The instant motor racer

The Assistant Editor tries his hand in an Escort Mexico

The flag dropped, the revs screamed and there I was fighting to get to the first corner ahead of the other chaps. After ten years of weekly motor racing spectating, reporting and team managing I was out there having a go myself and, by some strange quirk of nature, feeling a lot less nervous than I usually do when at the start of a race in which I am only on the sidelines.

One should not get the impression that Motor Sport’s Assistant Editor has gone out and blued all his savings into becoming a full-time racing driver—that is an ambition I passed over some good few years ago—but due to a culmination of circumstances I found my way into the hot seat of a Ford Escort Mexico at Thruxton. This was obviously a cue, not only for an article on Group 1 racing, of which the Editor has already written enthusiastically earlier in the year, but also an ideal opportunity to go through the well-trodden path of the actual mechanics of finding oneself on the grid. This is one of the most regular posers we receive from readers and, though there have been a great number of previous articles on the subject, the letters continue to flood in.

The story really starts with Motor Sport’s conversions and tuning contributor Jeremy Walton, whose tasks at Standard House also include writing for the weekly motor-racing paper Motoring News. J.W. has long been a racer at heart and enjoyed considerable success in Autocross with an Imp. So when the first Group 1 saloon car racer was scheduled for last May he saw this as an ideal opportunity to have a go on the race track. Not surprisingly the management were not at all keen on the Editorial Capri taking to the circuits and so J.W. hustled up a Hillman Avenger from Janspeed. He thoroughly enjoyed the experience and when news came of two more Group 1 races in late August he was seen rushing around trying to find a suitable car.

The enthusiastic management at Ford’s Advanced Vehicles Operations came up with an offer of a machine they call “the purple passion”, which was, in fact, the first-ever production Ford Escort Mexico which had already seen some active racing service. This was duly entered for the race at Brands Hatch and a week later at Thruxton. Then Janspeed phoned up and announced they had entered J.W. at Thruxton in the Hillman Avenger. Our man just could not see a way he could drive both cars at once, so he offered me the Mexico drive. Somewhat taken aback that the chance to race had actually come, I forestalled a decision until over a weekend but naturally I was mad keen.

The race was to be the last on the programme at the Chevron Oils 100 km. race meeting at Thruxton on August Bank Holiday Sunday and was scheduled as a seven-lap handicap. First we dropped a line to the organisers to inform them of the change of driver and I reimbursed J.W. with the £4 he had paid the organisers as an entry fee. This covers the paper work and so on and is an average figure, although, of course, at higher level they pay you to race. Normally an entry for a meeting would have to be made something like a month beforehand and at that stage the driver would have to be in possession of certain documents.

The most important is a racing licence issued by the RAC from their Motorsport division which nestles amongst the embassies at 31, Belgrave Square, just off Hyde Park Corner. We called in (although you can write) to find that there are various categories of licence and the one wanted was obviously the Restricted Track, which in effect is a provisional licence which only allows you to take part in club racing. As the season is now tailing off, this only takes four days to come through (even quicker if a special 50p extra rush fee is paid) and at £1.50 seemed excellent value. As well as the licence, which is thoughtfully provided with a plastic cover, came a copy of the RAC Blue Book, which is a mine of racing information and rules plus the regular motor-racing bulletins issued by the RAC. Further, the licence entitles one to discounts with various companies. On the back of the licence is a space to be filled in, each time one races, by the stewards of the meeting and if one behaves in six meetings (i.e., doesn’t spin dangerously or crash) one receives a signature from the steward of the meeting which leads to upgrading from restricted to national status. After a further probationary period one can then obtain a full international licence.

The idea of all this is to stop a chap who has just won the pools rushing out and buying the spare Tyrrell Formula One car and entering it in the British Grand Prix for his debut race. Personally I think the system with regard to novices could be tightened up further, particularly in respect to single-seaters, but that is another subject.

With the Competition Licence conies a medical certificate which has to be filled in by a doctor. The RAC would prefer one’s regular medico to do this as he knows a patient’s history, and the form draws special attention to the prospective racer’s cardiac condition as well as eyesight. Also one is expected to have full movement of all limbs. If there is any doubt a special medical panel sits every so often to discuss border-line cases. The fee for the doctor’s inspection depends entirely on the man himself, although don’t expect it to be done on the National Health.

Thus with a licence to race, and a medical card duly signed, the final paper work to overcome is club membership. Many prospective racers may already be members of a motoring club but, of course, only some of them organise race meetings. The Thruxton meeting was being run by the British Automobile Racing Club of Sutherland House, 5-6 Argyll Street, London, W1 (next door to the London Palladium). Although I used to be a member I let it lapse and I had to join up again. With an entry fee, and the addition of competition membership, this came to a total of £6, for which, of course, one receives various other benefits. The BRSCC also organises a great number of meetings and is also worth joining. Membership of these two will enable one to enter the great majority of race meetings in Britain.

With the paper work complete I was obviously well on my way to becoming a racing driver, but there was still the problem of the special clothing and crash helmet. There has been a great deal of progress in recent years, particularly with regard to fire protection, so I decided to go along and investigate the prices of the equipment. The firms run by Gordon Spice (such as the City Speed Shop) or Les Leston’s Racekit firm are probably the best known and have the largest selection. It has long been a desire of mine to own one of those spacemen-like Bell Star helmets, although obviously this is not necessary for a saloon car but I rashly parted with £30 of hard-earned cash. In fact, one can obtain a good open helmet for half that price.

Having been so extravagant I decided against any special fireproof clothing, knowing that I could borrow some for the day. Racing regulations in Britain only oblige you to roll your sleeves down and do not insist on racing overalls but for anyone who intends to race regularly I feel these are essential. Apart from the protection they offer, they are tailored for the job, look smart and give one an air of professionalism. If one has real talent and starts to do well prospective team managers will start to take note, and if it comes to the choice of one driver who wears a beat-up old helmet, dirty jeans and a pullover and another chap who very much looks the part in freshly-laundered racing gear and his Bell Star, the choice is fairly plain.

At the moment there are various firms claiming to produce overalls that offer the greatest protection against fire. Having investigated these my personal opinion is that overalls made from the new TT wool is the best. I found that Racekit did not have any readily available but will have soon and the price, at around £40 for the full garb, is cheaper than some of the synthetic fibre overalls from America presently on the market. One last point on the subject of race wear and that is that a pair of specially-made driving shoes without welts are a worthwhile investment, not just for the track but also for day-to-day driving. The Edward Lewis ones have a particularly good name, although, in fact, I raced in some thirty bob cord shoes from “Marks and Sparks”.

Race day seemed to approach with considerable speed and the weekend was decidedly busy for the Thruxton meeting was sandwiched between reporting assignments at Oulton Park on the Saturday and Castle Combe on the Monday. J.W. had raced the Escort the previous weekend and, although he spun it wildly at one stage, it was delivered to me a couple of days later without a scratch. It was pretty well a standard Mexico apart from some Koni inserts in the McPherson strut front suspension which stiffened it up (these are allowed in Escort Mexico racing) and mods to keep the scrutineers happy. Racing tyres are not allowed in Group 1 and the Mexico was fitted up with some low-profile Dunlop SP radials.

Motor racing is a sport in which one seems to have to get up halfway through the night, spend hours waiting around and return cold and hungry after all the pubs are shut.

I decided to get to Thruxton as early as possible in case there were any problems but thanks to the new M3 arrived even earlier than expected. The Mexico seemed in fine tune and once at the circuit I was allocated a spot in the paddock where I taped up the lights and checked the car over. Obviously the Escort was basically a road car and needed little attention but a full racing saloon can take nights of preparation.

Then I joined the long scrutineering queue, in which RAC-appointed officials check the safety (and sometimes eligibility) of the competitors’ cars. It seemed hours before it was my car’s turn and by then I had numbers painted on the side and had the appropriate licences, etc., checked. I told “the scroot” that I was writing this article about how to start racing and rather laconically he replied that my time would be better put to use writing an article on how to stop motor racing rather than start! However, he was very thorough with his check, paying particular attention to fire walls between the engine and passenger compartments which had been added by Ford, the fact the car had laminated windscreen, an oil catch tank for the rocker cover filler and breather, an external throttle return spring, and so on. I hadn’t taken the hub caos off so their removal was requested, while I think he was somewhat staggered to find the boot packed with cases when he investigated the fixing of the battery.

This ordeal over, and a ticket to prove the check had been done dangling from the heater control, it was just a matter of clearing all the rubbish out of the car and waiting for the 30-minute practice session. In fact, on J.W.’s advice, I added some more oil and thanks to the generosity of Chevron, who were sponsoring the meeting, put in the least amount of petrol necessary.

I lined up in the marshalling area in plenty of time and I was soon to be joined by a strange collection of Group 1 cars—in fact, the rules were not too strictly applied. There were three other Mexicos, four Porsche 911s, several Cooper Minis, a Triumph 2.5 PI, two BMW 2002s, a Jaguar 3.8, the Janspeed Hillman Avenger, a Vauxhall Firenze and even a Fiat 500. The great majority of the drivers were regular racers, including some with quite impressive records, although there were others, like me, with the novice X on their boots to indicate their lack of experience.

I was trying to remember where the circuit went, for I did about five laps of Thruxton at a Press day before it was reopened, when suddenly a man started to wave me out, and along with 22 others I accelerated on to the circuit. I was a racing driver!

Soon I was rushing round trying to sort out the right lines through corners, pick braking points and generally hustle round as quick as I could and I was pleased to notice that my lap times, shown to me from the pits by grinning friends, started to fall. I had intended to follow J.W. but never saw him, but when Brian Cutting came by in his Escort Mexico he was obviously a good man to follow as he is one of the instructors at the Thruxton saloon car school. After two corners he had disappeared into the distance so I contented myself with lapping on my own. I found that Allard Corner after the pits was flat out but the right-left-right at the Campbell, Cobb, Segrave complex was very difficult indeed and, in fact, I am sure that this is where I lost most of my time. After that Kimpton Bend is flat out and, once one plucks up courage, so is the long Village Curve and Church Corner which has a nasty bump on the apex, and I probably lost a little time by lifting off occasionally when the excessive understeer of the Escort looked as if it was getting the better of me. After Church came the long haul down to Club—that Armco chicane—and before braking the Mexico was showing about 105 m.p.h. Braking for the chicane is difficult for it is on a curve and one then flicks right, left and right and past the pits once more. Thruxton is a good beginners’ circuit and very enjoyable to drive on and I was undoubtedly pleased that my first race was not going to be at Brands Hatch, which would give me the shivers. After about 12 laps I was getting very hot and sweaty and pulled in for a rest only to find the session about to finish.

The practice times were duly issued on a duplicated sheet and I noted I had lapped in 1 min. 57.2 sec., an average speed of 72 m.p.h., which made me about 14th fastest out of the 22 who practised. However, because this was a handicap event, some competitors had obviously been playing it canny and not going full speed while I reckoned I did not have much in reserve.

To put my time in perspective Bill Tuckett, who normally drives a Chevron B16 in long-distance events, had lapped his Porsche 911S in 1 min. 47.4 sec. to head the list, Brian Cutting was the quickest Mexico at 1 min. 50.8 sec. and Gerry Marshall, who usually drives the Blydenstein-prepared racing Viva GTs, lapped his Vauxhall Firenze at 1 min. 51.8 sec.

My heart sank when the handicaps were announced. Naturally Tuckett was scratch man and the three other Porsche 911s were either with him or 5 sec. ahead. Then off 20 sec. came myself and three other Escort Mexicos (one which had lapped in a similar time to mine), while people like Marshall and another Mexico (illegally on racing tyres) which had practised quicker than me were to start before me. The handicapper explained afterwards that the whole thing had to be done in a huge rush during the lunch hour and as Cutting had lapped his Escort Mexico quickly we were reckoned to be about the same. Precious experience was just not taken into account at all and obviously this gives very little incentive to the novice. With only the four Porsche 911s behind and great chunks of time to catch up on the rest I had no chance of a decent placing. Perhaps this was one reason why I sat on the grid quite impassionately when the time came.

The meeting had run off smoothly when it came round to Event 6—The Adlards-Contour Saloon Car Handicap race. I lined up in the marshalling area in car number 212 in plenty of time, strapped myself in and waited. After what seemed hours we were all waved out on our warming-up lap to find the rain starting to spot down—something I just dreaded. Fortunately the threat relented and once on the grid the sun peeped out from behind the clouds and there were sighs of relief. In handicap events the cars are flagged off in groups and, of course, our group of four Escorts were almost last to go. In fact, I made the best start of the four (it’s all those 0-60 m.p.h. road-test runs) but decided discretion was the better part of valour and let Brian Cutting take Allard ahead of me thinking I might be able to hang on to him and pull away from the other two. In fact, I was so intent on this that I almost went straight on at Campbell and a youngster called Ian Deevin, who was racing his own Escort Mexico, overtook me.

By now I was well out of my stride and it wasn’t until two laps later that a chap in a Mini-Cooper caught me up and I started to drive half-properly again. All the Porsches had gone by at this stage while the Mini man had started 10 sec. behind but with a lap credit. For the rest of the race we had a really enjoyable dice and he passed me into the chicane on one lap when I so nearly had an accident. The next lap I re-passed him when he went wide coming out of the chicane while all the time we had another Escort hot on our tails. Finally the Mini man got the better of me and I was tucked in behind him when, with a lap to go, he got the chequered flag—in theory he had a lap start. So it was all over and we slackened our pace and were all beckoned back to the grid for the presentation. In fact, the chap in the Mini had exceeded his practice time by too large a margin and thus fooled the handicappers so he was disqualified, as was a BMW 2002 driver. So I was really cheated out of an extra lap.

There was considerable deliberation by the officials while we all talked excitedly about how we almost had accidents and J.W. told frightening tales of his throttle sticking open at the chicane. The winner turned out to be Formula Ford driver Richard Leach driving one of the just-announced Toyota Celicas, but J.W. upheld Standard House honours by finishing an excellent third. I was placed down in 19th spot, which I suppose is a start if nothing else, while Cutting had worked his Escort up to sixth place off the same handicap. Anyway, I received a consolation of a Contour long-playing record for my efforts, the car was in one piece and I had really enjoyed myself. The aftermath included legs, and particularly arms, which ached for about two days after and a very nice mention in the race report in Autosport which said I was cheered on at the chicane by a band of enthusiastic followers, apparently mainly the F3 boys, who I know well. Actually I was trying so hard I never saw them.

Naturally I want to have another go and see if I can go faster next time, for I can assure everyone there is a world of difference between track and road driving. It looks as if Group 1 racing has a big future in Britain, although the present handicap system is not very satisfactory. What could happen, however, is that Group 1 will become big business and the novices will not stand a chance. I would advise those wanting to start racing on a limited budget to buy a car primarily for racing rather than attempt to use a road car as I had done. The advertisement columns of the racing weeklies have plenty of quite competitive second-hand cars at under £750, particularly smaller-capacity saloons, modified sports cars (Sprites, etc.), or Clubman’s cars. One can then learn the ropes fairly quietly over a season and then decide whether to carry on into single-seater racing and/or more professional classes. Incidentally, Motor Sport is always willing to offer advice to prospective racing drivers.

The day after Thruxton I went to Castle Combe to report and there was a race in the Escort Mexico Challenge series. I was sorely tempted to try for a late entry but as Ford had no prior knowledge decided I had better not. Escort Mexico racing is decidedly hairy and there have already been multiple pile-ups. The great majority of the drivers are very experienced and all determined to do well and I consider it to be far from a beginners’ class as was originally intended.

So I have made my racing debut and maybe I will have a chance to try again. Thanks should go particularly to AVO, first for lending us the car but second for producing a machine which makes a terrific road car yet far from disgraces itself at club race or rally level.A. R. M.