It’s one of those dignified, turn-of-the-century homes on the south end of the Water Tower neighborhood, Lake Park across the wide and canopied street, Lake Michigan crouching politely behind the bluffs. Red brick and white trim, double gabled, large but not ostentatious. Quietly regal. I’m not the first to seek out this house. Cars pull […]
It’s one of those dignified, turn-of-the-century homes on the south end of the Water Tower neighborhood, Lake Park across the wide and canopied street, Lake Michigan crouching politely behind the bluffs. Red brick and white trim, double gabled, large but not ostentatious. Quietly regal.
I’m not the first to seek out this house. Cars pull up outside from time to time, their owners surreptitiously snapping photos. What they’re hoping for is a glimpse of the 73-year-old Englishman inside. To some, David Hobbs is simply the owner of a reliable, long-standing Honda dealership in Glendale. But to savvier passers-by, he’s one of the most highly regarded motor racing figures in the world.
From the front path, I sneak a peek at the detached garage out back, expecting a showroom of sorts, Porsches and Ferraris, at least a couple of BMWs. I see only his-and-her Hondas, an Accord and a CRV, parked side by side.
The front door is wide open to pull stiff fresh air off the lake. David and his wife, Margaret, wait behind the screen. They usher me in for a quick tour of the home they proudly purchased and renovated in 2002, though they’ve lived on this street off and on since 1986, when they first broke ground on the dealership. They love this neighborhood, love Milwaukee, and say it reminds them alternately of a European city and their beloved English countryside.
David rolls a wrist toward my car out front, unfurls a long finger and says, in his clipped accent, “I don’t much like the look of that van you’re driving.”
It’s a Chrysler.
David is all sharp wit and soft edges, a straight-shooter from a squishy barrel. He’s a tall man, casually formal in slacks and a paisley tie, his graying hair swept tidily across his pate. I imagine a small, neat comb in his breast pocket. His glasses frame a long, friendly face; his shoulders betray a relaxed confidence. He’s a true British gentleman, warm and strikingly humble, but there’s a clear streak of mischief wending through his outwardly conservative tapestry.
This is a man with stories, a man with an illustrious 30-year track record of racing around the world and a man still on TV, broadcasting Formula One races 20 weekends a year. To kids, he’s familiar, too, sounding eerily like the green Jaguar in Cars 2, David Hobbscap. But mostly, David flies remarkably below the radar. At least around these parts.
There was the time he couldn’t get on the track in Ohio to practice because some bloke named Paul Newman, famed actor and racing enthusiast, was whizzing around in his Ford Escort. David loped down to have a chat with old Paul. When asked if he was starstruck, David answers, without a hint of arrogance: “Actually, he was quite starstruck by me.”
THE MILWAUKEE MILE is the oldest continuously operating motor racing track in the world, but in the 1950s, young David Hobbs had never heard of it as he sped about the winding European country roads some 4,000 miles away. Back then, the sport was more about skill, less about money and celebrity. And though plenty of guys owned their own cars, it was up to them to get those rides to the track.
Hobbs schlepped his mother’s Morris Oxford 120 miles to his first race in 1959, just before his 20th birthday. “When we got there, we took the bumpers off and the hubcaps. The chap at the track put a big number on it, and I raced it,” Hobbs says. “And it broke.”
His second car, his dad’s Jaguar XK140, didn’t fare much better. He turned it over on the track. “Dad said, ‘You broke it, you fix it.’” Hobbs wasn’t deterred. In that car, he eventually won four races. In 1961, Hobbs earned 14 wins from 18 starts in a third car, a Lotus Elite. By 1962, he’d raced his first Daytona 3-Hour and his first 24 Hours of Le Mans, and by 1964, he’d gone professional. That was also the first year he came to Wisconsin to race at Road America in Elkhart Lake.
For 30 years, Hobbs drove full time independently and for various teams, racing different types of cars all over the world. He’s raced with distinction in NASCAR, Formula One, IndyCar, Le Mans, the Formula 5000 series, the Trans Am series and the International Race of Champions (IROC). He had a big crash at his Indianapolis 500 debut in 1971 – a race some say could have earned him Rookie of the Year honors if he’d finished – but he went on to race the Indy 500 four more times. He drove the brutal 24 Hours of Le Mans 20 times in his career, took the Formula 5000 championship in 1971 and the Trans-Am championship in 1983. In 2009, he was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame.
As if that wasn’t enough for one lifetime, Hobbs parlayed his firsthand experience and affable, everyman personality into a sports broadcasting career. From 1976 to 1996, he commentated on races for CBS (when he wasn’t driving – his last race was in 1993), and he called races for ESPN from 1987 to 1995. He’s held his current gig with the SPEED Channel since 1996, commentating on 20 Formula One races each year.
“Probably his greatest strength and his most attractive quality is his humility,” says Bob Varsha, Hobbs’ SPEED
co-commentator. “David’s driving career is one of the most underappreciated among anyone in the sport.” Varsha and Hobbs have worked together behind the desk for 25 years, but it’s the time off set that’s made them close. You get to know someone squatting in hotel lobbies, rental cars, airport lounges and restaurants, and Varsha says the man off the track is as impressive as the champion on it.
“He tends to poo-poo his whole career,” Varsha says, “but you can count on the fingers of one hand the drivers who have had the success David has had.”
The group broke ground on David Hobbs Honda in Glendale in 1986 while David and Margaret were still living in England. “These two partners were 20-year experts, and I had fondly imagined how I was going to live in England, and they were going to run this dealership,” Hobbs says. “Well in fact, they pretty well ran it right into the ground.” Hobbs had been staying in a Wahl Avenue apartment on and off since the opening; in 1991, he permanently moved in.
Under Hobbs, the dealership evolved into the business it is today, and David and Margaret became what David Kircher calls “true residents,” deeply embedded in local service and charitable work. (They’ve helped raise more than $500,000 for Ranch Community Services alone.)
Kircher, senior vice president at Wisconsin Business Development, was the Milwaukee banker Hobbs worked with when he first came to town. He was also a race official at Road America and a David Hobbs fan.
“I thought, ‘Why would this guy who races all over the world want to open a car dealership in Milwaukee?’” Kircher says. “I told him when he came here, ‘This is a tough, tough market. Milwaukee-area shoppers will travel all the surrounding counties to shop and compare and spend $50 on gas to save $25 buying their
But Hobbs’ strict work ethic and level-headed personality, according to Kircher, allowed Hobbs to make a go of it. Today, his eldest son is the general manager, but Hobbs still goes to the dealership every day when he’s not in Charlotte broadcasting races or at a speaking engagement – he says yes to pretty much anyone who asks.
“He’s very gracious, and he’s got a ton of stories,” Kircher says. “Not least of which is his own.”
David Hobbs was born on June 9, 1939, in the town of Royal Leamington Spa, smack in the center of England. Around age 12, Hobbs used to hang out at his friend Paul’s house to catch the latest issue of the Eagle comic. “When I was about 14,” Hobbs says, “I started realizing he had a sister.”
“Maggs” was 15 and David 16 when they started officially courting, whizzing about the winding English countryside “like a maniac” on David’s motorbike. Their first date was to see the racing movie The Green Helmet. “If Margaret had been smart at that point, she would have said, ‘I’m outta here,’” Hobbs says. But she didn’t, and the couple married in 1961, settling in nearby Upper Boddington, a village of just 300 people.
By 20, Hobbs was racing cars, and by 25, he’d gone professional. Although his illustrious racing career took them all over the world, it was a small town in Wisconsin that had the biggest impact. The couple had two boys, Greg and Guy, and Maggs stayed home to care for them during the school year while David raced around the globe. On summer holiday, they joined him, traveling to exotic locales like South Africa, Australia and all throughout Europe, but when Hobbs was racing the Formula 5000 series across North America, the family made its base camp at Elkhart Lake. They stayed at Siebken’s resort year after year until they finally bought the nearby house they still keep to this day.
Both Siebken’s and Road America are legendary in the motorsports world. Racing annually attracts 700,000 visitors to this tiny, sleepy community. Paul Newman, by all accounts a talented driver, was a Siebken’s regular. Brian Redman, another storied British champion for whom a Road America race is named, competed against Hobbs all over the world for years. But Redman recalls one night at Siebken’s with particular fondness. A few weeks prior, while dining after a race in Ohio, Redman snuck up on rival Hobbs and smushed dessert on his face. That night in Siebken’s, as Redman dined unaware, Hobbs got his revenge in front of 70 or 80 people, smacking Redman full in the face with a lemon meringue pie.
“That started one of the most enormous food fights that I’ve ever been involved in,” Redman says.
Part of it was the time and part of it was the town, but those days are described as downright idyllic by the drivers (and drivers’ wives) who lived them. The kids would run off in packs every morning and, apart from glimpses throughout the day, wouldn’t be seen or heard from until bedtime. Adults spent days at the track or out on the lake, the nights feasting and ribbing each other in the dining room, closing down the tiny, wood-paneled bar each night.
While still living in England, Hobbs’ youngest son, Guy, took a summer dishwashing job at Siebken’s at age 16. He encouraged his older brother, Greg, and a lot of their friends to cross the pond and join him. Eventually, the bulk of these Brits married Midwestern girls – Guy to a Siebken’s waitress, a girl from Manitowoc, and Greg to a girl from Indiana, whom he met at Siebken’s. Two chums, the Sadiq brothers, did them one better and married two of the three daughters of the Siebken’s proprietors. Greg’s best friend married a Siebken’s cousin, and another friend settled down with a girl from Plymouth, Wis. You can guess where he met her.
The population of Elkhart Lake was about 1,000 back then; Upper Boddington, where all these boys lived, was about 300 people strong. “Here’s these two little villages, 4,000 miles apart, and the next thing you know, they’re all married to each other,” Hobbs says. “The whole village of Boddington sort of moved to Elkhart Lake. It couldn’t be more bizarre.”
But that wasn’t enough to convince Margaret to cross the pond permanently. She went back and forth from England to Wahl Avenue and Elkhart Lake, but she didn’t want to leave her friends and family in England (to say nothing of the milder winters). In 1994, everything changed with the arrival of their first grandchild – Andrew, followed by Austin in 1997. Suddenly, Milwaukee seemed like the perfect place to call home.
ANDREW, NOW 18, has caught the racing bug. But the sport is a far cry from the one his grandfather excelled in.
“In my day, I bought my license to race, and that was about three pounds,” says David. “You had to join a driving club, which was another three pounds, and petrol was 20 cents a gallon. The car was free ’cause it was mine.” David didn’t make much, but he made a living. Today’s drivers have to pay to play.
For Andrew, who races with the Skip Barber group, a typical single weekend may run him $5,000. If he were to advance to a professional series like the Formula 2000, it could cost $160,000 a season. “Say then you go on to Indy life,” Hobbs says, “It’s going to cost anywhere from $1-2 million a year, depending how successful you want to be.”
It’s a different world, too. In David’s day, the track was an open party, drivers mingling with mechanics, owners and talented scorekeepers with savant-like stopwatch skills, everybody cracking a hard-earned postrace beer on car hoods. Now, once the checkered flag falls, engineers start analyzing immediately; time is money, computer data is golden, big owners protect their investments, and drivers are whisked off to private luxury trailers before sneaking out to awaiting private jets.
“We got the best years,” says Margaret. But it wasn’t all celebratory.
In modern racing, even with high-profile crashes claiming the lives of men like Dale Earnhardt and Dan Wheldon, deaths on the track are rare. Most drivers seem to walk away from spectacular smashups without a scratch. But in David’s day, before better-built cars, sophisticatedly engineered tracks and increased safety measures, there were two or three deaths a year at the top level, and three to four a month at the club level.
David recalls a particularly brutal year in 1968. He and teammate Paul Hawkins were racing at Brands Hatch in Kent, England, when they got word that the legendary Jimmy Clark, an Indy 500 winner and two-time Formula One world champ, had just been killed in a race in Germany. David and Paul went to Jimmy’s funeral in London later that week with a third racing pal, Mike Spence.
“Jimmy getting killed was a bit of an eye-opener, a bit of a warning,” David says. “If it can happen to Jimmy, I suppose it can happen to us.” Two weeks later, Mike Spence took Jimmy’s place at Indy and was killed going into Turn 1.
“So there I was at Mike’s funeral, and that was traumatic,” David says. “But by the same token, a week after that I was back at Le Mans driving the GT 40 with Paul, and I don’t suppose it ever entered our heads that we could be next.”
“And he was, one year later.”
Today, as David watches Andrew race, he’s uncomfortable in a way he never was about himself, sounding less like the brazen racing champ and more like a grandpa.
“I do get a bit concerned when they’re getting the wheels all close together,” David says. “That’s what really brings it home for me, how Margaret must have felt, you know, all those years ago. But she never ever said anything about it.”
But Margaret says it wasn’t that bad. Today, she, too, can barely stomach watching Andrew race, but in David’s time, she took it for what it was, living in the moment and being swept up in the excitement.
David was never injured in a race. “Mario” – as in racing legend Mario Andretti – “says I was never going fast enough,” Hobbs quips. But 30 years was long enough.
“I’m not superstitious, but I do believe in the law of averages,” Hobbs says. “When you go rushing around enough at a ridiculous speed, sooner or later, something’s going to go wrong.”
Post-retirement, Hobbs is most famous for broadcasting a race that doesn’t actually exist – the World Grand Prix in Pixar’s Cars 2 movie. At least among the 9-and-under set. David Hobbscap is the sleek, deep green 1963 Jaguar E-Type commentating from the booth with fellow broadcasters Darrell Cartrip and Brent Mustangburger.
Pixar flew Hobbs to its San Francisco-area studios, put him up at the Ritz Carlton and sent a limousine in the morning to escort him across the bridge to Oakland. He sat in the booth with headphones, reading his lines at John Lassiter’s direction, the whole thing lasting maybe an hour. Then they whisked him off for a studio tour, showed him the museum and introduced him to dozens of production staff. He never saw the other cast members and was back to the Ritz by lunch, back home in Wisconsin that night.
Now when he’s out on the town, parents stop Hobbs to introduce him to their children. Most stare back skeptically, unable to reconcile the cartoon E-type with the gray-haired man before them. The voices match but not much else. The kids aren’t buying it.
The adults, however, are thrilled. It’s a regular thing for David to be recognized (“I keep telling him not to go out in the front garden without a shirt!” Maggs says), and Paul Newman wasn’t Hobbs’ only celebrity fan. Robin Yount approached him a bit flustered on a track in Phoenix, and Henry Winkler used to regularly send him notes and pictures. There’s a rock star, too, but Maggs can’t remember his name, only that his music was “a bit hard metal” for David. One name they have no trouble remembering is Ashley Judd, who told him, “David, I wake up every Sunday morning and lie in bed thinking of you.”
“He’s very low-key about himself, though, very unpretentious in every way,” Margaret says. “I think it’s just his nature. He doesn’t think of himself as anything special, which makes him bearable for everybody else. I quite like him, even after 57 years.”
Cars 2 wasn’t Hobbs’ first brush with Hollywood. He played himself in Stroker Ace – the 1983 NASCAR bomb starring Burt Reynolds and Loni Anderson – which was nominated for five infamous Razzie awards. It’s a subject of endless good-natured teasing from friends, but Hobbs has two real regrets about the film: He didn’t get to meet Loni, and he didn’t negotiate royalties for the cult classic, which often plays on TV.
It’s unclear whether he learned his lesson before negotiating his Cars 2 contract a quarter-century later, but he didn’t get to meet the person he most wanted to this time, either – Michael Caine. Hobbs appeared at autograph-signing events for several Milwaukee-area premiers, but when the stars lined the red carpet for the June 2011 premier in California, Hobbs opted out.
He headed to the Milwaukee Mile instead.