06 Jul KILLARNEY CHARACTERS: PETER GOUGH
Most of us remember Peter Gough as a tall, friendly gentleman with a lot of old burn scars, who could pedal a Porsche around Killarney faster than most drivers half his age – but there’s a lot more to his story than that.
Peter was born and raised in Pinelands, which seems to have been a hotbed of motorsport enthusiasts in the 1940s and 50s. His father William, he said, would wash people’s cars just for the pleasure of driving them home to their owners, and shortly after young Peter had qualified as a punch-card machine engineer in 1959, he spent 25 hard-earned Rands on an old Peugeot 203 and went racing in the Saloon Car series at the then brand-new Killarney circuit.
His undoubted talent as a driver soon caught the eye of Willie Meissner and Bob van Niekerk at GSM and in 1963 he was offered a works-supported drive in a Dart – with which he won the South African Sports-Car Championship in 1965.
The following year Willie let him loose in the Meissner Lotus Cortina, which Peter raced for two years until the advent of the incredible Cosworth FVA-engined Meissner Escort, in which he finished second in the 1968 SA Saloon Car championship.
The car was then ruled illegal because its Cosworth Formula Two engine wasn’t built on an Escort block – so Willie got hold of a raw, unfinished Ford engine-block casting and machined it himself to create a unique two-litre twin-cam engine, making most of the internals himself, that produced even more power than its Grand Prix predecessor!
That engine was at the heart of Peter’s legendary Escort Y151, with which he won the 1969 SA Saloon Car championship.
At about this time Peter was offered a test at Kyalami in the ex-John Love Cooper with a view to a Shell-sponsored Formula One drive, but brought the car back into the pits after two laps, saying he felt ‘like a duck out of water’.
For 1971 Peter secured a works drive in a three-car factory-supported Mazda R100 Rotary team (complete with a full crew of Japanese technicians!) for the Springbok Series of endurance races, alongside a wild youngster called Jody Scheckter.
In racing trim the R100 was super-quick but very difficult to drive until local suspension wizard Chris Griffiths of Illings worked his magic on it, whereupon it began winning races.
Then came disaster. During a pit stop while leading the 1971 Bulawayo Three Hours in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) the fuel cap wasn’t properly secured and after half a lap there was a pool of fuel several centimetres deep sloshing around inside the car.
Inevitably, it caught fire, and in the few seconds it took Peter to coast to a stop at the nearest marshal post, open the door and roll out onto the ground, he suffered third-degree burns over 75 percent of his body.
He was in hospital for almost a year and underwent more than 100 surgical procedures; during that time his youngest daughter was born and he promised his wife Adi that he wouldn’t race again until all three girls were grown up.
That he didn’t keep his promise was partly her fault. At a Porsche Club event at Midvaal in 1981 Adi said casually, “Why don’t you have a go?” So he did, and won the race. “Then I went back a week later, very much incognito,” he told Adrian Pheiffer many years later, “and won again.”
And that was that: Goffy was back – and with it the will to win at national championship level. So he entered the biggest, baddest racing formula South Africa had to offer at the time, the Wesbank V8 series – and won it in 1995, at the age of 58!
At which point Adi asked “What more have you got to prove?” so Peter retired from National competition and concentrated on his other beloved sport, flying. Over the years he owned and flew 37 different types of aircraft, including a Citation Jet, while still competing at Club level at Killarney in a Mk1 Escort and a Porsche 996.
By now one of motorsport’s elder statesman, Peter always treated the respect he was shown in the pits at Killarney with humble courtesy but, ever competitive, asked and gave no quarter out on the track.
Peter Gough died in May 2017 at the age of 78, having lived a life full of fast cars and triumph over adversity, a life full of ‘what ifs’. Widely regarded as one of the most talented drivers South Africa has ever produced, who knows what he might have achieved if his professional racing career had not come to a fiery end that day in Bulawayo.