This year marks SMMC member John Bennie's 21st Formula One Grand Prix! Those who know John will be aware that he doesn’t like attention and is a fairly quiet, unassuming chap. We felt that 21 years was a bit of milestone though, so we caught up with him after the two weekends of racing earlier this month to find out more...
Tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to be involved in motorsport.
My Dad was a motor engineer by profession and had always loved cars, vans and trucks. I guess I inherited that from him.
When I was 4 years old, I saw a Saab 92 2-stroke rally car and thought it was a fantastic car. The noise, the smell and the look of it. I think that was when I realised motorsport was going to be a lifelong passion.
I was spectating at Ingliston in 1975 and a marshal came across to the fence to ask if I was interested in seeing more action. I joined SMMC and started marshalling (properly) in 1976 with a marshal named Jim Robertson, another very pleasant chap named Nick Clarke, and several others including Colin Goode, George Malloch, Jim Redpath, Keith Brown and Andy Birrell. Since then I've covered rallies, sprints, circuit racing, and hill climbs at Doune, Forestburn and Fintray, as well as motorcycle racing and Super Truck racing events. Until 1990, the furthest I'd travelled to marshal was the North of England but after that I went to York to work a stage of the DLOC International Rally, and a group of us were invited to marshal the 2004 Britcar 24-Hour race at Silverstone which got me hooked on endurance racing. I joined the SMMC Motorsport Rescue Team in 2010.
So how did you get involved with the Grand Prix at Silverstone?
I was part of a team of marshals and rescue crews from Scotland organised by Nick Clarke that went down to Silverstone to work the British Grand Prix in 1997. I worked pit wall in 1998 under John Gash, Chief Flag Marshal. That was in the heady days when Schumacher led almost every race throughout the season and it was a really exciting time to be a part of a huge international race event, with crowds of 250,000 packing the circuit! The bug had bitten me and for the next 16 years I worked most corners at Silverstone. I became part of the Silverstone Medical and Rescue Team in 2017.
What was it like to be at the Grand Prix this year without any spectators?
It's all a bit weird from start to end to be honest. There was no fighting my way into a camping pitch and discovering someone else has encamped there. And there was no queuing at the loos when you're desperate and there are a thousand members of the public in front of you.
You’ve travelled the world for your motorsport hobby - tell us about the events that you’ve been involved in.
In 2011, four of my long-time marshalling friends, Paul Wilson, Derek Morrison, Ken Robertson and Adam Buttercase, planned a trip to Germany to work the 24 Hours Nürburgring. None of us had done this endurance sportscar race before and weren't quite sure what it would be like.
The 15-odd-kms of undulating public roads between the towns of Malmedy, Francorchamps and Stavelot, deep in the forests of the stunning Ardennes countryside, are perfect for an endurance race. We were posted at "The Karussell", Nürburgring's most famous corner – a deadly 180 degree banked sharp left bend buried deep in the Ardennes forest with very few facilities and very rocky rough ground for a tent. The absolute fear of the sight and sounds of 120 cars of all classes and all sizes was really awe inspiring. The attrition in that race is high and often dangerously so. Barrier repairs in the middle of the night on a live track, taking three hours to rectify in one case, are quite frighteningly exhilarating. The thundering rain made it very memorable as did the German fans with all their ingenious engineering and their copious amount of strong beer.
I also ventured to the 24 Hours of Le Mans on the Circuit de la Sarthe in France. I worked Arnage Corner with a long-time marshalling friend, Iain Begg, who had already done eight Le Mans races. We soon established ourselves on an international post made up of Germans, French, Alsace, Italians, and us Scots. We had a fantastic week in the biggest street racetrack in the world, and I've now done six Le Mans 24 hour races.
In 2012, I was supposed to attend the inaugural US Formula One Grand Prix at the Circuits of the Americas, a brand-new purpose-built race circuit in Austin, Texas. Unfortunately, my fiancée was diagnosed with Stage 4 cervical cancer in early October and we cancelled the trip. I made a promise that I would go to the event someday so in 2015 I worked Post 11 with Iain Begg. The hurricane and lashing rain on the Friday and Saturday didn't deter us and we have since done a further four Formula One races there. We also did the Lone Star Le Mans World Endurance Championship races in 2016, a round of the world endurance sportscar series.
In January 2015, Iain and I worked turns 1, 2 and 3 at The 24 Hours of Daytona, one of the most iconic endurance races in the world, and we returned for the next four years.
In 2018, I worked turn 9 at the New York City ePrix, the single-seater, electrically powered Formula E championship held in Brooklyn, and last year I fulfilled a lifelong ambition of going to Indianapolis Motor Speedway – where Jim Clark won the Indianapolis 500 in 1965.
I was supposed to go to Southern California to work Laguna Seca for the IndyCar championship round in April this year, but, of course, my season was put on hold.
What do you take with you everywhere you go?
That's a bit of a sore point! I used to carry the same silver whistle with me to every event – I got it as an 18th birthday gift. I carelessly lost it somehow at Post 8 at Knockhill 😥
What’s your favourite motorsport event and why?
My favourite event is the 24 Hours of Le Mans because there is just nothing to compare with the sound, the sight, and the whole atmosphere of the event. My favourite track (so far) is the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, because it is just… well, something else!
What’s your best memory of motorsport?
I can't pick only one - I have so many good memories!
My most vivid memory is Jarno Trulli flying past my nose and into a gravel trap at Silverstone in 2004. A brown trouser situation.😱
My longest lasting memory is being given the responsibility of Post Chief Marshal at the Formula One United States Grand Prix in Austin, Texas… and it was on Post 19, the fastest corner on the circuit.
My most honoured moment was being invited to take the comms on the Starter Stand at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the IndyCar race. I don’t think I will ever better that day.
My best ever moment was waving to David Coulthard as he entered the pit lane on winning the 1999 Grand Prix at Silverstone. He beat Barrichello after Schumacher broke his leg in a dramatic warm-up lap. Coulthard gave me a wave, a wink and a thumbs up as I showed him my saltire.
Where would you take your first-time spectating friend for an event?
That's got to be a Formula One race event. There's no better spectacle to witness. Last year I fulfilled an 81-year-old friend's ambition and took him to Silverstone for the 2019 British Grand Prix. He was hooked.
Do you prefer summer or winter events?
Yes 😁. Any day is a great day when motorsport is involved.
What is your guilty pleasure?
Ha! I do indulge myself by spending so much time by a racetrack, that has been a selfish pleasure. For me, it's the sound of motorsport in action.
What’s the best / worst thing about volunteering in motorsport?
Without doubt, I can say that it's the friends you make and the interesting people you get to meet.
What would be your advice to anyone starting out as a volunteer in motorsport?
Ironically, the very person who, in 1975, came across to the fence to ask if I was interested in seeing more action, was none other than Jimmy Robertson… the same person I pulled to safety in the Jarno Trulli incident in 2004.
So pay attention at all times as you just never know what will happen next - but do enjoy it!
John is one of two new Rescue Mentors, part of the Training Team, helping to support our rescue crew trainees through their induction and initial training period and for a short while after their first formal Motorsport UK assessment.