(Note: This piece was originally published in 1993, when I was in the middle of my F1 career. I brought it back because it’s the twentieth anniversary of Ayrton’s fatal crash in Imola and I wanted to share how F1 used to be.)
I don’t collect autographs. I don’t see much point in them unless they’re at the bottom of a Picasso or Monet, where they signal that the work was indeed finished and that the artist was happy enough with it to proclaim that it was his.
I guess inscribed photos are okay too, if there’s a genuine message from one friend to another scrawled across its surface, but the idea of treasuring a scrap of paper with someone’s name on it just never took hold in my mind. Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve lived and worked around Los Angeles for all of my life and coming in contact with the famous and/or talented is not a big deal. After an initial few times of sitting in close proximity to celebrities, you realize that the experience has in no way enriched your life: you’re not richer, or smarter, or cuter for it, you were just there in the same room. (Well, to concede a point, sharing a broom closet with Michelle Pfeiffer would probably be a genuine life-enhancing experience – for me at least – but I’ll never know.)
After learning that some of my friends from my early years had gone on to become famous people themselves, I just look on the famous as people who just want to get through the day with as little hassle as possible – just like you and me. Therefore, I’m still a bit amazed when I see hordes of fans in a crush, straining to get a driver’s autograph as if it were the key that would open The Big Golden Door for them.
So why was I, then, sitting outside the Marlboro/ McLaren motorhome on a sweltering Hungarian afternoon waiting for Ayrton Senna to sign something for me? Because, dear reader, months ago an idea had formed in my head and it wouldn’t let go. It started as a fluke and became an obsession and I now had a quest to fulfill. I realized that this would bug me until I got the job done.
To explain; I have this friend – Eric – in the F1 paddock with whom I have spent many happy hours, both on and off track. Eric was a PR type for Honda at the time and one of his many, many duties was to forge Senna’s signature at the bottom of photos and posters. Almost every lunch hour at a race meet, someone would enter the Honda motorhome with a huge roll of posters and Eric would spend his lunch hour signing posters for Ayrton while trying to eat lunch with his right hand. (As you may have guessed, both Eric and Ayrton were left-handed.) The posters were primarily for sponsor types who had been brought to a Grand Prix in droves and few, if any of them, were actual race fans who might have cared if they got the genuine item: the signed posters were just another corporate perk, like free lunch and silly hats.
If the idea of proxy Senna autographs seems a bit callous to you, then you’ve somehow missed the big picture: if every celebrity had to actually sign autographs for their adoring fans, then carpal tunnel syndrome would have disabled every movie star, pop musician and racing driver on the planet by now. This has been standard practice in Hollywood since the discovery of pancake makeup, and nothing could get done without it.
So, after three years of watching Eric scrawl Ayrton’s signature on thousands of objects, I hatched the idea of Turning the Tables, of Completing The Circle, of Making The Universe Symmetrical!! How? By having Senna forge Eric’s signature onto a photo of Eric. Genius!! The next step was to pitch the idea to Beatrice Assumpcao, a former volleyball star in Brazil, and Ayrton’s current press rep. I laid the craziness out for her and she laughed and said: “He’ll do it! I’ll set it up for Budapest.”
Saturday afternoon, at the Hungaroring, Beatrice brought Ayrton out of the motorhome, pointed him over to me and I explained the distinctly off the wall concept to him. As I totally expected, his Brazilian sense of humor took over and he got the silliness of the idea instantly. ”Sure,” he said, and grabbed the pen and photo I had provided. He looked a bit dismayed at the signature he had to forge, because it looked like it had been done by a drunk in a paint-shaker. I gave him a piece of cardboard to practice on and as he attempted to duplicate Eric’s scrawl – with his typical devotion to whatever task was at hand – he said after six or seven attempts:
“This is…. difficult!” After a few more tries, I finally said: “Look, Ayrton, nobody is ever going to come to my house, look at this and say “Hey! This isn’t Eric Silbermann’s signature!” That finally got him moving and he completed his task with a shake of his head and a laugh at the absurdity of the things he had to do. I now have what is possibly the weirdest piece of F1 memorabilia ever hanging on my wall – my one and only Formula One autograph – and a very strange compulsion off my chest.
No sooner had I gotten that done than Eric himself appeared and I hitched a ride with him back into Budapest. As we headed out of the Hungaroring, Eric noticed that the car ahead of us was piloted by none other than Gerhard Berger – another of Eric’s PR charges – and as we exited the circuit, Gerhard was fending off a crowd of autograph seekers. Gerhard slipped through the crowd and we followed with even greater ease, since we were nobodies, and we soon got into a “Catch me if you can” situation on the way home, racing each other through the city streets.
Gerhard finally had to stop at a major traffic light, with us immediately behind, and with the intelligence of Beavis and Butthead combined, Eric and I decided to give Berger a little tap on the rear bumper. Big Damn Mistake! To our horror, we saw Berger’s eyes light up as he moved his car a few feet forward and then drop it into reverse. Eric tried desperately to get our car into reverse as well, but Gerhard had the drop on us. His car instantly beached itself on our hood, grinding off our hood emblem, and, as the light changed to green, He shot off into the distance. taking the emblem with him. Great symmetry, I thought; in one day I get Eric’s faked signature from Senna and Berger wound up taking our car’s name home with him.
Fair enough. Now if I can just work on that Michelle Pfeiffer thing.
By George Goad, 1993, source: georgegoad.com