On the road with Simon Arron

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Two nations, one spirit
Nordschleife, May 15-17 & Indianapolis, 22-24: Global racing touchstones separated by seven days and 4300 miles

The US Customs & Border Protection official seemed mildly impressed that somebody should want to travel such a significant distance for so short a time, just to watch the Indianapolis 500. “You must be quite a fan,” he said. “Tell me, do they have auto racing in the UK?” I nodded, mentioned that we’d nicked the idea from the French and was waved through to fulfil one of life’s ambitions.

Indy was not on my original 2015 schedule, but a last-minute invitation arrived out of the blue – courtesy of Mercedes-Benz Classic, which was commemorating the centenary of Ralph de Palma’s 500 victory (see page 96). There were highly desirable alternatives at Oulton Park (Formula Ford), Brands Hatch (Masters Historic Festival), Crystal Palace (revival sprint) and Monaco (Lewis Hamilton parking at Portier to watch seagulls, after modern Mercedes’s abacus snapped), but I’d craved an opportunity such as this since the 1960s. London-Frankfurt-Washington-Indy it was, then…

This wasn’t my first time at the Speedway, because I covered several of the US Grands Prix staged there from 2000-2007, but the 500 feels very different. Friends and colleagues have often tried to describe the atmosphere, but mere words sell it short (so I’m probably going to struggle here). The closeness, tension and delicacy of Juan Pablo Montoya’s 500 victory was a bonus, but it’s the surrounding detail that lingers in the mind – not least Saturday’s vintage parades, which a number of roadster drivers tackled with considerable relish. And never before had I wandered through a racetrack merchandising area and found somebody selling souvenir guns (Indy 500 rifles, AJ Foyt pistols and so forth): you don’t get that at Snetterton, happily.

In these days of serial litigation it seems odd that any US state – and Indiana is among them – should allow motorcycles to be ridden without crash helmets, but all notions of health and safety appeared to have been discarded on race morning. By 6.30am traffic was already tailing back from the track for a mile or two: one adjacent car had a bullet hole in its rear door (presumably not fresh, but a touch startling nonetheless), while a fair few beer-toting fans loitered in armchairs perched on the rear platform of pick-ups. The police didn’t bat an eyelid, but then most were preoccupied guiding official convoys past the standing traffic. We noticed one optimist trying to join in, which did trigger an authoritative reaction. “You are not part of this convoy, sir. Get in line or we’ll turn you around and send you back to the city…” Received a fairly prompt response, did that.

Queues have traditionally triggered anger and frustration at the British Grand Prix, but at Indy they seem to be considered as much a part of the experience as the pre-race pomp and pageantry. And, of course, once inside everybody has a chance to get fairly close to stars and cars – the paddock is a much more vibrant place than ever it was when surrounded by Formula 1’s electronic turnstiles.

Back then I recall locals being a little sniffy about the size of the audience – even though, at about 160,000, it was much larger than any other on the Grand Prix schedule. Having now seen the Speedway with the best part of 300,000 inside, I have a fuller appreciation of their perspective.

Seven days beforehand I was privileged to be among a crowd of similar size and vigour (identical attitude, equal amounts of beer, slightly smaller barbecue sets) at the Nordschleife, to watch the Nürburgring 24 Hours.

Reported last month, the main event’s place in racing’s pantheon of essentials is well known. Less celebrated is the three-hour historic enduro that occupies much of the preceding Friday afternoon.

A fair few years have passed since the arrival of factory teams and drivers obliged organiser ADAC to weed out a few slower N24 entries – although speed differentials remain significant, with factory GT3 cars catching tail-end Toyota Corollas and suchlike by the third lap of 156 – but the diversity is perhaps even more extreme in its older counterpart, with Porsche 935s and BMW M1s having to deal with Renault 5s and a Ford Anglia. Period reliability is a feature, and as you move from corner to corner it’s not unusual to find freshly failed relics steaming by the public road, which is where the racetrack recovery vehicles take them to await paddock retrieval.

Like its sibling, the N24 Classic starts with cars separated into three groups: the main race attracted a field of 152 cars this year and was significantly trumped by its older counterpart, which drew 189. And while an Audi R8 might look perfectly at home on the Nordschleife, a phalanx of BMW 2002s is yet more complementary.

Sound and vision
Brands Hatch, May 30 & June 6: where else would you find Special Saloons and NASCAR on consecutive weekends?

Resplendent in British Racing Lime, Stephen Moss’s Anglia had its snout poking from the pit garage. Unlike the other cars, though, it was facing paddock rather than circuit. Uprated since 2014, and now featuring Cosworth rather than Vauxhall power (with a commensurate step up in class), this most lurid of Special Saloons had suffered a head gasket failure during Friday testing. But rather than slinking off home, Moss had stayed so that lads and dads could at least appreciate his car’s charms – a nice touch, and showmanship of a kind rarely associated with homely British clubbies.

And this Classic Sports Car Club meeting was in the breed’s finest traditions: seven races, with morning practice, a decent lunch break and racing in the afternoon, which is exactly how the world always used to look.

CSCC events are beguilingly diverse, too – and just not because they happen to feature Special Saloons. Forty-minute Caterham races might not be every purist’s cup of tea, but concepts such as Swinging Sixties (two races, 47 cars) and Future Classics (38 cars, ranging from Talbot Sunbeam to TVR Tuscan via several Ford Capris) are rarely mentioned gems on the UK’s congested motor sport calendar. They merit wider attention.

One week on, the circuit car parks were rather more crowded for the third annual American SpeedFest, with the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series as the headline feature (and Dale Earnhardt’s grandson Jeffrey, more usually seen in NASCAR’s feeder-level Xfinity Series, making a guest appearance).

I attended only on the first day – drawn partly, I confess, by the simultaneous presence of the Historic Racing Drivers Club – and was impressed by the difference a year makes. At 2014’s corresponding fixture, the mood had been sour, the NASCAR events scarred by tactics that weren’t so much cynical as downright thuggish, particularly among the second-tier drivers.

The cars look and sound the part – and this year they were (mostly) driven with appropriate finesse. The opening race produced an epic seven-way lead battle, quite a spectacle at so tight a circuit, but overtaking proved to be less of a problem than it does in some categories. Romain Iannetta eventually emerged triumphant, but had to settle for second behind Ander Vilarino the following afternoon. Earnhardt? He took time to adapt as he acclimatised to his first British event, and slid off in the first race, but as a general trend he improved by the lap and on Sunday he finished eighth.

The event also raised a question that might be intriguing only to me. Is this the first time a Rover P4, a Fiat 850 Abarth and a Triumph Herald Coupé have appeared competitively on the support bill at an officially sanctioned NASCAR event?

Somebody must know…

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