Autosport International 2016

Autosport International is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, car shows in the UK. Two trade days followed by two public days mean a lot of people traipsing through the halls of the NEC.

Personally, I prefer the trade days at any car show. It’s a bit quieter so it’s easier to walk around and I see more people I know.  This was my first time at the Autosport show, would it be different? In a word, no. It’s not a bad show but it’s a mix of people in motorsport networking and announcing news with the general public who may not even be that bothered about cars, they want a day out or maybe to see the Live Action Arena, mainly because someone famous is driving something there.

I like my motorsport unadulterated and grassroots. Getting involved myself and meeting people with a similar passion knocks the socks off standing around a show waiting to see Damon Hill, it knocks the socks off some of these high level, high status race meetings where not much happens and if it does then it is all off track (yes, Formula 1 I’m looking at you here!)

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One good thing from this weekend was being involved with the free passenger rides as part of the GoMotorsport campaign. The idea here is to give people an opportunity to have a taste of motorsport. You would not believe how difficult it is to get people to try something for free. I suspect a lot of them think it can only be free if we try to sell them something else during it or they think motorsport is only about BTCC or F1 and an autosolo doesn’t interest them. They forget that one is affordable and anyone can take part, yes they can rag their pride and joy round an empty car park but they don’t realise that competitions give them a safe environment to do that and they may not actually be as quick as they think they are! All said though, standing in the cold for hours and lots of people just walking past was worth it for the smiles of the 1200 people who did try it out over the weekend. Especially the kids. If just 5% of those people go on to come to an event, marshal or compete that’s still 60 new people. That was worth standing in the cold for.

Fun in the Welsh mud

When I explain my hobbies to people, they always look at me strangely when I start to talk about trialling. You can read a little about it in that link but it boils down to us taking old cars to muddy, hilly places and trying to drive them to score as many points as possible. This video shows the idea in practise.

During the summer I volunteer at various race and speed events but the winter months are given over to trialling and the Welsh Trial, based around Presteigne, is time for the Other Half to have some fun. Saturday morning was chilly but clear so he set off with his bouncer to go to a filter point and have the car checked over by a scrutineer before setting off to Presteigne to sign on.

Signing on is at the Radnorshire Arms on Presteigne High Street. Drivers and bouncers sign to say they are fit to take part, collect their score cards which records how they have done over the various sections and head off to their start hill, usually after having one of the excellent bacon baps that are available. The start hills are split between competitors so everyone heads off to different places, the idea being to stop everyone going to the same place and queuing for hours! There were 5 hills on the Saturday, two of which are designated as Spectator Hills.

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It would be lovely to welcome all and sundry to all the hills, but the land we use combined with new safety requirements mean we have to limit public access. For Saturday there was the perennial woodland favourite called Smatcher and a new hill based at Ralph’s Cider and Perry which was named after the farm, Badlands. They actually hosted a cider festival over the weekend and the trial section was an intergral part of this. The welcome they put on was excellent with tractor rides  to the start of the section, vintage engines and tractors greeting guests as they arrived at the farmyard below. Unfortunately I didn’t have an opportunity to stop and purchase cider but those (non-drivers) who did assures me it was excellent. Fingers crossed the Club will be visiting these top notch hosts again next year.

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Once the hills are completed, the cars return to the Radnorshire Arms to hand in the Saturday scorecards and collect the ones for Sunday morning, which comprises of 7 hills. Back at Presteigne there is a great atmosphere as the High Street is taken over by vintage cars, all of which are made very welcome by the locals, not surprising as its been estimated the Club generates around £100,000 additional revenue in the area. As discussed here the social side of the Club is hugely important and Presteigne, one of the spiritual homes of the VSCC, is no exception. Children all flock together in the pub garden whilst the adults discuss the day’s progress over a well deserved pint. Of course, as shown in the picture below, it can all get a bit much for some people!

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Often there is fettling of the cars in the street as any mechanical issues of the day are sorted out along with plenty of healthy banter and a party atmosphere. You can see more shots of the trial and the High Street on my friend Rob’s twitter feed.

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Sunday morning and the Other Half headed off to collect his bouncer before travelling on to his start hill for the day. Unfortunately disaster struck when engine problems hit meaning a nice hole in the crank case, I still have my fingers crossed it will be repaired in time to for me to have my turn at the Cotswold Trial in November – spectator hills being based around Prescott Hill Climb near Cheltenham. Prior to that our A7, nicknamed Gizmo, will also be making an appearance at the NEC Classic Motor Show on the VSCC stand, one of his stable mates will be the fabulous Beast of Turin.

Whilst Gizmo was being returned home so the damage could be assessed I headed out to visit a section called Railway, this has been manned for the last two years by a number of the Club’s younger generation so I dropped in to soak up some of the wonderful enthusiasm they show as they cheer cars up the hill. Many people bemoan the lack of youngsters in sport so we are lucky to have a crowd who both compete and marshal.

From there it was off to Cwm Whitton for the afternoon hills, all spectator friendly this time as evidenced by the huge number of people who turn up each year, providing a donation to the local Rotary Club who kindly organise the parking and enjoy the tea and caked provided on site.

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To be fair the day had a bit of a damper on it after Gizmo’s problems but the Other Half joined me and again we soaked up the atmosphere and watched some friends, including a Morris called Borris, try their best. We left before the results were announced but really the fun is in taking part so who wins is slightly immaterial!

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Far out east otherwise known as Vintage Snetterton

Snetterton is miles from anywhere. Except Norfolk. That’s what people tell me anyway, I think they may be the same people that tell me Oulton and Pembrey are too far to travel to. They are all between two and three hours from me although if you live in the south of England, Snetterton is considerably easier to get to than the others mentioned.

I was not the only person to travel to get to Snetterton. We are lucky that we have such great support from the local marshals but we are also lucky that so many people travel so far to watch, work and play with vintage cars. Further down I’ll talk a bit more about marshals, officials and volunteers, but we were all there for a race meeting.

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I must confess I never get to see much racing as I’m normally fairly busy on race days, but I did watch what I could from the Race Control window. The first race was the well supported Set 3, otherwise known as Owner Driver Mechanic where points are weighted towards those who fettle and drive their own cars, although it is by no means mandatory. The set is such a success due to the hard work of John and Lesley Guyatt so it was lovely to see him on the podium at the last VSCC event of the year. Andrew Mitchell started from the pit lane in his HRG due to a mechanical issue and it was a shame to see him retire just before the race ended, especially after be had carved his way through the field and also looked likely to take a podium space.

In the Vintage Seaman (Race 2), the Club’s resident tyre expert, Longstone’s Dougal Cawley managed to stave off Patrick Blakeney-Edwards for the win. I missed the race, but Dougal was sweaty but happy in the pit lane after the race. He muttered something about head gaskets and mechanical problems, scratching from a later race to save himself for the Donington Mug Trophy Race, which he won, beating Alex Peacop and Mark Groves. One of the most fun moments of the day was seeing the three of them parodying a F1 podium and spraying the champagne.

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It’s often recited that motorsport cannot happen without marshals, this is entirely true but there are a couple of points I want to pick up on. Firstly, we would look bloody silly stood round in orange baby grows if it was not for all the drivers that also drag themselves out of bed at stupid o’clock so they can compete. Secondly, marshals and volunteers are not limited to that mass of people in orange overalls, affectionately called the Orange Army.

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For example, at Snetterton the Vintage Sports-Car Club’s Chief Timekeeper retired after 50 years. Yes he is one of the few officials that receive expenses but they are often one of the first there and last to go home. Drivers, officials and marshals alike would soon be complaining if we didn’t have race results, time screens and all the other paraphernalia that helps us know who is on pole, whether the leader is on their last lap or even if the race is due to finish.

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Many people think marshals must be paid, even some marshals assume all officials are paid. Scrutineers and the MSA Steward can claim expenses, most other officials including the Clerk of the Course are unpaid, certainly in club motorsport. Officials are basically the people named at the front of your programme and the ones who’s necks are on the line if everything goes wrong. Marshals sometimes look at us like we are a bit different, we are not, I am still first and foremost a marshal, I just happen to wear an MSA badge occasionally – on the plus side I do get to stay indoors most the time if the weather is inclement.

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There are another band of people often forgotten, who don’t usually wear orange and are not officials. These are the admin girls and boys who organise signing on, collect transponders at the end of the day, sort out licenses to come to the Clerk for upgrade signatures. The volunteers who staff the meeting point at the Club van. The boys and girls in Race Control, the ones who have to stay calm when there are several conversations going on at once, often when the proverbial hits the fan. The people that spectators never see or hear about. The silent volunteers, unseen by many but just as vital as the Clerk of the Course, the Chief Timekeeper or that slightly mad driver who is spending their afternoon driving an 80 year old car round in circles, just as vital as the pork pie eating Flag marshal, the assembly and start line marshals. I salute you all.

Shelsley and the Autumn Speed Finale

It’s been a busy few days, two of which were spent officiating at my final hillclimb of the season. I’ll still be kept busy over the next few months with another race meeting, a handful of trials and driving tests and hopefully a kart meeting or two.

Shelsley is a wonderful venue, it is the only place that gives me goosebumps even without any cars there. It is the oldest motor sport venue that has been in continuous use on its original course. The view from top paddock is breathtaking, the view in the bottom paddock has remained largely unchanged. Vintage cars have a natural home here but this weekend, with one or two exceptions, is all about far more modern machinery.

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It was a slow start though. Over the years it has not been unusual for fog to descend on the finish straight, rendering marshals unable to see each other and compromising safety. For a change, the fog was drifting in and out of the full length of the hill, making the middle section by far the worse. Eventually both days were started by a cavalcade of competitors behind the course car, partly in the hope that movement would stir and clear the fog, but also to give drivers, marshals and spectators something to do or watch rather than freezing their proverbials off in the crisp Autumn weather.

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I’m not about to write a full commentary of the whole weekend but I will pick out a couple of highlights and lowlights.

Firstly, one of my favourite cars is called Spider (well Spider II to be precise) which is a rather unusual looking car in modern terms but is a lovely creation. You can see it slightly less under control than usual (at the Chateau Impney Hillclimb) here. If you look carefully you can see me taking the mick out of driver Martin Spencer about the car being a little noisy. This is one of the few cars who’s times I follow, not least of all because the car has been through a long rebuild and I know Martin would really like a sub 34 second time. A 34.71 was the closest this weekend but is a step in the right direction.

Another highlight is always the motoring fraternity, I really enjoy the fact my 7 year old tags along and is happy to talk to everyone, whether they are 2 or 102 and they are also happy to chat to her. Despite there being a lot of cars around, it’s also a fairly safe environment for her to explore. Most people knows who she belongs to and if she does get separated from us, she always turns up at the bar ordering herself a blackcurrent squash. One of the local photographers, Rob Macdonald, took an excellent photo of Ellie and kindly gave me permission to use it here.

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I don’t often get to watch the action as I’m usually at either the top or bottom of the hill but I ended spending 10 or so minutes with the marshals (and photographers) at the Bottom Ess corner. During that time I saw what was probably one of the best ‘saves’ of the year. A Ferrari driver carried a little bit too much speed into the corner and ended up with the back end of his car swinging side to side between the two sharp bends. Somehow he managed to get it under control and slow the car down to prevent himself stuffing it into the baskets in the top corner. All I can I say is well done that man!

The lowlights. Fortunately these are few but yet again we had a reminder that motorsport is dangerous. Thanks to a fairly narrow escape, the driver walked away unscathed having exited Bottom Ess, turning left (not of his own volition) and riding the bank before parking in the shrubbery. Most people prefer to stick to the grey stuff and turn right at Top Ess.

Another driver taking an unorthodox line was Nigel Elliott in his powerful Triumph TR7 V8. Most people don’t climb the small bank in the breaking area after the finish line but Nigel likes to be different. You can see a video of his run (including his finish paddock excursion) here.

As a final note, the British Hillclimb Championship had a round at Doune and young Alex Summers has managed to win the overall Championship. I did say at the start of the season I thought he’d do well this year and I’m very pleased to have been proved right! Congratulations Alex.

A very vintage day out

Whilst the rest of the car world seemed to be at Goodwood, basking in dressing up and playing at being vintage, in a small corner of the Shropshire countryside the Vintage Sports Car Club put on a truly vintage event.

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Goodwood is, of course, highly successful and rightly so, but my heart is in grassroots motorsport and Loton Park is a wonderful example of this. I have blogged about VSCC hillclimbing here and some of the Club’s other activities here but Loton Park always holds a very special place for me.

Firstly, it is one of the most picturesque courses I have been too and secondly, whilst Prescott is ‘the’ event everyone wants to go to and has a wonderful garden party atmosphere, Loton is relaxed, has the clubbie feel and just feels a bit more like events used to be. I’m not one for unnecessary nostalgia (says she who is heavily involved with vintage cars!!)  but the old motto of the Club was ‘the right crowd and no crowding’. Everyone at Loton was there for the love of cars, the competitors all muck in to look after each other and the whole thing has a lovely relaxed atmosphere.

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Saturday started off wet with a few heavyish downpours for the unlucky early runners but once the grey sky had passed, the drivers were rewarded with a dry track for the rest of the weekend and even some sunshine on occasion. Practice was relatively event free and the time sheet revealed that the fastest pre-war car was some way ahead of his rivals.

Really everyone was waiting for the Saturday night hog roast. Kindly organised by brothers Robin and David Baker who are affectionately known as the Baker Boys, this is a real chance for marshals, competitors and guests to stand round the bar, enjoy some real ale and banter and follow it up with some rather lovey pig rolls. The real highlight of my night was being awarded the annual Baker Boys Trophy, originally awarded for Best Performance in an Aero-Engined Car, it has now grown into a ‘good egg’ trophy. I was absolutely astounded to receive it, especially as there are so many ‘good eggs’ in the Club, as demonstrated by Sunday’s events.

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Talking of which, it all started ok, the first car on the hill was an Austin 7 driven by the Club’s new Treasurer and he managed to bag himself a 2nd Handicap award. In fact the day in general went fairly smoothly with people taking a much tidier line around Triangle.

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Lunchtime provided an opportunity for competitors to give a cadet a run up the hill as a reward for the cadets undertaking car parking duties.

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After lunch, things got a little more difficult. Just out of my sight, Richard Scaldwell had a rather large off in his rather large De Dietrich, however having been checked over by the Doc, he was transferred to hospital in a friend’s camper van so that a cut could be properly cleaned and stitched. Slightly battered and bruised, the biggest dent seems to have been to his wallet for the repairs. A wonderful camaraderie was shown when one competitor towed home the stricken car with another competitor taking home the car of Richard’s wife, who had also been competing. They were by no means the only people to offer to help.

Once the incident had been tidied up, we were back under way, a slightly subdued Mark Walker in his Darraq being the first to tackle the hill, with a class win already in his pocket he had no need to do anything other than drive steady , which he did, even if it didn’t necessarily look like that to the untrained eye. The meeting finished with the very last car (although not vintage) taking Fastest Time of the Day.

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Just to prove that the Club is one of equal opportunities, that FTD was by a female driver, Phoebe Rolt, as were a number of other awards, including Jo Blakeney-Edwards (probably more competitive than all the men put together) winning Class 3 and the ever popular Sue Derbyshire (still one of my most respected drivers) taken a 2nd in her class.

Fastest Time of the Day by a Pre-War car was a three way fight and an all-male affair. Favourite before and during the meeting was Julian Grimwade (Frazer Nash Norris Special) who had set the fastest time of the three contenders in practise. Vying to deprive him of the top spot were Tony Lees in his Cognac and Tim Greenhill in his Wolsley. When it came to the final runs, Tony and Tim were in the class before and finished with just 0.2 second difference between them. However they didn’t do quite enough to beat Julian’s morning time of 65.14s, just 0.63s ahead of Phoebe’s morning time. Could he improve and beat the post-war car? He did his bit and improved to 64.85s. As you already know, Phoebe went just that little bit faster to take overall FTD.

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Loton Park, as organised by Hagley and District Light Car Club organise a number of events throughout the year, including a round of the British HillClimb Championship. To read more about one of their more modern meetings you can read this piece

So will I be at Loton or Goodwood next year? One has excellent on track action, vintage machinery you can get up close to and is a great day out, the other is in West Sussex . I’ll stick to Loton Park.

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