On the road with... Simon Arron

Blackpool rocks
Blackpool: February 6-7: sometimes, a quick-fire 510-mile return trip makes perfect sense

The town might be a little frayed around the edges, but its amusement arcades and souvenir shops retain a certain charm. While much of the world has become indistinguishable, buried beneath identikit coffee shops and chain restaurants, parts of Blackpool remain rooted in 1966 and are all the better for it (although the trams have been modernised, which seems a backward step).

At the promenade’s northern extremity, the imposing (but grubby) Norbreck Castle used to serve as finishing point for the annual Manchester to Blackpool Veteran and Vintage Car Run, but this weekend – as base for the Legend Fires North West Stages, of which this was the 18th running – it was surrounded by Subaru Imprezas rather than Trojans or De Dions. Scrutineering took place inside the hotel, in an exhibition hall whose musk is unmistakable: chips.

My own HQ was about a mile away, with similar views of the North Sea. I don’t believe in gratuitous plugs, but the Brincliffe Hotel was probably the most welcoming I’ve experienced during my time tracking motor sport across six continents. It was spotless and friendly, and a one-night stay cost £25 including unlimited wifi access, complimentary hot drinks and breakfast (prepared an hour ahead of official serving time, to accommodate my early departure – I didn’t ask, they insisted).

Value and delightful manners: scarce commodities, both.

The route was compact – the seafronts in Fleetwood and Blackpool, the site of the old RAF training centre at Weeton (out of bounds to the general public) and Lytham Hall (out of bounds to almost everybody) – but potentially punishing. Transmissions took a pounding through some of the twiddly bits and the surface at Weeton was anything but the asphalt it’s purported to be, some parts having crumbled and others featuring potholes capable of swallowing a Nissan Micra whole. Unlikely to do tyres or suspension any favours, those.

I also witnessed a Subaru Impreza drop out after it spun into the path of one of six Land Rovers entered by the armed forces: the latter was soon hammered back into usable shape and went on to reach the finish – as did all its stable-mates.

That simple sentence rather masks the achievement’s significance.

In 2014, 107 crews set off and only 60 lasted the distance: the split was even more balanced this time, with but 56 of the 106 starters classified. There was a similar look at the top of the results sheet, too, with 2014 winner Paul Bird taking his second straight victory in a Ford Focus WRC co-driven by Andrew Roughead. They finished 2min 16sec clear of Tony Bardy/Neil Colman (Nissan Sunny GTi-R).

The event has a nice feel to it. The privilege of access to the Weeton stages probably helped, ditto fine weather, but the Friday night atmosphere on Blackpool promenade was terrific, with a decent crowd turning out to look down on the final sequence of hairpins. There were ironic cheers whenever somebody clipped a marker drum, or had to resort to a five-point turn (as happened quite often), but there was also warm applause for the silkier touch, those who carved a fluid arc between cone and crush barrier.

Some of Blackpool’s traditional haunts were naturally closed, given the season, but the approaching burble of a Mk2 Ford Escort symbolised a superior strain of entertainment.

Oval test
Standlake, January 4: a grass-roots gateway to Tulsa, Oklahoma? This might require a little explanation…

For years it’s been a family tradition (with the bloke section, at least): Wimbledon Stadium, January 1. Entries and crowds have dwindled in recent times, though, and 2015’s competitive frolics commenced instead at Standlake, Oxon, where scrutineers had more than 200 bangers to check.

This is the raw end of British motor racing. There is little to indicate the stadium’s existence, just a newsagent-style board by the roadside. Its motif? ‘Banger racing today’…

The various classes catered for the crumpled remains of everything from Nissan Micras to a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow via an MGB and assorted Morris Marinas. The queue from the single catering van ran parallel to the back straight and extended much of its length. Packing sandwiches was tactically astute.

The sprawling paddock featured several shades of mud – and in its midst, working methodically on his cousin’s Vauxhall Viva, was Tom Harris. Crowned 2013 world champion in the red-meat world of BriSCA F1 stock car racing, Harris has achieved pretty much all he can within UK oval racing’s annals.

Two weeks later he’d be in rather different surroundings, 4500 miles away at Tulsa Expo Raceway, the only Brit among more than 300 entries for the Chili Bowl Nationals, a high point in America’s midget racing calendar. Indeed, he’s the first Brit ever to have competed in the event.

“Last November,” he says, “I attended Smiley Sitton’s Outlaw Driving School in Dallas and things went better than anyone expected. I’ve raced for 16 years on British ovals and wanted to try something a bit different.”

He was subsequently invited to the Chili Bowl and landed a seat with Bob East’s Beast team. “It’s completely different from anything we have in Britain,” Harris says. “The cars have 456bhp, significantly less than a BriSCA F1, but they are much lighter and have wider tyres, so they’re faster. I was able to post competitive lap times when running on my own, but the racecraft was something else. You have very little time to think and I need to get out there again to acclimatise. I was nowhere near the back, but I was nowhere near the front, either. The team was pleased, but obviously I wanted to do better.

“It was good to have a drive, though, not least because it gave me a first-class view of the action. There were about 20,000 fans there, but only 15,000 seats, so lots of people were packed into the paddock, watching on a giant screen. Things were quite lively at times, with fights breaking out between drivers, rival crew chiefs and so on, but afterwards they’d just go out and do the next race. In the UK they’d string you up for that kind of behaviour.”

Harris now hopes to cut it as a pro in America. “You can race almost every night in some states,” he says, “and I’m trying to put together a programme of 10 meetings in the summer. It’s all up in the air and depends inevitably on sponsorship, but that’s the plan. Oval racing isn’t professional in the UK, but it is in America and I’d like to have a go.”

He has already brushed some famous wheels. “I twice came up against [multiple NASCAR race winner] Kenny Wallace and beat him both times,” Harris says, “so I quite fancy a rematch to make sure it wasn’t a fluke. In the second race we made contact and he rode up over my rear wheel, leaving a slight tyre mark on the sleeve of my race suit.”

Standlake proved he wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty – and the same apparently applies to his elbows.

Turn, turn, turn
Brooklands, February 1: relishing the past’s fruitful echo

It matters not that conditions aren’t quite right for 140mph laps, partly because the famous banking is severely truncated and partly because it’s smothered in moss, but it’s just nice to see it being used at all.

Some drivers tackled the VSCC’s New Year Driving Tests with precision and gusto, others with good-humoured resignation and occasional cries of, “Did I get that bit wrong?” Or else, more simply, “Oh bother!”

The intended course was clearly mapped out, but you’d never have guessed as much from the diversity of approaches to some tests. After much twiddling, reversing and climbing, Bugatti Brescia driver Edmund Burgess won the Tony Jones Trophy for best overall performance.

One chap tackled a section with right hand on steering wheel and left clasping his route notes, which left him a little short should a gearchange have been needed.

During the lunch interval, the Napier-Railton was wheeled out and warmed up for the benefit of an appreciative audience. Nearby, a father guided his young son past a parade of cars and said, “Let’s see how many starting handles we can count.”

As maths lessons go, that’s hard to beat.