Spike, the racing years – part two
By way of introduction, those who have not already done so are invited to partake of part one of the saga, in which our hero builds an assortment of cars and tries to race them. After which:
Having had a reasonably successful year campaigning a road car, I was ready to step up to the world of real racing cars, but what type to buy? Having previously driven a Lotus 7, and a Lotus 7 rip-off, it seemed logical to move into Clubmans. Started in 1965, and still active today, Clubmans initially catered for people who wanted to convert their Lotus 7 into a racing car, or those who were mad and skilled enough to build their own machine.
The rules were simple enough. Front engine, rear wheeled drive, and the beast had to be wide enough to theoretically hold two people, although the passenger area was typically covered in and full of tubing. Most popular, and most expensive, were the cars from Mallock, this example is a Mk 18 from the mid-1970s, still running in classic events:
My funds didn’t run to a Mallock, instead I found a seven year old Phantom, built in a garage by a man called Chris Greville Smith, and if that isn’t a name for a twisted engineering genius, I don’t know what is. I hired a van and drove from Aberdeen into deepest England to pick up the chassis, and to another, equally deep, part of England to pick up a racing engine and gearbox. Mr. Greville Smith kindly sent me some notes on the car, which turned out to be four pages of hand written engineering complexity, very little of which I understood. Still, I put the engine into the car and stood back to admire my investment.
It was not very impressive. Yes, there was also a bonnet of sorts, and a nose cone which could best be described as “floppy”; but it was all a little scruffy. Still, it was almost the end of the season and I had to give it a try, so I entered it for a local event where it failed to even make the track. The problem was oil pressure, or lack of it.
A road car has a sump under the engine where oil sloshes about until it is picked up and re-injected into the engine. The G forces in a racing car make this impossible, the oil pickup would be sucking air as the oil was pushed against the side of the engine during cornering and braking. So instead there is something called a dry sump, in which the oil is sucked out of the engine block, through a tank, cooler and pump and then back into the engine. This involves a lot of piping which my small brain had obviously failed to get to grips with.
Nothing daunted (OK, slightly daunted), I took the whole mess home and started again. First job was to strip everything back to the chassis. This involved drilling out several hundred rivets which held the aluminium panels to the spaceframe. This took me many hours, although not as many as it took me to rivet everything back together again afterwards. Then I sanded down the chassis and hid the rust by painting it with rust inhibitor.
Then I hid the rust inhibitor by painting everything black.
Then all I had to do was tidy and re-paint the body panels, affix them with a zillion rivets, insert the engine, install the electrics and figure out which oil pipe went where. And the end result was:
The final step was to acquire some new slick tyres. The tyres of choice for hillclimbing were Avon Formula 3 qualifying tyres. They heated up quickly, which is what you needed, provided masses amounts of grip, which is what you needed, and were worn through to the canvas after very few miles of usage, which is what Avon needed. Credit card in tatters, my racing car was finally complete, time to go and race it.
I have to admit, you do feel a little special being a racing driver, even on a part-time, very amateur basis. The fire-proof overalls proclaim that you actually drive one of these things, and you can strut around the paddock looking cool. If you are ugly, like me, you can wear a fire-proof balaclava, so you can impress the girls with your status without putting them off with your looks. Worst case, always wear your helmet.
But I had never drive a real racing car before, and all the feelings of being cool evaporated when I clambered into what was known as the cockpit, but I began to consider might better be named “the tomb”.
Right in front of me were a pair of Weber carburettors, perfectly situated to spit petrol and flames back into my face. To my right was a pipe routing hot water from the radiator at the back of the car to the engine; just one split… The radiator itself was right behind my neck, just waiting to soak me with boiling water in the event of a rear impact. And then there was the flywheel.
The design of these cars meant that the gearbox sat right next to my left leg. Between the engine and the gearbox was the flywheel, not normally a concern. But racing flywheels have been machined down so they are lighter and are less of a drag on the engine; and they have a tendency to shatter at 8,000 rpm with the bits flying outwards at whatever speeds 8,000 rpm can generate. And of course, to save further weight, my car had a thin magnesium flywheel housing which would do little to hinder the shards of the flywheel as they severed my legs above the knee. Not that I would notice, because I would be too busy dealing with my eyebrows being on fire from the carburettors and my neck and back being scalded by radiator water. Happy thoughts, and I hadn’t even started the engine yet.
Still, once I started the engine, all these worries evaporated, to be replaced by new ones. What’s that fucking noise?! And the vibration, sufficient to initiate orgasm if I was in the mood, which I definitely wasn’t. And the smell, of oil and fuel, and probably a desperate little fart of panic from yours truly as he realised that racing cars are nothing like road cars. Find a gear, hope it is first, and then gingerly let out the racing clutch; which is designed to handle the power, whilst in return being either completely disengaged or completely engaged, all within the space of a millimetre movement of the clutch pedal. Naturally, I stalled it. Naturally, I stalled it a second time. I was glad my face was hidden by my helmet; even though there were no girls around.
Finally, me and the car staggered to the start line. Moment of truth.
I can still remember the first few seconds. Loads of revs and the rear wheels spun a little before the car rocketed off the line. More power than I had ever had before, in a car weighing half the weight of anything I had owned before; experienced from a supine position enveloped in a violent mix of noise, vibration and aroma. I recall the overall feeling being one of “fuck me”, followed closely by the feeling of “get me out of here”.
But I was committed now, and soon second gear followed first, third followed second and suddenly I was at the first corner. And it was clearly too late, I was going far too fast and I was far too close; this was going to be a massive accident. I was almost certainly going to die.
Pointlessly, as a last futile gesture, I stood on the brakes. The car stopped. I don’t mean it slowed down, it actually stopped. Racing brakes and huge tyres just stopped the flying death machine, about fifty metres before the entrance to the corner. I am sure I saw the marshals laughing. I looked down into the bowels of the machine and pretended I had experienced a technical problem; whereas the only problem I had to deal with was in my head.
The rest of the run was equally rubbish, but allowed me to discover that the Formula 3 tyres gave the car impossible amounts of grip so you could go faster and faster through the corners; until the point that the tyres lost interest and gave you no grip at all and spat you off the side of the track. This was going to be fun.
And it was. After a few events I began to get to grips with the enormous performance difference. I was in a class where there were serious men with serious money, people who had this year’s chassis and an engine that had many more horsepower than my rather tired old unit. But it was fun trying to beat my previous best times, and I picked up a couple of class position trophies, and even won an event outright with the much coveted “fastest time of the day” when nobody else turned up. Trips were made south of the border to Harewood House, and the classic Shelsley Walsh, where everyone wore a bow tie and spoke like they were in an episode of Downton Abbey (the upstairs bit), apart from me. But it was Doune in Scotland that was always my favourite; dangerous but immensely satisfying (see the first part of the story for a video of a run up Doune).
And so, after a season with the car, it was fitting that my last event was to be at Doune. My company had made me an offer I couldn’t refuse to move to Holland, and someone had agreed to buy the Phantom. All I had to do was not wreck it in this final outing.
No problem, it was just Doune, the most demanding and car-destroying track on the calendar, and the weather was playing along by raining hard.
Along with the car had come a set of spare wheels which looked like they were at least ten years old, fitted with a set of grooved wet tyres which looked to be a similar vintage to the wheels. The rubber was cracked and degraded, all the better to soak up the puddles I reckoned. I had no idea what pressure to run them at; but as they seemed to visibly deflate as soon as they were pumped up, it was probably best not to worry about such details.
My opposition was the usual collection of rich boys but most of them had turned out to be pretty good guys, always ready to chat and help Spike, comfortable in the knowledge that nothing they told me would make me any more competitive. But one was particularly arrogant, and was being extra-obnoxious this particular weekend by telling everyone how his model girlfriend with endless legs had just bought him a new engine, for a sum of money that would have purchased my car, engine and trailer, with money left over for a weekend for two in Barbados, which was coincidentally just what the two of them had returned from (so he told us, loudly). Git.
The morning practice runs did not go well, especially when one of our racing class found a way to launch his car off the track such that it fell down the hill through a forest. Most concerning, especially as we had not realised before that there was a forest conveniently located nearby that you could visit in a flying racing car. His car hit a tree backwards at a point twenty feet off the ground, and totally destroyed the car; something the very lucky driver was telling us in the paddock afterwards until the adrenaline wore off and he was taken away in an ambulance to spend the next week in traction.
I hadn’t hit anything, but I hadn’t enjoyed my practice much either. There were wheel wrenching puddles, visibility was appalling, and the rain was coming straight off the tyres onto my crotch, sufficient to initiate orgasm if I was in the mood, which I definitely wasn’t.
At the end of the practice I was closer than usual to the pack (the rain meant that it was harder for them to get their huge power advantage onto the road), but I was still slower, and fancy boy with the model girlfriend was out in front; a fact he was happy to share with everyone over the lunch break. Git.
In the afternoon you get two attempts, the fastest of which counts in the final results, and I screwed up my first one with a missed gear and a subsequent slide, fortunately without hitting anything. And so it all came down to the last run of the day, and my last ever drive in a racing car before handing it over, hopefully still in one piece. I gave it my best shot, and then climbed out of the car with the usual adrenaline shakes and an unusual mixture of sadness and relief. Spike the racing driver was no more.
Just the prize-giving to attend, which everyone did, even if you had won nothing.
What’s that you say? You want to give me this?:
Twenty eight years ago, and I remember it as if it were yesterday; especially the look on the leggy girlfriend’s face which said “I am sufficient to initiate orgasm if I was in the mood, which I definitely am not”.
You can keep your F1 World Championship; there is nothing better than winning in the rain at Doune against faster cars. Good times.
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