Tommy Byrne’s career began with dreams of Formula 1 but ended in sex, drugs and gunshots in Mexican Formula 3.
Maybe it was the way he was born—in the back of a speeding car on the way to hospital in Ireland—but driving fast was Byrne’s blood.
He was so fast that some have ranked him up there with the best of them all.
“Forget Schuey and Senna”, his countrymen Eddie Jordan once said.
“Tommy Byrne was the best of them all.”
Born in Dundalk to working class parents (his dad worked in a shoe factory), Byrne started out racing a Mini before turning to open wheelers.
After an erratic start (“I learned my craft by crashing”, he says), raw talent took him to victory in the British FF2000 Championship and Formula Ford Festival in 1981, and the British F3 title in 1982—a year before Senna did the same.
But as hard as Byrne raced, he partied even harder, taking “enough drink and drugs to kill a buffalo”.
At a Formula 3 race in France, he de-camped to a local café with his team after qualifying was cancelled due to rain and knocked back “seven or eight” Irish coffees.
There was just one problem: race organisers put qualifying back on after the weather cleared. Unless Byrne turned up, he’d be disqualified.
Despite being over the limit, Byrne qualified before finishing 6th the next day. No big deal.
“I felt fine”, Byrne later recalled.
More damaging to his career than the partying (remember, this was only a few years after James Hunt won a WDC fuelled by sex, drugs and booze) was his lack of sophistication.
The Irish driver once greeted a bespectacled potential sponsor by asking: “how do you see out of those fecking things?”.
On another occasion, after qualifying for the Austrian GP, he was asked what he thought of racing against local hero, Niki Lauda.
Folklore has it that he replied: “Niki who?”.
While he did make it to Formula 1, his career was brief and uneventful. Two DNFs and three DNQs with backmarkers Theodore. The cocky youngster didn’t endear himself to the team, throwing chairs and telling them to “stick it up their arse” after a final frustrating outing.
“Watch me drive the McLaren at Silverstone”, he told them.
That test with McLaren had been awarded as a prize for winning the British F3 Championship.
How did he prepare for such a big moment?
“I don’t think I drank much but I definitely smoked some pot. I knew I was going to go fast at the McLaren test, and that was just going to be the icing on the cake.”
He was right. He was fast that day—reportedly faster than both McLaren drivers had been—but it was to no avail. Ron Dennis had already informed Byrne there was no room at McLaren and didn’t attend.
The door to F1 was closing. In many ways, as Tommy explains, it had shut the night he was awarded the prize.
“A friend of mine gave me a big bag of cocaine and I was snorting it all day long… At the end of the night I couldn’t take any more and I gave it to one of my friends and he said ‘That’s not coke, it’s speed.’ And I was like, ‘It’s the same, right?’ and he said ‘No, not really…’ After the prize-giving I was lying in bed for three days, crying. That was the end of my F1 dream.”
Byrne turned his attentions stateside, nearly winning the American Racing Series title, before securing a lucrative deal to race in Mexican F3.
Racing in front of big crowds, he received $2,000 cash per race ($4,500 in today’s dollars), all his expenses paid, and a fully stocked minibar. Life was good.
That was until a frightening incident at a party turned the dream into a nightmare.
“My friend Nacho started shooting upstairs, and all these girls came running down. There’s tits flying everywhere. Nacho just looked at looked at me, shot at me, and missed”.
Today Byrne lives in Daytona, working as a driving instructor. Looking back, is there anything he could have done differently?⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
“Be born a millionaire with a silver spoon up my arse?”