There are a few moments in life when you can say you reached that fork-in-the-road and the direction you took altered everything afterwards. Twenty years ago today , Easter Monday 1997, the most significant such ‘moment’ happened to me. But for a misguided burst of impatience, life would look entirely different today . Whether it would be better or worse is another matter, because other incidents and decisions inevitably come into play on that score. But it would be different, without question.
I was racing a Rover 220 Turbo in the CASTLE COMBE SALOON CAR CUP back then and we went into 1997 off the back of a dream final race the previous season. Front row start, led every lap to record a first win plus fastest lap and had the whole winter to enjoy it. And we surely did! MOTORING NEWS (as it was then called) went so far as to preview the 1997 series by naming me one of the favourites for the title.
It all looked great as we arrived for the opening race of 97 but then a piston melted and I trundled into the pits trailing a massive could of smoke behind me. My brother and race mechanic/manager, Ashley, quickly rebuilt the engine and we made it out for the next race, on Easter Monday. The track was wet at the start of practice but that was good! I was always quick in the wet, having come from a rallying background where slippery surfaces are par for the course. But after about 3 laps I didn’t seem to me that I was reeling in cars up ahead which I knew were not as quick in normal condition. I felt like I was just being slow, plain and simple, so I got a bit impatient and made a concious decision to push harder. I overtook a slower car up ahead at Folly curve which was a flat-in-4th kink. Easy. Except in these conditions it wasn’t because I was just off the racing line, the track was more slippery than I thought and I was turing just that bit tighter than normal…the car suddenly broke away at about 100mph or so.
Then my rallying background came back to bite me . I always rallied rear wheel drive cars but the Rover 220 was front wheel drive. This was the first time I had spun a front wheel drive car…the ‘wrong’ instinct kicked in as I tried to catch it! Round it went , a complete 360 degree spin , which ended with a hefty impact into the barrier down the passenger’s side of the car , tail first then a sort of slapping effect bringing the front even harder against bare armco – I was just beyond the end of the tyre wall . The impact caused me to clunk my jaws together with enough force to chip a front tooth. I remember swearing to myself before climbing out and being guided over the barrier to safety by a couple of Marshalls , who asked if I was OK. Apart from spitting out a bit of blood and a few bits of broken tooth I was fine. But the car was out for the day.
It didn’t actually look too bad , as you can see here, but the impact had broken the suspension strut, wishbone, gearbox casing and drive shaft, bent the crossmember, bent the chassis leg, even broken the engine mounts and naturally mangled the front wing and adjoining panels. So we loaded up and drove home contemplating an expensive rebuild, and being two races down without a single point on the board ,which given the pre-season euphoria, was undoubtedly the worst part!
To cut a long story short if I had not been so impatient I would still have started that day’s race on the front row as my times from the early wet laps were only just being beaten as the track dried out later in the session! I must have been going like a ding-bat…and I had no idea. So the car was wrecked, but more significantly, arriving back home early and unloading it into the garage I ended up meeting my future wife by pure chance. That is where life took it’s major turn because 5 years later she became my ex wife, and the financial cost of that effectively finished off my racing career.
The moral of this tale is : Be patient!
Twenty years on I still have the chipped front tooth to remind me… as if I’d forget!
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