The first time I watched a Hot Rod race was Spedeweekend 2000. I was ten years old and from that moment on I knew I wanted to race one. I had just started racing my Mini, and all through the next six years the thought of turning 16 and being able to get one sat in the back of my mind.
As my 16th grew closer I was racing at Tongham on the dirt one weekend, then at the Oval Race Club in Worthing on the fast concrete track the next, and I couldn’t decide which I enjoyed the most. The thought of Nationals still seemed something of a far off dream. Finally we decided that we would do both and a new 2-litre Corsa was ordered - the plan was to have it with two sets of suspension points so we could run struts to race on the dirt but be able to swap it over to wishbones at a later date if we changed plans.
As with all the best laid plans, this is not how it turned out! My Dad happened to be talking to Robin Pickett one day and he mentioned that he was thinking of selling his car, one he’d been running in Nationals. It was his old SHP 205 that had been rebuilt and re-panelled as a Saxo. He only lives an hour or so away from us, and we arranged to go over and have a look one Saturday afternoon. When we got there and saw the car I pretty much fell in love with it straight away, a National was like everything I had ever dreamed of and here we were looking at buying one!
The deal was done and several weeks later it sat surrounded by Minis in our workshop. Even though we had the car we never considered racing it in Nationals straight away, and we obviously couldn’t race it on the dirt either, so we decided to keep on racing at
Worthing. I had just won the ‘Junior’ and the ‘Overall Points’ championships there, and at the time they had several quite quick Hot Rods blasting round in the open Hot Rod class, so that seemed the best thing to do.
The car sat in the garage through the winter and we gradually sold off the Minis that I’d spent the past six years racing. I’d loved every second of racing them and was sad to see them go, but at the same time it felt like a new chapter was beginning, and I was excited about getting out there and driving the new car.
A Hot Rod is a lot bigger than a Mini so the chances of it fitting into the little box trailer we’d been using were less than zero - this meant that the first few times we went out testing we had to try and load it onto the back of one of the work trucks. . . this involved scaffold planks, numerous other bits of wood and quite often a lot of swearing on Dad’s part!
I’ll never forget the first time I drove the car. We had arranged to go and practice at the track in
Worthing. It’s a long track on a hill with a big flowing corner at the top that you could take flat out in a Mini, and a really tight one at the bottom that you really had to brake hard to get round. It’s relatively wide and according to most people very bumpy. I never used to notice the bumps though, having spent so long bouncing around on the dirt! When I set off in the car the power and speed just blew me away - it was completely different to a Mini and I couldn’t get enough of it. I loved the rear wheel drive and was over the moon that I managed to keep it pointing the right way without spinning it all day! We practiced several more times before the start of the season and as I got faster the spins did start to become more frequent.
As it was an open Hot Rod class, they ran it on a handicap system with the smaller engine front wheel drive cars at the front, and the space-framed rear wheel drive cars at the back. I remember starting my first race just ahead of a National-spec Fiesta and next to a V8 powered Astra. To say they got an assortment of cars would be an understatement. Like I’ve said before I’m not very good at remembering what happens in races but I know I crossed the line third - just behind the Fiesta!
We spent all season racing there and learning about the car and how to make it quicker. At the end of the season we finished second, and although there had never been more than 15 cars a meeting, I was still really pleased with the result and we decided to head back the next year and try and win it.
The next year saw a few less cars racing at each round but the ones that were coming were the quicker rear-wheel drive machines. I was starting right at the back now, and getting though to the front was becoming more of a challenge. However by mid-season we found ourselves at the top of the points!
We had been talking about doing something different the next season and thought we would go and try a couple of outlaw meetings at Arena Essex on Saturday nights. Racing under the lights was a whole new thing for me and I found the atmosphere to be almost electric. I still love racing under lights now, the darkness seems to amplify all your feelings and sharpen your senses. I enjoyed the couple of meetings I did but didn’t want to get too involved because winning the
Worthing points was still at the front of my mind.
I remember one meeting Dickie Burtenshaw - who had won the points several times previously and is a bit of a local legend down there - turned up out of the blue to race. He literally stuck right on my bumper for every lap of every race but I managed to keep him at bay and win the final. I still view it as one of my best races to date. There is a photo of us on the pace car in our kitchen!
At the end of the season we found ourselves still at the top of the points chart and started thinking about what to do the following year. We got chatting to Bill Bourne who told us about the new one-tyre rule in Nationals, and how Hoosiers were actually a bit cheaper than Avons! Maybe at last racing Nationals was something we could consider.
A few weeks and a couple of phone calls later found me holding a provisional licence for the following year. Eight years since the first time I had watched them I would find myself out there racing one!
My first National meeting is a story in itself, and one I will no doubt share at some point! On a more recent note though, I have just spent the weekend out testing the Tigra and I’ll tell you all about that next week.
Thanks as ever for reading.