Will Dron’s hero is his dad. Paternal idealization isn’t a rare thing, sure, but Will’s admiration is well placed. Tony Dron was a racing driver, and the kind of chap who wouldn’t boast about it. To meet him you’d be blown away by how charming, kind, and humble he was. It’s only when you ask him about his adventures racing all over the world in all manner of cars (the Porsche 924 at Le Mans in 1980 was one of many special tales) would you realize he was a truly remarkable human being.
“He didn’t have any family history of racing, or cars. He just took to them, and loved it. He went to watch Jim Clark at the Nürburgring with a friend of his from school, he watched him gliding through the forest in the back sections of the Nordschleife and thought: ‘My god, that is the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. I have to do that,’” recalls Will, “He didn’t want to race… he had to race.” Tony passed away in 2021 after years of struggles with chronic pulmonary obstructive disease. A quick Google will lead you to plenty of obituaries rightly gushing about his many talents on and off track.
Image Credit: Goodwood
Will’s rightfully proud of his father’s many achievements, but one sticks in his mind – a hat trick of wins in the Sussex Trophy at the Goodwood Revival from 2001 to 2003 in a Ferrari 246S Dino. In 2003 it bore the number “4.” To win at Goodwood once is talent, to do it three times in a row is something a step above.
At the 2023 Goodwood Revival a Dron returned to compete at the circuit, though not Will. His daughter, Tony’s granddaughter, 10-year-old Eva, was the Dron in the hot seat. Though not in a Ferrari, but an Austin J40 pedal car. Eva’s the first Dron to compete in Goodwood Revival’s most charming event, the Settrington Cup. Entrants must be aged between 4 and 11, and be able to fit into an unmodified J40.
The J40 Eva campaigned in wasn’t just any old car though; it was once her father’s. Will explains: “My mum bought it in the mid 1980s. I think it came off a fairground ride, as many of them are now. At the time they were worth very little, hence why they were put on fairground rides. She bought it as a bit of fun, and it sort of went, and it sort of looked okay, but it was really quite rough compared to what it is today. And we kept it in the family.” As with all things for kids, eventually Will and his sister grew out of the tiny pedal car, and, well: “It just went in the garage and stuff was piled on top of it and it rusted and went to shit, basically.”
Today we have Power Wheels, but back in the late 1940s, the children of the UK began roaring around gardens and along streets in tiny Austin J40s. Made with offcuts of metal from the Longbridge Austin motor car factory, J40s were built in a custom facility in South Wales by miners who’d been afflicted with respiratory conditions. Not only was it a safe space for the miners, who’d receive medical care there, it was also where Austin trained up and coming managers to deal with the rigours of dealing with people. Production lasted from 1949 until 1971, with over 32,000 built and shipped all over the world. They came with a working horn, and headlights, leather upholstery, and could be had in a range of colors. They may have fallen out of vogue for a spell, but today a well restored car can fetch decent wedge.
Just like the GT40s and Ferraris that race at Revival, the pedal cars must be from the correct era, and have no performance enhancements. They even go through a full scrutineering process. “It's a self-assessment, but they then look over, they want to make sure that you're not lying. They check the distance between the back and the front of the cockpit. They check the length of the steering column, they check the axle at the back, the handbrake…” It might not be quite as stringent as the motor cars, but hearing what some parents will do to their offsprings’ steeds is eye opening: “Some people chop bits out and replace it with other [lighter] materials and stuff like that.”
To enter the Settrington Cup, a potential racer must write to The Duke of Richmond for permission, and upon acceptance is invited to a test day to get to know the track, and some of the other competitors.
Image Credit: Jayson Fong / Goodwood
Over the Revival there are two rounds of the Settrington Cup. One run on Saturday, the other on Sunday. Starting places are drawn out of a hat for the first day, and a reverse grid runs on the second so everyone gets a fair chance. Of course, the mini Mansells and Moutons aren’t expected to lap the whole track, instead a course is set up along the start/finish straight, with chicanes placed to add some dynamism.
Eva, buoyed with confidence from test day, and with a few new friends on track, started from 64th (out of 71) and thundered up to 41st on the first day of competition. A pile up at one of the chicanes confounded many racers, but Eva sailed around them with ease. Not only did she take a big chunk of the field on day one, she was also starting seventh the next.
On the second day, Eva seemed confident. She also realized the significance of who she was racing for, because like any little girl she loves her grandpa: “He was very nice, it’s a shame he can’t be here.” It’s also clear she loves the car. As soon as she and her father arrived in the Settrington Cup paddock she jumped in her J40 and didn’t leave it until the safety briefing. As Will polished the car, checked tire pressures, and made sure everything was in working order, she merrily rolled the car back and forth, grinning happily.
Before the race, the tiny paddock was a hive of activity – racers excited to be in their cars, a nominated mechanic (parent) fixing up said cars, and siblings looking longingly at the car they secretly want to be driving. While each meets regulation, some come with charming patina, and even some provenance. Each year a J40 enters the race it’s given a Revival sticker, and some have plenty on board.
There’s big business around getting the cars race ready – some shops are known for their J40 work, and even though Will was determined it was going to be “just a bit of fun,” he ended up getting a little carried away. He found the right man for the job though: “I got the running gear sorted by a guy called Jeff Kirkman who's one of these British men in a shed… When you mention Jeff Kirkman to people around here, they go, ‘Oh, how did he get him?’ Because he is a retired man and he doesn't do it often, but he's done a few, and one of them I think won once, or came second.”
Dron had intended to get it into decent shape, but things, as these things do, spiraled a little and now the car is in near perfect condition: “Because we are racing in my Dad's memory, it's like, well Dad was a perfectionist, let's do it the way he would want it to be done.”
When go time is called, tiny racers jump into their charges and their mechanic guides them out. In the queue you’ll spot excited parents, people who’ve had their cars for years, and even some mechanics with a little more experience than others – looking down the entry list you’ll spot a Johnson, Franchitti, Turner, and a Chandhok.
Throughout all of this Eva was calm, and waved to chums happily. Dad occasionally offering reassuring words. In fact, if you listened carefully, you could hear more than seventy mechanics tell their drivers that "it’s not about winning."
The Dron story drew the attention of Goodwood’s own broadcast team, and in the assembly area both Will and Eva were interviewed ahead of the deciding race. Eva, full of adrenaline, gave host David Green a mix of sweet smiles and occasional side eye for his questions.
Walking down Goodwood’s start/finish straight is a bizarre experience. The pit lane is full of people cheering the kids on, as are the grandstands, and every spot of available viewing space. The Settrington Cup isn’t like anything you’ll see anywhere else in the world. Sure, Car Week has 917s at Laguna Seca, but what about kids going balls to the wall in pedal cars? Of course people want to see this.
The race begins with an old fashioned Le Mans start. Once all the cars are lined up at either edge of the track, the mechanics are kept on the side of the circuit as the drivers are lined up in the middle. When the flag drops a flurry of tiny (and no doubt well practiced) legs sprint to leap into their cars. Then… frantic, unending pedalling, eyes on the prize, set to a soundtrack of thousands of people cheering the most adorable chaos you’ll ever witness.
Eva’s 7th place start gave her a largely clear field, and her pedalling deftly got her a few places early on. Will looked on with a gentle grin, and no shortage of pride. Mechanics, and anyone over five feet tall, are kept back until the last car trundles by so as not to distract or get in the way. Once permitted, the gaggle of mechanics are ushered to the pit lane to join their drivers at the finish line, all seemingly full of a mix of exhaustion, pride, and nerves. ‘It’s not about winning’ seems to have been forgotten.
By the finish Eva had managed to leap to 4th place (ahead of a Franchitti), narrowly missing a podium spot – the driver in front was weaving, she says, and she couldn’t get by. There were a few red eyes and gentle huffs elsewhere in the field, dreams of a Goodwood victory snatched from them, but Eva was beaming. Every competitor was handed a goody bag, each with a bag of swiftly found sweets inside, and then the track needed to be cleared so far noisier, less adorable people could race.
Eva’s mum and brother found her on her way back to the paddock, both flush with pride.
It was a big day for team Dron, as once again a car bearing a legendary surname and a special number had campaigned at Goodwood. Should Will be prepping for a full Dron return to motorsport? Eva’s performance was stellar, but she’s not so convinced: "Maybe. What I really want to be is an astronaut. I want to float."
Photos: Alex Goy For Motor1.com