Tuesday, 26 August 2014

British 24 Hours. Part 3 of 3: the final 12 hours

Click here to read Part 1.

Click here to read Part 2.

Sunday 17 August


With six hours in hand until my final stint, I'm just beginning to shut down when Lee Jones appears and, apologetically, summons me back to the pitlane. Jonny Spencer's pitstop is upon us; I learn that he and Lee will be double-stinting overnight, partly so that Lee can leave early and continue his holiday with the family. Having rested overnight, Russell and Lee Hackett will alternate in the morning - supported by Sophie on the pitwall - to bring #11 home.

Still in my wet race gear, cold and bone-weary, I try and imagine getting straight back in the kart for another two hours. I would have done it if called upon, of course. But I'm heartily glad that I don't have to.

Jonny is in the fuel bay, standing beside the kart as the fuellers get to work, Lee giving him a pep talk over the radio. Then he pushes the kart around to us, hops in as we start him up, and away he goes. Even allowing for the wet conditions he will have covered more than 150 laps - 200 miles - by the end of his four hour double stint. Respect.

Back under the awning, the kettle's on; hot chocolate tastes sweeter than ever. I struggle out of my soaked overalls, cup my hands around the steaming mug, watch Lee Hollywood dancing #22 through the fast chicane at improbable speed on the slick surface. Marianne wears the headset, turns to me.
"He wants laptimes..."

I pick up the weariness in her voice and, for the first time in half a day, take a good look at my wife. She's been working flat out - mostly on her feet - for 19 hours now, and is long overdue a break. I take the headset and her phone up into the cafe. In the dry and warm, I spend a few minutes monitoring Lee's laptimes, updating him over the radio, and posting a Facebook update about our progress. The rain has died off a little but the circuit is still over ten seconds away from dry pace; Lee is lapping at least half a second faster than any other team in Club Hire. Only the leaders and our own Jonny Spencer in #11 are anywhere near his pace. Lee has gained another place to bring us up to fourth; Jonny is tenth despite having lost time in the pits to a brake problem.

Geoff White, father of Ed, is at the next table; we swap updates. Ed is on track now for the Titan Motorsports owner team, which has had its share of niggling problems and is running in the lower reaches of the top ten in its class. Ed, however, is flying in the tricky conditions, taking chunks of time out of his immediate competition. Business as usual, then.

After a couple of hours' rest, Alex and Lauren have returned to the team awning, with relief, Marianne and I hand over to them and retire to our tent. It's just after 3am; we set the alarm for 5.30am, try and shut out the racket of the petrol generator twenty metres away.

Two blinks later the stopwatch is beeping, hanging above my head. Wind gusts, tugging at the tent, grey daylight flickering between the moving branches of the trees above. The generator still roars nearby but something's missing: the karts. The race has been stopped; I yank on my clothes and stumble back out to the paddock.

The engines start up as I arrive, Marianne shortly behind: Lee Hackett fills us in. It was another crash for one of the Kartforce teams, thankfully less serious than the first one in the early hours. The driver is, we're told, shaken but unhurt. In even better news, the driver involved in the first crash has been released from hospital having escaped serious injury, and has returned to the circuit. That is a big relief.

Alex is in #22 approaching the end of his stint, while Lee Jones is just about midway through his marathon double stint in #11. Both crews have gained a place in the last couple of hours - #11 up to ninth, #22 back into a podium position in third. It's been a tough night for Corporate Chauffeurs, but hard work and great damage limitation has brought us through in good shape. With seven hours still to go, I try not to think about the podium.

It's pitstop time; Lee Hackett and I and a couple of others troop around to the pitlane. We turn first #22 and then #11 around without major incident - though there's a minor delay for #11. I start the right engine, hear a shout beside me and assume I haven't got it running. I pull the cord again, but there's no give: the engine is running. The cause of the delay is elsewhere: in the kart, Lee Jones is fumbling with the fuel cap, which isn't seated correctly; it takes him five seconds to sort it out and gun the kart towards the pit exit. Momentary panic, but no lasting problem.

With Michael into his final stint in #22, it's time for me to start preparing for mine. Lauren, Sophie and Marianne are working overtime at the camping stove producing breakfast for the team. The fatigue is beginning to bite now; my stomach is very reluctant to accept the (delicious) bowl of porridge handed to me. Lee Hollywood - due on track after me at around 10am - has returned after a couple of hours' downtime, but looks grey with exhaustion. "I don't feel so good..."

Crucially, Sophie has had a little more rest, and does much to lift everyone's flagging spirits and energy levels. My stomach beats a grumbling retreat, having managed to keep down my breakfast; I follow it with the strongest coffee I can remember. Minute by minute, as the sky turns from grey to blue and sunlight begins to wash across the circuit, I begin to feel human again.

At 7.30am it's time to get ready. With energy only for the task at hand, my surroundings are a blur. If we're to make the podium, we must all cast the fatigue aside and produce a clean final stint. Third time around, my ritual is automatic: ankle weight on, overalls on, rib protector, kneepads, boots, elbow pads, radio cabling adjusted, helmet on, radio transceiver clipped to rib protector strap, switch on, test, volume, retest, velcro Push-To-Talk button to overalls lap belt, grab seat insert... and wait for the call. There's a brief delay while Marianne changes the battery on my radio, to eradicate the irritating warning beep in my head.

Alex, Lee Hollywood and Marianne walk with me around to the pitlane. We meet Lee Jones on the way - somehow still conscious after over four hours in #11 - and I say a hasty goodbye. He'll have left before my stint is over; I'm sorry I don't have more time to thank him for all his help.

As I wait for Michael, the adrenalin is doing its thing: the tingle runs from my core to my fingertips. By the time I hear Marianne give him the BOX command I'm practically hopping from foot to foot. Michael rolls #22 into an empty fuel bay - perfect timing yet again - and delivers us the kart in excellent time. Like clockwork, I'm in and away; throughout the race, the pitstops on both karts have been exemplary.

The third stint always feels different. The circuit often seems quieter somehow, as if the field has clumped into three or four big trains, leaving long gaps in between. With Marianne urging me on over the radio, I dig deep and pour everything I have into extracting every last tenth without putting a wheel wrong or overstressing the kart. All fatigue has lifted away; my ten weeks of Teesside-specific training - hundreds of miles run, thousands of repeats in weight and core strength training - are paying off. I'm loving every second and the traffic - both Standard Hire and other Club Hire karts - is falling out of my way.

When Marianne gives me the one hour check, she asks if I can carry on for a full second hour: it will reduce the length of Lee and Alex's final stints to around 90 minutes. I remember the pallor of Lee's skin and answer yes without a second thought. I'm managing just fine and the pace is strong.

In my final 30 minutes the adrenalin finally starts to lose its battle with exhaustion; still it's with a pang of regret that I hear the BOX command. I peel into the pitlane, register over 215kg on the weighbridge again - could have managed without the ankle weight after all - and pour my last calories into pushing the kart towards the driver change area before releasing it to Jonny and Alex, and jumping out of the way. As Lee Hollywood blasts away towards the pit exit, I lean on the barrier as the others crowd around me.

Job done. I've kept us in third place. There's little for me to do now but wait. And dare to hope.

And eat. While I've done two hours on track, the girls - and Lauren in particular - appear to have done a similar stint making bacon sandwiches. Lauren takes a break from the camping stove while Marianne creates the Mother of all bacon and egg baps for me. Life is good - and improves further when an abundance of bacon grants me a second bap. Despite the number of Corporate Chauffeurs bodies, we've overcatered; Marianne begins stopping passersby and offering them food. Ryan Smith looks tempted, but is soon due on track for his final stint.

The Squadra Abarth team - Ryan, Connor Marsh, Ben Allward, captain Mike Kettlewell and pit/strategy wizard David Hird - have been beavering away since a couple of issues dropped them to 18th in class in the early hours. They're back up to fourth, a couple of laps behind us, and are keeping us on our toes - a compact, efficient team which combines serious pace with local knowledge.

The Northampton Maidens are still second, two laps ahead of us, having shown searing pace since the opening hour and, as far as I know, suffered no major issues. Leaders Teesside Tigers are long gone; having made the most of a visible straight line speed advantage, they're several laps ahead and will easily win our class barring any mishaps.

Lee Hollywood grits his way through his final stint with typical finesse; as 11.30am approaches, we troop around to the pitlane for the final time: Russell will take over from Lee Hackett to bring #11 home, with Sophie on the radio, while Marianne will call Lee in to hand #22 over to Alex. There's an end-of term feel in the air; with 90 minutes to go, a journey which started within days of last year's race will soon end.

#11 is turned around first, without delay; Russell heading out for the final time. They're ninth in class, with no hope of advancement unless other teams have problems; yet their enthusiasm is undimmed.

Marianne and Alex call Corporate Chauffeurs' final pitstop of 2014. Like virtually all the others it's as slick as a very slick thing. Only an avoidable extra pitstop for #22 in hour 10 mars an otherwise flawless record. With two karts to service and twice as many opportunities for things to go wrong, the team has risen to the challenge; from an operational standpoint, 2014 is easily our best year at the British 24 Hours.

Now, the minutes count down and we worry. We derig the awning, tidy away our gear, begin loading up the cars to try and avoid thinking about the race. About the karts and the merciless beating they've taken over a thousand plus miles. About how tired Alex and Russell must now be. We know, as every endurance race team knows, that our podium finish could evaporate in a second. It's happened to us before.

With half an hour to go, Marianne, Michael and I encounter Becca outside the briefing room. She raises her hands. "You're up to second!"


Hurriedly she fills us in. The Northampton Maidens #37 kart lost its Nassau panel at high speed and has been stopped out on track while it's replaced. We've passed them and so has the Squadra Abarth team, dropping them to fourth.

We're not jumping for joy, though. Michael voices all our thoughts.
"I don't like getting second like that..."

There's talk in Race Control, briefly, of giving them the laps back, of restoring them to their original position. It comes to nothing and rightly so; the kart can run without its Nassau panel but is not legal. It's a mechanical failure. Cruel luck for the Maidens, and we sympathize. To their great credit, they seem philosophical about it - outwardly at least.

While this has been going on, the 68-kart leviathan continues to roar towards its conclusion, the leaders well past a thousand laps - 1300 miles - and counting. With five minutes to run, we crowd the barriers, anxiously seeking out our men and our machines, praying that both will last for just a few more miles.

1pm has come and gone by my watch, the held breath threatening to explode my chest... then I see them. Twin chequered flags held high, either side of the finishing line... dropped as the overall winners - MS Soco Select - power through. We cheer Russell home in #11, then I'm looking for Alex. I find him at the end of the banking... through the right hander, then the slow left, accelerating towards the line.

I'm up on the barriers, fist punching the air as Alex takes the flag in second place and the weight of three years of dashed hopes, disappointment and heartache lifts from my shoulders. It's done.

Like every male I avoid visible emotion at all costs, but I can't hold back the tears as I hug my wife and the others who made it happen. There's a huge gulf between knowing you're good enough for the podium and actually proving it; ascending the steps (to a huge cheer from the assembled populace) with the rest of the #22 crew is one of the sweetest racing moments of my life. As Alex accepts the trophy, his grin surely must be visible from space.

I'm delighted to be able to join the Squadra Abarth team up there - their third consecutive third place. Mike, Ryan, Connor and Ben - and their supporters - are as pleased for us as we are for them.

The winning team - Teesside Tigers - ran unchallenged for the length of the race. That doesn't make it any easier though. They had the machinery to win, and they won: we salute them.

There's a lasting ovation for the Northampton Maidens, denied a debut podium in the final minutes; they win a trophy for fastest lap in Club Hire and are named the most sporting team - thoroughly deserved.

There's more applause and thanks for the hardworking Teesside staff. This race is as relentless for the marshals, mechanics and race control staff as it is for us. A special mention for the fuel bay crews, who go about their dangerous job with speed, efficiency and endless good cheer - greatly appreciated by exhausted drivers in the dead of night.

For 2014, that just about wraps it up. There's still unfinished business, of course - until Corporate Chauffeurs finishes 1-2, there always will be. The #11 crew - Lee Jones, Lee Hackett, Russell Endean and Jonny Spencer, with Sophie and John backing them up - is an exceptional driver lineup; ninth place both a poor reward for their talent and dedication, and a place or two higher than most would have managed.

For #22 - Alex Vangeen, Lee Hollywood, Michael Weddell and myself, backed up by Marianne, Lauren and Chris Hollywood - the chips have finally fallen our way. We didn't execute a perfect race - there are lessons to be learned, as always - but our result is the best we could have achieved with the machinery we had.

For me, better even than the result is the spirit, the commitment, the enthusiasm and the sheer hard work put in by each and every member of the team - drivers and supporters alike; I'm privileged to work with them. The support we receive, both from our friends in the karting community and elsewhere, is hugely appreciated.

I think Michael summed up the Corporate Chauffeurs experience best of all:


Thanks for reading.

Click here to read Part 1.

Click here to read Part 2.