Top Gear (Jackie Stewart)

Top Gear (Jackie Stewart)

Champion driver Jackie Stewart OBE tells Jane Slade why motor racing and whisky make a classic blend.

People | 16 Dec 1999 | Issue 7 | By Jane Slade

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He could hardly bear to lift his gaze from the track. It may be a good few years since he has seen it from behind the wheel, but former Formula One champion Jackie Stewart is still transfixed by the sight of rubber revolving on tarmac. We are at Silverstone, the home of British Grand Prix racing, and Jackie is talking to me in his glass-fronted box overlooking the circuit. His mobile is on alert by his side and it rings constantly with queries about engine changes, slippery surface conditions and reported sightings of racing ace Mika Hakkinen. Stewart employs his legendary concentration to switch easily from answering my questions to those on his mobile or just making comments on the performance of drivers zooming round the track. The man has a natural divert all of his own. His physical reactions may be slower these days, but you are in no doubt his mind is just as capable of making split-second decisions at 200mph.Silverstone is probably Stewart's second home, a few laps from his Formula One team, newly christened Jaguar Racing, base in Milton Keynes and his house in the Chiltern Hills. But talk to him for
just a short while and you realise his heart is
also elsewhere.Born in the Scottish former ship-building town of Dumbarton, he grew up in the shadow of the area's largest whisky distillery, Ballantine's."They had a bonded warehouse where they kept geese on guard. It was about 300 yards from our house – I will never forget the noise,"
he remembers.Even though the young Jackie rarely imbibed the golden nectar, "my friends took to drinking whisky more intensively than me because of my sporting interests," he explains, he loved what he calls the culture of the drink. "I am the grandson of a gamekeeper. I was brought up with a fishing rod in one hand and a gun in the other. Game and clay pigeon shooting was life in the country and part of that life was the enjoyment of a wee dram.“My father always enjoyed his Scotch; he liked blends and malts and had a good cabinet full – there was no foreign competition in those days." In fact the only foreign competition was on his doorstep. George Ballantine & Sons had been bought by Hiram Walker, Gooderham & Worts, the massive Canadian distiller, in 1937 with the intention of expanding the already successful brand into the US. However because it was a foreign company the powerful Scottish Grain Distillers refused to sell them grain whisky for blending. So Hiram Walker built what was the largest grain whisky distillery in Europe at the time, at Dumbarton, which was conveniently close to Glasgow and thus the sea to America.Jackie worked at his father's Jaguar garage, just down the road from the distillery, yet it was not the world of whisky that propelled him into the fast lane of high octane excitement, but motor racing and shooting. Not only was he a wizard on four wheels, but also an expert shot. Indeed he even represented the UK in the Olympic Games. And his love of shooting continues. He has a shooting school at Gleneagles he visits once a month which represents his main link with his native land. Racing and shooting together are the key reasons why Stewart has always had to monitor his intake of Scotland's greatest export. "I didn't smoke or drink," he continues. "But I do remember my first dram. I was 16 and it was my mother's birthday which she shared with Robbie Burns. We had a traditional party with haggis and of course there was always a small glass of whisky for everyone. I remember thinking it was wonderful and not like anything I had ever tasted before." Back at the garage Stewart had one regular customer who always intrigued him – a chap called Ronald Teacher. "He was a family friend and one of the directors of Teacher's," he recalls. Teacher’s owned Ardmore and Glendronach Distilleries in Aberdeenshire, but their offices were in Glasgow. Ronald lived in the fashionable village of Rhu, overlooking the Gareloch, not far from Dumbarton. He was a passionate yachtsman and owned the largest yacht on the Clyde at that time. He drove past Stewart’s garage every day on his way to work."Ron used to drive a Bentley,” adds Stewart. “But it had no chrome on it which always seemed very odd to me."The magnificence of the Speyside landscape, probably more than the drink itself has been responsible for fostering Stewart’s love of whisky. "I used to love fishing the Spey," he adds. "Speyside is great malt country, full of distilleries and so beautiful. Perhaps it is that which makes me regard whisky as something classy, sophisticated and respectable." No wonder he is delighted then that William Grant & Sons, makers of the world's best-selling malt, Glenfiddich, and the fourth biggest selling blend, William Grant’s Family Reserve, have come on board as a team sponsor for Stewart's Grand Prix bid next season. "It is a good marriage because motor racing is a prestigious sport and socially acceptable quality brand – just like Grant's," he declares. And it is another welcome link with the land of his birth where, rather surprisingly he no longer has a home. "That does not mean to say I am not a proud Scot," he protests. "Scotland's greatest export is its people. They travel well – like their whisky." Most people who know Stewart would agree that he typifies the Scottish personality, something he defines as, "determined, very single minded, but fair and dignified." The three-times former world champion, who celebrated his 60th birthday earlier this year, is not one for excess. He rarely mixes with the frothy hype that surrounds motor racing and has always taken a back seat from the glamour circus. This wiry, spare-framed man in the tartan cap is far more likely to be found darting in and out of the pits or sharing a cup of tea with one of his drivers. Although he probably downed something stronger when Johnny Herbert romped home to win his first Grand Prix for Stewart
in September.Suffice to say that Stewart is more of a single malt chap than a champagne-showman, and as down to earth as the dark peat that creates a great Islay. Despite a 23-year absence from the track – he retired as a driver in 1973 and then launched his team Stewart Grand Prix in 1996 – he has a tireless enthusiasm for the sport which made him an international hero, and sporting legend."When I was racing I never thought I would win," he reveals. "I always thought someone else would be better than me. That is what drove me, not fear of failure, but the fear that someone better would beat me. I never saw myself as the best, but I was always aiming for the best – I still am."Stewart mixes in a prestigious circle that includes The Princess Royal. Her son, Peter Phillips, works for Stewart's team during his university holidays and Stewart's wife Helen is his godmother. Even though Formula One is closest to his heart, being Scottish comes a close second. He has never lost his accent and always wears the blue racing tartan which was designed especially for him. Even his chauffeur wears the check strip around his cap, and the factory at Milton Keynes has ribbons of the colours painted around the walls. Stewart drives three cars himself – a Daimler, a Ford Focus and an Explorer – a legacy of Ford's sponsorship of his team – and maybe now he will add a Jaguar to his collection.Curiously enough Stewart's professional links with whisky were consolidated back at the height of his racing career. "Rob Roy Blended Scotch which was owned by Stanley Morrison (now Morrison Bowmore Distillers) first sponsored me when I became world champion in 1969," he explains. In fact the first sticker on his bonnet to pass the finishing line was Rob Roy’s. Then in the 1970s he did an advertisement for Glenfiddich. "In those days Scotland's other best known exports were Sean Connery and myself,” adds Stewart. “And Glenfiddich wanted someone who was internationally well-known to promote their whisky globally. I have known the Grant family for over 40 years. My father used to go fishing with Mr Grant."

The company is delighted that Stewart is going to relax his strict regime and allow his lads a tipple of the blended nectar – only after races of course. If that prospect doesn't fire his driver Johnny Herbert's thirst for the world championship title next season, I don't know what will.
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