Racing drivers and R/C cars

Ayrton Senna in 1985, holding a Tamiya Hotshot

Ayrton Senna in 1985, holding a Tamiya HotshotDid you know that Ayrton Senna owned a Tamiya? Or that Peter Brock once opened an off-road R/C track?

I dug through my old magazines and other materials, to gather together some rarely seen photographs of famous racing drivers messing about with R/C cars, mainly from the 1980s.

This post was last updated on 16th April 2015


In some early Tamiya guide books from the 1980s, there’s a photo of 1980 Formula One World Champion Alan Jones at some event, being shown Tamiya’s Rough Rider and Sand Scorcher buggies…
Alan Jones examines a Tamiya Rough Rider and Tamiya Sand Scorcher, sometime prior to 1985

I grew up often noticing this photo while flipping through that catalogue, wishing I owned all the cars. It seemed cool to know that some drivers of full scale racing machines had an interest in the toy versions as well. It seemed to give the toys more credibility. And since they were the only types of racing cars I would ever be likely to afford, it was nice that there was a connection between the miniature world of the toys and models, and the real thing.

In the same catalogue there was also a photo of Austrian racing driver Dieter Quester with a Tamiya Wild Willy jeep…

Dieter Quester holding a Tamiya Wild Willy, sometime prior to 1985

I’m sure that most, if not all racing drivers would have some appreciation of R/C cars and toys today. Recently of course, Robby Gordon was seen tearing his 1/10 Hummer around on the Dakar rally, a product of the company Traxxas actually sponsoring his team. Some of the current drivers of today grew up in the 80s and 90s, and as such they began their racing careers with R/C cars.

However, back in the 1980s, R/C  cars were still a relatively new hobby, and many professional drivers saw them as a highly impressive novelty.

This article is a work in progress and I will keep keep updating it with new images, particularly if readers help me out and send me tips. But I  thought it would be fun to start gathering rare images and clips of famous racing drivers with R/C cars, particularly those relating to the vintage (1980s) era of R/C.


Roger Mears

Roger Mears is a US driver who competed in off-road racing and Indianapolis, among many other events. In the mid 1980s he was involved in promoting the Raco Jac-Rabbit, a large gas-powered R/C off-roader…

Roger Mears in an advertisement for the Raco Jac-Rabbit, circa 1987


Pedro de la Rosa

Some years ago, I came across this amazing Norwegian R/C Timeline which traces the history and origins of R/C.

After translating the text, I learned that Formula One driver Pedro de la Rosa had started out his career in R/C racing. The site recalls that in 1983, someone called Pedro Martinez competed in the first European championship for 1:8 scale petrol powered off road vehicles, and won. He was only 12 years old at the time. Pedro Martinez was later to become Pedro de la Rosa, and apparently he was also the Spanish 1:8 off-road champion in 1983, 1984 and 1985, winning every round. Quite a record.

Here is Pedro Martinez (aka Pedro de la Rosa)’s winning buggy at the first 1:8 scale European Championship in 1983. The car is a Yankee/Picco.

(In an effort to not disrupt copyright I have hotlinked these images. Full credit for these belongs to the Norwegian site)…

And here’s Pedro himself, holding a Garbo buggy (this photo is from a little later, perhaps the mid-1980s)…


Petter Solberg

Petter Solberg was the 2003 World Rally Champion. But he also began his career racing R/C buggies.

In 1987 at the age of 13, he won the “Tamiya Cup” in Norway driving his Tamiya Bigwig buggy. Amazingly, someone had this event on video and it is now available on Youtube. The clip below is pretty entertaining as it was a close race between Petter’s Bigwig and the Tamiya Supershot of another driver, and Petter just manages to win after the final turn. You can also see his younger brother Henning Solberg running around (Henning also went on to become a rally driver).

(You can also watch a longer 20-minute clip from the event here.)


Lewis Hamilton

Lewis Hamilton is of course the 2008 Formula One World Champion, and one of the top drivers today.

He was also involved in R/C car racing as a kid, and once appeared on the UK’s popular children’s program “Blue Peter” at age 7, racing a gas-powered R/C buggy. Here he is back in 1992…

More recently at the 2012 Chinese Formula 1 Grand Prix, Lewis took hold of a re-release version of the Tamiya Hornet in a fun race for the cameras, against a TV host. You can see the segment below…


Lewis’ brother Nic Hamilton is also a keen R/C competitor, as shown here.


Ayrton Senna

While Ayrton Senna is famous for having begun his racing career in go-karts in the 1970s, photos from the 1980s suggest he was also interested in R/C car models.

In 1985, UK Tamiya importers RIKO (Richard Kohnstam) apparently gave Ayrton both a Tamiya Hotshot and Tamiya Fox, painted in JPS (John Player Special) colours, akin to the cars of the Lotus-Renault team that he was driving for at that time. Here’s Ayrton holding the Hotshot, and the article also mentions that he apparently drove the car in the pit lane at the 1985 South African Grand Prix…

Ayrton Senna in 1985, holding a Tamiya Hotshot

At the 1985 Australian Grand Prix, hobby enthusiasts helped Ayrton develop his early skills flying R/C aeroplanes, and recalled that he was able to fly “solo” only after a few flights, as he picked up the skill in an exceptionally short time. Each year thereafter, Ayrton would indulge in R/C model aircraft while in Australia, as he found it particularly relaxing. (Great footage of him flying his R/C planes can be found here and here).

While visiting a store called Model Flight in Adelaide during the 1987 Australian Grand Prix, Ayrton again did some R/C car driving, and here he is holding a Tamiya Lotus Honda 99T – the model of his own F1 car of the 1987 season, which was one of Tamiya’s latest models at the time…

Ayrton Senna in 1987, holding a Tamiya Lotus Honda 99T

He also spent some time outside with the new Tamiya Clod Buster monster truck…
Ayrton Senna in 1987, driving a Tamiya Clod Buster

Ayrton can also be seen in some photos from the early 1990s, holding a Kyosho Turbo Burns gas-powered buggy painted in the Marlboro livery of his F1 car at that time.


Peter Brock

In the mid 1980s, 1/10 off road R/C cars were experiencing a boom. And in Australia, Touring Car racing was also hugely popular.

In late 1985, local touring car champion Peter Brock, perhaps the biggest name in Australian motorsport, called in to see the R/C buggies at the new Canberra Off-road circuit and ended up officially opening the venue. In his speech, he related how there were similarities between setting up R/C buggies and full sized race cars. His son apparently owned a Tamiya Frog at the time, and when given the chance to try driving a Frog with a replica “05” Holden Commodore body on it (his own race car), he took up the chance and apparently “lapped at a reasonable pace”. Here he is below with the car (for our non-Australian readers, Peter is on the right)…

Peter Brock holding a Tamiya Frog based Holden Commodore, late 1985


Michèle Mouton and Fabrizia Pons

In world rallying in the 1980s, the all-female duo of Michèle Mouton (driver) and Fabrizia Pons (co-driver) were highly competitive. In fact not only was Michèle the most competitive female rally driver to date, she nearly won the entire 1982 World Rally Championship (until an accident at the last rally of the season meant Walter Röhrl became champion instead).

In 1983, Tamiya released a 1/10 scale R/C Audi Quattro of the Mouton/Pons rally car, featuring their names on the side. Then at the 1984 Lombard RAC Rally in the UK, Fabrizia Pons was photographed actually test-driving the Tamiya model, as seen below…

Audi Quattro co-driver Fabrizia Pons test driving Tamiya Audi Quattro, RAC Rally 1984

Audi Quattro co-driver Fabrizia Pons test driving Tamiya Audi Quattro, RAC Rally 1984

And here is Fabrizia signing a Tamiya Guide Book or Catalogue, at the event…

Audi Quattro co-driver Fabrizia Pons signing Tamiya Guide Book, RAC Rally 1984

Michele Mouton is apparently being fitted into the Audi in this image…

Michele Mouton being fit into the Audio, RAC Rally 1984

And lastly the Tamiya Audi Quattro, parked behind the real Audi Quattro rally car…

Tamiya Audi Quattro sitting beside real Audi Quattro rally car, RAC Rally 1984


Hannu Mikola

Also seen at the 1984 Lombard RAC Rally in the UK was reigning World Rally Champion from 1983, Hannu Mikola, who also took a turn driving the Tamiya Audi Quattro. Hannu was of course another member of the 1984 Audi Sport team line-up.

Audi Quattro driver Hannu Mikola test driving Tamiya Audi Quattro, RAC Rally 1984

Audi Quattro driver Hannu Mikola test driving Tamiya Audi Quattro, RAC Rally 1984


Extra notes

While it isn’t car related, fans of former F1 and Indycar driver Juan Pablo Montoya might also enjoy this clip about his R/C aeroplane collection.

If you have any more photos of famous racing drivers with R/C cars and would like them to be added to this page, please get in touch!

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7 responses to “Racing drivers and R/C cars”

  1. Sid says :

    These are really great pics, the racing drivers are big fan of RC cars and they know well how to control RC cars..

  2. Joe Brown says :

    My Colleague Colin Spinner probably built most of those cars for Ayrton

    • rctoymemories says :

      Joe, it would be great if you could ask Colin sometime about this, just to find out about those cars given to Ayrton. And any little additional scraps of info related to the experience would also be wonderful to hear! (Feel free to share them here in the comments)

      • Colin Spinner says :

        It’s true
        I made those models for Ayrton and I did the Michele Mouton Audi!

        I’ve done many others for personalities, racing drivers and filmstars if you are interested
        Incidentally the young lad holding the Sandscorcher in the Alan Jones pic is still a famous name in the UK Tamiya RC Distributors!

      • rctoymemories says :

        Hi Colin – thanks for getting in touch! Please send me a note via the contact page, as I would be very interested to hear about who you built for, and any fun stories related to that. It’s a great bit of history – I’d love to publish it in another article here sometime.

  3. Colin Spinner says :

    Hi
    In your latest Hannu Mikkola pics that’s Colin Spinner and Bill Stringer from 1980’s UK Tamiya distributors Richard Kohnstam Ltd
    Yes that’s why the kits had Riko stickers on the boxes
    Also co driver Arne Hertz takes a look
    The model was commissioned by Audi UK who later in the 80’s sponsored some UK Tamiya Rallycross events
    PS I have the original picture you used!

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