Suiting Up On Sunday (Helmets Required)

John Monson racing his 1970 Crossole 19F Formula 2/Atlantic. Photo courtesy John Monson

“Do not go gentle into that good night / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” 
– Dylan Thomas, Welsh poet

Like the poet’s urging to “rage against the dying of the light,” two men from the Finger Lakes Region are not about to let the final golden days of autumn go by without first pulling as much fire and light out of them as possible. Both in the prime of their lives, physically fit and highly successful in their respective careers, Marc Giroux, an engineer from Corning, and John Monson, a surgeon from Rochester, are in positions to get the most out of life. These active men do that by participating in their favorite sport – historic motor racing.

If you think American “historic” motor racing means driving old cars slowly, think again. Marc owns and races Townsend Bell’s 2001 championship-winning 1997 Indy Lights car, taking it regularly down the back straight at Watkins Glen at 150 mph. In Europe, where historic cars are older, John recently raced the Grand Prix Historique de Monaco and ended up at the top of the podium at that world-renowned circuit. These guys are not professional racecar drivers, but their idea of a “Sunday drive” more resembles thundering full-throttle down a straight-away or passing a competitor on a tight corner than it does a leisurely cruise down Route 14 along scenic Seneca Lake.

These are not, however, cheap thrills. The sport is expensive. Both men hold senior positions in their respective fields. They work long hours, travel the world extensively and oversee sizeable divisions. Marc joined his company in 1978 after obtaining his master’s degree in chemical engineering at M.I.T. and has since climbed the corporate ladder through technical and managerial positions. Dr. Monson was recruited to Rochester in 2008 as a world-renowned expert in his field. He received his M.D. at Trinity College, Dublin, and has taught surgery and oncology, and conducted cancer research for many years at various institutions around the globe, including for more than a decade in the U.K.

Despite differing occupations, both racer-owners suit up and wait on the starting grid with the same goals in mind – to win overall or class finishes, and to set fast lap times while avoiding costly damage to their cars and unhealthy damage to themselves. While racers like Marc tend to enjoy the sport aspect of the hobby the most, others like John also appreciate being custodians of historic cars once driven by great racers. These owners carefully maintain their cars to keep them doing what they were originally built to do – race to win.

The American

A driver with a ready and hearty laugh who sports a thick mustache, Marc Giroux grew up in central Maine in a house his family built. When he says they built the house from scratch, he means it. His relatives chopped down trees on the family farm, hauled them to a lumber mill where they were cut into planks, and then, put up the house. Marc owned and rode motorcycles from his teenage years on, but the most racing he did in his youth was a little ski racing in high school.

His interest in motor sports began in 1978 when he attended the U.S. Grand Prix at Watkins Glen and continued when he worked in Europe. He became intrigued by historic motor racing when, while working in North Carolina, he attended his first event in Savannah, Georgia.

In November 1993, Marc enrolled in the Skip Barber Racing School at Road Atlanta. Not long afterwards, he purchased his first racecar – a Formula Ford. Then later, he bought a 1969 Brabham BT29 Formula B, and still later added the beefier 1997 Indy Lights T97/20 car to his collection.

Marc has raced more than 20 weekends at Watkins Glen and has competed at several other tracks in North America, including Mont-Tremblant and Mosport in Canada; Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin; Summit Point, West Virginia; Road Atlanta; and VIR in Danville, Virginia. He has taken podium positions at the Glen; Mosport; Mont-Tremblant; Elkhart Lake; Summit Point; Road Atlanta; and VIR.

The engineer is easy to spot on the track by his distinctive green and yellow striped helmet with blue squares. Interestingly, Sid Mosca, the same Brazilian artist who designed three-time Formula One World Champion Ayrton Senna’s helmet, designed it. Marc said the design represents a combination of Senna’s Brazilian flag-colored stripes and the checks of Senna’s one-time American teammate, Michael Andretti.

Asked why he races, Marc said, “I race because I love it. The combination of mental intensity, speed, physics and friendly competition is really special. There is nothing else in the world that will so occupy my mind that it clears out all else from thought. That makes it very therapeutic; work or any other things simply cease to exist for a time.”

The Irishman 

Tall and slender, John Monson has racing in his blood. He grew up in a racing family in Dublin, Ireland. His father Desmond was an Irish speedway multiple champion who taught him to ride dirt bikes on a field when he was just six years old. John competed in motocross as a youth, and while he won his share of championships, he does not think his talent was quite at the level needed to go into the sport professionally. He left motorcycle racing during medical school when time demanded it and the risk of injuries to wrists and hands grew too much for a man who was, by then, undergoing serious training to become a surgeon.

In his forties, around the same age as Marc, John returned to racing but this time in cars. He said it was an easy decision to move away from the more dangerous bikes that offer less overall protection. He started in rallies in Europe, driving his first historic road car, a 1964 E-type Jaguar, which he said was “not a great idea.”

He drove his first racecar in 2000 at Mallory Park in the U.K. The car was a 1961 Elva 300, one of only six made in the world and the exact car once owned by the current head of Formula One, Bernie Ecclestone. At 6 feet 2 inches, John had to slide into a car that stood only 24 inches tall. Asked about how he performed in his first race, John says it was a “learning experience,” but with a twinkle in his eye, added in his Irish accent, “I didn’t come in last.”

Since that first race, John has owned and raced Formula One racecars, Formula 2s, Formula 5000s and other important historic cars such as Sir Stirling Moss’s Elva MkVIIS. He has competed on three continents: Europe, Australia and North America. At the Glen, he has driven his Irish racecar, a 1970 Crosslé 19F Formula 2/Atlantic – the very same car, which, as a teen he watched Ken Fildes race professionally at Mondello Park in Ireland. He also races his 1971 Brabham BT35 Formula B. In his racing career, John has stood on the podium at a dozen different tracks in Europe and North America including Monaco; Pau (France); Oulton Park (UK); Silverstone (UK); and Mont-Tremblant (Canada).

John’s helmet also helps the spectator pick him out from the rush of cars going by on the track: It sports a black and white checkered flag design painted on top and features the orange, white and green colors of the Irish flag around the sides and back. The helmet was designed by his daughter Chloë and was painted at the McLaren (a famous U.K. racecar constructor).

Asked why he races, John agrees with Marc, saying simply, “It’s fun,” and also points out that, in his case, he was brought up around the sport. Both drivers admit that there is a buzz to racing that comes from the adrenaline rush. When asked about the high risk most spectators see in the sport, however, both racers note that there is risk in almost any human endeavor.

Not slowing down

These two sportsmen compete against one another at Watkins Glen. How have they performed so far – the American with more than 20 weekends running at his home track against the multi-winning European who is still relatively new to the U.S. circuit? Graciously, Marc smiles, and answers, “The Glen is a track that rewards experience.” Already setting fastest laps at the circuit, however, John says, “It’s a fantastic track for sure and truly world class … fast and challenging. The corners are all faster than they look, and it places a premium on power. Two or three corners are real ‘Yee-hah’ stuff – fast and gutsy where a lack of imagination is helpful.”

However they fare in future races, one thing is certain – neither of these quick competitors will “go gentle” into the sunset. Marc Giroux and John Monson are two guys against whom “the dying of the light” will have to race hard to
be victorious.

by Connie Ann Kirk

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