Interview with Rory Butcher
Peter MacKay sits down with the 2019 BTCC Independent Drivers Champion
2019 was a breakthrough season for Kirkcaldy ace, Rory Butcher. Racing for the Cobra Sport AmD/RCIB Insurance team in their Honda Civic Type R, Rory burst into the BTCC top flight in only his second full season in the category. Regarded as the premier domestic touring car series and arguably one of the most competitive categories in motorsport, the British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) is a lion’s den of competition.
Cunning regulations have ensured close parity in car performance and therefore opening up the winner’s circle to a huge list of potential winners. In 2019, Rory Butcher climbed to the top of the podium on three occasions, including a triumphant home win at Knockhill.
In the series finale, at a chilly Brands Hatch, Rory drove exceptionally in all three races. Despite coming into the final day of the season behind rival Josh Cook in the standings, the 32-year-old pinched the Independent drivers title by just 2 points. Quite the achievement in just his second full season in the BTCC. But, this is classic Rory Butcher. From Formula Ford, to Porsche Carrera Cup and GT racing, Rory has made relentless progress through each category.
On a recent chilly Sunday afternoon, at his beloved Knockhill circuit, Rory took time to sit down and look back at his career so far.
In 1987, Rory was born into a motor racing family. Father Derek, has owned Knockhill race circuit since 1984. Today, the circuit is ever evolving under the leadership of elder sister, Jillian.
However, Rory’s competitive fire for competition was ignited much later than most of his peers. “In my early twenties, I really started to get the fire in my belly” recalls the 2009 Formula Ford Festival winner. A few forays into karting and bike racing in his early teens were nothing but a hobby for a young Butcher.
Undoubtedly, the support from his family has been a key factor in Rory’s success. “It’s great having a family that have an understanding of motorsport and what it takes to make it.” “I could down tools from my job and go racing every weekend.” For any racing driver, retaining sponsors is crucial. Although, many struggle to maintain loyalty from their backers. Through his family connections at Knockhill, Rory is able to provide extra value that others might not be able to. “If you look around the circuit, there are signs for my personal sponsors. That has really helped me gather the backing and support to move up the ranks.” Although Rory has reached the BTCC on merit, his gratitude is evident.
However, with privilege comes pressure. Brother in law, three-time BTCC Champion, Gordon Shedden finds the homecoming round at Knockhill tough, according to Butcher. “Gordon will always argue that coming up here is the hardest event of the year, the advantage isn’t what people think.” “People expect you to have done a million laps in practice but that’s just not the case. It’s the same for any local driver, the pressures on you.”
Prior to 2019, Butcher had yet to experience the nectar of podium champagne in the BTCC, curtailed by uncompetitive machinery in 2018. Three race wins and six podiums in 2019 changed all of that. Undoubtedly, the highlight of the season was at Knockhill, in September. With an inch perfect lap in his Honda Civic FK2, Rory sealed his first BTCC pole position in style. By a quarter of a second.
In race one, under immense pressure from Andrew Jordan in his BMW, Rory held strong, clinching an emotional victory. However, a dream home win was almost pinched with two laps to go. “I was going bananas in the car when he passed me on the penultimate lap, I was raging.” Some may have questioned Jordan’s hard move when the Pirtek BMW man squeezed Butcher to the very edge of the circuit on the long drag up the pit straight. True to form, Rory isn’t one to hold grudges and fully accepts how brutal the BTCC can be in wheel to wheel combat. When quizzed on this controversial move, Butcher is quick to down play the incident. “If you’ve got the opportunity to take the lead and you just make a slow manoeuvre over to the right, I had no choice but to back out of it and any other driver would have done the same as Andrew.”
“Winning that race and getting on pole was incredible.” “That home support got me the win in race one because I didn’t have a second gear after the safety car so I had to drive extra hard to keep Andrew Jordan at bay and just knowing I had that support definitely got me the win.”
“We are busy at every event but our home race is particularly busy.” “The amount of support I had in the paddock, I literally couldn’t walk from the toilet to the truck without getting hounded for autographs. It was an amazing feeling.”
Like many budding Scottish racing drivers, long journeys up and down the country are part of the commitment required. In his early days of Formula Ford, with plenty time for career contemplation on the long drags along the motorway, Rory confirmed this was the life for him. “In a national championship, I was able to trailer my car up and down the country and learn my trade and I thought, there’s more to this, I need to keep pushing.”
In 2009, Rory prevailed in the iconic Formula Ford festival in the Kent class. For generations, ‘The Festival’ has attracted the brightest talents in global motorsport to Brands Hatch and therefore carries significant prestige. “It was tough. There were sixty cars entered and I was up against my arch rival, Scott Malvern. He narrowly beat me to the national championship that year, in a court room.”
When quizzed about this incident, Rory is ever the professional “I won the championship on the road but there was a bit of contact in the final race of the year and Scott won in the court room. But, we’ll not speak any more about that.”
The 32-year old’s level head and calm manner is admirable considering the nature in which Butcher lost the Formula Ford title. But, this is an attribute which now serves him well in the cut and thrust of BTCC combat.
A win at ‘The Festival’ settled the score back on the track though, putting arch rival Malvern firmly back in his place. “I was almost in tears winning that event. Beating Scott meant so much”.
After such a bitter rivalry, Butcher and Malvern have since made up, a clear indication of respect both given to and received from Rory’s rivals. “We get on now but at the time the rivalry was pretty hot so it was a great feeling to win.”
Following the Festival win, opportunities then appeared in the British GT championship and the Porsche Carrera cup. “I had been doing a little bit of coaching with an amateur driver who was in his first couple of years and he asked me to partner him in British GT.”
A full season in 2010 in British GT4 at the wheel of a KTM X-Bow yielded results immediately. A race win at Oulton Park, four podiums, two pole positions and four fastest laps. Although in the embryonic stage of his GT career, Rory had proven he was a star of the future.
Next up along the winding road towards the motorsport big time, was the Porsche Carrera Cup. As usual, Rory adapted quickly and scored 13 race victories in the class. Success in the series cemented his credentials as a top level sports car driver. However, as feeder series go, participation in the Porsche Carrera cup is costly. But, in 2011, two generous backers came to the aspiring young drivers aid and have never left his side since. Rory is quick to praise “Motorsport nut”, Tommy Dreelan and Edinburgh businessman and former Mini Cooper racer, Alan Waugh.
“When I met Tommy Dreelan back in 2008, he decided to give me a little bit of support when I was doing Formula Ford. Then in 2010, when he was doing Porsche Carrera Cup with his team, Celtic Speed, he gave me the opportunity to race his second car at Knockhill for a one off drive. The following year, he supported me into the series for a full campaign. Basically, without that leg up at that point I would never be where I am today. Tommy has supported me through my whole career, I’ve always got the Celtic Speed logo on my helmet and it’s usually featured on the car as well. He has been instrumental in my career.”
“When Celtic Speed gave me the opportunity to race in the Porsche Carrera cup in 2011, I still needed a bit of sponsorship to fill the rest of the budget. I needed to get on the phone and start getting a bit of support. I didn’t really have any sponsors at the time, other than Celtic Speed. Alan Waugh was the first person I called. I remember sitting down in the living room of my flat, writing down names of people I could call. He was the first person who picked up the phone and I asked him the question. I didn’t really know him that well, I had just seen him around the paddock at Knockhill. He said ‘That would be really interesting, aye! I’ll be a part of that.’ He has gone from a small sticker to a big sticker and he has backed me every year since then. He’s still a very big part of my racing career now.” “The difference with Alan is that he’s raced as well, so he has an understanding from both sides. From being a sponsor and also from behind the wheel. He’s a massive support.”
GT and sports car racing would shape the next 5 years of Butcher’s career. Racing in Britain and abroad, Butcher scored seven GT race wins, including three in a row, in a Ferrari, in the European Le Mans Series. A potential seat at the iconic 24 Hours of Le Mans came close in 2017 but never materialised. Nevertheless, racing in the GT category remains a fond memory for the BTCC front runner.
“It’s very different to the BTCC, it’s the purest part of the sport. The crowds don’t really come to watch, you’re not so much in the limelight, it’s more about the sport itself I would say. I really enjoyed going abroad and racing at classic European circuits like Spa, Estoril and Paul Ricard.”
His favourite circuit during his time in Europe? “For me, Spa is the most amazing circuit in the world. I have done quite a bit of racing at the Nurburgring Nordschleife but the flow and the corner set up at Spa is the best.”
Racing in global GT opened up the opportunity to experience exotic machinery from Ferrari, Aston Martin and Porsche. “The cars I got to drive between 2014 and 2017 were just unbelievable. They are all 600 horse power plus, bags of aero and some had a lot electronics like ABS and traction control.” “The Ferrari 458 GTE was unbelievable. It was my favourite because it was normally aspirated. When you leave pit lane for the very first time in that car, it’s everything you’ve ever dreamed of.”
“I was racing against factory teams and factory drivers. It was a great experience to be part of, the weather was much better as well!”
In 2015, Rory got the call up to the prestigious Rolex 24 at Daytona. America’s premier sports car series, now known as IMSA, kicks off in January with this flagship event. A twice around the clock classic, with perilously low temperatures in the night, the Rolex 24 at Daytona is a brutal test of car and driver.
Prior to the event, Rory had yet to race in darkness. But, the Jack Sears trophy winner exhibited his adaptability in the gruelling 24-hour classic for GB Autosport Porsche in the GTD class. Sponsored by Tully’s coffee, a handy affiliate when sleep is so scarce, the team brought their Porsche 911 GT3 home in 7th place.
Racing stateside left an impression and a thirst for more. “It was incredible. I had just done my first season in British GT. I got the opportunity to go over (to Daytona) at the end of the year. It was so exciting getting to race in America against so many big names like Brendon Hartley and guys like that. An amazing circuit and an amazing experience.” “We did the test just after Christmas, which they call ‘Roar before the 24’ and then flew back 2 weeks later (for the race).” “It was one of my best experiences in a race car and opened my eyes to 24-hour racing.” “I was lucky enough after that to do another four or five 24 hour races.” “To do the longer stuff out in America like Sebring would be so cool.” “I’m going to Dubai in January to do the 24 hours in a BMW M4 GT4, so my GT career is still bubbling away.”
Now an established championship contender in the BTCC, winning races on live free to air TV on a Sunday afternoon, Rory still yearns for competition in GT racing. “I would love to have a dual programme where I was doing both a GT championship and racing BTCC at the same time.”
Looking forward to 2020, Rory’s focus is clear, to challenge for the BTCC drivers crown. Typically, not without respect for his rivals and the magnitude of the task at hand. “In 2020, I want to be a contender for the overall British Touring Car Championship. I think it would be a bit naïve to say I just want to win the championship because there’s so many good guys out there. First of all, you’ve just got to be in the fight. You don’t know what’s going to happen. You can make mistakes, you can have bad luck. You’ve got to have the right car and things have got to go your way. My plan is to do the best job I can and I want to be a contender for the championship and fight to the end. I feel confident that will happen, we’ll just have to wait and see.”
Peter MacKay is the host of The Peter MacKay Motorsport Podcast. Every episode can be found on www.petermackaymotorsport.com