Alex Goldschmidt speaks to karting legend Terry Fullerton to discover the race that tested him to the limit and beyond.
Not many people beat Ayrton Senna but one who did is Terry Fullerton, a legend in karting, well-revered and well respected in the sport. Fullerton raced for over two decades and has since been a successful team owner as well as one of the most prominent driver coaches in the sport. He lived the karting dream picking up multiple titles at high-prestige karting events along the way before retiring in 1984.
One of the more famous races that Fullerton is known for is the Champions Cup held in Jesolo, Italy back in 1980, where he fought his way to the front and passed then-DAP teammate Ayrton Senna to win on the very last lap. He’s battled the toughest and won, he’s battled the toughest and lost but he always came out fighting. Fullerton takes us back to the final race weekend of the 1976 World Championships in Hagen, Germany. The Briton was backed by team boss Paul Deavin and mechanic Ronnie Spencer, who were instrumental in helping Fullerton that season.
He gave a particular special mention to both gentlemen that have passed away recently. Talking about Deavin, Fullerton said: “His commitment to pushing as hard as possible was very good and he was fully behind me. It was a real shame for him because I didn’t win the world championship, as his equipment and the engines were good enough.” Hagen was one of those weekends where the crowds were at capacities that came with a real football-like atmosphere at times, with coachloads of supporters arriving to support the British contingent.
He was one of the 160 to 170 competitors taking part. The formats for karting were a bit different to what we see nowadays. He would be one of the drivers that ended up in the pouring rain on the Thursday afternoon, which didn’t help matters but it was a mechanical issue that could have ruined his whole weekend: “At that time, the engines weren’t really up to international competition, but they were good enough to compete nack home. When it got dry, we weren’t quick enough, our engines kept blowing up.
I had one last engine for the repecharge on Friday, and had to qualify in the top six to make it to the final.” By his own admission he got into the final races on Saturday and Sunday “by the absolute skin of my teeth,” there were no more engines to help him, but behind a dark cloud was a silver lining. “Elio de Angelis, who was IAME’s factory driver, decided to go home early as he felt that they were not competitive enough. The engines were just sitting there. Bruno Grava then offered them to me, having seen the problems we’d had.
“That was good news, as we got the engines for the second part of racing from the Saturday onwards. It came to warm-up and we put one on the kart. I found I was instantly fast that morning. At timed practice, bang, I put it on pole.” Fullerton made it through the heats and got into the first final, where the eventual winner would be decided on the best two of three finals, with the best results overall giving someone the title. Fullerton’s first final didn’t go according to plan. Rovelli knocked him off track in the very early goings, which led to the chain coming off later on, ending his race. Not the start he probably wanted, but in typical Fullerton style, despite returning to the track dead last, he pushed his way through to third. A remarkable effort.
It gave him a grid slot of 16th or 17th for the last final. He had a chance, a slim chance but slim was all Fullerton ever needed. The team had worked out that if Larsson was third or lower, then Fullerton would take the title. He had also been spurred on by something he’d never heard, which he first thought was an engine issue. “I began to hear this strange growling noise, but what it turned out to be was the crowd were roaring as I was coming through the field and overtaking other drivers. That was really emotional.” Fullerton fought his way to the lead as the laps counted down, and got ahead of the Swede with just 8 or 9 laps left. Fullerton couldn’t just clear off, he needed Larsson to finish third, not second, in order to claim the title. Fullerton couldn’t just rely on his own speed, he had to rely on the speed of others. All he could do was tangle Larsson up with the chasing pack. “I’d have to hold and back up Larsson to whoever was in third, which turned out to be Rovelli.
I managed to do this by really slowing down at the apexes and keep the speed on the straights. I’d forced him back and got Rovelli involved, so I pushed up the inside and made Larsson go on the outside and the Italian got past.” said Fullerton. This meant the title was in Fullerton’s grasp; had the chequered flag been waved there and then, he would have secured his second world title. But fate has a way of turning it all around. After four days of ups and downs, it all started slipping away. Recalling this stomach-curning moment, Fullerton said: “For some reason, my brakes started to fade with just five laps left. I was using Airheart brakes that had tiny pads. Within a short space of time, I went from having brakes to virtually none at all. That meant Rovelli was able to keep up with me, as the track had a lot of hairpins.” Fullerton’s challenge came to an abrupt end, as he desperately tried to counter his mechanical issues and keep Rovelli at bay, he came unstuck.
A lap later, he was still trying his best to hold Rovelli behind him but the pair clashed and the Brit was then out of the title race altogether. He classes this as the ‘most heartbreaking race’ that he’s had in his career, as it’s one he feels that he should have won, but the fight continued after the racing stopped: “I was very ill after the race, as I contracted chronic fatigue syndrome, and ended up in bed for the next two to three months. Looking back, I wasn’t sure if it was due to the knockbacks of the adrenaline that was running through my body during that weekend.” This condition hits athletes that push beyond their limits and just puts into perspective how much he was pushing hard for the glory and prestige of a World Title. Despite not winning, Hagen was truly a race that helped to define Fullerton’s career, it sums up his determination and fighting spirit. If ever a race proved that racing isn’t always about winning, it was the 1976 World Championship finals, Terry Fullerton’s toughest race. Karting magazine would thank Adam Jones and George Robinson for their time and assistance in helping to contact Terry, as well as Terry for his time for talking to us.