Sport broadly falls into two categories – team and individual. Teams are great. You’re out there working towards a common goal and everyone’s got each other’s back. There’s someone to lean on when you make a mistake and you all play to your strengths, adding the maximum value and, hopefully, achieving that common goal. In racing, broadly speaking, you’re on your own. Whether it’s on track or working in the pits, you reap what you sow. Of course, that makes the highs all the sweeter – but the lows all the more difficult. Some of you may be thinking, but F1 teams are just that, a team. You’re not wrong, but they’re also run on budgets of hundreds of millions of dollars per year. You don’t see Max Verstappen or Lewis Hamilton whipping out a wrench and diving under the car to crank on a few extra turns of toe. They’ve got an entire garage crew to do that for them.
No such thing in club racing though. You’re the driver, team principle, race engineer and pit crew all rolled into one. It’s quite a task to be a jack of all trades and a master of all as well. Makes the barrier to entry rather large as let me tell you, things on race weekend never go to plan. Ever. Case in point my very first race of the 2021 season. Friday’s reserved for practice and a good time to get your bearings, learn the track and prepare for both qualifying and the race on Saturday. That’s in theory of course. Losing a gearbox as you go out for your second stab at the track for the day is hardly the way to go about a successful race weekend.
Now like me I’m sure many of you have never broken a gearbox before and when it happens for that first time there is confusion of the highest magnitude emanating from inside the cockpit. Sure I’d missed a gear change or two in my lifetime, but to actually find a gear or two actually missing? Now that was a new experience. Confusion is then swiftly followed by relief as 2nd was found available and in working order, so I could limp back to the pits to reassess. Then of course the cogs in your mind start to turn while the cogs in the gearbox stay frustratingly still. Is this the end of my race weekend already? A mere few hours in and the most action I’ll see is loading the car back onto the trailer and heading home with my tail between my legs? Even if I had one, how does one even go about changing a gearbox – it’s literally in the centre of the vehicle.
Let’s leave me to panic in the pit lane for a moment and get back to the individual aspect of motor racing. It was me who had a mechanical issue, so therefore it’s up to me to fix it. No reason for my fellow competitors to assist, that would be absurd. We’re here to win, not help, potentially, put someone else in front of you. That at least seems to be the attitude in many a club or regional championship and while not particularly sporting, in the short-term, I can see the motivation for such behaviour. The problem is it’s an unnecessary attitude that’s quickly contributing to the destruction of motorsport. There’s already so many barriers to entry, money being the biggest, that once you’ve got someone into your community, that community needs to band together to keep them in at all costs.
Back to me panicking in the pits. By the time everyone else has come in, I’ve worked out that this is an engine out job. This is difficult enough when you’ve got an engine hoist in a properly kitted workshop but, to my mind, next to impossible at a racetrack. But this is Lotus Challenge I’m part of, with one of the largest fields in club racing – and for good reason. Before long a new gearbox had been located, a plan formulated and action taken. All I needed to do was prepare the new gearbox, strip the car, pull the engine out, mount the new box, engine back in and put everything back together again. Simple right?
Well, no. Firstly I’ve no idea what I’m doing. Secondly, I need to get all of this done in one day and, thirdly, I still need to be able to get that retched engine both in and out the car. But that’s where the power of a healthy racing community really shines. On hand I had all the expertise I could ever need, willing hands to help with the engine and the genuine desire from all to see me back on the grid come Saturday morning. Without the help of my fellow competitors there’s no way I would have made it back, but I did. Not only did I learn more that day than I could have imagined, I also finished the race meet strongly. That day the Lotus Challenge racers showed what they’re really about and it’s that sense of community – knowing you have people around you to offer support in the tough times – that will keep me and many others coming back for more.
I implore all motorsport series to seriously consider if they would help their fellow competitor. If they would band together in someone’s time of need – or do they let them fall by the wayside and, in doing so, let a fellow race driver disappear into that all too familiar book of “oh, I used to race, but it just wasn’t worth it”. A final word of thanks must go out to all the Lotus Challenge chaps who’ve helped spanner, without whom I’d have been watching from the sidelines – instead of going wheel to wheel with in this sport that we all love so much.
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