Roger's back with Part 3 of his 'I want to Race' Blog Series!
If you read the last instalment you will know that it finished with me being immobilised.
With my thumbs and wrists splinted and bandaged I discovered that getting in a racing car wasn’t going to happen any time soon. Any leverage on those thumbs was white light painful and pretty much the rest of the summer was gone when the plaster and splints came off and stabilised supports took over. As I got the use of my hands back I got the next painful experience in my star reaching motor racing career…..the damage bill for the Mallory Park crash.
So, by what was effectively the end of the season, I had spent all but pennies of the money I had allocated for racing, started but not finished any of my races, had proper limp wrists and hands through muscle wastage and lack of use and needed a new helmet because it is impossible to get the smell of vomit out of a helmet lining. (Febreeze hadn’t been invented back in the Dark Ages, Ed)
It would be fair to say that my motivation had taken a dive in roughly the same direction as my bank balance and, again, like my bank balance, wasn’t coming back to healthy any time soon.
I found myself back at Jim Russell Racing the next year but with an ace up my sleeve. During the off season I had started a trophy manufacturing business and had done a deal to supply all the named graduation plaques and race winner trophies to JRR. In exchange I got to race and only pay my damage. In my mind I had hit the big time. Despite being a legend in my own lunchtime, I didn’t win, in fact I only made the podium a couple of times in the whole year. What did happen though was that I didn’t use a single penny of my damages pot.
This lasted the full season and in fact I supplied the trophies for a few years after that but I didn’t race beyond that year. I had got busy, got a mortgage and all of a sudden found myself on the treadmill of life with no feasible way of getting off – The National Lottery win was not possible as the National Lottery had not been invented – the only thing to win big was Littlewoods Pools (Look it up, yes, it is the same Littlewoods that is now “Very”).
There was a swerve on the way though when I crewed for Nissan at Le Mans in 1990. Via a member of the Dave Price Racing team that were running the Group C Nissans, I got an invite to work with them at Le Mans. No pay, but I would be fed and watered and I got to be in the pits. Two people were needed so my lifelong friend and fellow petrolhead, Angus, were hired. We went to Silverstone on a test day for introductions and a run-down of what we would be doing. Both of us would be holding fire extinguishers on pit stops and doing “stuff” outside of that.
Can you imagine such a laissez faire attitude to fire now?
This was the year when Mark Blundell had a gazillion horsepower for qualifying and put the R90CK on pole by about 6, read that again, 6 seconds. I was in our pits when he came in and the car was making horrible noises. It was pushed into the garage and the swarm of mechanics started to remove the “grenade” engine. When I asked Dave Price what the issue was he stood there with a completely calm expression and said “It’s melted, but it did it’s job”. There are many videos and stories on the net about that lap but I can tell you that this was planned; it wasn’t a turbo going wrong or any of the other theories; Nissan wanted pole and they brought an engine that was damn near radioactive to get it. Shame that the race didn’t go their way in the end.
In the blink of an eye 10 years had gone and I was at Staffordshire University studying for a law degree having sold the businesses. Near the end of the first year I got a phone call (no, not from a talent spotter who saw me going round the M25 like a race driver) from my old friend Angus who said “Have you still got your race licence or could you get one if you haven’t?”
“No and yes, why?”
“Do you fancy doing the Britcar 24 hours at Silverstone a bit later in the year?”
“WTF, what in?”
“An M3, you have driven a 450hp 1000kg race car before, haven’t you?”
“Of course, of course, no problem” (In truth the whole grid of that FF race at Mallory didn’t add up to 450hp I reckon!
“Good, go and get yourself sorted”
And just like that I was back in the game; just finished a lecture in the morning and a budding race driver again in the afternoon.
Strangely enough, the nearest place, within the time limit, to retake an ARDS test was Mallory Park. In truth I found it a little like riding a bike – you never actually forget but a reminder of the technique and details is useful so you don’t crash! Armed with my PASS, I got the paperwork into MSUK and I was a licence holder once again.
All of a sudden I was using every moment understanding what I had let myself in for – this was proper grown up racing and had been made famous by Top Gear doing the race the year before. I hadn’t raced for donkeys ages and I felt that I had too much to learn and too little time to do it in. I had genuine doubts because I would not get a chance to race anything before the start of the 24.
One of the most important things was getting comfortable in the car; I am…..short in stature….compared to my fellow drivers (compared to everybody, actually, Ed) and they all found it highly amusing when the team manager, in all seriousness, cable tied wooden blocks on the pedals as he explained that the seat did not move. After everybody had picked themselves off of the floor and regained their composure I was unceremoniously sat in the race seat with a bin bag full of beads and glue under me so that the “dwarf factor” could be accounted for.
This M3 was an E30 with motorsport ABS and a few other clever bits and it also had something I had never used before – AERO. There was an impressive rear wing, a wonderful front splitter and some effective underbody stuff as well. Man, was it fast and on slicks it stuck like sh.. to a blanket. I had never driven anything like it.
We did a test at Silverstone a couple of weeks before the meeting as a systems and drivers check; It was a warm day and Angus did a few laps as it was his car and using the old Abbey corner under the bridge, was lapping in the early 2.06’s by the time he had warmed everything up and the slicks were hot. I went second of the four of us and managed a 2.19 on my first lap. I was politely (not) asked whether I had any money for the parking meter as the radio crackled in my ear. I had never felt aero before and I didn’t believe it could do what it does. Slowly I understood how much speed I could carry into the corners and keep my foot in and, just like the FF race, it suddenly went calm inside my head. I wasn’t yet pedalling at anywhere near full speed but I was getting consistent laps and they were getting quicker and quicker. By then end of my initial session I had got into the middle 2.10’s with all of the proper laps now in the 2.10/2.11 area.
A long debrief session showed me where I was still losing time – the kerbs – I was going round them and not over them. It turned out that this car had some trick suspension arms and heavily revised mounting points so it could be driven by a rock ape. I also found that the motorsport ABS was quite happy with a wheel in the air or even two. This hurt my head so I chose to stop thinking about the how’s and the why’s.
Back out I went and just by using certain kerbs (and not others as they were sump busting) I could find another second. And then I came unstuck again.
I was now pushing quite hard and I hit the limit of my current level of talent or put another way the talent/reality ratio went negative. I had got greedy and taken too much kerb, the car landed, I was still hard on the loud pedal and the rear broke away before I even realised what was happening. With cat (or cat nip, Ed) like reflexes I caught it (no I didn’t!) and onto the grass I sailed. With a bit of luck the barriers were a long way from me but I finally came to rest when the rear nudged the tyres and didn’t even break the bumper. Unknown to me or the rest of the team I had nudged the exhaust on the tyres as well and this would come back and haunt us on race day.
Come the end of the test I was third fastest of the four of us but there was very little in it really considering this was a 24 hour race. The next time we would all meet was practice and qualifying, which included night qualifying. Silverstone is a big wide track and in the darkness there are not that many visual cues for braking and turning in. Now we had lights, lots of lights; so bright in fact that the birds would wake up to them. However, they are only any use to the driver if you know exactly where you are on the circuit…………
After the first scary run where I nearly ended up between Towcester and Buckingham ’cause I missed a braking point, I asked the team to help me with two lights set for the edge of the track; inside and outside. These became known as the “Hedgehog Spotters” and despite their name they were an absolute boon to all of us. This comes back to “you don’t know what you don’t know” and although the team had a run an “Into the Night” Britcar race before, that was at Brands Hatch where the track is narrow and this problem had not shown itself.
We all qualified for both night and day sessions and although I truly don’t remember where we were on the grid, we were a long way from the back. Once I was done I changed out of the overalls and got in the car to drive home. Our team were putting the car back on the patch and making sure everything was right and tight. In under 18 hours the race would start and just thinking about that gave me the most almighty dose of the shivers as I drove up the M40.
Those shivers told me that I was excited and anxious in equal measures – they also told my insides the same thing and with no warning whatsoever I found myself with an urgent need to…..stop. Where are the Services when you need them? Here was I, famous racing driver (in your dreams, Ed), just about to embark on an all-conquering mission (what?Ed), squatting on the verge of the M40 at gone midnight. The shame of it!
Race morning arrived and the family and I got in the car for Silverstone early. They were going to camp on the infield along with other friends who were popping in to see the race.
We got there without incident and I said my good byes as I was “going to work now”.
The next day and a half would be a rollercoaster of emotions and for that, you will have to wait until the next part.