The anniversary actually passed before I realised it, so this “20 years ago” piece is a little late. But then in 2020 almost nothing has gone to plan for any of us.
In 2000 I was doing various bits of freelance journalism with my then-wife. We covered F1 testing at Silverstone(and wrote a book about it), reported on the Le Mans 24 hours and on the Speedway Grand Prix at the Millenium Stadium in Cardiff, among other gigs. I was also racing and we had a shop to run. In the middle of this there was a summer holiday (remember those?) to fit in. in 1999 we honeymooned on the channel island of Guernsey and liked the place so much we went back . By chance there was a sand race due to run on the beach at Vazon Bay the same week. I’d never seen one before so contacted the organising club and asked if I could have a press pass and do a feature. They got back and asked if I had a competition license? . I was racing in the Castle Combe Saloon car series at the time so that was not a problem. “Would you like to drive? We can provide a car.” I was warming to the event already.
We jetted in to Guernsey on a Jersey European Airways HS 146 with my racing overalls and crash helmet bag as hand luggage. A cabin steward who insisted the helmet bag must go into an overhead locker promptly picked it up between finger and thumb as if toxic, with an expression of “What is THIS?” on his face that would have suited Kenneth Williams as he recited “Infamy! Infamy!….they’ve all got it in for me!” in CARRY ON CLEO.
A couple of days later we appeared at Vazon Bay early in the morning. The beach is edged by a high sea wall on which sits a Martello watch tower dating from the Napoleonic wars.
At one end was a savage looking rocky outcrop and on the high grassy ground overlooking the other end was a fort built, I think, as another defence against Bonaparte to which the Nazis had added a great deal of concrete during WW2 while occupying the island . It made in interesting backdrop, as did the massive naval observation tower they also built on the headland across the bay .
Down on the sand a diverse assortment of car and motorcycles was already assembling and I ventured forth to signing-on. There I met club supremo Amos Ozanne who was very friendly and keen that I enjoyed the day. However almost the first thing he said was “Why are you wearing fireproofs?” … um, because you have to? Apparently not. In the Channel Islands at the time there was some kind of dispensation from the RAC MSA (as it was) due to the liquid nature of the racing venue. Oil skins were the racing attire of choice!
I was assigned a humble MG Maestro with Amos’ apologies that it wasn’t anything faster. But it was fine. In fact it was comfortingly familiar as I had raced one at Silverstone a few years before and then turned it into an autograss car which I was racing at this point in time.
I was also appointed a jovial mechanic/minder/guru, Nev Browning, a veteran racer and a real character, who made sure I was in the right place at the right time and aware of the golden rule: “When you get lapped …” Thanks for the confidence, Nev “…duck you head down. OK?”. This was a mantra that every person I spoke to kept trotting out:
“Keep your head down…”
“don’t foget to duck your head …”
“When anything overtakes, duck, yeah?”
“Have you got a sponge? ” …eh??
In due course I was out on track and found out exactly why. The car, unsurprisingly, had no windows and the radiator was in the boot like an autograss car. Unlike an autograss car it only had half a roll cage and no metal grill replacing the windscreen. When a faster car came past…and they were all faster… the rooster tail of wet sand kicked up from spinning wheels came through through the open space into the cockpit like a bow wave. Whack! A barrow load of sand and pebbles , all flying at about 70mph completely “filled me in”. Visor covered, visibility zero and what felt like half a dozen small children were thumping my chest and shoulders. That was pebbles. Welcome to the beach!
The sponge was to wipe the visor, naturally , and from then on I certainly remembered to duck. And as I was plumb last already and struggling to see anything, this meant doing so about every ten seconds for the rest of the race!
Now it sounds less than enjoyable but in fact it was brilliant fun, aside from the bruises. The track was a quarter mile oval with a separate standing-start area leading into the front straight . The corners were marked by cones and barrels on the inner edge. The sea wall, rocks and water provided the sort of track-limits you didn’t mess with. The sand was hard packed and very flat but naturally had little grip so the car was on-the-move all the time, sliding around and, being front wheel drive, scrabbling for traction on the way out of each bend . It wasn’t uncommon to approach the apex at almost 90 degrees to the direction of travel and there was no need to bother with the brakes. If you eased up the throttle the drag created by the wet sand was like deploying a parachute.
I can’t recall how many races I took part in that day, but it was a lot! I was used to getting two heats and (if lucky) a final when autograssing, but this sand racing lark seemed much more free wheeling and fast-moving. There was very little delay (the tide was not going to wait) so races were run one after the other as soon as possible. I don’t recall any red flags or stoppages and it seemed I ended up racing against not just the other production cars but everything else on four wheels too at some point.
Was it six races? It might have been more. Seen from twenty year in the future it’s a bit of a blur. But was was enormous fun and everyone I met was very friendly. I’d never done such a laid-back, easy-going motor sport event. It was blissful.
The range of cars competing was pretty original. Mark Ozanne’s very quick Jaguar XJ6 battled a hot Honda Prelude for ‘production car’ honours while the small but select entry of what the simply call ‘racing cars’ were mostly large, purpose built single-seaters based on long wheelbase tube chassis with the driver sat way forward, almost between the front wheels, a Jaguar XK or Chevy V8 in the middle and the radiator sat high up at the back. There was also one more conventional car based, I think, on an ancient Cooper F3 chassis. I stupidly neglected to find out the details of that one and the film ran out before I got a decent photo. It’s most probably since appeared at Goodwood in fully restored guise.
Even back then I was told the island’s previouly sizeable inventory of old racing cars bought-in from the mainland decades before had been vastly depleted by the surge in values for historic racing machinery.
In between my own drives I wandered into the middle of the track and took photos . Car and motorcycles alternated races. The “racing cars” were a spectacular sight sending curtains of sand into the air in long gracefull four wheel drifts while the bikes , running the opposite way round, were a mix of moto-cross machines and “sliders” , the local term for grass track bikes . The sliders thundered around in fine style the bellow from their single-cylinder engines echoing off the landscape in a most satisfactory fashion.
And finally the tide came in. The back straight was soon water logged but racing continued until it was judged just a bit too deep and we all packed up, shook hands and in no time the beach was empty and very much smaller. As befits a small island of independent outlook, most of the cars they were simply towed back to their garages on ropes. No need for trailers or trade plates, or lights, or indicators…
Back at the hotel I washed half a ton of sand off my overalls in the bath and counted the bruises from all those flying pebbles. Some months later the article I wrote appeared in the magazine SHORT CIRCUIT among the stock car and hot rod reports. I even got paid for it. Happy days! Can it really be 20 years ago already?
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