Those Were The Days - Stories and Anecdotes from the Golden Age of Motor Racing
Those Were The Days - Stories and Anecdotes from the Golden Age of Motor Racing

The South American Way

A Special TWTD Contribution by Motor Racing-Loving Ingrid Pitt

Ingrid Pitt, Tony Rudlin and James Hunt

Ingrid Pitt, Tonio (Tony Rudlin) and James Hunt

I had been hiding out in Buenos Aires for a couple of years following a nasty divorce. But things had changed. Exciting - yes, but I didn't seem to be getting anywhere. My patron, Presidenta Isobelita, had fallen from grace and I had spent some uncomfortable months dodging the fallout from the revolution in Montevideo. I had returned to a radically changed Federale Capitale. For one thing there was an Admiral in charge of the film industry. Inflation had gone stellar at around 2000% and you could have bought the Casa Rosada for $10 and a packet of Lucky Strike. Which should have been in my favour. Unfortunately the men with the money were still hiding out with the gold bags stashed under the bed in foreign climes. No one fancied investing in Argentina. Time to go home.

It was the end of the year so I decided to leave with a flourish. The Argentine and then the Brazilian Grands Prix were only a month away and it was bound to be brass monkey time in England. I knew most of the drivers and movers in motor racing and I looked forward to meeting them all again.

The Argentine GP was exciting and the off-course excursions matched anything that happened on the track. James Hunt had a huge following in BA and lived up to his publicity. When the GP Circus moved north I packed my new husband, Tonio, and went with it. We all stayed at the Sheraton Hotel in Sao Paulo. After Saturday practice we were lounging around the swimming pool when James turned up in his trade mark scruffy, cut down jeans, crumpled T-shirt and sandals and suggested we went to dinner. It sounded like a good idea so F1 driver John Watson and Tonio agreed. I think Alain de Cadenet was also there although I don't know what happened to him later. I wasn't consulted. I wasn't consulted about our final destination - The Munich Restaurant - either. I should have known no good would come of it.

The Maitre'd gave James the usual up-tight look but as usual decided that he wasn't going to get in a fracas with the bad boy of Grand Prix. We were shuffled off into what looked like an overgrown frieze high above the normal tables. That's when I got the first shock. Below was wall to wall swaztikers. Swastiker armbands, flags, funny hats and Horst Wessel. I wanted to go but I knew that if I did I would be on my own. The others were already picking over the menu. I did my best to make my presence felt by asking the waiter to get the band to play H'ava Negila. He pretended not to hear. We got through the meal somehow and John and James wanted to turn in. The universal sign for asking for the bill was used to ask for the bill. John looked through it and went a whiter shade of pale. John was always careful with his money. We'd been spoiled by the prices in Argentina and not prepared for the more expensive Brazil. But even taking that into account it was obvious that someone had been playing with the monkey.

Various members of staff filed up and shook their head, including the disdainful Maitre'd. It all came down to the wine. We had chosen four bottles of a fine Brazilian wine. The waiter had given us an imported Portuguese wine with the same name. At ten extra dollars a bottle! That's it! We were not going to pay. The police were called and we were invited out back to talk to them. We all knew better than that. Brazilian policeman have an unhealthy reputation. So the police came in and marched us out to the flat bed truck with a wire cage on top which stood in for a Black Maria. One thing in our favour was that the two young coppers were Russians and were happy to talk to me in Russian.

At the police station we were marched into one of those holding pens you see in old Hollywood films, Crowded with drunks, a fetid smell of urine and a blood covered bloke holding a packet of cigarettes to a half torn off ear. Luckily we didn't have long to wait before we were dragged off to see the magistrate. Hollywood again intruded. It was a huge room we found ourselves in. At one end was a dais with a table on it. Behind the table sat a fat man with greased back hair, sporting the obligatory crumpled white suit. Behind him stood a tall elegant man in an immaculate linen suit with a pearl handle pistol stuck in the waistband of his trousers. I was the only one who happened to have a passport on them so I was called forward to answer the charge. I didn't speak Portuguese but it is near enough to Castellano to get by. As I stepped forward Tonio whispered, "Remember the Queen". James was more to the point. "Remember your tits" he suggested.

All this came flooding back to me when I read the latest book published on James Hunt - Memories of James Hunt, published by Haynes Publishing. I'm a bit peeved the author, Christopher Hilton, didn't ask me for the odd bawdy tale. I was probably one of the last to offer James gainful employment just before he died in June 1993 and there was an outside chance that I might finish up as his Mother-in-Law at one time. But I suppose you can't have everything. Anyway, back to our Brazilian adventure.

The Maitre'd did a dramatic pitch to the bench which I only half understood. The little fat bloke peered down at me and waved me forward. I remembered what James had said and made sure to take deep breaths. I managed to convey what had happened. We had ordered Brazilian wine and we had been given imported wine. The judge listened carefully and then beckoned our old foe closer. "Why" he inquired politely, "Did you give the inferior Portuguese wine to our visitors when they wanted our fine Brazilian wine?". That was it. The judge asked how much we thought we should pay. John came up with a figure and James whispered in my ear, "Told you."

The Maitre'd stormed off leaving the waiter to field the money. Another problem. None of us had more than a few Cruzeiros on us. I had left mine back at the hotel with my daughter, Steffie, and the others had expected someone else to pay the bill. We finally almost made it - just a few cruzeiros short. Luckily the waiter had got so bored with the whole business that he put in the extra to make it up. It had been a good night out but it wasn't quite over. We still had to get back to the hotel.

The two Rusky coppers were standing in the doorway as we left. One of them asked us how we had got on. I told him the result. Then I asked him if he could take us back to the hotel. They both roared with laughter. They couldn't believe that someone actually WANTED a ride in their cattle truck. Outside the Sheraton is an open veranda. As we approached I asked the driver to sound the siren. It made a spectacular entrance, fully appreciated by the petrol heads sitting on the veranda. I did try to push our acquaintance with the Russians a little further. I asked them if there was any chance of them taking us to the race course at Interlagos in the morning but I think that was a favour too far.

It was an exciting Grand Prix with James and John fighting for the lead. In the final laps Reutemann overtook Hunt and Watson dropped back to finish in seventh place. And there was snow on the ground when we landed at Heathrow.

Posted 11/9/2008

Those Were The Days - Motor Racing Stories, Tales and Anecdotes from the Golden Age of Motor Racing