I was 24 when I finally realised my long held ambition of competing in motor sport. It was 30 years ago this Easter Monday . A sobering thought. My daughter Charlotte made her debut as my navigator and ‘bouncer’ on the Clee Hills trial a couple of years ago, aged just 12! How I wish I had known trials existed when I was that age, but I doubt I could have persueded my Dad to risk the family Vauxhall Viva, even then.
At the end of 1989 my brother Ashley and I went to Pembrey circuit to watch a ‘single venue’ rally with a mate, Paul, who was utterly rally mad. It was a motor sport epiphany. At the time rallying meant blasting through woods with lots of road sections in between that required a great deal of organisation and equipment. This was different. Here we were at the former RAF base in South Wales with special stages on a maze of crumbling tarmac runways, perimeter tracks and service roads spreading out from the newly opened race circuit, which itsef took up only a corner of the whole site.
The cars were mostly humble Escorts and Sunbeams peppered with a few exotic MG 6R4s and a Sierra Cosworth or two. There were no road sections, no woods, no need to have a ‘service barge’ chasing you around country lanes with mountains of spares on board or radio communication with the crew. And it all ran nicely from early morning to late afternoon with food and ‘facilities’ on hand throughout. There were about 8 stages totalling some 40 miles of actual flat out driving.
We fancied a go. It looked like cheap motor sport. It looked pretty easy.
Fast forward 18 months and here we were at another former WW2 RAF base, Down Ampney, in the Cotswolds with a white Rover SD1 V8 , my school mate Ian Beale in the navigators seat and me behind the wheel. Why a Rover? To be different and stand out from all those Escorts and Sunbeams. When you fired up the Rover people turned round and looked. We really wanted a Triumph TR8 but couldn’t find , let alone afford, one of those! The SD1 was the next best thing. In hindsight an Escort or a Sunbeam would have been more sensible.
Ashley was spannering, having built the car up from a partly finished project he’d acquired for £1200 from someone near Evesham a few months earlier. Numerous trips to CITY SPEED in Gloucester had furnished the required fire extinguishers, proban overalls, crash helmets and assorted bits that hadn’t come with the car. I applied the sign writing by means of hand cut ‘fablon’ (sticky-backed-plastic … as famously featured on kids TV programme BLUE PETER) and our Dad did the required welding for the roll cage (he being the only one who could weld at the time). We borrowed a trailer, hitched it to the back of my yellow Transit and crammed assorted spares in the back along with two mates to act as service crew- Peter & Paul (sadly we did not know a suitable Mary to complete the line up).
It was a bright spring day and the well worn concrete roads were dusty and crumbling. The stages were five or six mile loops marked out by piles of tyres and the ocassional traffic cone. Down the middle of the widest remaining section of runway, where Douglas DC3s had brought back casualties from D Day in 1944, several twenty foot high mud- coloured mountains which we were to weave between turned out to be manure from the surrounding farms! No problem keeping us within ‘track limits’ there. It was indeed an aromatic location for a debut.
Within about five minutes I discovered to my genuine surprise that I was not the next Ari Vatanen but otherwise this was the best fun I had ever had. I wasn’t actually any good and I wasn’t going to move very far up from the tail of the running order but then the car , like the driver, wasn’t exactly up to speed. We still ran the original steel wheels with rock hard 185 Monarch remould road tyres while the majority were using hand grooved racing slicks (as you could in those days) or Michelin TB ‘tarmac rally’ tyres.
I found the handbrake cable stretched the first time it was used, rendering it useless for helping us round tight corners. With the long wheelbase of the Rover, and no limited slip diff’, that was never going to be easy anyway. During the day the brakes cooked, the back axel tramped furiously and the old fashioned power steering worked wornderfully at high speed…when you didn’t need it…but hardly at all when going round the many slow corners, when you did.
As you can tell I was already familiar with the “Racing Drivers Book Of Excuses” .
The fuel pump was failing as we left the line on the penultimate stage, misfiring furiously, a salvo of gunshots over the old air base, then half a mile later, silence. The day was over but aside from losing the brand new back silencer off the exhaust there was no real damage done. What a blast it had been, while it lasted.
We were hooked. Happy days!
Over the rest of that season the car was developed rapidly, the original ‘cheap motor sport’ concept thrown out of the window as it became obvious that getting progressively faster was a lot more fun than staying at the tail end. The engine was tuned, the suspension changed, large wheels with slick tyres took the place of the remoulds….The driver didn’t improve much but then I was inherently useless at telling left from right due to a form of dyslexia, undiagnosed for another decade, so Ian’s calmly delivered pace-notes had to be accompanied by hand signals and corrections along the lines of “No! The OTHER right!!!” if I wasn’t to spear off the wrong way at high speed.
We didn’t perfect the system for a while (see revised edition of “The Racing Drivers Books Of Excuses” footnote on page 599) and even now, 30 years later, Charlotte has to do the same as we search out a “partly hidden left turning, just past a triangle of grass on the right” on a trial route in our Suzuki X90 . At least I know why these days!