The Biggest Race In The World Was Ruined By Emerson Fittipaldi And Bad Planning

Illustration for article titled The Biggest Race In The World Was Ruined By Emerson Fittipaldi And Bad Planning

There’s something magical about motorsport in the 1970s. It was an era where “screw it, anything goes” was the mantra for everything from aerodynamics to sponsorship to clear-cut definitions of what actually defines a racing series, and sometimes that was taken to the excess in the most hilarious way. Enter the 1972 Rothmans 50,000, held at Brands Hatch.


The Rothmans 50,000 was a one-off event that was supposed to be a no-rules race to end all races. Rothmans, the tobacco company, funnelled £100,000 (the equivalent of $1.6 million today) into sponsoring the 100-car showdown contested on Formula Libre standards—meaning that you could bring any car of any make, model, and year to compete.

At the time, it had one of the largest prize-funds, with winners from various races being able to compete for their share of £50,000. That hefty sum was intended to attract star drivers from all disciplines—F1, NASCAR, and sports cars alike—to bring their best car and try their hand at proving themselves the best racers in the world.


It was a hot mess right from the start. Holding the race in August (the thick of the racing season) meant that nobody really wanted to take time out of their busy schedule to travel to Kent for a one-off against what was supposed to be 99 other cars. So, the entry list was pretty slim and consisted of a lot of Formula-series drivers who had the weekend off and were already in the area. Which seems like it should be a good thing, except for the fact that Emerson Fittipaldi signed up.

Initially, he wasn’t going to attend. His main sponsor, John Player Special, was in direct competition with rival tobacco brand Rothmans, which meant Fittipaldi would have to put on a pretty spectacular showing to prove that he could take on the entire Rothmans enterprise. He even considered adopting the sponsorship of a Brazilian coffee brand for the race. But, as he tells in his biography Emmo: A Racer’s Tale, he and his team, Lotus, realized they were very likely to be the only F1 car competing against of a field largely composed of F2 and Formula 5000 cars. That meant they’d have a pretty solid chance to walk away with Rothmans’ prize money—and that was irresistible.

Interestingly, the coverage of the race does its best to keep from showing Fittipaldi’s JPS livery. In fact, this video keeps his car at a distance and even wrongly cites the coffee sponsorship:

Fittipaldi absolutely dominated the 118-lap race. He lapped just about everyone and came home with £10,000 of Rothmans’ money. The shame of having to hand over that significant of a sum to their rival as well as the total failure of attracting enough competitive cars to actually have a solid race meant that the Rothmans 50,000 did not return for redemption the next year.


But before the actual race, there was one thing that I wish they’d kept around: the Celebrity Tractor Race.

Illustration for article titled The Biggest Race In The World Was Ruined By Emerson Fittipaldi And Bad Planning

Ford had been advertising at the British GP for a while, according to A large part of the spectators in the grandstands were local farmers, and Ford had just released a new tractor in 1972. After wondering how they could marry tractors with motorsport, the Powers That Be of the Rothmans 50,000 decided to whet the crowd’s appetite with a tractor race contested between some of the most well-known and willing drivers of the era.

Drivers like Emerson Fittipaldi, Jackie Stewart, François Cevert, Jody Scheckter, Carlos Pace, Denny Hulme, Chris Amon, Peter Revson, and Jean-Pierre Beltoise all competed behind the wheel of the massive tractors for a 10-lap race that I desperately wish I could have seen with my own two eyes. Carlos Reutemann was in the mix, and he proved that the best way to take advantage of the unwieldy vehicles was to cut the track entirely and ride the grass into first place. Fittipaldi put up a good fight, but Reutemann held the lead to take home that victory.


No footage of that race exists, even though it’s rumored that it was recorded. Basically all we have left are some pictures and the tiniest bit of footage of one tractor being used to pull the drivers around the circuit for a parade lap:

The Rothmans 50,000 had the potential to be one of the biggest races of its kind, one that we’d still be talking about and still be competing in if things had worked out. Unfortunately, trying to schedule a one-off in the midst of a race season was not a great idea, and you can only suffer so much humiliation at having to hand over a massive check to a rival company, so it turned out to be a pretty glorious flop.


We can hope that someday, some madman out there will be wild enough to throw together a 100-car race with some tractor entertainment thrown in, but until then, we just have to keep the memory of the unfortunate Rothmans 50,000 alive.

Weekends at Jalopnik. Lead IndyCar writer and assistant editor at Frontstretch. Freelancer. Novelist. Motorsport fanatic.

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“There’s something magical about motorsport in the 1970s”

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