Saturday, 19 December 2009


We arrived at the circuit at midnight and found ourselves a quiet spot two-thirds of the way up the old runway. By the time we’d pitched the tent and got ourselves sorted it was about 01:00 before I got off to sleep. It’s perhaps not such a surprise that, contrary to expectations, I wasn’t quite raring to go the following morning. Rising 25 minutes later than planned, I found that the car didn’t like starting when cold and damp. After some frantic manoeuvring of the van I managed to get it jump-started and warmed up, taking a few gentle runs around our corner of the runway to get some charge into the battery. The next job was to find Matt Gilmour who had kindly offered to bring me an aeroscreen and mounting bracket. The regulations state that you must have a screen of no less than 75mm tall and 250mm wide. I just hadn’t had the time to get this done. Unfortunately Matt was still on-route and I was starting to worry that I might fail scrutineering. Fortunately Ivan, Matt’s father, was on site and had the screen. He helped me fit it, turning the bolts from above while I lay uncomfortably below the scuttle with my feet up in the air. “Thank goodness that is done.” I dashed back to the tent to get my racewear, then to the signing-on office, returning to the car just in time for scrutineering.

I was one of the first in-line. Unfortunately, the car failed on the first test – no brake lights. These had previously been working. I returned to the pit garage and was greeted by Matt. He told me to calm down and went to get a multi-meter. We soon found that the brake light switch was not getting 12v and decided that the best course of action was to run a jump-wire from a free terminal on the coil. With brake lights working I re-presented the car which sailed-through the other checks. It was a shame that I’d left the signing-on slip in the garage so the scrutineer couldn’t issue me with a card showing that I’d passed. I drove the car back to the garage and then jogged back to the scrutineering bay where I was finally issued with the critical piece of paper. To say that I’d had a fraught start to the day was a bit of an understatement!

There was now really only time to get togged-up and strapped-in ready for qualifying. Until now the furthest that I’d driven the car was from the camp-site to the pit garages; Gulp! Matt was again very helpful and told me to follow one of the regular racers to the staging area to wait for our twenty minute session. He then met me there and just told me to relax and enjoy it. To be honest, this was the most relaxed I’d felt all morning. I set myself the goal of not qualifying dead-last. After the first lap I was sure I was going to fail to meet my goal. It seemed as though everyone was streaming past me. The car seemed very neutral but then gave no warning before the back-end would lose traction. It certainly felt a whole lot less forgiving than my Striker. As a result I spun three times. As the laps went on and I started to get used to car and circuit, I felt like I was getting a bit quicker. The one thing which was making it difficult was that the throttle pedal was a huge distance from the brake. I’ve since had some debate about whether or not heel-and-toe is necessary or desirable in Locost racing but when you’re used to applying the technique, not being able to do so made my driving feel very clumsy. Worse still, the pedals were so far apart that on more than one occasion my boot just fell between the pedals and I found myself pushing on bulkhead!

It wasn’t long before the chequered flag came out and we were marshalled back into the pits. I felt relieved but was sure that I’d be at the back of the grid. Oh well, I’d never driven the thing before. About twenty minutes later a few time-sheets appeared. To my surprise I’d managed to qualify 26th out of 35. Goal #1 accomplished.
I figured that there was little point in faffing with the car and just checked the fluids and topped-up the fuel. I found that I had a very small oil leak from the rocker and just wiped-up a small amount off the back of the engine and top of the gearbox. I explained the handling characteristics to Matt who suggested that I soften-off the rear dampers, which I did. We had virtually the whole day to wait for the race, with only a lunch-time parade to mark the 10 year anniversary of the series to worry about. I was keen to do this as every lap of the circuit I could do was bound to be of benefit. The rest of the time was spent with Kate, my Mum and Kate’s Mum and Dad who’d all come to support. The weather was glorious so it was good to sit in the sun and watch the rest of the racing.

The parade laps were useful and Kate commented that I looked faster than I did in qualifying! This probably wasn’t far from the truth. Mid afternoon came and went and it was soon time to get my gear back on and get myself strapped-in for my first ever race. This really was something that I’d wanted to do since I was 16 so I was delighted that I’d made it. All the months and years of studying and grafting and striving to get up the career ladder suddenly felt worthwhile as I’d put myself in a position where I could afford to take my first tentative step in motorsport proper.

We waited for what seemed like an age in the staging area. Whatever race was ahead of us had a red flag and a lengthy stoppage. Finally we were sent out to the grid. I’d spoken to Matt briefly about the start and our plan of action had been to drop the clutch at 4000rpm. It was perhaps a symptom of my less than perfect rear traction but I didn’t get a great start and was passed by one or two but I then managed to get myself on the inside of Copse and took a place or two back and had a decent run up to turn two. I was actually racing! This excitement was soon cut to shreds of despair as I braked hard and went to take a good blip of the throttle as I changed down. I completely missed the throttle pedal; the drivetrain shunted awkwardly, locking the rear wheels and caused me to spin backwards off the circuit. Not good; dead last!
I was still 5.5 seconds behind the next-worst placed driver when I crossed the line at the end of lap one. I spent the remainder of the race gradually reeling in some of those in front of me, passing three ‘on the road.’ With several retirements I actually finished where I’d started in 26th. On balance I was delighted with this: I wasn’t last despite doing my best to throw it away early on. I’d done it though – I’d fulfilled my dream - the last milestone that I wanted to reach before I hit the ripe-old age of 30. There’s not a lot that feels better than that.


Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Race Prep

By the time the car was home it was the middle of July. I had booked my ARDS Test at Castle Combe and I seemed to be on track (as it were) to make my debut at the 10th Anniversary of the Locost series at Silverstone on the 22nd of August. So what was there to do? Working from front to back:

  • The front arches were from two sets and, as the rest of the bodywork was changing from green to black, the green one had to go.
  • The scuttle area under the bonnet was just a bit of a mess and difficult to work on. The header tank was from an unknown production car and was precariously balanced/mounted in such a way that it obscured the fuse box and throttle-pedal pivot. The battery was also mounted upright in the general area and could have done with being moved away from the tank overflow.
  • The GRP scuttle itself had so many holes in it (from old mirrors and pull-cables) that it looked perfect for draining boiled veg.
  • The extinguisher was out of compliance and needed to be serviced and refilled.
  • The seat was a GRP item which sat far too far back for me and was mounted using timber! It also wasn’t very comfortable.
  • The passenger compartment contained lead ballast and some aluminium framework to support a passenger seat. Being a stone-plus heavier than Tony this wasn’t needed.
  • The rear arches were in a terrible state; broken and full of filler.
  • The back panel was aluminium and caved-in. It also looked like it had been welded back together.

So, it was a quite a long list but in essence should have been straightforward.

I started by removing everything that I didn’t need or was replacing. Ballast, bodywork, seats, battery etc were all soon removed. I should have guessed that things were not going to go terribly smoothly when the terminal snapped off the expensive ‘Red Top 20’ battery as I tried to disconnect the cable. Thankfully a mate was able to sell me a spare and with the help of a posh aluminium tray bought from eBay, the new battery was moved to its new location.

Next-up was to dry fit the bodywork. This is where the real problems started. The GRP back panel that came with the car had ‘radiused’ corners. The corners at the bottom-back of the chassis were square. Result: new part wouldn’t fit. Next, it became apparent that the new scuttle (from White Racing) was taller than the Stuart Taylor original. This meant that it would not fit below the roll-cage. Finally, the nose-cone was a completely different shape so would not fit the original mounting points. This was not good.

First thing to do was to have the back of the chassis cut away and a nice smooth curve welded in. Step forward Derek. Derek is my best mate’s Dad and I tend to think of him as a grumpy legend. He’s a ‘mobile mechanic’ and works on everything from large agricultural machinery to vintage cars. Where he generally excels is in problem solving. For example, if you snap a bolt off and need to remove it he’s your man. If your bike-engined MK Indy won’t charge and two auto-electricians can’t find the fault, Derek will. Or at least that’s my experience. On the down-side he’s grumpy. Rather like my mate.

Anyway, I trailered (my Striker came with a good home-built single axle transporter which I kept) the car to Derek and with the help of a template which I made, he did the job in a day. Having got the car home I used Hammerite to paint the fresh metal and the area around any holes where rivets had held on the old aluminium back panel. I also sprayed down the holes with Waxoil to help protect the tubes. I then used black polyurethane sealant from Car Builder Solutions to fill the rivet holes and then bond the back panel in place. I taped the body in place for 24 hours while the sealer went off. Job jobbed!

I’d been driving myself crazy trying to decide what to do with the scuttle. I considered replacing it, cutting it, even smashing it up. It did have some advantages however. Firstly, it was ‘free’. Secondly it had both an integral dashboard and bulkhead. I really do like to use as few separate components as possible so I liked the idea of using it. I cut, away the old bulkhead leaving a couple of inches for the scuttle to butt-up against. After much effort, I decided that if I could lubricate the part I might just be able to force it beneath the roll-cage for a touching fit. Nervously I pushed (shoulder-charged) it into place. It fitted – just. I marked some bolt holes, removed the scuttle, drilled the holes in the chassis and cut the holes for the dials and switch-gear. Finally it was fixed in place having slammed my body into it for the final time. At least it seemed to be well made and robust!

All of this and my ARDS test had taken three weekends. I only had one left and the job list wasn’t really getting shorter. The knock-on of the taller scuttle was that the bonnet no longer fitted. I had planned to change this at some point as it was a bit untidy but not now! I really didn’t think I had the skills to get this done quickly. I also needed a new cover for the boot area. I turned to the Yellow Pages and lucked-out. I found a superb father and son team of sheet metal fabricators in Andy and Ross Metcalfe of ADM Services in Brynmawr. They were interested enough that they came to look at the car on the way home. We agreed that they would have the car the following Friday/early Saturday to do the work.

I still had a lot to do – the arches needed putting-on, I needed a headrest and had to make a foam seat to sit on. I still had to re-install all of the dash components inclusive of running and reconnecting the wiring. The new header tank (from Chris Eva – as always) needed fitting, filling and the system bleeding. Oh, and the car needed an oil change and a full nut-and-bolt check. I was actually considering calling 750MC HQ and withdrawing as I didn’t think I’d make it. I needed help, but fortunately knew just the person to ask.

Steve Hignett and I hadn’t spoken much since the MNR build. In hindsight, I think we both had such an unhappy experience with that car and its foibles that we just didn’t need reminding of it. There was no bad feeling between us; we’d just been doing other stuff. I more-or-less begged Steve to travel down on the weekend and give me a hand. After consulting the lovely Mrs H he agreed. Suddenly I felt like I had half a chance of making race-day. Since I hadn’t driven the car at all and hadn’t been or the circuit in 10 years, I had also booked the Friday test day so the pressure was really on.

Steve travelled down on Friday night. I’d just spoken to Andy at ADM who’d told me that they had a bit to finish on the car in the morning. He said that we were welcome to start work on the car at his premises while he finished off the jobs. In the end, he and Ross were kind enough to let us stay all day and make use of his facilities (and materials.) Total stars! The bonnet was complete and looked smart but the boot cover was something else: perfectly formed return lips and a sliding door with ‘pinch’ stops for refuelling would later result in several positive comments by fellow competitors.

Steve was quickly into his stride. Finding that the guys at ADM had a tube bender, he hatched a plan for the headrest, tacking it in place and allowing the talented Ross to finish the upside-down welding. Another job done. Next he had the rear arches mounted. Meanwhile I fitted and wires new rear lights to replace the crappy looking originals. Steve then fitted the front arch before we embarked on the foam seat. I’d attempted to make a seat for the Striker with minimal success but the experience was useful. I’d purchased the two-part foam a few weeks before along with a survival sack, essentially a big, sturdy plastic bag ideal for filling with foam and sitting on. The seat making went very well with the exception that I hadn’t taken steps to prevent the foam from expanding into the space between the chassis tubes on the edge of the cockpit. The result was that I could only get it out in two parts. I was able to later repair it but it wasn’t as tidy as I’d hoped.

The following morning Steve and I checked nuts, bolts and fluids before agreeing that he had done all he could and that he really should get back to Milenah. We’d made huge strides and all that remained was to cover the seat, finish the wiring, re-route the extinguisher cables, change the oil and apply some stickers. I was set for a reasonably busy start to the week so I booked the Thursday off ahead of Friday’s test – in theory this would give me enough time to finish the jobs before Kate and I made the journey to Silverstone that evening.

I really should know by now that these things never go to plan. Problems with the wiring and in particular rusty extinguisher cables meant that the car wasn’t completed on Thursday. Fortunately, Austen, one of the RGB guys that I’ve got to know was testing and he managed to sell my test sessions to one of his colleagues. Kate was an absolute star on the Friday – I’d have never have got the car back together without her help. I’m so lucky – beautiful and handy with a spanner! Finally we got the trailer and van loaded and set off for the circuit, arriving at midnight. Was I worried that I was racing for the first time in a car I’d never driven? Errr……..


Monday, 14 December 2009

What happened next (Part 2.)

So, while travelling back from Anglesey through mountainous mid-Wales Kate and I got chatting about my racing ambitions. This culminated in a statement along the lines of, “If it’s the last thing on your ‘things to do before I’m 30 list,’ you have to do it!” It was and the encouragement was enough to give me the final push I needed.

On returning home I put the Striker up for sale. It was a short but pleasurable period of ownership. The low-point was when the accessory belt snapped one evening and I had to send Kate into M&S to buy tights to get the thing back to shelter; at least I have a tale to tell. Anyway, I priced the car at a level where I knew it would sell. I couldn’t afford to wait very long. Two guys from the Southampton area bought it (they’ve since sold it again) and, aside from them costing me a whole day’s work waiting for them to collect, the transaction went smoothly.

But what now? What was I going to race in? In my mind there were three options. I was certain that I wanted to race a kit car but I could do this in the 750MC Locost Championship, the 750MC RGB Championship or the WRDA Welsh Saloons and Sports Cars. The deciding factor in the end was cost, or ‘financial exposure.’ Given my work situation, I wanted to have as little funds tied-up in a car as possible. So, I looked around. There wasn’t a proven RGB car or WSSC-suited racer available for less than £7500 but there were three Locosts advertised between £4000 and £5200. My decision was made. One of the cars was less than an hour from home so I went to see Steve Kirby one evening. I’ve seen plenty of club-level racers and this one was in fantastic cosmetic order. I sat in the car and started it. I was pretty sold on it but decided that I should see another car. I spoke to someone I respected, Matt at and he informed me that a good friend of his, Dave Black was nearing completion of a rebuild of his old car to then sell. I spoke to Dave and the price was okay but, rightly or wrongly, the fact that it wasn’t ready and didn’t include a transponder was enough for me to look elsewhere. So, the following Saturday I travelled to Silverstone to see the cheapest of the three cars. Tony Jones had completed four races in 2007 and the car had sat idle since. It was the polar opposite of the first car in terms of appearance but it came with a huge amount of spares, including replacement bodywork.
The car had some good points though. The chassis appeared to be from Stuart Taylor which was good. The (primary) wheels were the excellent Compomotive CXRs and the harness was a very nice (read expensive) Schroth one. I chatted to Tony and while it was clear that he could drive a bit, the car had never been outside the top-ten in his ownership. I made a ridiculously low offer and, to my amazement, Tony accepted. This was great in that I had a car but, as much of the bodywork appeared to be held together with filler I knew that I had work to do.