What I’d Do Differently: John Buffum ""

By | May 31, 2017

From the June 2017 issue

C/D: Early in your career, you had a reputation for crashing frequently and even earned yourself a nickname—Stuff ’em Buffum. Was there an occurrence that made you transition into a more mature and faster driver?

JB: No, it was an experience thing. I wanted to go fast and I crashed because I was going faster than my skill and experience level would allow. I believe that’s the correct way to go. Going fast to start and then gaining experience and tempering yourself as you mature makes you faster in the end.

C/D: Did you ever drive on emotion and make errors that you wouldn’t have made otherwise?

JB: No, I don’t think I was an emotional driver. I think I am an emotional guy because I cry at some movies, but no, I don’t get jacked up and have road rage. I drove to win.

C/D: Who was your biggest rival?

JB: That’s easy. Rod Millen. He was right there from the late ’70s until I stopped in the later ’80s. He would push me to go faster and to get better. And it was the same for him. We ratcheted each other up.

C/D: What was your proudest moment as a driver?

JB: It’s a tossup between the fifth place at Acropolis, a World Championship event, and winning Cyprus. Ferdinand Piëch, the Audi head of technical development at the time, gave me his Audi jacket to wear to the awards ceremony at Acropolis. That was an honor. I still have the jacket. Cyprus was a win, but it was a European Championship event, a step down from a World event.

John Buffum’s Audi Sport Quattro claws through the mud on the way to victory in the 1987 SCCA Wild West Pro Rally.

C/D: What was your greatest talent?

JB: I think I measured myself pretty well. Yes, when I started, I crashed a lot, but it gave me insight as to where I could and couldn’t go. I’ve seen many times that [new] people in the sport don’t know what fast is. I found out by crashing, so that when I got into a factory drive, I knew where the boundary was.

C/D: And your greatest weakness?

JB: I love the gravel, and so I like to slide the car. It feels good. The way to set a car up [into a corner], especially a two-wheel-drive car, is to get it extremely sideways. Doing that makes you excel in the tighter corners. I didn’t do so well in the faster corners. I wouldn’t charge over blind crests. I’m not Travis Pastrana. I wasn’t willing to take those chances.

C/D: You shared the Group B era with some big names, including the only woman to win a World Championship rally, Michèle Mouton. Could you beat her?

JB: It depends on the rally. In America, we didn’t use pace notes back then, so we were always one step behind the Europeans. Because we didn’t compete against each other all the time on equal footing, it’s hard to compare. She was very good. But when I raced Mouton, we were always close.

C/D: How were those Group B cars?

JB: They were awesome but hard to control. Innovation and technology have changed the world. Go look back in the ’80s. The cars would land and the drivers were working to keep them under control. The suspensions weren’t so good, and the transmissions were street-based. They hadn’t really come up with anti-lag, though Audi fooled around with it. Your eyes bounced in your head, so driving them was tremendously difficult.

C/D: Were the risks worth the rewards in an era of aluminum roll cages, no HANS devices, and spectators lining the roads? Would you do it again?

JB: It took huge outside forces to stop the advancement of Group B in ’85 and ’86 [the death of Henri Toivonen]. And it was the right thing to do. Before that it wasn’t so bad. I’d absolutely do it again. I never worried about it.

C/D: In 1987, you won every national rally you entered. You were in your mid-40s by then. Was that the peak of your driving skill? How did age impact your driving?

JB: Sometime between 40 and 45, you start slowing down. I was very young for my age, so even in ’84, when I was 41, I was at the top of my game. I was in good mental and physical shape. I had a lot of experience, and I had a good car. It all blended together.

C/D: What legacy do you want to leave in rallying?

JB: I’d like to be remembered as somebody who loved rallying and who, as a driver, co-driver, organ­izer, or steward, tried to make rallying better. I hope people think of me as a championship-caliber driver. I may not have always been as polite as I could have been, but I’m not so sure that winners in sports are always nice guys.

C/D: Is there anything you’d do differently?

JB: I wouldn’t have done anything differently. But if I had really wanted rallying to be the focus of my life to the exclusion of everything else, I needed to go live in Europe. I didn’t really care about doing that. There were other things going on in my life. I loved America, and I was happy to stay here for most of my competition career. But to get even better, going to Europe was a necessary thing.

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