After a forced lay-off, GC returns to his favourite sport facing new challenges
It sounds a simple undertaking: co-drive on a minor historic rally. Nothing complicate d in it; hundreds of people do it every weekend. Four years ago I’d have thought nothing of it. Perhaps I might even have looked down my nose at such a small event, compared to the seven-day cross Europe Marathons I was more used to. But then up till four years ago I was in full working order. It was only in August 1989 that my life-long love of cars changed my life for ever. On a short press-launch abroad, the new car in which I was a passenger turned over, breaking my neck.
I was 11 days on a respirator, 11 months in Stoke Mandeville Hospital. In those early days, I was cheered and touched by the number of cards, calls and visits from, amongst many others in the car world, people I had met on the Pirelli Marathon which Henry Pearman and I had won only weeks before the crash. Competitors and marshalls, people I had spoken to only briefly — tangible proof of the friendly spirit in historic rallying which I had enjoyed so much. But I assumed I could never return to it; it was clear that I was permanently paralysed, with exactly the same injury as Frank Williams. (Indeed a visit from Frank added incentive to return to my old business). But as Stoke’s rehabilitation programme went on, I gradually found I was able to do more than I expected. A highlight was Pirelli flying myself and a nurse out to Cortina for the end of the 1990 Marathon. It was a shock — I was still in Stoke, and hadn’t got used to a wheelchair yet, let alone air travel — but as we weaved up through the curves of the Dolomites to watch the cars completing the Ire Cime hill-climb I realised that I really, really wanted to be back in the navigator’s seat. It has taken a longtime, Four years all but a week since those thankfully unremembered moments which altered everything.
Even then I probably wouldn’t have considered it seriously if it hadn’t been for a new type of operation which Stoke offered me. By some clever jiggling of arm tendons, some of the bits which don’t work anymore are reconnected to some of the bits which do. This now allows me to move my right arm properly, and has even restored some grip in my previously useless fingers. There are two more three-month operations to come before my left arm and hand are modified to match, but being able to hold a book for the first time in three years suddenly made a rally seem less far-fetched.
Cheerful encouragement from members of the Historic Rally Car Register helped push me along, with offers of rides from Robin Stretton, and Ron and Malcolm Gammons. But they all drive open MGs, and I was pretty sure that I was bound to lose my grip on the paperwork and see it vanish overboard. The answer was closer to home. To push my wheelchair I use special leather “gloves”. As the NHS seems to think these are an unnecessary luxury, I have to have them tailor-made privately, and after many failures I was saved by another historic rally enthusiast. Anthony Hussey is the MD of Connolly leather, which means that thanks to trim foreman Rob Rankine my motive traction now comes very appropriately from leather destined for Jaguar, Aston, Rolls-Royce and Mercedes. Enthusiasts will know Anthony from his regular appearances in various classic Lancias, the tough little Aprilia or a brace of Aurelias, either the beautiful B24 Spyder or the very rapid B20 coupe. (That is leaving aside the Ferrari F40, Metro 6R4 and Nissan Skyline GTR he often takes to 96 Club meeetings.)
On one of my many visitsto Connolly for yet another pair of gloves Anthony suggested trying the B20 for size, and declared himself ready and willing to drive if I could find the right event. By this point I had almost run out of excuses — but I still had to get an RAC competition licence. To my surprise, getting mine renewed was easy: there are no constraints on a codriver’s physical abilities — perhaps we are easier to replace than drivers. (In contrast, reporting on races has become a problem for me. Since a photographer was run over at a race, the disclaimer which the press are required to sign includes the promise that the reporter is not disabled. I have had to have a special dispensation arranged by the RAC in order to obtain track passes.)
Suddenly the ideal event popped up: the HRCR’s own event, a single-venue stage rally near London. Knowing I could not get out of the car without my minder’s help, I was reluctant to attempt a multi-venue rally; the chances of my support car arriving at the right place at the right time seemed small, and I didn’t want to have my wheelchair flying around the Lancia. These things are expensive, and the Government doesn’t pay — it’s £1900 out of your own pocket for a lightweight alloy chair like mine, £3000 for a pole-position carbon-fibre job, and if it breaks you’re in desperate trouble. So an event where we returned to the same “paddock” between stages was perfect. Next, the car; conveniently, Connolly’s Wimbledon works are only a mile or two away from my Clapham base, so I was able to have a couple of try-outs. The seat could hardly have been more difficult — a highsided old-style bucket which meant I could not slide across, but had to be lifted up and dropped in.
After several trials we worked out the best technique, one which only involved medium discomfort for me, though great strain for my minder. But with the four-point harness on I was much more stable than I am normally in a car; being paralysed from the chest down, I can’t use my trunk muscles to hold my body upright, so car travel is an unending chore of armbracing. If I take my eyes off the road I tend to fall into the driver’s lap, despite the seat-belt, which can make things a tad chaotic. But of course, strapped in I discovered I couldn’t reach anything, so Geoff Gamble, who looks after Anthony’s cars, added a couple of loops and extensions so I could operate the Halda tripmeter. We took the crimson Lancia for a brief spin through Merton High Street, and even in the traffic, the rorty sound of the V6 began to bring back the tingle I had not expected to feel again.
My next problem was how to handle the paperwork. My fingers are paralysed too, which makes picking things up next to impossible. Try to imagine managing with a bunch of sausages on the end of each arm and you’ll get the idea. But there is no need for maps on a single-venue, so if I kept the time-cards on a clip-board I might be able to thrust it through the window at the marshall. (On the Marathon the navigator has to leap out and stop the clock, so if I’m to consider that idea again I’ll need a runner — or a very long stick.) And being a stage event there are no regularity and average speed calculations to be done, so I wouldn’t need to manipulate calculators and notebooks. Overall I prefer road events as the navigator has more of a challenge, but I am sure that at the first corner the floor would be awash with pens and maps.
Clocks were another difficulty; historic rules now forbid digital electronic timers, which I could operate easily, in favour of good old-fashioned stop-watches. Luckily I had an ideal opportunity to experiment at the Coys Festival at Silverstone, where the HRCR had a stall under the cheerful leadership of Bryan Halladay. Bryan runs a firm, CARS, which sells period rally equipment, and he gave me free rein to play with his stock. I was a little depressed to find that despite my recent three months suffering Stoke Mandeville catering for the finger operation, I still couldn’t press the watch buttons. But Bryan solved it by fitting a pair of watches to a board in such a way that I could could bang the buttons with my wrist.
There’s always a way, somehow. Another point about stage events is that fireproof clothing is compulsory. When my initial plan to have a period-style two-piece suit made fell through, I was helped out at the last minute by my local race equipment dealer, Road and Rally in Fulham, whose enthusiastic boss Chris Wilson sorted out what I needed the day before the rally. Annoyingly, both my helmets were out of date, making them illegal for competition; however, working at Standard House sometimes has its plusses, as almost all the staff of Motor Sport and Motoring News compete in one form of the sport or another, giving me a choice of hat sizes to borrow. A few days before the event we had our seeding position (rather low, since Anthony has done only road events for a while, and my track record was a bit sparse recently). On the Saturday before the rally, off we trundled to scrutineering in Bracknell to have the Lancia checked over and collect a sheaf of timecards. This was slightly worrying too, as I had already discovered that I can’t write legibly when the car is moving, so updating stage arrival times on the hoof was going to be hard. And if you clock in late, or worse, early, there are severe time penalties which make you very unpopular with your driver.
But it was too late to worry. Suddenly it was 8.30 on Sunday morning; first snag — the paddock area was on gravel, so I couldn’t move around in my chair. Now co-drivers like to reassure themselves by checking over their figures with other crews, so I had to resort to rounding up my opposite numbers and making them come to me. However, it was rather pleasant to be “holding court”, and to see some of the old faces again as we watched the early runners start the GTA Longcross Stages. Longcross is a military testing establishment, visible from the M3, consisting of a slightly banked fast outer circuit, and a sinuous infield handling link, spiced for today with a variety of chicanes and diversions. Very soon those who had walked the stage were bringing back alarming tales about the tank test hills, but I had to wait to see what they meant. We queued for our start in blissful ignorance, armed only with a sheaf of almost identical stage plans which showed the changes and reversals which would make I stages out of one basic track layout.
Someone helpfully warned us of a tricky tightening adverse camber bend, and I carefully marked it down, the marshal signed my time-card, another marshal counted us down, and suddenly cards and papers were sliding around, I couldn’t find the window winder and my legs were flailing from side-to-side as Anthony belted through the first bends. He had to do them on sight; it took ages before I shuffled the plan into my vision and started to call the bends. But my informant had pointed to the wrong nasty corner; while l was still yelling a warning to Anthony I heard tyres howling and looked up to see that we were definitely pointing the wrong way. We slithered through a long half-spin, and I must say that l wondered what it would be like to be rolled a second time; but the Lancia and its driver smartly gathered themselves up and pounded on through the mini-mountains of the infield.
All the time I struggled to keep my clipboard on my lap; in the chicanes my helmet banged the window, on the fast bends my feet clambered over the transmission tunnel. I felt like an astronaut in a centrifuge. Just when I thought we’d seen the worst of the g-forces, we pelted round a square bend to be faced with a concrete wall. Well, imagine an escalator concreted over; this was the tank hill, and it took off with a thump, soared endlessly skywards and pitched us over its summit with a lurch, straight into a 90-right, a downhill plunge, and a gravelly adverse left . . In the old days, I’ve ridden in a GpC sportscar and been pummelled in a works Lancia with Markku Alen steering, but those were easy compared to trying this with three-quarters of your body out of control.
We hit the finish, a marshal grabbed and scribbled on my board, and I tried to straighten my disordered limbs, wondering if I could stand another run, let alone another nine. But it got better; I changed my position, strapped my knees together, wedged my feet in place, and after three or four stages had learned where and how to brace myself. I was still being told off for leaving my window open (a no-no on stage events), but it was too laborious to explain that my left hand doesn’t work, and with another car only seconds behind at a stage finish, you don’t want to delay waving your card in the marshal’s face. The stages were paired, so there was little point in my scrambling out of the car during the short gaps; I just sat, sweltering in the suit I couldn’t undo, wearing the helmet I couldn’t take off, worrying about whether I was being unknowingly bruised on the behind. But while the sections were being rearranged, I was heaved into my chair and was able to join in those earnest conversations I remember so well, as crews tell each other the same tales of the same neardisasters and mutter about who’s running bent engines.
On every stage we did a lap-and-a-half, and cars set off at 30-second intervals, so there was traffic everywhere, with several cars on the stage at a time, some splitting off to the finish, some in mid-loop, some joining. It was a neat piece of choreography, and all the more impressive that everyone seemed to know where they were going. In fact the whole day ran like that, exactly on schedule, and all ten stages were run despite a strict cut-off time — a fine show for the HRCR’s first solo event. As results arrived for the early stages, no-one was surprised to see Jon Everard and Adrian Robinson at the head of the field in their Healey 3000, pressed by Dave Preese and Rowland Prentice (Porsche 911) and the MGB-mounted Malcolm Gammons and Peter Edney. But we were leading the pre-59 class, bare seconds ahead of James Harrison and Steve Sheppard in a MkII Zephyr, which added spice to the afternoon as we continued to trade seconds — that and the fact that there was usually someone to overtake. It’s amazing what a car in the distance does to a driver, and when