In the early 1980s, Dundalk-born Tommy Byrne rose from absolute obscurity to the forefront of the motorsport world, only to have the sport itself, its traditions and standards, stand in the way of his big break.
Crash and Burn, a new documentary by Seán Ó Cualáin, joins Byrne 30 years on from the end of his professional career, to hear his side of the story and set the record straight.
The film opens on a suburban home in Florida. From the exterior, we can hear the sounds of rummaging. Tommy Byrne is in his junk-filled garage, looking for a trophy.
The prize is somewhere among the piles of old newspapers, lawnmowers, petrol cans, and other assorted tools and trinkets. Eventually, Tommy retrieves the trophy, gives it a once-over and shrugs it off.
In a couple of sequences, Byrne returns to Dundalk. Exterior shots of his boyhood home are intercut with cine-film footage of a young Tommy.
In these scenes, we get a sense of his early life and his lifelong fascination with speed. Byrne, by his own admission, was a bad apple, always looking for trouble and open-wheel racing was a means of channeling this energy.
Throughout the film, talking heads tell us of Byrne’s driving prowess. He was, by all accounts, innately gifted behind the wheel of a car.
Archival footage confirms this: we see early Formula Ford races and test-lap footage where Tommy drives his car with a devil-may-care abandon that manages to get results and pole position time and time again.
Maurice Taylor is a good friend and close associate of Tommy. That doesn’t mean that they always saw eye-to-eye.
“He was a little bastard,” Maurice laughs as he greets his old friend and the camera crew. “You were a brat,” he continues.
The men enter a workshop at the back of Maurice’s home. Up a stepladder with some paint cans and car parts are some of Tommy’s other trophies, including a European Championship cup.
Taylor and Byrne reminisce over the good times a little, but it’s telling that as in Tommy’s American home, here too, the trophies are hidden away.
I say it’s telling, but really, it’s hard to tell how Tommy feels about his career. Ó Cualáin and an assortment of pundits make a strong case for Tommy’s talent and ability. Tommy himself is not shy about talking himself up either, but he wants to talk about the good times more than anything else, and resists telling us a sob story as best he can.
What’s clear early on is that Tommy Byrne was a troublemaker, a cheeky chappy who lived hard and raced well. Tommy was “all edge”, and that didn’t sit right with the higher-ups of the motor-sport world.
“I wasn’t born with a silver spoon up my ass,” Tommy explains as he laments the pay-to-drive nature of the professional motor-sport world. Byrne got his races through force of will and charm alone.
The film entertains a rivalry with Ayrton Senna, but this aspect of the film never really bears fruit. There is an amusing cartoon interlude depicting a brawl between Senna and Byrne, but Byrne himself is quick to move past this aspect of the story.
If there is someone to blame for Byrne not having made it to the big leagues of Formula One it’s Ron Dennis, the former CEO of McLaren, who would not give Byrne the opportunity to race with McLaren.
The 1980s portion of Tommy’s career fizzles out in a haze of booze and drugs. And yet, Byrne’s life doesn’t hit the skids entirely.
There’s an admirable stamina in Byrne – even at his lowest point he continues to race. As the Formula One dream ends, Tommy moves to the United States, where he races open-wheel cars in the hopes of making the Indy500 circuit.
Again, issues with money arise, and Tommy’s charm is not enough to secure his American dream. And so Mexico comes calling, and Tommy heads south.
What follows is a bizarre series of events, as Tommy becomes involved with Mexican drug lords as a means of funding his career. We are treated to another cartoon, as Tommy is shot at by his team manager.
Byrne’s anecdotes about his time in Mexico are peppered with footage of him wielding a pump-action shotgun and a pistol at a makeshift firing range. If there’s a point where we see Tommy crack a little it’s in Mexico.
Maurice Taylor confirms this. “There was nothing in Mexico but booze and hoors,” he laments. Tommy does some soul searching after returning from Mexico.
At the start of the film, we join Tommy Byrne today. He now works as a racing instructor and appears to have his life back on track, so to speak. Only, I never really got the impression that things got too out-of-hand for Tommy.
At one point, a commentator compares Byrne to George Best or Ronnie Higgins, two famously self-destructive sports stars, but Tommy was never afforded the same excess as these men. Poverty keeps Byrne from the big leagues, but it also saves him from a harder, longer fall.
Byrne’s puckish attitude and character sustained him throughout his career, and through to the present day. This is not so much a rags-to-riches story as it is a rags-to-further-rags-and-then-contentment kind of story.
Tommy appears to be a happy-go-lucky kind of guy, taking things as they come and life day by day. While this doesn’t make for the most dramatic picture in terms of hard feelings and broken hearts, it does present us with an intriguing character study.
And, oddly enough, I had a sense of the human spirit prevailing as the credits rolled. Tommy leaves us with one final note, he’s happy now, everything’s good, all he lost was $100 million. That’s all.