The Voice of Motorsport

First published April 2017.

 

The Voice of Motorsport – by Nigel Raeburn.

 

There are only two candidates for this title of ‘The Voice of Motorsport’, in my book, and they are Raymond Baxter and Murray Walker.  I have distant connections to both – and Raymond Baxter even had an influence on my working life unconnected to motorsport.

Both Murray and Raymond had the ability in their commentaries to inject enthusiasm and interest into the most tedious activities – such as a processional race.  Their styles were quite different (Murray with his huge excitement and infectious passion for motorsport and Raymond with his clarity, knowledge and engagement with the participants) – but the result for followers, listeners and viewers was the same – an enhanced experience in following the sport.

My connection with Murray Walker was distant – we both went to the same school (Highgate) in north London although of course he was some years ahead of me.  His father Graham (a well-known motor-cyclist and commentator in his day) also went to Highgate.  I still have a hand-written letter from Murray from a time when I tried to use our connection to get him to come as guest speaker to our Knutsford &DMC Dinner Dance – he was not able to come however!  Interestingly Highgate School still has motor-racing connections – one of my favourite commentators James Allen (he has a good F1 website too) is a parent and he organised an evening ‘chat show’ at the school with himself, Murray and Christian Horner, a Highgate resident, a year or two ago which must have been a good evening – a shame I could not get to it.

I recently re-read Raymond Baxter’s autobiography ‘Tales of My Time’  written in collaboration with Tony Dron, racing driver and journalist.  Raymond was born in 1922 and died in 2006, just a year or so after the book was published.  The majority of the book covers Raymond’s life during WW2 as a young RAF fighter pilot, flying Spitfires.  What a dramatic, dangerous and exciting life that was – so much packed into a few years.  For many people that would have been more than enough adventure for their lifetime, but Raymond of course went on to another full life of broadcasting, boating and motorsport.

A relatively small part of the autobiography covers motorsport, but Raymond was a works driver and co-driver for BMC and Rootes and rallied with many famous team-mates such as Rauno Aaltonen, Timo Makinen, Paddy Hopkirk and Peter Harper.  He took part in many Monte Carlo, Alpine, Tulip and RAC Rallies, often broadcasting as he took part.  I can remember as a schoolboy listening to Raymond’s reports each evening from some of these rallies – certainly a factor in cultivating interest in the sport for many of my era.  Similarly with motor-racing with reports from Grand Prix and Le Mans.  I am honoured to be a member of the invitation-only Ecurie Cod Fillet rally club, and Raymond was also a proud member and used to come to the re-union dinners.

He is credited with helping to start the sport of rallycross by arranging a special TV show, but I especially remember the ‘Autopoints’ which appeared on TV – a sort of orienteering in a variety of vehicles held on heathland near Aldershot.  It was a team competition between the London Motor Club and the Army and vehicles ranged from twin-engined Mini-Moke to large Army trucks via trials cars.  Crews could chose their route between checkpoints to suit their vehicles – fast and level or steep, rough and short.  Raymond persuaded some GP drivers like Graham Hill and John Surtees to take part and It made great TV – someone should try to revive it!

 

In the boating world, Raymond shared my interest in canal boating and owned a trailered small canal boat, but more importantly in his later years he became a leading supporter and organiser of the ‘Little Ships of Dunkirk’ where voyages of surviving boats from the Dunkirk landings made cross-Channel journeys to commemorate that notable event from WW2.  He owned one of the boats “L’Orage” which he had restored.

Raymond was most famous however for his broadcasting, at which he was a master.  His knowledge, clarity, eloquence, homework and research shone through whether it was motorsport, a technical topic or a major State occasion.  From his time in the RAF he learned so much about ranks, uniforms, titles, jargon etc which he was able to use to great effect in his broadcasts especially of State occasions.  His ability to explain technical concepts clearly was used to great effect in his presentation of “Tomorrow’s World” for which he is perhaps best remembered.  His willingness to get involved with ‘hands-on’ participation in experiments and the like added to his appeal.

How he was missed when the Queen’s Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant took place in 2012.  The pathetic BBC broadcast on the day totally failed to capture the spirit the event should have generated.  Raymond with his knowledge of boats, the military, ceremonial protocols etc would have been the perfect commentator – and he would have done his homework beforehand which he would have shared with the audience.

So what was the connection with my working life?  In the early 1980s I was working (for a few years of my 33 with IBM) on IBM’s pioneering computer-controlled private telephone exchange (the 3750 and its small brother the 1750).  Computer control of telephone extensions was a new concept and a major investment by businesses, but it was a successful product for us.  As part of our marketing campaign we had a tractor and trailer unit built which contained a demonstration suite with a working set of telephone extensions which could be used for a very interactive demonstration to groups of maybe 20 or so potential customers.  The trailer was taken round the country and would be set up in hotel car parks to allow us to run demonstrations to customers in that part of the country.

I was one of the small team of demonstrators, and our normal routine was an interactive demonstration (the audience had to do re-routing, group calls, ‘camp-on’ and other new techniques) lasting one or two hours.  As it happened, our team leader bore some physical resemblance to Raymond Baxter, and also had a natural tendency to the same style of presentation.  It was a well-received style (akin to ‘“Tomorrow’s World”), so we made a conscious decision to try to model all our presentation and demonstration styles on his and Raymond’s.  So if you ever notice any Baxter-like mannerisms in me, you now know why!

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