Jochen Neerpasch has been a pilot for Volvo, Ford and Porsche, he has competed at Le Mans, Daytona and Nürburgring, and he had a definite contribution in the development and growth of Michael Schumacher, yet his name remains forever linked to the performances recorded by BMW since 1972, when he laid the foundations for BMW Motorsport GmbH.
To hand over the keys of a BMW M1 to Jochen Neerpasch seems like an unfair gesture, an undeserved generosity, even an arrogance, just like allowing a responsible and loving parent to play with his own children. Fortunately, he does not share this perspective, since he accepts the keys with an enthusiastic sparkle in his eyes and he immediately gets behind the steering wheel. The engine comes to life with an abrupt bark, and the car moves away on the narrow road that soon twitches into some tight bends. The brake lights don’t light up, although the tempo is quite brisk, proof that the reflexes of the 78-year old pilot are still intact. The steering and the throttle are enough to handle properly the red BMW.
Close to the next small town lying on the shores of Lake Bodensee, in the South of Germany, an electronic indicator flashes a sad face, signaling that the speed limit has been breached. The imagination, nevertheless, puts with confidence a big smile on Jochen Neerpasch’s face.
He began to drive when he was around 10, in the parking lot of the Borgward dealership owned by his father in Krefeld, near Düsseldorf. At age 12, he was entrusted to drive one of the cars delivered on wheels from the factory in Bremen to the dealership, over a distance of almost 300 km. According to the family plans, Jochen Neerpasch should have taken over the workshop, while his older brother was supposed to engage in the commercial activities of the dealership. Racing was not part of this plan. In fact, it was completely forbidden, following his brother’s severe crash in a rally.
Shielded behind an industrious school performance, young Jochen followed his passion to drive cars to the limit: he graduated as a professional mechanic and began to work for Porsche. In the tractor department. He stayed there only for a few weeks, because he soon joined the racing department. “I thought that being a racing mechanic would pave the way to become a pilot. I learned a lot there, many things that later proved useful in racing, especially since engines back then were not very reliable and you had to feel how they performed in order finish the race,” recalls Jochen Neerpasch.
Once he was 21 years old, when he no longer needed his parent’s formal approval, he became a certified pilot, and he begun to race on a Borgward Isabella. This moment is still missing from most official records, just as it was missing from the newspapers of the time, which was something that Jochen rejoiced from Stuttgart, some 400 km away from the family’s concerned eyes. It all came to an end that same year during the winter celebrations, when founder Carl F. W. Borgward sent a congratulating message to Krefeld, thus uncovering the racing ambitions of the young pilot. Following both the instant family uproar and the paternal pride in the son’s performances, Jochen Neerpasch’s racing career resumed its course.
Defining turning points
Keeping your foot away from the brake pedal of a BMW M1 that you know by heart – Jochen Neerpasch has in his study room a photo taken when the prototype of this car was presented in front of the company board – is an entirely different situation compared with racing a car without brakes, as it has happened to him at Targa Florio, in April 1964.
Arriving in Palermo with Joachim Springer, driving a Ford 12M, Jochen Neerpasch was approached by the famous “racing baron” Fritz Huschke von Hanstein, team Porsche’s PR
manager and racing director, with the offer to drive a 356B Carrera 2000 GS/GT. Known as the “Dreikantschaber”, borrowing the German name of a specialized scraper, this model had a faulty left rear brake line that also caused problems one month earlier, at Sebring.
“I almost lost the car, went sideways, but I regained control and I drove it without brakes for another 35 km,” says Neerpasch. “On the pit lane, the line was sealed off, and my partner Günter Klass went back into the race with brakes only on three wheels. Still, we finished seventh, ahead of the first Shelby Cobra that finished the race. The second day, Shelby came over to ask me if I want to race for him. This was an important step forward for me.”
In only a few years of racing, after starting with Borgward, Jochen Neerpasch went on to drive Volvo (P1800, P444 and 122), Shelby (Cobra, GT350) and Lotus Elan, representing at times also his own company (Jochen Neerpasch Racing GmbH) that was tuning engines for Ford Germany. Then, in July 1966, on the Mugello circuit, as part of the World Championship, he raced together with Gerhard Koch, private Porsche pilot, on a 906 (Carrera 6). They won the race. “I immediately got a phone call from Porsche: starting from the following year I was a factory driver for Porsche.” He preserved this position until 1968, his best racing year (1st place in the 24 hours race at Daytona, 2nd at Sebring, 3rd at Le Mans), but then he got another offer, totally different than the previous ones.
“Would you be interested in leading the Ford racing department in Koln (Cologne)? Or do you know someone who would be interested?” After several intense crashes – one in testing, at Daytona, another one at SPA, both in 1968 – Jochen Neerpasch seized the chance to combine his racing knowledge with his growing managing abilities in order to secure for the German Ford division the success recorded by the brand on other markets. Concerning the racing department itself, maybe that was an overstatement: “I got a small garage and a tiny office.”
With support from the British colleagues, and taking advantage of the newly launched Capri, the young Ford team led by Neerpasch began to shine within the continental races – having as one of the drivers a young pilot called Hans-Joachim Stuck. In spite of this success, to work within a large company, with a standard budget and a long reaction time was sometimes at odds with the needs formulated by Jochen Neerpasch based on his experience as a mechanic, pilot and manager. As a result, another phone call, this time from Robert “Bob” Lutz, sales manager at BMW, created the opportunity for higher expectations.
At the beginning of the 70s, BMW had a narrow racing footprint, focused on delivering engines and supporting tuning companies, like Schnitzer or ALPINA. The technical genius of Baron Alexander von Falkenhausen and of the legendary Paul Rosche was highlighted by Bob Lutz’s vision to use motorsport as a marketing tool. Jochen Neerpasch was the one who integrated the entire effort. Again, starting from an empty office.