In 1994, the iconic Team Lotus was on its last leg.
It looked as if it wouldn’t make it until the end of the season until an unlikely savior arrived: Mika Salo carrying a Donald Duck backpack stuffed with cash.
The Finnish racer was still fairly new to the racing game in 1994. He’d competed in a handful of junior-level open-wheel championships, but it looked as if his entrance into a top-tier racing series like Formula 1 would never come – especially after Salo was caught driving under the influence in London in 1990.
After being caught, Salo headed to Japan to try his hand at Japanese Formula 3000 and Japanese Formula Three.
But as the 1994 Formula 1 season came to a close, Salo got a call from Lotus team principal Peter Collins. The near-bankrupt team had been desperately attempting to avoid going into administration despite a near-12 million point deficit on the financial sheets.
To get through the last two races of 1994, Lotus would need to grasp at some straws…Salo just happened to be one of them as the team looked to compete in the Japanese Grand Prix.
It was a last-minute effort on the part of Lotus, and in the official 1995 season review, Salo recounted: “It was six days before the race they said, ‘Do you think you can drive [the Lotus] next weekend with no testing.’ I’d never driven a Formula 1 car in my life. That’s what I’d always wanted, so I said yes. I know the circuit, so I don’t think it’s a problem.
“The next two nights, I lay in my bed smiling, so happy that it was happening.”
The caveat was, however, that Salo would have to find $100,000 to pay the salaries of Lotus mechanics who hadn’t seen a check in a while. As soon as he hung up with Collins, Salo was on the phone to his Japanese Formula 3000 team boss seeking funds; he also woke up the executives of companies like Nokia to plead his case in the middle of the night.
Salo incredibly managed to scrape together most of the funds in a half an hour period and he pitched in money from his own coffers to hit Lotus’ requested total.
There was just one additional problem: Salo had pulled together all that money in cash, and he still had to get it to Collins. So, in the morning, he headed to the store to find a bag – and settled on a Donald Duck backpack.
After stuffing the cash into his new rucksack, Salo headed off on the subway to hand the money over to Collins and make his Formula 1 debut in what may remain one of the most unconventional entries in the sport’s history!