Tom Wheatcroft was an English businessman, who made his fortune through building and construction
Born in Castle Donington, Wheatcroft had always lived within a 30 mile radius of the village. He had an estimate fortune of £120million, and was father to seven children.
Wheatcroft had only 18 months of formal schooling and preferred to cycle from his parents home in Leicester to Donington Park to watch pre-war motor racing:
“You had to be there to know what it was like. The W125 Mercs and the V16 Auto Union racing cars were doing 170mph by halfway down the straight. The noise and the smell and the speed – we hadn't seen anything like it before.”
Wheatcroft drove tanks during World War II, returning to set up a successful building business. Sad that racing had left Donington Park, he set up his own motor racing team in the 1960s.
Having made his fortune, and started to build his car collection, Wheatcroft further indulged his racing passion by running his own racing car team, Wheatcroft Racing. In 1970, he purchased a Brabham BT30 for Derek Bell to run in Formula 2, with Bell finishing second in the European Championship. During the season, Wheatcroft purchased a BT26 which he entered into a selection of Formula 1 races.
Wheatcroft bought part of the 1,100-acre Donington Hall estate, including the circuit, for £100,000 in 1971. At his own cost, he rebuilt the circuit and moved his classic car collection to the estate, the largest collection of motor racing cars in the world now known as the Donington Grand Prix Exhibition.
In 1972 fully resurrected the team, running Roger Williamson in British Formula 3 and selected European F2 races. Williamson took the F3 title that year. In 1973 Wheatcroft sponsored Williamson in the Formula One March Engineering works team. His short career lasted two races: a crash at the ill-fated British Grand Prix on the first lap, and a crash on the eighth lap of the Dutch GP, where he died in the subsequent fire.
In 1973 he sponsored Williamson in the March Engineering F1 team, run by Max Mosley. Williamson made his debut at the ill-fated British Grand Prix where he was involved in the famous first lap accident. His second race was the Dutch GP. On the eighth lap he crashed due to a puncture, the car coming to rest upside down, trapping the unfortunate Williamson inside. The subsequent fire and ill prepared marshals left Williamson with no hope of survival despite the heroic efforts of fellow driver David Purley who tried everything to get his friend from the wrecked car.
Devastated by the loss Wheatcroft concentrated on Donington but did back occasional drivers in Formula Atlantic and Formula 2, including 1974 British F2 champion Brian Henton, however he never resurrected his team.
Wheatcroft began campaigning for a Grand Prix but his efforts were continually frustrated. He landed the British Motorcycle Grand Prix in 1987 and finally in 1993 Donington hosted the European Grand Prix. In terrible weather Ayrton Senna took the win in a McLaren-Cosworth.
In 2007, Wheatcroft agreed a 150 year lease of the land on which the circuit and museum are located to Donington Ventures Leisure Ltd, who subsequently with his support won a 10 year agreement from Bernie Ecclestone to host the British Grand Prix from July 2010. Sadly DVLL failed to deliver the money needed and the plan fell apart just a few days before Wheatcroft died.
Sadly the circuit has also lost its round of the Moto GP to Silverstone with many a fan and rider disapointed it had happened, the circuit was well loved by all riders and in particular Valentino Rossi.
He died aged 87 on October 31, 2009 after a long illness, he had been suffering from cancer.