Roger Skeete

Roger Skeete

‘The Sheriff’ spent more than 20 years at the top of his game . . . perhaps that’s why he can also lay claim to the longest-running sponsorship deal of them all

Whatever the sport, 10 victories for one man (or woman) in the first 15 years of a major competition is a remarkable achievement. But that is what the record shows for Roger ‘The Sheriff’ Skeete between the 1990 Texaco International All-Stage Rally and Rally Barbados 2004.

And it is a record that may well stand for all time; in the now 17-year history of the region’s premier motor sport event, only one other driver can lay claim to more than a single win, the Irishman Kenny McKinstry, so striking 10 will be a long haul for anyone else.

Skeete’s introduction to motor sport came in 1979, when he helped Mark Stoute prepare what he later described as “a ridiculously fast Mini Cooper S.” Interviewed in 1990 by RPM magazine, he remembered: “Having had previous experience with Minis, I responded readily to Mark’s need for assistance, and together we prepared a very fast car, fitted with several ‘go-faster’ parts.”

It was not long before Skeete turned his hand to driving . . . and winning. Although his road cars had been front-wheel-drive – Mini Cooper and later a Morris 1300 GT – his early competition cars were rear-wheel-drive Mitsubishi Lancers. His first victory came in 1980 in a loose event at Mount Wilton, where the opposition included Michael Corbin, Bo Forde, Julian Kirton and Richard Roett.

The familiar E343 plate was carried on three Lancers, two in Group 1, the last an uprated Group 5 car; even so, the Lancer was by now ageing. In that same RPM interview, he remarked: “As far as I was concerned, Freddie Mapp was a real motivating force – I remember him at Redland with his Escort on racing tyres. Between him, Corbin and Roett, I got tired of being beaten.”

What Skeete later described as “a very kind offer” from Peter Ullyett and Brian Mackie in 1986 brought about the switch to Peugeot – and a return to front-wheel-drive – which put him right back on terms with some of the modified cars in competition: “The 1.6 Group A 206 GTi was a superbly well-balanced and fun car to drive . . . not to mention quite difficult to beat.”

That same year, he formed a relationship with Texaco “through another very kind and helpful mentor”, H T ‘Trevor’ Hunte at DaCosta Manning’s; in 2007, Skeete celebrates the 21st Anniversary of that sponsorship deal and of carrying the Texaco star on the bonnet of his car – the logo which prompted Bushy Park announcer John ‘Tiny’ Harrison to dub him ‘The Sheriff’. Later, as a committee member and Club Chairman, Skeete went on to introduce Texaco to event sponsorship, too.

As the decade wore on, Skeete became the man to beat; in 1986, for instance, he won the second of his five consecutive Speed Event Championships, the Tiger Malt International 500, the Red Stripe 500 and the special stage trophy on the Rothmans 500 June Rally . . . successes used by Texaco as product endorsement: “Take my advice and use Texaco. Products I can trust.” As well as the right fuels and lubricants, Skeete had the right engineer – Simon Gillmore, an acknowledged expert on the French marque, whom Skeete credited with: “immense ability and know-how”.

The Banks Super Sprint series at Bushy Park was another arena in which Skeete was ultra-competitive. At the time of the RPM interview, there was talk of Bushy Park being reopened, something on which Skeete did not sound too keen: “There’s little point in starting circuit racing here in Barbados for it to last 18 months. After circuit racing, there’s nowhere to go!”

That strident opinion did not stop Skeete racing at Bushy Park, however, when it did reopen two years later! Quoted in the October 1992 event programme, he said: “Taking on Michael Gill under racing conditions will be interesting, since he works very hard. But I think I will do well.” Over the six meetings before Bushy Park’s second closure at the end of 1994, he had mixed fortunes; he missed two internationals with mechanical problems, but was Champion Driver in May 1994, the same year that he was all-conquering in Guyana.

For all that went before, however, it is Skeete’s record in the Club’s blue riband event for which he will always be best remembered . . . especially, one would guess, by Michael Gill, who finished second to Skeete in four of his first six victories! From the inaugural Texaco International All-Stage Rally in 1990, Skeete claimed a hat-trick of wins in the Peugeot 205GTI, the greatest winning margin over Gill 43 seconds, the smallest just seven seconds. An accident at Canefield brought the ’93 event to an abrupt halt, but he raised his tally to five wins over the next two years, beating Jamaicans Jeffrey Panton and David Summerbell, before the 205GTi bowed out with sixth place in 1996.

Gill took another hammering in 1997, 91 seconds adrift of Skeete’s new Peugeot 306 S16 – the only Texaco he did in that car – but Skeete was the loser the following year, when diff failure after four stages meant a dnf in his first year with the Ford Escort Cosworth.

But he would soon be back at the front: second by 22 seconds to Trevor Manning in 1999, he then claimed his second hat-trick of wins, defeating Manning twice in the Escort Cosworth – in 2001, by the smallest-ever margin of 16/100ths of a second – then Roger Mayers in the now-upgraded Escort WRC.

Repeating the earlier pattern, his hat-trick was followed by a dnf, this time on the event’s opening stage, and then by a win in 2004, defeating Paul Bourne by 1m 45s . . . and that made his 10, in 15 events; only twice had he finished without winning, a remarkable achievement. For all but the first two, when his co-drivers were wife Charmaine and Roger Fields, Englishman Dave Crawford read the notes, a man whose talents as a co-driver are matched by his skill as an engineer.

What Skeete describes as “a monumental crash” in October 2004 at Three Houses in St Philip destroyed the Escort; it was testament to the strength of the car that the injuries sustained by Skeete (broken left thumb) and Crawford (broken collar bone) were no worse, and that they would both be in action again in 2005.

Many of the Escort’s more hi-tech parts were transferred into a Ford Focus WRC, but The Sheriff did not settle; the Focus retired from Rally Barbados with transmission problems, and returned to the UK at year-end, leaving Skeete to return to his roots . . . well, not quite, although his Peugeot 306 Maxi for the 2006 season could be traced back his 1997-winning car: “The crash, plus the cost of the new Focus proved to be a burden – motor sport was no longer fun, just a big negative. The 306 offered another avenue to be re-explored.”

The return to Peugeot revived his working relationship with Gillmore and engine-builder Richard Longman in the UK. While the car was often thrilling to watch – Skeete described it as “more involving to drive than a WRC car” – it retired from Rally Barbados 2006 with hub failure. Skeete also returned to race at Bushy Park, although a hat-trick of wins in the first race meet was not to be repeated.

At some point, we must assume that The Sheriff will hang up his badge, but that will not remove the name Skeete from entry lists of Club events; son Dane is already a multiple champion with the Barbados Karting Association, and will soon be mixing his studies in Canada with the occasional event . . . in a Peugeot, of course!

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