Marián Rajnoha is an icon of motorsport. The walls of his house are decorated with cups, medals and memories of the glorious past. However, he is still not planning to retire.
We bring you an exclusive interview by Samuel Vanko chief editor of Veteran SK. In the latest part of “garage interviews” he met with a man who not only has petrol in his blood, actually it seems hee doesn’t even have blood, only petrol circulates in his veins. He grew up with cars and got to the classic cars to enrich his motoring life. It still feels good for him. Today, Marián Rajnoha is looking forward to his great-granddaughter, who calls him Majo, and while he remembers his rich career, he still looks forward and feels that there is still something to stand for.
After reading “20th Century Car Racer” by Marika Studeničová a question comes to my mind, which should be heard at the end of the interview. You argue about it at the end of your career, but you are still active. So when will you plan to retire?
It’s hard to say. A lot of people give me this question, but I can’t answer it. Well, can you tell me what to say to her? When it comes, I will be very sorry and I will miss the race. I’ll have to finish one day, yes, but who knows, maybe the highest one will decide. Anyway, I still like it, I enjoy it and I still have the strength to race. But I will do nothing against my will. When I’m done chasing opponents and I’m not racing at the sharpest pace, I want to take part in motoring events. I would like to continue to meet the people around me.
And now let’s talk about the beginning.
My first means of transport was a Pioneer, which I bought for 2,700 crowns. And believe it or not, I still have this motorcycle to this day. I was barely 15 when I saved up for it. At that time, my father was the construction manager on the construction of the SAV building on the Bratislava’s Patrónka. I used to go to him to work. I gradually saved from the paycheck, but it was still not enough. I helped myself a bit and sold the Eska bike I got. Besides, I helped old people bring out shopping or firewood. This is how I slowly put it aside and saved. But I didn’t always help with money. For example, when I was carrying ice from the Old Market to the ice cream parlour on Rázus on the Danube embankment, I got so much ice cream for a full carriage, for four meters of ice, that I could barely take it away. I was constantly doing something and looking for brigades to make money on that motorcycle. And that day came. My father and I ran to the Brouk a Babka Department Store (today’s Danube department store, editor’s note) and there we paid for the motorcycle. From there we went by trolleybus number 11 to the warehouses of Mototechna on Mierova street in Prievoz. They gave me a choice, they had three or four colours, even black, but I just wanted red. The mechanic unpacked the small motorcycle, mounted the risers on it, levelled the steering wheel and poured me some petrol. My first ride could have started. It was a lifelong experience. I learned to drive in the then palace of Klement Gottwald (today’s Grasalkovic Palace, editor’s note), where there was a motoring circle. There I smelled of gasoline and there I started to like the smell. Nevertheless, I received a clear order from my father. He got on the trolleybus and I had to go after him. He was very strict and I did not dare to disobey him. I followed the bus and stood behind it at every stop. I will never forget that.
Since the Pioneer is decorating your porch today, you probably guarded him a lot.
Not really, he was gone for a while. I traded him for Manet. When my father found out, he beat me and it was done. He shouted at me that what I had done to be stupid and why I had so thoughtlessly exchanged a new motorcycle for an old Manet, which could not be started properly and could barely pull me up under the castle. Well, I had no choice but to go to the former owner and make an exchange. The pioneer therefore returned and stayed with me. It is one of the first models with an output of 1.6 horsepower and today it is in top condition. He underwent professional restoration. Before the renovation, I disassembled it myself and took it to Mělník inboxes. From there, he returned beautifully done, looking like new, like when I bought it in 1956 and chased the bus.
But we don’t know you as a biker, how was your journey and switching to the four wheels?
I admired the racers, I liked to watch them and in Zväzarma I also started driving slowly. But my motorcycle coquetry didn’t last long. I was too big for a motorcycle. To do this, you need to be one meter fifty or sixty, as Peter Baláž has, and not almost two meters, as I have. My first car was a lower Ford Eifel from 1948. There are no more of them now and maybe I would like it again, it just had to be in top condition. I exchanged my first one for a motorcycle and then I started to change cars quite often. It was around the mid-1960s, and since I was a driver, I had different vehicles. Most often Volga 21. Driving became my profession. I even worked at ČSAD. I still held the steering wheel in my hands. Well, hand in hand with driving also went racing. When I went to distribute the milk with a truck, we raced with the other drivers, who will be first at the ramp. We started from (Gaštanovy hájik)Chestnut Grove and the finish was at the dairy in Ružová Dolina, where the milk was hand-picked. Whoever was there earlier backed up exactly against the entrance and had a better time loading. Then I stayed with the cars, I was with them every day, I enjoyed the speed and caring for them. I always washed the entrusted vehicle after the shift and prepared it for the next day. Then, when I got Trambus – a low Eagle, I mounted radio and curtains in it and made it to myself. My colleagues just went to stare at it.
So between Chestnut Grove and the dairy, the relentless desire to win was born?
It is possible. That night I was the first at the ramp. And sometimes I faithfully came to the finish line with the sidewalls ajar, which came loose on my way. Shortly after that, I started looking after the real races. But even then, you needed a lot of money for that, so I did a lot of overtime. I managed to save on various cars, even if only civilians at first. I had Simca Aronda, Hillman, after Mrs Kralovičová’s Simca 1301. As I changed them, I found out that Škoda could be an excellent race car. The rear-engine, rear-wheel drive and overturning characteristics enchanted me. Besides, a car with this concept is easy to control. Therefore, the Škoda 1000MB became my first race car. I rode with Vlad Hybáček and we prepared the embassy more or less on our own. Vlad’s father, who worked in BAZ on development, helped us a lot. We didn’t have a lot of resources, so we made parts or reworked the original ones. For example, we replaced the original carburettor with a piece from a Romanian Bucegi truck that ate 50 litres. Vlad’s father knocked it for us and it worked. At that time we started in the A2 group up to 1,000 cm3, thanks to which we were able to make any adjustments. We cut the springs and kept tunning something. And we also suffered a lot from time to time. I first appeared in a sharp race in 1968, we won for the first time in 1969 and in the same year, I also won my first Slovak title. It was a real duel, then Dukla Nitra fought against us with huge army support and we defeated them.
In our country, Škoda was preferred in the race, but you achieved the greatest fame in Alfa, how is that possible?
It wasn’t easy, but it worked. At that time, Alfa was owned by Zetor Brno. The company had three sharp and three training pieces. Dušan Velímsky, Plíhal and Rosický rode with them. When they finished with Alfa and I heard that they were for sale, I sold Škoda, which I had previously bought from the factory, borrowed from Lacko Dubóczi, and a new career began for me. The Alfa was an amazing machine. I had the car after Dušan Velímský. The original car was already made in the factory as a racing machine. Aluminium body, amazing DOHC engine with sodium valves, perfectly tuned driving characteristics. It was a wonderful ride, although I have to take off my hat before Škoda. I found out after the first race. The factory 130RS was amazingly easy to operate, it listened so much that it was unbelievable. My Alfa was a complete slave. It was still necessary to struggle with power, the car weighed 870 kg, the engine in the front, the drive in the rear and so that it would not dance, so we stuffed sand in the bag into the hole for the reserve. I felt that I would be even faster if it didn’t spin and the tires didn’t burn. I put all my efforts into the car and it brought me fruit. I won 4 titles of the champion of Czechoslovakia with it, which was an amazing performance at that time. We didn’t have a straight path. Alfa was making a lot of problems for us. That is, especially when travelling to races. Something incredible happened to us once. We were supposed to go to an event in Germany and thought everything was equipped. The crew, the car loaded … just stopped in Prague on paper. Imagine, we didn’t get a visa and they kept telling us that everything was fine, that we would leave. They dragged us into the last minute when they suddenly told us that there was no one in the office on Friday afternoon and they couldn’t help us. We turned around and went not to the race, but home, to Bratislava. When I met a man from the factory a few years ago, Mr Zapadl, he said to me with a smile: “Marian, you were worried about us at the factory.” They tried to prevent me from succeeding as much as possible. At the race in Brno, four cars were used on me, in Piešťany three. But I didn’t let them breathe, it didn’t break me. I fought what I could and at the same time, I didn’t have factory support. But they baked here and there with me. Suddenly, their cars locked me in and I couldn’t do anything. At that time, my fight with Škoda began to lose its meaning. Fighting cars that tried to close me on the track and not let me go at any cost seemed like an unnecessary gamble with my own life. My victories began to be on the edge and often beyond the edge of common sense. I’m sorry about one thing, and few people know about it. I was able to win another title in Liberec, it was the last race and it was decided between Hlad on the BMW Alpina and me on the Alfa. We had the same number of points and Liberec had to decide who will be the champion. It was tight and decided eight-hundredths of a second. On the track, I changed from two to five, so badly, I quickly returned to two and then to three. This is how I missed the fifth title. One bad gear change cost me one title.
Everyone who devotes themselves to work, hobby or mission fully sacrifices something from their life. What did it cost you?
I spared my family. I had two children, a wife and a race. I suddenly had no time for both worlds. I felt it bothered my wife at the time. I devoted all my time, all my energy, my money, everything. It wasn’t easy for either of us.
If you look in the rearview mirror now, don’t you regret it?
I never regretted anything. It’s my life, so I decided. Let no one command me or forbid anything. In the end, everything worked as it should, ex-wife got married beautifully and started a new functional family.
Is it possible to find friendship among rivals in motorsport, in the paddock after or before the race?
Yes, we are friends, although often not some sincere friendships. There are more non-race friends among my friends. Of course, there are exceptions and I will find friends or correct friends among the competitors as well.
In your memories, I found that you once went to jail for driving.
(Laughter) Yes. I overturned Tatraplan. Once I had to represent a friend who was driving a Tatraplan and an order came to bring the car to a colonel in the morning. We went to Brno, handed over the prize to Smolík, who won the Prague-Berlin-Warsaw stage and came back. I trotted to the barracks and there a friend told me: “My mother sent me a package.” There were cakes and some goodies in it, so we went to Zlatovice. On the Trenčín Bridge, we come close to a winged Octavia, when suddenly the driver gave a blinker and immediately turned. Anyone who knows Tatraplan knows that she is such a dancer. It has an engine at the rear, a light front, narrow wheels and when I wanted to avoid Škoda, the car danced and we turned sideways. The driver probably didn’t know anything at all and went on, we climbed out the window and, fortunately, nothing happened to anyone, not even the car. Tatra had only small dots on the paint. We thought we could get out of this. Together with the observers, we overturned the car on the wheels when a hand suddenly appeared, which stopped us. The guy showed us the collar, probably a member of the state security, so we had to wait for the police. I got jail time after the service. It was big news, Rajnoha overturned a Tatraplan. I sat for about two days.
Which cars have the strongest ground in your motoring life?
I have always admired Porsche and its history. It enchanted me with sound and “air”. When I was driving with Alfa after Velímský and he got a Porsche, I met him here and there on the track. He rode in a stronger class and knew how to control it beautifully. In every turn, his front wheel lifted, the force could be seen there. When he added, his behind stomped and his front went up. But among the racers, it’s, normal, Alfa. Well, I can’t miss Honda either. I still have an active license and I race with the Civic Type R model and thanks to this Honda I am also close to Japanese cars.
Over the years, the race has changed a lot, how do you perceive it from your experienced point of view?
Everything has accelerated insanely, the cars are already very fast and I feel that the race is more dangerous. Fortunately, protection and technology have also moved forward. We used to ride in T-shirts, today it is strictly forbidden. I remember one powerful experience. The old Brno circuit had very dangerous passages and remembers great tragedies. When Luigi Rinaldi was killed there and took Mr Bartošek, the technical commissioner, who was pushed against the wall, with him, I was there, directly above them. That left a big mark on me, I still hear the sound, it hissed from that pile of scrap metal, but no moan or a call from a man. Motorsport also brings such moments. I went through them myself. In 2012, I had a serious accident. I didn’t cause it, but for me, it ended the race. A helicopter took me away. Fortunately, it was not life-threatening. You will remember that forever. In essence, motorsport is the same.
I think we are at the best point to leave the race and look in the garage at your collection, what do you think?
Probably yes. “Oldtimers” became part of my motoring world about 10 years ago. There isn’t that much of a race and I don’t want to get out of this motoring circus, so I decided to try vintage cars. I have always enjoyed old and nice cars and I smell gasoline. I’ll come back to that beginning. Once, the smell of gasoline almost took my life. I had a pioneer in such a small shop and when I couldn’t ride, I just started it and listened. He smoked and it smelled me. If my mom didn’t come then and pull me out, I would suffocate there. But back to the old cars. I have those to whom something binds me. Remember or they are otherwise close to me. For example, I have a replica of a Škoda 130 RS. My competitors had it and I always admired it. But my first veteran Škoda was 1000MB, which rode international rallies. It dates from 1964 and its history is more expensive than the value of the car itself. Mr Trejbal drove with her and his wife, and when he finished, the car travelled to Sweden, where the international rally of historic cars drove off. It even appeared at the Monte Carlo Historique Rally. In the garage, you will also find a Porsche 911 in a convertible version. I don’t like convertibles when their roof is closed, but when you put it down, I do. I think that even the most beautiful Alpha was drawn by original designers without a roof. That’s why I have an Alfa Spider from 1976 and another Alfa from 1968, which was bought through Motokov. I also had such a model in the racing version, but unfortunately, I did not keep it and I still very much regret it. I had a GTA and this is a GT 1300, it’s in its original condition and I’m guarding it. What is left for me when I didn’t guard the race. But then it was impossible then, we needed money and Alpha had to go. I have one of the first Favorites in my collection. The car was at a big turning point in Škoda, so I remember that moment with it. Well, I’m looking around the Tatra 613, which I have nice memories of as a taxi driver.
There are enough of those cars, even if you can’t say that you would collect a complete collection.
I do not consider myself a collector. Of course, I follow magazines, pages and other collections, but I can’t match real collectors. For me, cars are dreams come true, although it is possible that this is not good for the value of the collection. I’ll tell you the truth, sometimes I get caught up in the idea that maybe I should sell everything and buy one or two real cars. Maybe I should have fewer worries, but then what? What if the car doesn’t tell me anything? Well, I’m back. One car would not be enough for me. I like driving and I like to change. Sometimes I prepare for events for a week, these are my rituals. Anyway, the icing on the collection is this old Pionier of mine. I’ll just start it and let it knock. I could stand by him for half an hour. That smell and that sound will take me to my childhood. At the same time, I dig into my memories, it recharges me with new energy and I can go on. I believe vintage cars are pushing me forward.
Who is Marián Rajnoha?
Marián Rajnoha (77) is a 30-time champion of Slovakia and a 4-time champion of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, Master of Sports and holder of the 20th Century Car Racer award. He alternated several disciplines from rally through circuits and anchored in car races to the top.
Source: Interview and Photography by Samuel Vanko Veteran SK