Not all sports stars are thick: How the Stig pursued a life outside the fast lane

Richard Farleigh
ARE TOP sports stars just stupid? Sure, they’re good at what they do – catching, throwing, hitting, kicking or whatever, but are they perhaps just a little bit lacking in the old grey matter? And I’m not just talking about their inane acceptance speeches, their grossly inflated use of the word “brilliant”, or their behaviour off the field. I’m wondering if they are fundamentally a little, er, thick.

They could be. To practice, say, hitting a tennis ball over the net five or six hours a day without getting bored or distracted probably requires a distinct lack of intelligence and imagination. And to ignore schooling and bet your entire future on a highly competitive career where there really isn’t any consolation prize, is probably not too clever.

But I’m being harsh aren’t I? There are, of course, many exceptions, and one of them is a mate of mine, Perry McCarthy. Perry is a former Formula 1 driver, and although he became famous as the original “Stig” on Top Gear – where he didn’t speak – he is no dummy. On the contrary, he is extremely bright and witty. He has two traits I admire: the ability to simplify complicated explanations; and the ability to make people laugh.

I first met him when we were both speaking at a conference, and his slot was immediately after mine, with a half hour coffee break in-between. My speech, on the warts and all of business startups, went down really well, but naturally I didn’t want the speaker after me to be too much of a hit. So in the break I embarked on an evil mission – I took Perry to the bar and tried to get him sozzled. As he downed four pints to my two, I was sure I had succeeded. He then gave his speech, and damn it, no incoherent mumbles, it was one of the most interesting and entertaining speeches I had ever heard. I felt like he’d overtaken me on the chicane.

His story is basically about how he did the impossible: reaching the highest level of motor racing without a wealthy family or major sponsor. Most racing car drivers have to raise money to race. For many, it’s an expensive hobby, but for Perry it was a make or break obsession, and over the years he did everything he could to live his dream. He left school, worked on an oil rig, made money and went broke, and of course, drove as fast as he could. He seemed to thrive on risk; there were lots of crashes, but lots of wins too, and he gradually earned a reputation for talent on the track. After 10 years in the lower rungs of the sport, he finally earned a season with a Formula 1 team. There were some problems though; the car wasn’t very safe or very fast. So even though he was labelled a “brave little bastard” by Bernie Ecclestone, Perry failed to qualify for any of the races. He boasts that “we were the worst team in the history of Formula 1”.

He left the sport, knowing he would never be world champion, but knowing too that he’d reached a summit that so few ever savour. Fortunately, his other talents have made him successful. His book Flat Out, Flat Broke is a must-read, and one of the most read motor racing books in history. He’s also in demand as a public speaker. “It’s finally come in handy to have a big mouth,” he jokes. And he enjoyed his stint as the Stig, who (if it wasn’t for Perry’s objections) would have been called the “Gimp”. Hardly a worthy moniker for a clever sportsman.

Richard Farleigh has operated as a business angel for many years, backing more early-stage companies than anyone else in the UK.