Even before having the pleasure of meeting him, Hans-Joachim Stuck was a hero of mine. How could he not be? From a very young age - alright, when YouTube was created and I was 14 - Stucky was in the videos I looked up, be that 962s at Le Mans or DTM Audi Quattros or CSLs on the Nordschleife. In all the coolest cars at all the coolest events, there was an H.J. Stuck - usually right up the front, too.
While I hope the achievements of modern racing drivers are given due recognition, the case for admiring old ones was so much easier given what they were driving. The list of vehicles on Stuck's Wikipedia page reads like a dream garage of racers: M1 Procar, Porsche 956, Calibra ITC, Capri 2600RS, Audi V8. And that's before you're into the single seaters. Any member of the PH EnduroKa team would look damn good in any of those - leave alone a racing driver of actual talent.
Hans-Joachim Stuck admittedly had a helping hand, being the son of Hans Stuck - nicknamed 'King of the Mountain' for his hillclimbing exploits - and taught to drive on the Nurburgring by his father. A useful head start. Still, winning his first 24-hour race there in 1970 was quite some feat - Stuck was just 19 at the time.
You're probably familiar with his triumphs, but a quick reminder if not: he won the N24 again in 1998 (driving a 320d of all things), and then a third time in 2004 (at the age of 53) in an M3 GTR. From 1985 to 1989, Stuck was on the Le Mans podium every single year, winning back-to-back in '86 and '87 in a Rothmans 962 alongside Derek Bell and Al Holbert - then won the GT1 class in 1996 as well. His DTM championship in 1990 sits alongside a pair of podiums in Formula 1 and a Spa 24-Hour win with Jochen Mass. Remember, too, he drove that incredible X5 Le Mans at the 'ring. Stuck is, by any measure, a boss-level racing driver.
But that's not why he's my hero. That was reserved for one sunny Tuesday in May 2017. For whatever reason, Herr Stuck was the pace car driver at Vallelunga for the Skoda Octavia vRS 245 launch. Yes, really. Goodness knows how much that cost. But instead of being an aloof, arrogant racing driver, he couldn't have appeared happier to be there. He'd talk us around the track over the walkie talkies with gleeful enthusiasm (and, obviously, while maintaining a speed nobody could match), somehow advise cars way behind him on lines to take (while never sounding patronising). He generally gave the impression of man who was really enjoying spending time with a new Skoda estate and a bunch of motoring journalists. Either Stuck was an exceptional actor, or his enthusiasm for cars and racetracks had continued unabated as he approached 70 years old - I sincerely hope it was the latter.
Somewhat remarkably, H-J joined us for dinner as well. And I must apologise to Graeme from Skoda PR at this point, for abandoning our entirely pleasant chat to flock around Stuck like he was the pied piper of badly dressed, car-loving dorks. But how often would there be another opportunity like that?
I'm not sure poor old Hans got to eat much of his food, let alone while it was hot, such was the bombardment of questions. However, again, he was polite, personable, absorbing company. No doubt he will have regaled fans with stories about how 962s compare with 956s, tackling the Nurburgring in an M3 GTR and the good old days of DTM a thousand times before, but he took on each question with vigour, answering in detail and with real, discernible joy, like he was answering them all for the very first time. Every person hung on to every word. Nobody at the dinner thought it would be possible to love the subject matter more beforehand, yet through Stuck's animated, engaged, enthusiastic story-telling, we all did.
That's why he's a hero, Hans-Joachim Stuck. Because, seemingly just like you and I, he simply loves driving really fast cars as quick as they can go. Difference of course being that he's rather excellent at it, and has been for a very long time, while somehow retaining the humility and verve of a car guy given the opportunity of a lifetime.
I'll leave you with this video as proof, the very well-known practice lap for the Nurburgring 24-Hour back in 2004. Stuck narrates the whole thing in his infectiously animated manner, explaining the experience with the dedication and energy of a younger man. Of course, he and his team went on take the top step of the podium that weekend, more than 30 years after he'd recorded that first win. If 19 was brilliant, then 53 might have been even more remarkable again. Undoubtedly a true titan of motorsport, then, and an absolute gent as well - so thank you, Hans-Joachim Stuck, it was an honour.