Monday, 5 September 2011

British 24 Hours. Teesside, 26-28 August 2011 - part two

(Click here for part one)

Saturday 27 - Sunday 28 August

4.55pm. As I pass the pits I'm hardly looking at the track now. I'm searching the sea of colour trackside for a sign. Any sign telling me to pit. Finally I catch a glimpse of a familiar helmet, a beckoning hand. At last: Lee is suited up and raring to go. With renewed vigour, I do one more lap and peel off into the pitlane. Traffic in the fuel bay ahead clears as I arrive; I stop the engines, clamber out as the marshal begins to fill the tank.

Fatigue hits me like a sledgehammer and I stagger, grabbing hold of the steering wheel as the marshal finishes and ushers me forward. I have to push the kart fifty metres: around a 180 degree corner and along the pitlane to a tape set at shoulder height, beyond which the team waits. But it won't move. Fighting back panic as the seconds bleed away, I lean in, push with all of my fading strength, and coax it into a dribble of motion. Finally I make it to the tape, where my numbed hands slip off the wheel. Somebody shouts behind me, and there's a flurry of motion behind the now freewheeling kart. I stand upright. I have nothing left.

I have little memory of the hour that follows. When I come to, I'm sitting under the gazebo, back in my street clothes. Marianne feeds me tea. Alex feeds me information. From the outside, my stint wasn't nearly as disastrous as it felt. My laptimes weren't as quick as they should have been, but they were consistent. Amazingly, I made up a couple of places. We're solidly inside the top ten in our class, having started 13th. I'm frustrated with the way things have gone, but I haven't hurt the team effort as much as I thought. Having wanted nothing more than to go home in a sulk after getting out of the kart, I've pulled myself together and am able to contemplate my second stint in five hours' time.

On track, Lee is flying, lapping quicker than Alex and I despite being heavier; like all exceptional drivers, he makes it look easy. We're looking forward to seeing what Ben can do: he's the lightest of all and comes with a glittering CV.

As the end of Lee's stint nears, we're assembled in the pits again. So far all four drivers have taken part in each pitstop; we'll need a better solution overnight so that each of us can get some sleep. Lee comes in a little earlier than we were expecting. But aside from the left engine, again reluctant to fire, it's a clean stop. Helmet off, Lee reveals that the kart was virtually out of fuel: his combination of weight and speed means that he can't run the full two hours.

At six hours in, the team is settling into a routine. Marianne has been in charge of the stopwatches almost since the start, and has been taking her turn on the radio - keeping the driver on track informed of laptimes, position, and incidents on track. The rest of us alternate between time on the pitwall, filling our faces and resting our weary bones. Jo has kept us company in between taking care of little Eva, and now brings her down to the circuit to watch Daddy strut his stuff. As Ben blasts past to set our fastest lap of the race so far, Eva beams around at all of us, and giggles.

After a hearty dinner of chili con carne and chips, I film a video diary and retire to our tent to put my head down for an hour. My body is a little battered but basically sound, my ribs mercifully undamaged. At 10.30pm I emerge refreshed and ready to go, spirits undampened by the light rain. I'm a different person to the broken man of six hours ago: such is the way of endurance racing.

This pitstop includes a visit to the garage for scheduled maintenance, and involves the whole team. Having done sterling work on track in the wet, as always, Alex leaps out of the kart and helps Lee start it; I hop in for the short drive down the hill, where Ben and Jo are waiting. Ben helps me adjust my radio cables as the maintenance crew swing into action with spanners and oil; three minutes later the kart is refreshed. Ben and Alex start me up and off I go. I don't notice at the time, but Marianne is there too. She's off to one side, filming my departure.

From the outset, this stint is a world away from the first. With all of my gear adjusted and working as it should, and my ribs adequately shielded, I can at last focus on the driving and enjoy this incredible circuit. The rain has died off, but the circuit is damp to begin with; three laps into my stint I'm laughing out loud as I thread the kart through the Esses at sixty miles an hour with spray speckling my visor.

Marianne is on the radio urging me on; once the circuit has dried I'm lapping a second quicker than in my first stint, while most karts seem to be lapping slower. Having been overtaken left right and centre earlier, now I'm scything through the field. My day is made when I overtake kart no.1 - Team Banzai, Bradley's team. Brad isn't at the wheel, but it's a real coup given that their kart is a couple of seconds per lap faster than ours.

Despite strong padding my right knee is starting to take a beating from the steering column supports, as usual - but I don't want the stint to end. In fact I miss my first radio call to pit and come in a lap later. Again, sadly, my pitstop is a mess. I forget to detach my radio cable from the wheel and hop out. The result is similar to THAT scene from 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding'.

The marshal helps me out while still filling the tank and no time is lost - but my visor has somehow locked shut and steams up instantly, blinding me. I push the kart straight into a bollard, cursing as somebody helps me back it up. Navigating by guesswork, I roll it down the pitlane. The team receive it gratefully; once I get my visor up I'm hugely impressed to see Jo bent over the rear spraying lubricant onto the chain as Lee jumps in. For the second time, I can't get the left engine started and am beginning to get a complex about it - but later discover that it's recalcitrant for everyone. As Lee roars down the pitlane, the clock strikes 1am.

Half distance.

As the graveyard shift wears on and the drivers take turns to snatch a few hours' rest, the girls come into their own. With Eva tucked up in bed, Jo has been keeping Marianne company on the pitwall; in a race like this it's vital to watch the driver on track at all times. I stay with them until the end of Lee's stint, adding my own video diary to the two Marianne has filmed in the meantime.

By ten to three, Ben is awake and raring to go; we bring Lee in and send him on his way. There's a surreal sheen to everything now, as our body clocks fight the flood of adrenalin and caffeine, and the undiminished roar of the karts shuts out all other sound.

Again, Lee has put in an excellent stint, but it's taken its toll. Even allowing for the harsh lighting, he looks pale, but waves it off and joins us on the pitwall. We're now fifth in class; aside from a brief visit to the garage to fix a snapped throttle cable early on, the kart has run faultlessly. None of us has put a wheel wrong and we've all used our BRKC-honed overtaking skills to good effect in the traffic. Despite my troubles in the first stint, we're doing very well for a novice team. The podium is probably a dream too far, but it won't stop us trying.

I stay with Marianne until 3.40am, watching Ben set a string of ultra-fast laps, before heading off to bed. She watches over Ben alone until she's relieved by Alex and Lee, and finally crawls into bed at 5am. She's an absolute star, and I'm very proud of her.

I snap awake, snug in my sleeping bag, to find Marianne curled up next to me. It takes me a moment to realise what has awoken me: the circuit is silent. A chill strikes me. There's only one reason for all the karts to have stopped. A serious accident. I'm tempted to go and see. But I need sleep if I'm to avoid an accident of my own. Hoping it's not Ben, I drift off again. Later I'm to discover that the race was stopped for 40 minutes while the paramedics treated an injured driver.

6am. I crawl out of the tent into a chilly dawn, the sky like polished chrome. I feel as if I've done twelve rounds with a cement truck but my body reports that, although it doesn't appreciate all the abuse, it will stand up to one more stint in the kart.

I find Lee on the pitwall and grab a granola bar as we watch Alex tearing round. After a total of five hours in the kart, he'll be running on wits and adrenalin now, but there's no outward sign of it: he looks committed but controlled, as always. Lee tells me that we're a little behind schedule with the timing of our stops, because of his and Alex's added fuel consumption. My stint will have to be over two hours, perhaps as much as 2 hours 15 minutes. I nod, silence the complaints from various parts of my body, and hope I'll be able to hold on.

By the time Alex pits, I'm as ready as I'll ever be. Hoping to avoid the problems I had with my suit early on, I've wired the radio cable differently, running it through the groin zip of my suit instead of at the top. It's a tidy stop, and I'm soon rocketing down the pitlane. It's turning into a beautiful morning, perfect conditions for racing, and I'm feeling as good as I could reasonably expect.

Within two laps I'm aware of an ominous breeze around my armpits: sure enough, my suit has unzipped itself again. It's taken longer than last time, but is obviously not caused by the radio cable as I had thought. Sustained high speed and perished Velcro look to be the cause: time for a new set of overalls, methinks. I spend a few laps zipping it up and finally get the Velcro to stick. It stays in place for the rest of the stint.

The first forty minutes are a little fraught, what with the suit and a sudden desperate need to pee. But it stabilises; I'm driving quite well, and find myself passing swathes of tired drivers and ailing karts with relative ease. With the sun rising over the bottom end of the circuit, it's easier to mark time than in previous stints, and my spirits lift when I spot Marianne watching from the pitwall at around 8am.

Into my final hour, it's teeth-gritting time, as the repeated impacts on my right knee begin to break through the adrenalin. But after more than 200 laps I'm loving this circuit more than ever. With its huge scale and breathtaking high speed corners, it's a tremendous challenge. Somehow it seems right that the Belgian Grand Prix coincides with this race. Daytona Milton Keynes will always be home for me, but Teesside is my Spa.

I'm sure 9am is fast approaching, and the fuel is sloshing around in the bottom of the tank between my legs. Marianne is clearly visible on the pitwall, in her turquoise coat, and I'm waiting for her to raise our bright blue pitboard to call me in. The kart roars as healthily as ever, but I'm super-tuned for the slightest hint of a splutter. We're cutting it fine this time, as we have to. The fuel is running out, and so is my stamina.

At last! As I round the final corner, the bright blue circle is waving. I peel straight into the pitlane with a tiny pang of regret. But there's still work to do: I detach the radio cable, stop the engines, leap out, ready myself, heave the kart with all my might, push it around the hairpin, under the tape, and hand it over. Lee is in and gone. Third time lucky: I've managed a decent pitstop.

Alex is all smiles, full of praise - keeping my spirits high, as he has done since the beginning. We're fourth in class, the highest we have been all race. But I'm done, in more ways than one. The adrenalin drains like water from a bath, and my body starts to crash. Fuelled by a gallon of tea and a bacon buttie, I film our last in-race video diary, in which I utter the fateful words 'Anything can still happen...'

Lee's final pitstop goes like clockwork, and we're still fourth as we send Ben on his way for the final stint to the flag, a little over two hours away. Lee has clearly taken a beating, and looks grey and ill. We're concerned, but he waves it off, as usual, and runs to the toilet. A few minutes later he's back, much relieved, and clutching a burger and chips. What he'd thought he was a stomach bug turned out to be extreme hunger.

12.10pm. Marianne and I are in the briefing room watching the timing screens, when the green blob next to Team BRKC changes to a black square. I frown, ask the man next to me what it means.
'In the pits, I think.'
Through the window, I spot Alex running up the hill from the pits with a face like thunder.


We run down to the garage. Ben is out of the kart, which is up on stands as the mechanics go to work. He reports that the chain on the right engine snapped, and has clearly done a superb job to get back to the pits under his own power. But soon it's clear that the problem is more serious: the driveshaft has sheared and a new engine is required. It takes ten very long minutes - phenomenally fast for such a big job - before rubber connects with tarmac again, and the engines are fired up. Ben rockets out onto the track and we trudge up to the briefing room to examine the damage to our race.

It's bleak: we've dropped from fourth in class to tenth. With just forty minutes to go, there's little hope of improvement. Alex is virtually in tears, but in our exhaustion, Lee and I are more philosophical. This sort of thing happens. There was nothing more we could have done. And crucially, we haven't lost a podium place because of it.

As 1pm approaches, everyone assembles by the track to cheer their men across the line. We clap and cheer as Ben takes the chequered flag - ninth, as it turned out - and I don't know about the others, but I go a little blurry as I hug my wife. We've all given everything we had, plus a little more, and we've brought the kart home safely. We've made the top ten, finished higher than we qualified, and all of us are in one piece.

We all stay for the presentation and catch up with friends in other teams. No fewer than four of the teams present contain some BRKC drivers, and two have made the podium: Bradley's team Banzai have won the club hire class, and Jack Stanley's team have finished second in our class. In seven weeks time, Jack will captain my team for the Daytona 24 Hours. I hope it's a good omen.

For now, it's time for Team BRKC to disband, and it's a sad moment. If they gave out medals for team spirit we'd have a motherlode, and everyone has worked incredibly hard on and off track to make the experience as memorable as it could be. Alex brought us together in the first place, and his boundless enthusiasm kept us together in the leadup to the race and throughout; Lee brought decades of experience, a van full of useful kit, and gave us our visual identity with his specially-produced stickers and team hoodies.

Ben very kindly stepped in at short notice when two other drivers had to drop out; along with his superb wheel skills he brought the radio gear which took our race to another level; his seemingly endless reserves of energy kept us going to the end. And of course, he brought Jo, who proved not only great company but very handy with a can of chain lube; and Eva, surely capable of melting the hardest of hearts.

And me? I tried my best not to do anything stupid on track, and put down some words and video as a record. And, of course, I brought Marianne, who took to her pitwall duties like a veteran.

It's been the toughest race of my life and as the dust settles, I'm sure that all our thoughts are turning to how we can do better. There are already plans for the BRKC to return to Teesside in 2012 - probably with more than one team.

I look forward to taking on the world's best over 24 hours again. 2011 was a learning year. Next time, we'll be prepared.

(Click here for part one)

No comments:

Post a Comment