Tribute: Neil Cunningham – a star of track, screen and life

Charles Bradley pays tribute to former racing driver Neil Cunningham, who died this week at the age of 53.

Tribute: Neil Cunningham – a star of track, screen and life
Neil Cunningham
#32 Barazi - Epsilon Courage C65-AER: Michael Vergers, Juan Barazi, Neil Cunningham
Podium: Adam Sharpe and Neil Cunningham
Ben Collins, Neil Cunningham
Ben Collins and Neil Cunningham on the podium
Neil Cunningham and Ben Collins
Neil Cunningham
Neil Cunningham and Keith Robinson
Adam Sharpe, Steve Hyde and Neil Cunningham

It’s quite rare to find someone who’s great talent for driving racing cars is transcended by their human qualities.

Usually, drivers are so utterly self-obsessed – a trait that comes with the territory of having an entire team of people dancing to your tune to make their car go faster, even more so if they've worked in TV or film.

Neil Cunningham was an extraordinary character, who managed to blend the necessity of being a single-minded racer with being an amazingly nice guy out of the cockpit.

The likeable Kiwi first made his name in British Formula Ford, but without the funds to move higher than Formula Renault he took a sidestep into Eurocar stock cars (where he’d be a champion) and GT racing. He also raced prototypes, and twice started the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

In fact, you’re more likely to have seen Neil in action without knowing it – in a James Bond film, where his skills were employed as a stunt driver, or Top Gear where he was an occasional stand-in Stig in his good pal Ben Collins’ era as the 'man in white'.

Sadly, Neil was struck down by motor neurone disease – the same condition that eminent scientist Stephen Hawking suffers from – but the fight he put up against it epitomised his character.

Although the disease took a vicious hold of his body, he refused to let it take his spirit and worked tirelessly to raise funds into research into finding a cure.

Some great fundraisers were held, and I cherish a great day at The Race Hut racing simulator business owned by David Goode (himself an ex-FF1600 racer).

A whole host of Neil’s old mates turned out to race Formula Fords (what else?) in a simulation of the Brands Hatch Festival; even Mark Webber found time in his busy schedule to take part.

We all had a great laugh, raised a load of cash to make Neil's life a little easier, and it was great to see him again with a huge smile on his face as usual.

And that was the rare thing about Neil, he was a racing driver who literally nobody had a bad word to say about. And the outpouring since his passing has been widespread in the UK racing community, and beyond.

It’s cruel that he was taken from us at the age of 53, so please donate to the cause he founded at Racing4MND.org – remember, this can strike anybody at any time, and we still don’t know why.

Neil Cunningham was a proper racer, but a true winner as a human being.

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