IT’S not often you meet a living legend - but the crowds that turned out to meet John Surtees at Stafford’s county showground were ample proof that he’s up there with the greatest.
The motorsport star is celebrating the 50th anniversary of winning the Formula 1 world championship for Ferrari in 1964. It earned him a place in the record books as the first man to become a world champion on both two and four wheels, after amassing seven world motorcycling titles.
But there is more to a national tour that took him to Stafford’s Classic Motorcycle Show at the weekend than celebrating record-breaking achievements.
Surtees, who turned 80 in February, is driven by the quest to build a lasting memorial - in the form of the charitable Henry Surtees Foundation - to his son Henry, killed aged just 18 in 2009, while racing in Formula 2.
The promising youngster died after a freak racetrack accident, when he was struck on the head by a wheel that had come off another competitor’s car. He suffered catastrophic brain injuries and died the same day.
Five years on, the charity foundation that bears Henry’s name has raised more than £400,000 and has funded projects for brain injury charity Headway, as well as kitting out air ambulances in the South East with blood transfusion equipment - a project that it now aims to roll out nationally.
Surtees, who started his own career as an apprentice in the Vincent motorcycle factory, also plans to use the foundation to help today’s youngsters get a start in one of the many careers available in the motorsport industry.
He is working with universities and further education colleges with the aim of setting up training centres based at racing circuits across the country to fire young people’s enthusiasm for jobs in motor racing.
It is a positive legacy - but still a very painful one.
Surtees, who also has two grown-up daughters, struggles to control his emotions when talking about his son.
“In some ways, the foundation keeps him alive,” he tells me.
“After Henry died, there was a time when I thought I had to walk away entirely from everything associated with racing and motorsport.
“But then I thought again. The lad was doing something he loved doing, motorsport was so much part of our lives, and the racing community all responded so well after he died.”
He says he was touched by messages of support from around the world, while donations at Henry’s funeral totalled £34,000.
“That money had to be put to good use, so we started the Henry Surtees Foundation and it became a registered charity in 2010.”
Surtees now wants to use the “thrills and emotion” associated with racing to enthuse the younger generations and create careers for the future in what is a major British industry.
“The idea was inspired by what I saw Henry, and the other youngsters around him, learning. It took real commitment , and they all matured so speedily.
“I would like to see other young people finding that inspiration, and there are so many different career paths available in motorsport. It is a huge industry for this country with many different opportunities.”
Meanwhile, Surtees believes that despite the big money, hype and commercialism associated with motor racing today, the essence of its appeal is unchanged from his racetrack days.
“The competitiveness and the wish to do the best possible job, and if possible win, is still there,” he says.
“When they get out there in a car or on a bike it becomes a personal thing between them and the others on the track.”
And he says he is pleased that fans are still showing an interest in his glittering career in this 50th anniversary year.
“It’s nice that people remember me and that I’ve been part of their lives in some way,” Surtees says.
“I have been very lucky to have been paid to do a sport I loved.
“These says Ii am still keeping busy to keep pace with my two daughters! We are still very much a family, even more so since we lost Henry.”
To donate to the Henry Surtees Foundation or find out about its work go to www.henrysurteesfoundation.com