He’s been George Lucas’ “hero” since they were kids (but he didn’t watch Star Wars until his own children forced him to), he’s one of the key players in the story of the Ferrari-beating Shelby Cobra Daytona Coupe and he now has a watch named after him. Race car driver Allen Grant has led quite a life. And that’s the right turn of phrase. Allen Grant has spent a lot of it in the lead.
As for the eponymous watch, it’s the rather comely Capeland Shelby Cobra 1963 Allen Grant model to be precise, limited to just 15 pieces. And it’s probably not gilding the lily to say that – in the same way that the Shelby Cobra changed the game on Ferrari, who’d won 10 of 12 FIA sports-car titles in the previous 12 years up until 1965 – the sporty Capeland Cobra has changed the game for Baume & Mercier. A few months ago, after an adrenaline-fuelled lap of the historic Paul Ricard racetrack in Provence, I sat down with this legendary driver to find out about his life behind the wheel. These are the five quotes that sum it up.
ON HAVING A WATCH WITH HIS NAME ON IT: I’m almost wordless to describe the experience because it’s very euphoric and it’s such an honour. It means a lot to me. You can relate it to a car. I love a Ferrari Testarossa. It’s got those pontoon fenders, and it’s pretty and it’s got the little windscreen. It’s gorgeous. As a young kid you’re sitting there with your nose against the window, looking at it and dreaming about it. If you get to the point where you’ve been a success in life you can buy it. But this you can’t buy. So it’s an even better feeling for me.
I’m almost wordless to describe the experience because it’s very euphoric and it’s such an honour. It means a lot to me.
ON WATCHES: I’m not a watch fanatic but I like watches a lot. When I was racing, I had a Breitling chronograph which I liked very much. I did actually use the chronograph when I was training. I’d check my time on the straight. In driver circles the Rolex Daytona is a prestigious watch because the winner of the Daytona race gets one. Everybody strives to own that model. Rolex has done an excellent job with its marketing, but that said, it’s a wonderful watch. No, I don’t have one, I’ve got a Rolex President.
I did actually use the chronograph when I was training. I’d check my time on the straight.
ON HIS CHILDHOOD FRIEND, GEORGE LUCAS: George was 18 and I was 22 when we met in a little sportscar club. We both wanted to be race car drivers. We became friends. I’d go to his house, he had stacks and stacks of comic books. He had an authorised biography written in the mid ’80s by Dale Pollock called Skywalking and in it Pollock asked, George do you ever project yourself in your characters in your movies? And George said, not consciously but subconsciously I probably can’t help it. He said, what about John Milner in American Graffiti? George answered, That was Allen Grant, he was my hero, I always wanted to be like him.
ON STAR WARS: I only saw it because my kids said I had to. I’m not a make believe kind of guy.
ON HIS STYLE OF DRIVING: I would say that I was a very aggressive driver, a very clean driver. I’ve never spun a car up in my life, not once. The key is that you’ve got to know your car and you’ve got to know what your car is gonna do when you hit the brakes going sideways. When you get into the big leagues, like Daytona beach, I had the car at 150 miles an hour sideways like this. In that second, if you overcorrect you’ll go like this [makes a flipping motion], if you under-correct you’ll spin to the in-field. So you sit there in the skid. Intellectually you know you should turn into the skid, but I’ve got a god-given gift in my ass and I would just sit there, turning the wheel a fraction of an inch, and in the meantime you’re trying to coordinate with your accelerator and your brake. People have a hard time relating to the race car driver mentality. I get it – racing has taken at least a dozen people I’ve driven with and against. It’s not for everyone.
Intellectually you know you should turn into the skid, but I’ve got a god-given gift in my ass and I would just sit there, turning the wheel a fraction of an inch, and in the meantime you’re trying to coordinate with your accelerator and your brake.