In 1984 David Hobbs assaulted Detroit’s street course in a Corvette Trans Am car, then climbed out and did color commentary for the Detroit Grand Prix. Just another day in the life of one of motor racing’s legendary talents and most recognizable TV personalities.
Today, the 76-year old Hobbs is a staple of NBC Sport’s Formula One coverage with his British wit, brutally honest commentary (“What a bone-headed move, you dork,” he quipped after one driver’s spin) and “Hobbs-sims” (“you need rather large appendages to make that pass”). His 31-year racing career (1959-1990) spanned the sport from Trans Am to Formula One to NASCAR to LeMans. Before the modern era of sports specialization, Hobbs came from a generation of racers who — like the ol’ three-letter college athlete — excelled in multiple disciplines.
I first saw him up close at Road Atlanta in 1979 in his ferocious, 650-horsepower BMW 320 turbo where he put on a memorable show against the IMSA Series’ dominant Porsche 935s. Outside the car, the bloodhound-faced Hobbs was instantly recognizable with lamb-chop sideburns and a slow English drawl. He was inaugurated into the Troy-based Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2009 and returned this June to emcee the final Hall induction ceremony before it’s uprooted to Daytona.
I sat down with the now-Milwaukee resident to talk RenCen, mom, and liquid-suspensions.
Q: What was it like racing in Detroit in ‘84?
Hobbs: I really liked the circuit. Some of the corners were a bit sharp — they were right angles that would normally be a traffic light. It was a bit bumpy . . . and of course the old Corvette took a lot of stopping and starting. Particularly stopping. I dropped back because we had brake issues.
Q: Would you like to see Formula One here again?
Hobbs: I was sorry to see that race go quiet honestly because I thought it was a very good venue. I was walking around there today . . . and I thought they could still have a race. It could be one of those hot buttons Detroit is looking for at the moment.
Q: Special memories of race week?
Hobbs: We used to stay in the RenCen and of course got lost in there every night after a few drinks at the bar. You’d go around and around in circles and unless you took particular notice of numbers you never knew quite where you were.
Q: You still race?
Hobbs: I raced for a long time: 1959-1990. I did Indy, Daytona, LeMans 20 times, Trans-Am, Formula 5000, but somehow I never got hurt. My great friend (ed. note: and fellow racing legend) Brian Redman always says: “That’s because you weren’t going fast enough, lad.” I was very fortunate because those were probably the most dangerous years of racing. I didn’t have a fire-proof suit until I had been racing at least 6 or 7 years. My mother used to put in Borax to give it some fire retardant. I’m not superstitious but I believe in the law of averages. I’ve been busy with TV the last 25 years. The last time I drove a race car was at Goodwood in 2010.
Q: Who’s the greatest driver you ever saw?
Hobbs: Joe Siffert, Brian Redman, Ronnie Peterson, Mario Andretti, Stirling Moss. Jimmy Clark was my hero. Among the current generation? Lewis Hamilton.
Q: I was saddened to see the great Barber School close shop at Laguna Seca Raceway. Is it harder for young drivers to get a start these days?
Hobbs: It’s so difficult. Because the money requirement is absolutely extraordinary. I started racing my Mum’s Morris Oxford. I drove it to races and drove home again. It had road tires, it didn’t have racing tires. My grandson is trying desperately hard now. Formula 1600 is costing him $90,000 for the year. If he wants (a co-drive) at Sebring (endurance race) it costs something like $50 grand. It’s gone completely haywire. Say he wins the championship this year and moves up — then wants to do Indy Lights. That’s $1 million.
Q: Is Formula One in trouble?
Hobbs: It’s not going away, but at the moment it’s being mishandled a bit. There is a lot of unsustainability about it, but F1 is still top of the tree worldwide.
Q: Your favorite race? Worst?
Hobbs: LeMans in 1983. I had a terrific duel with Klaus Ludwig. We both had Porsche 962s. We’re averaging 150 mph lap speeds, doing 225 down the straight, passing and repassing. Worst race I had was in ‘69 – I think — Watson liquid-suspension special at Brainard road course with offset suspension for ovals.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @HenryEPayne.