Disputing The Moss/Jenks Roller Notes Invention Story

There is no doubt that one of the greatest drives in  racing history is Stirling Moss’ 1955 win in the Mille Miglia race.  Many times part of the reason for his success, in addition to being a great driver with a great car, is the valuable contribution made by his co-driver/navigator, Denis Jenkinson, or “Jenks” as he was known.  The story goes that they did very thorough job of going over the route several times and in doing so developed a good set of route or pace notes.  These notes were then mounted on a roller device from which Jenks read back to Moss the notes or used hand gestures to convey the characteristics of the road to Moss.  Those of us who have been involved in using stage or pace notes in stage rallying know the speed benefits of having good notes.

I have never seen the actual roller device used by Moss/Jenks, but a reproduction of this device has been available on the market.  This is shown in the image below.


A Reproduction of the Moss/Jenks Mille Miglia Roller Unit

It has been often said that Moss/Jenks were the first to use this type of device and that they invented it along with the assistance of American race car driver (and designer/inventor) John Fitch.  I believe that this is not all of the story.

I am a member of the Mercedes-Benz Club of America and, as a member, I get a great club magazine, The Star.  In the Jan-Feb 2014 issue of The Star there was an article which repeated the commonly accepted story of Moss/Jenks coming up with the idea of using the roller notes.  As I think that this story is incomplete, I sent a “Letter To The Editor” about this story.  My letter was published in the Mar-Apr 2014 issue of The Star as is shown in the following image.

MM Roller Letter

My “Letter To The Editor” In The Mar-Apr 2014 Issue of The Star

As noted in my letter, I have concluded that the inventor of the roller notes is actually Clay Smith, who was a brilliant mechanic and acted as a co-driver for the powerful Lincoln team in the 1953 La Carrera Panamericana.  With my letter I included a photo of Clay Smith taken at the 1953 La Carrera Panamericana holding his route notes on a roller device.

John Fitch also competed in the 1953 La Carrera Panamericana and was a very clever man.  It is my contention that John Fitch saw Clay Smith with the roller notes, saw the benefits of them, and about two years later suggested their use to Denis Jenkinson as Fitch and Jenks prepared for the 1955 Mille Miglia.  Ultimately Jenks became Moss’ co-driver/navigator and the story of the roller notes began.  But the link back to Clay Smith never became part of that story.

Clay Smith was once described by legendary  mechanic Smokey Yunick as the world’s smartest mechanic.  As a result, I have little problem accepting that Clay Smith came up with the idea of the roller notes.  Unfortunately Clay Smith was killed in a pit lane accident in 1954 at a race at the Illinois State Fair.  With Smith dying in 1954, there was no one to tell of his contribution to the development of the roller notes that came to prominence a few months later at the 1955 Mille Miglia race with the victory of Moss and Jenkinson.

I hope that my “Letter To The Editor” begins to tell the rest of the story about the famed roller notes at the 1955 Mille Miglia.

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4 Responses to Disputing The Moss/Jenks Roller Notes Invention Story

  1. stoffel says:

    I have seen “a” mille miglia roller unit in the Mercedes Museum in Germany. I have a picture of it, The visit was in september 2009. I am not sure if the repro’s were made before or after that date…

    • I don’t know when the replicas were made either. I was at the Mercedes-Benz Museum in 2011, but I did not see a roller unit at that time. I surely would have noticed it. If you don’t mind, could you please send me a copy of the photo of the roller unit that you saw at the M-B Museum. My email address is shanna12 at comcast dot net
      Steve McKelvie

    • Hi Peter,
      That is my basic point. This story is frequently retold about how Moss/Jenkins first used this method, but that is not true. I have suggested that John Fitch brought the idea to the Mercedes-Benz team from his exposure to Clay Smith. I have not looked into how/where Smith either saw or developed idea for him to use it.
      Steve McKelvie

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