If it’s foreign-made and has wheels and an engine, it is almost guaranteed that Phil Wicks has raced it or at the very least driven it around the block. And even though he’s a tad older than most racers, Phil has no intention of turning in his license anytime soon.
Phil’s racing career began in his native England. Born in London just as World War II was beginning, Phil was six months old when his father left for the war as a dispatch rider. Phil did not see his father again until the end of war, when he returned as a five-time decorated soldier. As Phil’s family tried to resume a normal life, his dad introduced the young boy to motorcycles. “In 1947, I rode pillion with my dad to watch a race, and I knew then that racing was what I was going to do,” he says.
Phil started racing motorcycles by himself in the early 1950s. He bought his first bike in 1954, and by the following year he was building racing bikes.
In just a few short years, Phil made the jump from two wheels to four. “I had been working in the aerospace industry with my family, and I was supposed to be attending classes at university,” he recalls. “But rather than going to class, I was actually at the track.”
When it all came to light at the end of the semester, Phil’s uncle determined he should find other means of employment. “Men’s hairdressing was just coming into vogue,” Phil says, “and a friend gave me a job sweeping up and doing other small jobs at the only shop in London that got rock-n-roll stars and movie stars.”
One day, a friend came to the salon in a Mini. “He convinced me to drive it, and it was ‘nippy,’” Phil remembers. “We took it to the track – hubcaps off and tape over the lights – and I said, ‘I gotta get me one of these!’”
Phil raced his first Mini in 1959. By 1961, John Cooper had loaned his name to the car, modifying it to include disc brakes and a larger engine. Thus the Mini Cooper was born.
Throughout his career, Phil has raced not just Mini Coopers but some of the world’s most iconic sports cars, including the Austin Healy Sprite, Fiat Abarth, Triumph Spitfire, MG and Lotus. And he’s raced on some of Europe’s most challenging tracks and road courses, including the famed Nurburgring, Isle of Man and Le Mans, as well as Daytona and Homestead in Florida.
During that time, he also worked as a stunt driver for several British television programs, including “Danger Man,” as well as the original movie version of “The Italian Job.” Coincidentally, that movie starred an actor who used to come into that London hair salon – Michael Caine.
In 1967, Phil went to work for Lamborghini as a test driver and engineer. By 1970, he added power boats to his repertoire, which he raced for the next 10 years, notching a win in the Putney (England) to Calais (France) off-shore race in 1974.
Phil came to the United States in 1979, relocating to Florida as an importer of European classic cars such as Lamborghini, Ferrari, Maserati, Alfa Romeo, Mini and Fiat Abarth. That’s where he met Norree, his wife. It was his devotion to her that brought them to Columbia, where they have lived for the past four years. “My wife’s family moved here in the late 1970s and when her father passed away, we decided to move back to South Carolina,” he says.
In 2002, Phil opened Phil Wicks Driving Academy, which offers training to help drivers become safer on the road. He also runs a driving academy for Mini enthusiasts.
“Many high schools don’t even offer driver training anymore,” he says. “Over the past 11 years, we’ve trained more than 10,000 students in how to better prepare for the handling of their cars,” he says. “It’s really more about the handling and control of the car than the speed.”
In addition to road course training, Phil’s students also spend a significant amount of time in the classroom learning about things such as vehicle dynamics. “An important part of being a safe driver is understanding the capabilities of the car you’re driving,” Phil says. “It’s important that drivers realize that if they look where they want to go, the car will follow where their eyes go.”
Phil believes that one of the most dangerous influences that young drivers face is distracted driving. “Passengers in the car are the single largest contributing factor to teen driving accidents,” he says. “And the danger increases proportionally. The more passengers in the car, the more likely the driver is to be distracted.”
One of Phil’s students is 18-year-old Todd VanDyke of Suwanee, Ga., who has always been interested in cars and racing. Rulon, his dad, thought he would benefit from Phil’s training. “This was a graduation gift,” Rulon says. “I wanted to see him have an introduction to the racing experience, learn to have better control of his car and be a safer driver.”
Todd was only halfway through his day-long training course with Phil at the Carolina Motorsports Park in Kershaw when he started to see the benefits. He was initially concerned, though, about putting his car out on the track. “I was afraid it wasn’t going to be in good enough shape to run on the track,” he says. After a thorough check-up and a new set of tires, Todd’s car proved to be up to the task. Zipping around the track, he learned what his car is capable of and how he can better control it, in addition to improving his driving habits.
“Phil’s a really good teacher. I’m telling him what I see, and he’s telling me what to do. It’s a great experience,” Todd says.
It was a learning experience for Rulon as well. “I didn’t realize how important things like tire pressure and weight distribution matter. It’s much more than about just going fast,” he says.
While it’s important to know about the handling of a car, speed can be exhilarating, and Phil believes most drivers can learn how to handle whatever car they’re driving. It’s reasonably easy for a reasonably good driver to learn how to drive a car to its limits.
“One of the things that disturbs me is that so many people believe they can do the same kind of driving they see in the movies. They have to realize it’s not real. So many car and motorcycle chase scenes in today’s movies are done through computer-generated graphics,” Phil says.
Even Todd recognizes that he and his friends are influenced by chase scenes in video games. “You think you can drive a car on the road the same as you do when you’re playing a video game,” he says. He has a much better understanding of the difference after being under Phil’s tutelage.
Not only does Phil provide training for individual drivers, he also gets requests from corporations. “I host company outings for team experiences, and I get lots of inquiries from meeting planners.”
While he spends much of his time now training students through his academy, Phil still climbs into his beloved yellow 1967 Mini Cooper-S, dubbed “Snoopy Dog,” which he has raced for the past three years as part of the Zapata Racing team based in Nashville, Tenn. “I’m having a lot of fun and winning races,” he says.
Winning is an understatement. Out of 21 races, he’s had 18 wins and one second place finish. Not a bad record at all.
In addition to winning, Phil also loves the atmosphere of the track. “It’s the camaraderie of the people,” he says. “I go to three or four events a year and run several events in a single day.” His pit crew consists of Norree, their dog and a couple of guys who help in the garage.
After 56 years of racing, it’s not lost on Phil that the cars he was driving as his career was first starting are now considered vintage. Why does he still love the Mini? “It’s a little car, and I’m a little man,” he says with a laugh.
And when he has the opportunity, he still races motorcycles. “Truth be told,” says Phil, “I love driving Minis, but my first love is motorcycles.” When asked why, at his age, would he continue such a dangerous sport? With a sly grin he simply replies, “Because I can.”