Simon Taylor's Notebook
It’s not hard to choose between Schumacher on TV and vintage cars in the metal at Shelsley
Sociologists studying the evolution of the human race reckon that, in our well-fed Western world, we are mutating from participants into spectators. Few of us now have to strive very hard for the basic needs of life: everything is laid on, everything is available. The nanny state not only shields its voters from harm, but also insulates them from challenge. It leaves plenty of time for sitting inert in front of a television set and watching ‘reality’ shows, rather than actually experiencing reality.
Not very long ago, if a small boy told you he was mad on football, it was reasonable to assume that he spent his free time kicking a ball about with his friends, to develop his skills and fitness and to nourish his dreams of leading his local team onto the pitch at Wembley. Today, if he says he’s mad about football, chances are he has all the right shirts and can quote every statistic about every Premiership goal over the last dozen seasons, but never kicks a ball. Instead he spends his free time in front of the TV watching his highly-paid heroes. The only way he dreams of emulating them is in their body jewellery or their habits in nightclubs.
I’m making a cynical generalisation, of course. But, to a degree, motorsports enthusiasm has gone the same way. Before Formula One reached its current heights of worldwide televised popularity, a youngster would feed his passion for racing by persuading a parent to take him to a club meeting, to look and listen and learn and enjoy. Soon he could join his local motor club, and even if he couldn’t afford a car he could get close to the sport via the unpaid, exhausting and wholly rewarding pursuit of marshalling. Eventually, perhaps, he could scrape together the necessary to buy an ancient Austin 7, gateway to a lifetime of competitive fun with the Vintage Sports Car Club.
Today, motorsport has a hugely larger worldwide following than it has ever had. But most of those followers think motor racing is just something that happens every other Sunday afternoon on the telly. They know all about Alonso and Button: they may even know about Monteiro and Karthikeyan. But they have never actually been to a motor race and most of them never will. Anyway, you can see more on the television. And, of course, they wouldn’t dream of going to Castle Combe or Cadwell Park — even if they’ve heard of them — because Schumacher won’t be there.
If you find yourself agreeing with any of this you are in danger, as I am, of becoming a Grumpy Old Man. Fortunately, help is at hand. A weekend at a VSCC event will reassure you that God is in his Heaven and all is right with the world. The sun-drenched paddock at the recent vintage meeting at Shelsley Walsh was crammed not only with tremendous mechanical variety — from Nazzaro to Newton, from Squire to Spikins, from Blue Streak to Bentley-Napier — but also drivers old and drivers young. Typical of one type was Stuart Wiseman, who bought his lovely Delage DIS in 1952 for a few pounds because he couldn’t afford a new Morris Minor. The Delage, showing its age gracefully, is still giving him endless pleasure over half a century later, which the Morris surely could not have done. Representing the other end of the spectrum was Kate Everett, an impecunious 22-year-old Oxford student, energetically attacking the hill with her 1930 Austin 7 Ulster. She started in VSCC trials as a teenager, when she outgrew her pony and sale of the horsebox funded the Ulster. It is used constantly, for speed events in the summer and — with different springs, wheels and axle ratio — for trials in the winter.
The VSCC has rightly realised that its future depends on attracting young blood. Under 25s enjoy halfprice entry fees and there is a club championship for those under 23. Many youngsters join the club because they have grown up in a vintage-orientated household — Kate’s father has been a 750 Motor Club member for 40 years — but that is not always the case. The club also operates a Marshals Guild, which is open to anybody who wants to get close to motorsport and help out: you don’t have to be a club member.
The large crowd at that sunny Shelsley could have stayed at home to watch a different sort of reality— Fernando Alonso lapping most of the field in the French Grand Prix. Instead, they were enjoying a good party, with cars invited as well as people. Old friends met, new friends were made. I talked to a couple from Perth, Western Australia, who had flown to England to do two things: go to an opera at Covent Garden and visit a VSCC hillclimb. Rigoletto was still to come, but they said Shelsley alone was worth the price of the flight.
This is a special year for Shelsley Walsh. The Centenary Festival meeting on August 21 should be truly memorable, showcasing wonderful cars and drivers that have run on the Worcestershire hill down the years, including Auto Union and BRM V16. If you love real motorsport you have to be there — unless of course you prefer to stay at home, draw the curtains, sit on the sofa and watch the Turkish Grand Prix on the telly.