“I’m an artist, the track is my canvas, and the car is my brush”

Hazy Shade of Winter: The Mysterious Life and Death of Louis Krages

Published: August 12, 2009. Article by ForzaMinardi

Dedicated followers of 1980s German racing will be well familiar with the big names of the day: Klaus Ludwig, Manuel Reuter, Frank Beila and the like were all massive stars. With Porsche obliterating the competition at Le Mans and Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Opel and Audi investing in spectacular heavy metal in the DTM, these drivers became stars in their homeland; until the emergence of Michael Schumacher, these guys were German motorsports’ household names.  But one man stood apart; an enigma, for despite a long career in some impressive machinery, not to mention two blue-riband sportscar wins, one man was unique in keeping a low profile. That man was “John Winter”.

“John Winter”. A curious name, as if chosen to be in some way anonymous yet distinctive. And what’s with the “quotation marks”? A misprint? No, because even TV captions listed the driver of No.7 Porsche 956 to be “John Winter”. And there it is in the record books – the winner of the 1985 Le Mans 24 hours: Klaus Ludwig, Paulo Barilla and “John Winter”. A bizarre way of conveying that this driver had Anglicised an odd-sounding foreign name? Well, no, because as soon as you realise he’s German you see that German for “John Winter” is, erm… “John Winter”. The name and its typography itself seemed to invite curiosity while implying reticence. It certainly got my attention.  Why does this guy style himself “John Winter”, complete with “ ” when the other drivers are happy with their plain old names?

Photo: The Joest Porsche that took “Winter” to the top at Le Mans in 1985 (Image source: unknown - photo reproduced in the spirit of ‘fair use’).

Back in the days of no internet, it wasn’t quite as easy as typing some letters into Google to find out useless information. Back then you had to read books. So I did. Official reviews of the Le Mans 24 Hours. Sportscar yearbooks. But while “John Winter” was sprinkled here and there with even the odd picture of him or his car, there was little background information: no place of residence; no date of birth or age; no sense of a life outside of the car. Then, in 2001, a sidebar in Autosport magazine: “John Winter” dies – a short paragraph reports the German’s passing in the USA. But still little by way of substantiation – who is this guy? How did he come to be a Le Mans and Daytona winner but have no media profile at all? How did he even qualify to get his hands on those amazing Porsches and enjoy a DTM career with no discernible heritage or history? An enigma in every sense of the word.

The reality is less strange than it appears. Quite simply, “John Winter” was just another of those drivers who for whatever reason, want to keep their true identity to themselves. The idea certainly has provenance: “Nelson Piquet” isn’t really Nelson Piquet – “Piquet” is his mother’s maiden name, used by him to hide his identity from his anti-motor racing parents. And Giacomo Russo, an Italian hotshot of the 1970s raced under the pseudonym of “Geki” for similar reasons. In real life, “John Winter” was Louis Krages and indeed like Piquet and Russo, he wanted to keep his driving career quiet from his family. For the Krages are a hoity-toity family and firmly a member of the upper social and cultural classes. The family’s wealth is rooted in timber trading and its status assured by its involvement in art and antiques; to have a son racing dirty, noisy motor cars was definitely not something to boast of in his parents’ eyes. Meanwhile, Krages realised that his slightly macho hobby didn’t quite fit with his genteel nine to five job, so he invented a pseudonym for himself.

Photo: That’s him in the middle … hiding away (Image source: unknown - photo reproduced in the spirit of ‘fair use’).

And so “John Winter” was ‘invented’. Presumably not short of the money necessary to fund his hobby, Krages/Winter wasn’t slow in moving up the ranks, although his ultimate qualities as a driver seemed questionable.  He found his forte in German Interserie racing, a formula designed, it seems, basically to satisfy Germans’ lust for big fast cars. A mix of souped up touring cars, GTs and the ubiquitous Porsche sportscars formed the backbone of this series and attracted a rich mix of professional and amateur drivers. This series brought Krages/Winter’s most impressive achievement as a driver – he won ‘Division 1’ of the championship in 1986.

But the jewel in the crown for all Porsche-loving Germans in the 1980s was Le Mans, and it was here that “Winter” achieved his most significant victory. Running in the Joest Porsche with backing from fashion retailer New Man, “Winter” was partnered in 1985 with the stalwart Ludwig and future F1 driver Paulo Barilla. Joest were the defending champions, but with the all-star Rothmans squad attracting most of Porsche and the media’s attention, they were not fancied, especially with the enigmantic “Winter” behind the wheel. In truth, apparently “Winter” only drove the car for a short stint during the night, with Ludwig and Barilla double-stinting to sneak the win ahead of the similar cars of Richard Lloyd Racing (Palmer/Weaver/Lloyd) and Rothmans (Bell/Stuck).  It was undoubtedly the highlight of Winter and Barilla’s carreers, and the last of Ludwig’s three Le Mans wins.  Joest also became the first team to win back-to-back Le Mans with the same car since JW Automotive’s wins in 1968 & 69 with the Ford GT40.  In all, “Winter” visited Le Mans 10 times, also finishing 3rd in 1988, again with a Joest Porsche and partnered by Frank Jelinski and the almost equally enigmatic Swede Stanley Dickens – who won in 1989 for Sauber.

Photo: The Ludwig/Barilla/”Winter” Porsche (Image source: unknown - photo reproduced in the spirit of ‘fair use’).

Perhaps the most bizarre aspect of “John Winter”’s career was how long he maintained the secret of his identity.  Once the likes of Piquet and Russo had a few wins under their belts and could point to some success in their chosen endeavour, their desire to hide their identity was lessened. And one could hardly imagine Nelson Piquet saying to his mum “uh, I have to go to England in the middle of winter to um… have a holiday?”. To continue his career, obviously at some point he had to come clean. “John Winter” was different though. Possibly because he was wealthy enough to fund his racing, and perhaps because he was racing mainly locally, he managed to keep his identity secret well after becoming a fairly serious driver. Indeed, the truth only came out the day after winning Le Mans; his mother saw the photo of the podium in a German newspaper and no doubt thought “doesn’t that man look like young Louis”. To keep the secret for so long seems bizarre in context of everyday family life;

“So, son, what were you doing at the weekend?”

“Oh, ah, uhh, just you know, um, taking it easy… watched a race on TV…”

“I told you before son, don’t drive so fast, you seem to think you’re a racing

“Umm, well actually, I am… erm… going a bit fast…”

Of course, Piquet and Russo got by without feeling the need to draw attention to their name by putting it in official forms including quotation marks which are guaranteed to draw attention.  Did “Winter” actually want to be ‘outted’?

Photo: By the mid-1990s, “Winter” was struggling to keep up with the new breed of DTM cars and stars  (Image source: unknown - photo reproduced in the spirit of ‘fair use’).

“Winter” continued to race after his Le Mans triumph, in Germany and the American IMSA series, still with Joest and its trusty Porsches. Another highlight came in 1991 with overall victory in the Daytona 24hrs partnering Hurley Haywood, Jelinski, Henri Pescarolo and Bob Wollek. With a line-up of that caliber it is difficult to imagine “Winter” having a major share of the driving duties, but whether his contribution to the team was primarily financial or not, with wins at Le Mans and Daytona he had victories at blue riband events of which any driver would be proud. Not only that, as the ‘80s sportcar boom died out, “Winter” joined many fellow German drivers in converting to the DTM. If his 1994 season in the Opel Calibra ended with few tangible results, he did make his mark at Avus, croossing the finishing line upside down as the car exploded around him after a spectacular last-second crash. Despite apparently having a proclivity to crash, “Winter” was a popular team-mate too, being made very welcome by his fellow drivers on his returns to Daytona after retiring from driving and settling the USA.

Sadly this story does not have a happy ending.  While never a truly top-line driver, “Winter” found it increasingly difficult to keep up with the younger, more professional drivers emerging in the DTM during the early ‘90s. Deciding to retire from racing, he sold the family business and moved to Atlanta. He started a new business, combining his two carreers to make replica wooden cars as toys and executive novelties. But for a man who had presumably led an exciting, “Boy’s Own” life, the sedate turn his life had taken was evidently difficult. After driving the Mulsanne straight flat-out at 240mph in the dark and the rain, after conquering the banking of Daytona and after spreading the components of various German touring cars around Europe’s tracks, what did the slow pace of retired life offer? “John Winter”, Louis Krages, winner of the World’s most famous race, apparently took his own life on January 11th 2001.

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