One of the cars which General Motors brought to Goodwood was the Chevy Monte Carlo in which Darrell Waltrip won the 1985 Winston cup. It had stood in Talladega’s Museum for 16 years, and is back there now, but in between Paul Fearnley had a good ol’blast in it
Take a section of the Forth Railway Bridge, vibrant in red lead. Top it out in the GM, or Ford, bonnet, roof and bootlid of the day. Fill in the spaces below with handmade panels. Bolt in 700bhp of wake-the-dead stock-block. Slap on four meaty 9.5-inch Goodyear slicks. And put your hammer down.
NASCAR is racing as was: no telemetry (except in testing), a mere 12 days’ testing a year (and then only at certain tracks), no tyre-warmers, no bullshit just 500-mile, 200mph traffic jams, 38 weekends a year. And all in 3400lb cars which, according to Darrell Waltrip, joint-third on the all-time Winston Cup winners’ list with 84″don’t do anything too well. Anticipate. That’s the key. If you see a comer, you’d better turn in; if you see a comer, you’d better brake. Keep it smooth. These cars don’t take too kindly to being thrown about.”
And you don’t have to go at oval legend-type speeds to realise these shortcomings. To shunt a NASCAR around in its low gears, to feed in the play and then muscle on the lock at slow speed, to massage the spongy brake pedal, is to marvel nay, snort,at the lack of sophistication. But to settle into the groove around the top lip of an oval (well, Millbrook’s High Speed Circle in this case) is to marvel (only the exhausts snort now) at just how good it all feels.
Even on the lower edge of this 1985 Superspeedway-spec Chevy Monte Carlo’s performance envelope mouth too dry to lick the stamp even my lappery is sufficient to realise that the play is there for a reason, that the bent-arm wheel-in-your-chest seating position is there for a reason, that everything is there for a reason. This car is rock solid, even though its long girder-like radius arms provide a flow over the bumps. It feels glued, even though it is today running road course-square, i.e. without spring ‘wedging’ and turn-left oval-track stagger larger diameter tyres down the right-hand side in the crossply days, tweaking the toe-in and -out on today’s radials.
It is, incredibly, extremely user-friendly. The clutch has a mad-car feel, the four-speed straight-cut ‘box is relatively slow but chonk-chonk positive (oh, those downchange blips) and the steering, though woolly, ensures any unnecessary nervous-novice inputs hardly reach the 1960s worm-type steering box, never mind the front wheels.
NASCAR was just entering its ‘aero’ age in the mid-to-late 1980s. In those pre-restrictor plate days, King Dyno had yet to be dethroned by the wind tunnel, and a car would be lucky to generate 300lbs of downforce, as opposed to the 1500lbs of today. This, then, was perhaps the bravest of ages, a technology crossover, the likes of ‘Awesome Bill from Dawsonville’ Elliott and Waltrip racking up lap averages (more than 210mph at Daytona and Talladega) that have yet to be bettered.
Excuse now firmly in place, I feel better about admitting to just scratching the surface. Yet, instinctively, I know that this car, one of 12 Waltrip used to win the 1985 title, would do all it could to help me, to free up as much mental capacity as possible. For NASCAR is a thinking driver’s game. Nobody blats out of the blocks into a big lead and stays there; this is four-wheel chess. If, again according to three-time Winston Cup champion Waltrip, a driver doesn’t get the feel of a NASCAR in his first 20 laps then he never will, those who do will, just as surely, spend the next 20 years honing their skills: where to place your car to unsettle the one in front, when to pit, when to conserve, when to push.
The concentration required to skim those looming walls, to conjure up the mental image of where everybody is around you, to remember who’s on what strategy, is immense, Kasparov-like. Physically, you are on lap 150, but mentally, you are on lap 200.
The best rockclimbers know how to relax, to save their energy, no matter how perilous their ‘resting’ place might be; NASCAR drivers are cut from the same cloth. Some footage of Ernie Irvan flashes before me:through a turn, little bit of fight at the wheel, cars tight up front-right, front-left, another jammed against the driver’s door. A glance in the mirror. Two more hard astern. And then, as cool as you like, Ernie rests his left elbow on the doorframe. Cruising the Strip. At 190mph. These cars can get away from you, don’t get me wrong, but they are built with a little bit of give — a minor concession which power steering and improved driver fitness squeezes ever tighter in the modern era.
I’m on my 20th lap of this two-mile circle, the bulk of which have been done at the never-ending banking’s ‘hands-off’ speed of 110mph for our photographic purposes. As I up the pace, though, I suss that this is not quite the penthouse suite I have so far described. Peering through those five windscreen bars takes on a more sinister aspect. And, come to think of it, with the wheel removed, the steering column had looked remarkably like a machine gun off the Red Baron’s Fokker Triplane.
The seat, which did not appear moulded to Waltrip let alone yours truly, suffers from a padding famine, while the right-hand squab, which wraps around you like a consoling arm, is another item that will never take its place in the Upholsterers’ Hall of Fame. Plus, as the revs rise — this Edelbrock-tuned 350 cubic-incher will go to 7800rpm — so too does the heat So too does the vibration. So too does the noise, which has a much harsher edge to it than I had ever imagined it would. Not every Detroit V8 rumbles, it would seem (a modem NASCAR powerplant will spin to 9200rpm).
Let’s face it, no matter how hard your car pulls for you, those pre-power steering 500-milers in the muggy old Carolinas must have taken their toll. We are talking 1950s, Juan Fangio-and Froilan Gonzalez-type, tubby, barrel-chested stamina here, rather than the Formula One lean meanness of, say, a Michael Schumacher.
Hang on, what’s that? What spare mental capacity I have — more than I had imagined I might — picks out a different noise. All the dials read fine, well below the 200-deg F (oil and water) ‘switch-off’ point I had been warned about. Engine still pulling strong. But there it goes again. A change of air pressure in the cabin because of the increase in speed? Perhaps. Another lap. My gut feeling rumbles once more. I back off and come in. No point pushing it; Darrell did all that.
Three unnecessary, but unmissable, blipped downchanges later and I aim to sweep into the parking bay for a final time. When, snap! The wheel’s play goes off the scale. Something’s broken. I climb out Dukes of Hazzard-style (always wanted to do that) and espy that the front wheels are at a drunken angle. Jeff Hammond, Waltrip’s crew chief for his 43 wins with Junior Johnson’s all-conquering outfit, strides over. And raises an eyebrow.
Jeff had cut a formidable figure at the previous weekend’s Goodwood Festival of Speed, maybe not to the spectators, to whom he was unfailingly sir-and-ma’am polite, but to the pretend NASCAR driver who had been promised a run in his ‘baby’ by some desk jockey. Sporting a kruger-rand-sized ring that celebrates his six Winston Cup titles with Junior’s unit and a 1985-championship belt, the king-sized buckle of which gives the impression he has, at some time, been world light-middleweight champ, it was obvious that here was a bloke, a cool dude, to be reckoned with.
Without saying so, it was obvious too that letting this pony-tailed Limey journalist in Darrell’s car, a car he had tended in its heyday and was today fussing over in its dotage, was not high on his list of all-time fun things. And nor should it have been.
He showed me around the car, a Banjo Matthews spaceframe, and explained how it was a ‘rear steerer’. My heart sank at the thought of a 200mph dumper truck. I needn’t have feared, the term referred to the siting of the steering box behind the axle-line. This causes the steering arms to bow under load, unsettling the car and its pilot on turn-in. Since the early 1990s in NASCAR, the box has been sited ahead of the axle line, holding the steering arms in tension and thus giving a more positive response. I didn’t have the heart (guts, really) to tell him the 1902 Paris-Vienna Renault sited in the paddock opposite featured exactly the same arrangement. Just as I didn’t have the guts to tell him I was a vegetarian. Not that it mattered right then, for I walked away from this charismatic car and its enigmatic crew chief, with a knot in my stomach.
One Monday-morning hack north around a rush-hour M25 to a Tarmac circle in the middle of nowhere had hardly endeared us to Jeff either. Nor did an unnecessary 30-minute wait at the gate for a race car that, as it turned out, was already inside the facility. Had been for five hours.
But hey, what a trooper, how he sprung into action when a problem needed solving, when a camera needed bolting to the front of a car, when a hatchback needed wedging open against 100mph slipstreams, when his ‘baby’ limped in.
Wrenches out, he removes the offending item, a broken nearside (if you look at it from across The Pond) trackrod-end.
“We got lucky today” he says. “It might not have sent you into the wall, but it sure would have given you a big fright.”
A scared scribbler in an undamaged car is the kind of occurrence that causes been-there-done-it crew chiefs to curl both sides of their mouths into a rare smile. Don’t get me wrong, Jeff, I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. You being there made the day so memorable.
And that strange noise? A huge misfire, apparently. One I had been blissfully unaware of The Chevrolet usually runs on mansize-rooster 108-octane fuel and Jeff reckoned that the Millbrook filling station’s brew was not man enough for the job at the higher revs I was using later in the day. Even the person from the village three miles down the road who had rung
to discover what in hell was pounding the circle, would have heard the popping and banging, apparently. And I thought I was getting the hang of it. Sheepish-time.
NASCAR looks straightforward, is perversely behind the door when it comes to technology but, like all forms of motorsport, there is much more to it than meets the eye: a few tyre psi here, half a degree of rear spoiler there, it doesn’t take much to be a Good Ol’ way off the pace in this super-specialised arena.
And what a hellzapoppin pace it is. These Boys they speak of below the Mason-Dixon Line just happen to be the last true he-men of what is an increasingly sanitised, homogenised sport I am not saying that this is out-and-out good the recent death of Dale Earnhardt in the Daytona 500 casts a long shadow that will be slow to fade but I am saying that this is out-and-out true.
Thanks to Rex Greenslade, General Motors, Millbrook and Jeff Hammond for their help with this feature