was 25 years old (and) had been racing for 12 or 13 years. I was right at the top of my game; probably the highest paid karter in the world. I was probably, in most people’s minds, in the Karting world, the No. 1 driver at the time.”
“He came to compete against me and I was beating him. I was faster than him. I was using a logic learned from experience and obviously, my own skill. When you combine that, it’s better than just raw speed and ability. He was very impressed by that and I think he began to learn that approach to his racing – to be more methodical and more logical about the decisions you were making as opposed to just throwing the best engine, the best tires into the car and hoping to be fast. At that time, I earned his respect very much so,” Fullerton concluded.
Riding bikes in Japan
Senna, being the fierce competitor he was, became hell-bent at beating Fullerton at everything he did. They were both in Japan testing once and the suits at Yamaha asked them if they would like to try out some trials bikes. “Of course, we jumped at the opportunity. They had this obstacle course where you could just try the bikes around. I was quite used to riding bikes. I had rode bikes a lot as a kid so I was immediately jumping around and that sort of stuff. I think Ayrton had ridden bikes, but not quite as much as me.”
“He was never going to be out-done by whatever I do. There was one point when I drove along the back of a large pipe, probably a meter in diameter.” Terry jumped off the pipe at the end, doing a wheelie on the back wheel and landing safely. Immediately, Senna tried to replicate the move.
“He jumped off the end of the pipe and the bike landed, more or less, pointed towards the sky and he fell back. Somehow, you know, brilliant reactions, he stood on the back brake or something and managed to just about get it back and not have a bad accident. That move he did was more impressive that what I had done. So he was always in this constant state of trying to do better than me.”
“It was just a very big shock”
“I had been in France driver coaching some kids over there with an English team and I was coming back on Sunday afternoon. I was actually on the boat when somebody on the boat told me; said they just heard that Senna was dead. He couldn’t speak English very well so it was sign language almost. I then immediately phoned my brother who I knew would be home watching the Grand Prix. I could tell something serious had happened because he was crying and he told me.”I felt compelled to ask where he was when he found out that Senna had died and was surprised by what I learned. I erroneously assumed that he was watching the race, but he was actually on a cross-channel ferry from France to England when someone, who could barely speak English, delivered the grim news. I thought Terry summed it up well when I asked him how many Word Titles he believed Senna would capture had fate been kinder. He did not simply give me a number, but something much more thoughtful.
“It’s hard to say but as long as he managed to find himself with the right team, in the right cars, he would have won a lot more. But I don’t think it was necessary for him to have won anymore. He already demonstrated the phenomenal driver he was. He wouldn’t have been able to demonstrate that anymore if he had won another ten.”
“There’s some people who have won loads of championships that I don’t have massive respect for, Fullerton revealed. “They just happened to be in the right car and at the right team. We got a demonstration of that right now with Red Bull. Whether he (Senna) won another ten or none at all, it wouldn’t change the level I hold him at in my mind. For sure he would have won more I think though.” Well said Terry.
Senna and Fullerton were rivals, friends, teammates, world class drivers, and sometimes even enemies. They laughed, cared, competed, respected, and fought together like brothers. One is gone, but the other lives on to be the voice that carries on a story not told enough. The story of two drivers. One that was an ace and knew just how to out-duel his opponents. The other that possessed an incredible, God-given ability that took years to control and master. Ayrton met Terry as a young kid, wet behind the ears, with a burning passion to win and a mind ready to learn how to do it. Terry was that teacher. The one who helped edify and mold Ayrton Senna into the unstoppable and impeccable force he became in Formula One.
He couldn’t beat death, but he did conquer it
No matter how fast he was though, not even the great Senna Da Silva could beat death, but he did conquer it. He was a man who became a legend. A legend who ultimately died doing what he loved, and then, only in death, became immortal. When I find myself bothered by the fact that we were robbed of what Senna was really capable of achieving due to his untimely death, I turn to a quote that settles me. It was said by Bruce McLaren, who also paid the ultimate price and perished in pursuit of the checkered flag. He gave this eulogy at the funeral of his friend Timmy Mayer, who was killed in 1964 after a practice crash in the old Tasman Series. I will let him end this piece.