Saturday 21 September 2019

Obituary: Ken Fildes

Racing driver was a superstar behind the wheel and in front of the movie cameras, writes Martin McCarthy

RACE ACE: Ken Fildes
RACE ACE: Ken Fildes

Ken Fildes, who died on October 31, aged 74, was a supremely talented racing driver, whose titanic battles with arch-rivals - most notably Ulsterman Brian Nelson - drew huge crowds to the fledgling Mondello Park in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

He won the RIAC Sexton Trophy in 1974 and was national hillclimb champion in 1980 and 1981.

In later years, he perfected the art of precision driving for global commercials and films and was a stunt double for some of the best-known movie stars on the planet. His genial disposition belied a steely determination to win on the race track, while his charming way was popular on the film sets where dramatic motor scenes were being shot.

Ken was born in Belfast on July 1, 1944, but the family moved to Nutgrove Park in Clonskeagh in 1947 when his father Jackie started work at the motor assembler Booth, Poole & Co, which sold Wolseley and MG cars.

Ken attended The High School, Rathgar, and went on the study motor engineering in Bolton Street CoT. He spent some time in the 1960s learning his trade with Frank Williams on building racing engines and loved his time with the great F1 constructor. Car racing was in the blood as Jackie Fildes was a leading competitor when the Dunboyne Races (1958-1968) were in their heyday, even if racing the boss's sons, Alec and Arnie Poole, made life complicated for the Wolseley Hornet drivers.

In the mid-1960s, Glasnevin garage owner Luke Duffy drove some of the new generation single-seaters, and when he acquired the latest Holywood-Co Down-built Formula 2 car - a Crossle 19F, he asked Ken to give it a shakedown run. Ken, by then a qualified motor engineer, showed instant speed and mechanical sympathy which prompted Luke to leave the driving to the quicker man and assume the role of sponsor. Motor racing was a popular spectator sport at the time, with up to 100,000 people attending the season highlight at the Phoenix Park each September. Competition was intense - with Brian Nelson from Hillsborough being a close rival, while John Watson, Brian Cullen, Dave Furlong and Tommy Reid were always in the hunt. Ken was the dominant southern driver of the era 1968-1974, generally equipped with a Luke Duffy Crossle.

Ken competed against future world champion Jochen Rindt and future Grand Prix winner Ronnie Peterson in a one-off Swedish F2 race in early 1970. In 1971 he won the Phoenix Park Grand Prix and went on to win the coveted Leinster Trophy in 1972. He set the outright lap record of 101mph for the motor racing circuit in Aintree, which still stands. He won the Sexton Trophy in 1974, the pinnacle award of Irish motorsport. Formula 2 (one rung below F1) was much too expensive for Irish privateers, so Formula Atlantic was introduced in an effort to curtail costs.

Commercial sponsorship began to arrive, and as Luke Duffy reduced his involvement, Ken switched his attention to hillclimbing, a fearsome discipline of sprinting up a hill road from a standing start. Ken generally prepared the cars himself and was a mechanical genius whose cars were always beautifully presented. He was national hillclimb champion in 1980 and 1981.

Ken was genial, modest, affable and helpful to many young drivers, and the motorsport fraternity treasured his company on and off the track. He inspired and helped the superb young hotshots of 1975 at Mondello Park - Eddie Jordan, Derek Daly, David Kennedy, Bernard Devaney, Michael Roe and others.

He ran a successful Citroen dealership beside the homestead in Clonee and was an early identifier of the beauty of boating on the Shannon, having a yacht in Glasson from the early 1980s. His superb crafting abilities were directed toward woodwork in recent years and he honed magnificent carvings with the same delicate skill he had built the finest racing engines in the 1960s.

In the 1980s he became one of the film industry's most used precision drivers and did stunts all over Europe and further afield in lieu of Pierce Brosnan, Brendan Gleeson, and others.

Family was key to Ken and his wife Valerie and children Jonathan, Sonya and Karen were immersed in his car-racing exploits and later, he in theirs.

He had skirmishes with cancer in the last 20 years, but his life was enriched by the recent arrival of his grandchildren, Ben, Jeff, Jack, Craig Isabel, Roslyn, Rachel and Hannah.

Sunday Independent

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