“You can train till you’re blue in the face and have a totally empty wallet, but until you’ve faced popping out of the pit lane into a live race situation, nothing can prepare you for it.”
This is the final part of a two-part blog series. Click Here to read Part One.
Spending time with the CATDT team over the years, training, helping to put together training programmes with them for engineers meant I was already a few steps up the ladder with car control and applied knowledge of vehicle dynamics, behaviour and orientation on tracks. But nothing prepared me for what lay ahead.
My first stint
You can train till you’re blue in the face and have a totally empty wallet, but until you’ve faced popping out of the pit lane into a live race situation, nothing can prepare you for it, no stories, no pictures or videos will ever replace that feeling of total fear of not wanting to embarrass yourself, fall off the track, bend the car or right at the top of my fear list – let everyone down in the team with slow lap times and losing places. This was my worry. It played on me all through qualifying night, whilst I lay in bed and also during my first stint.
The numerous safety car sessions exascerbated my worry – competitors were not respecting the track, the wet conditions as well as their fellow drivers. In my monster 155 minute first stint, I think I had 6 or 7 safety car restarts -they are terrifying – you can’t train for those! Being the fourth car behind the safety car with 95 cars behind you is intense, you have to make the restart count and be brave enough to get your elbows out and protect yourself.
I was glad to get my first few hours out of the way and we’d made it up to position 42. Did I enjoy it? No, not really as I had too much to deal with and could only concentrate on surviving and not enjoying the moment. I handed over to Dave and let him work his magic. Phil would be up next, then Colin, then me again, just as dawn was breaking, or a bit later if there were more SC sessions. Now sleep, or try to sleep just after midnight, still buzzing from adrenaline and relief that I’d survived, unscathed! Not one bang, touch or thump.
04:33am, a message from Jo via all conceivable ways of contacting me to say I needed to be in the garage for 04:50am. Up, dressed, showered, togged up and in the garage by 04:50 – I impressed myself as normally it takes me 17 minutes to get everywhere to “check in” when I wake up. Colin was out on track, quick Facebook live update for everyone to wake up to – time for some caffeine and porridge.
Where’s Colin? There’s a SC on track, where is he? The car marker from the live feed had stopped, he was nowhere to be seen. Sinking feeling. Matt, Sam and Jake are now on high alert as we’re waiting to see what happens. Colin has been towed back to the pits with major front offside damage. A car that was sliding away suddenly hooked up and “reversed back” into Colin. He made the right decision i.e. aim for where the car used to be and you’ll get through, don’t aim for the gap. But physics played a cruel trick and took him out. We had lost our hard-fought position #36.
We’d already lost 20 minutes and been given a 3 lap penalty for assistance. Matt and the team worked relentlessly to get us back out. New lower wishbone, wheel, tyre, steering arm, driveshaft and drop link were fitted, along with a visit from Mr Hammer plus enough gaffer tape to attach an elephant to the wall for a week. 1.5 hours were lost in total and we dropped from #36 to 79th.
Engineer meets Racing Driver
I was ready to get into the car earlier than planned, but it was time for my engineering and evaluator head to kick in and make sure the car was safe. Fuelled and pushed out to the pit lane, one lap of the paddock to see if things still worked and nothing seemed too scary with the car, no clonks, crunches or anything. Only issue – no ABS, the sensor had got damaged in the impact. This was going to take every ounce of skill I had as someone who specialised in braking systems to get this car round the track in the wet with no ABS or EBD.
The balance of the car was going to be totally out. After a few laps learning new braking points and making sure braking was done in as straight a line as humanly possible, (otherwise a wheel or axle would unload, causing the front or back to lock up), the track finally started to dry. My confidence with the car grew and every time it hooked up mid-corner, I knew where the new limits were.
My times tumbled. Applying every scrap of knowledge gained from Colin, Phil and Dave and using my engineering evaluator head, I pushed as hard as I could. Times dropped from 3:34 a lap, then to 3:28, 3:21, 3:16, 3:14, 3:12, 3:11 I’d matched my fastest time ever around the GP circuit. Then 3:10.5 popped up, hang on, what’s going on? 3:10 dead, 3:09.7, 3:09 dead, then I squeezed into the 3:08’s. I’d somehow found 2.5 seconds plus, off my fastest time ever with a damaged car and no ABS. I was clawing back at our lost places. I was so happy with my drive. Handing over to Dave was a major brain dump of the last 154 minutes of driving. Do this, do that, don’t do that and stay away from the wet part of the track. I enjoyed that – this is what I was here for, enjoyment and proof I could be competitive. It was made even more fantastic by the fact I’d got a damaged car round and, nursed it back to competitiveness after an amazing rebuild by the Track Toys guys. This is racing!!
Bring it home
It was down to three of us now to bring it home – Colin had to pull out as he’d damaged his shoulder in the impact. Car comes in, Phil jumps out, I’m back in and on a used set of tyres we need to make last and not overdrive – we want to give Dave a fresh set for the end of the race. Matt knows I’m kind on tyres whilst now banging in good place grabbing times.
“Do NOT do anything stupid – find a time, bring it home, don’t lose places” was all that was going through my head, at which point I fell off at Brooklands. I was forced wide onto some debris that caused the back end to step out – I wasn’t quick enough to catch it, but survived. Didn’t enjoy that. A few laps later, I was pushed off at Stowe towards the kitty litter, survived that – phew! Off again at Brooklands, rear tyres are shot. Driving and lines must now be modified on these two corners.
Pit board comes out after what felt like an eternity “Fuel +5”, I’m sweating and fighting hard to stay out of trouble, put in consistent times and not go backwards down the board. My breathing is getting heavier, my grip is tightening on the wheel which is not helping – relax and bring it home – bring it home. Locked in a battle with a few cars and I’m not giving up, I will get past safely. Heart pounding, pit board countdown is coming down. Then the last board comes out simply saying “IN”. My concentration level is up again as this will be a hard lap. I don’t want to stop but my lap times are increasing as my tyres have now gone – it is the right decision.
Down the pit lane and stop at our garage, out the car, brain dump to Dave to allow him to bring the car home. “Make sure you still brake in a straight line, slight tyre rub on hard left-hand corners, they’re getting aggressive, again you must take new rubber, they’re shot.” Dave leaves the garage – I am done. My driving time has come to an end in this amazing weekend that we have had.
The emotion has got me
Live TV stream commentator: “Ooh, someone’s, now… is he ok, has he had a fall? No… it’s just the sheer exhaustion, you can just see, bent over… This is what endurance racing does to drivers irrespective of their level”.
Watch the moment captured on the live broadcast below.
I’m now sat on the floor in a heap, trying to slow my breathing down, exhausted, tired, nothing left to give, trying to take stock of what I have just achieved in my automotive career and now, my new racing one. I’ve gone from “just” an engineer keeping people safe, to learning how to drive competitively with CAT Driver Training. My first test sessions, my first qualifying session in the dark and wet, three mammoth driving sessions with safety cars, accidents, panel bashing, wind, rain sunshine, damaged vehicle and the support of the most fantastic people I have had the honour and privilege to work with.
I can’t get up, the emotion has got me, the magnitude of what I’ve just achieved gets me, I can’t talk, breathe and the tears of happiness, relief, pressure and stress are coming out. I can’t stop myself, I’m not coming out of my helmet, I’m staying in here. I can’t let people see me like this. Too late, Colin has knelt beside me and given me a massive hug saying “I bet you’re glad we had that chat last year, aren’t you? Well done, a fantastic achievement.”
Someone then asks if I’m OK, “What’s wrong?” and I hear Colin say that “He’s having a moment”. What a bloody moment it was. Matt kneels next to me and with arm round my shoulder, congratulates me on getting the car back to being competitive and giving the others the confidence to drive it hard again. This does not help, I’m now a teary, snotty mess in my helmet. I have to get up, my eyes are stinging and my bum hurts from being on the floor. Neil helps me up as the exhaustion properly kicks in, which is what was caught on camera. Colin is there, Jo, Jen, Neil, Matt, just smiling at me and talking, I can’t take it in properly. Eventually, I come out of my helmet just as my family and work colleague walks through the pit garage door and ask why my eyes and face are red!
We completed 24 Hours of endurance racing!
Dave brings the car home in 57th, not what we wanted, but we finished. We did it and after the repair we weren’t sure if we’d do it, but we did. If our calculations are right, we actually think we’d have made it into the top 20, given the times we were posting and our pit stop strategy. But hey, we made it home.
Watch Jo’s Facebook Live showing the cars return at the end of the race (see how many you can spot minus a windscreen)!
We had just completed a 24-hour endurance race. I’d driven in my stints, more than a season of racing time for some other championships and faced absolutely everything that could be thrown at me, minus a plague of frogs and raining brimstone! Phil summed it up nicely “if you can do that, and what you’ve achieved with us, you can race anything!”
My thoughts on training with CATDT and the C1 Racing Experience
Entering a race is not something to be taken lightly. Everyone wants to do it, everyone has a childhood dream of being a racing driver and generally, only a minority that achieve it. The C1 racing experience is a way to make it accessible to all and for that, I’m extremely grateful. It has provided me with so many memories, new friends – people who are now my racing family and helped take away that self-doubt of “can I do this and be competitive?” Accepting me into their world, we achieved something very special. But, it was also only made possible by investing time with CAT Driver Training to help me prepare for our endurance race.
The knowledge that Colin shared along with Phil and David who have all been through the process, the 6-day Race Academy Programme, is paramount to being safe out there on the track, along with being competitive and respectful to those around you.
So, you see, it is possible to take an engineer and re-programme him to be a racing driver. For anyone with doubts about having a go – do it. Grab it by the horns and make it happen. I hope that I’ll be out again soon as I’ve got the racing itch now, and it needs scratching!
Jo said this: “Amazing to have shared this experience with you Nic and such a joy to witness the change from fear, trepidation, apprehension, to ‘I can do this’, ‘I did this’ and ‘I’m so glad I have done this’. Life is about experience and what a one this was.”