So, you want to be a race car driver: A rude awakening on first weekend

For a number of years I’ve wanted to race cars. I tried various means of getting into it, all of which turned out to be the wrong avenues. For example, I bought an old Datsun with the hopes of turning it into a Historic Racer. I have since learnt that the best way to get a race car is to buy one that’s just come off the race track. It takes a lot of time, dedication and money to turn a road car into a race car. Lesson learned.

Another attempt was last year, where I took part in a season of endurance karting along with three friends. That was a nice introduction into motorsport but I soon felt like a step up to bigger circuits, faster cars and the challenge that comes with it.

A few years ago I ran into a company called Leet Racing, run by Andre. He’s been involved in Lotus Challenge racing for as long as he can remember. It is a series for Lotus 7 replicas and Leet Racing specialises in class L (which stands for Locost). The cars are powered by 1.6 litre Ford Rocam engines, from the late 1990s Fiesta. The rules are specified in such a manner as to try keep costs to a minimum, so sets of tyres are limited, you can’t modify the engine, all the cars have to comply with a minimum weight, etc. The added benefit is that everyone has largely the same machinery, which should yield great racing and prove the best driver, not just the best car.

When I first met Andre he was kind enough to let my colleague Nick and me loose around Zwartkops in one of his machines. You see Leet Racing has a small fleet of race cars that anyone (with a few caveats) can rent for a season and join the Lotus Challenge. At the time I thought I could do it better, as outlined above. Fast forward three years and I’ve found myself back at Andre’s door step, signed up with Leet Racing for a season in one of his Locost 7s.

This last weekend was my first race, held at RedStar Raceway nearby Delmas. It’s a track I don’t know particularly well, having only visited there a handful of times with the likes of Audi, Mercedes and Suzuki for vehicle launches. So three weekends back I attended one of the circuits open days where anyone, in pretty much any vehicle, can rock up and drive around the track to improve their abilities. Kitted out in my shiny, immaculately prepared Lotus 7 I tore around the track intent on learning which way the corners went and then improving lap times.

Good drivers in class L manage around 2min 17 secs at RedStar (great ones nearer 2min 15). I started out at 2min 26 but by the end of the day had shaved 7 seconds off my time to dip into the 2min 19s. Not too shabby I thought.

Come race weekend and I arrived at RedStar late on Friday afternoon brimming with a quiet confidence after my ‘stellar’ performance in practice but more than anything shaking with nerves. What had I forgotten at home? How far behind everyone was I going to be? How would I react on a grid full of 20-something entries when the lights went out? Safe to say I didn’t get a whole lot of sleep that evening.

Saturday morning broke and I was up and ready around 7am thanks in no small part to a lukewarm shower. Qualifying was at 10am but I had plenty of checks to complete. Fuel? Check. Wheel nuts? Check. Tyre pressures? After some discussion with fellow drivers, check. A quick bite for breakfast and then I decided to get comfortable early. So I suited up and went to sit in my car, helmet by my side and began to unpack the corners in my mind.

Next thing I know and we’re lining up ready to go out for qualifying. I’m strapped in so tight I can hardly breathe, fiddling with my timing device to make sure I’m ready to monitor my runs. The marshall waves the green flag and we all peel onto the circuit, warming tyres and giving each other space so as not to impede anyone. I take it slow at first, hoping to build into it like I had done at practice three weeks earlier. Until I came across another competitor in my path and soon I was chomping at the bit to catch and pass him. Nothing like a target at which to aim. Fifteen minutes later I had managed 2min 19.34 seconds, my best lap thus far and enough to put me 6th in a class of 10 drivers.

At this point I must point out that my Biznews colleague Nick Hodgson is also taking part in the series with me. There are three of us ‘rookies’ this year, so I was chuffed to bits to not only be top of the rookies but also ahead of two of the more seasoned challengers. 

How quickly I had forgotten that qualifying is not even half the battle. In fact it puts you only a few metres ahead of the chap behind you on the starting grid, where anything can happen, as I was to find out in the two races later in the day.

Race 1 was scheduled to start around 1pm so we had some time to relax and do some more checks. Nothing is quite as important as making sure your wheels stay on the car, so, wheel nuts are checked religiously. Top up with fuel and make sure nothing is leaking or coming loose. About 30 minutes before the race I suited up and got in my car to get comfy once again. 

I was amazed as one by one the seasoned drivers came up to me to wish me well for the race, as they did with all the competitors. This isn’t something that happened in karting. It’s a great sense of camaraderie in the paddock, with everyone willing to help one another out with a quick (or sometimes not so quick) fix to make sure everyone can line up on the grid together.

As we were led out onto the grid for the start of the race I did my best to find the right starting position and try keep my eyes peeled for the red lights on the overhead gantry at the start/finish line. This was undoubtedly the biggest learning curve of the day because the race started while I was still looking around, taking it all in. Needless to say I was overtaken by the man who started in 7th. 

I was quickly onto his tail however as the field didn’t spread out nearly as much as I expected. I was in the front row seats to a three way battle for 4th spot, quietly biding my time, waiting to see if an opportunity would present itself in the form of an incident or mistake between the drivers ahead. Fortunately the pack I was in managed to break away from the three drivers behind, so I didn’t have to worry about defending my position. 

Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to keep my own driving in check, making various mistakes around the circuit lap after lap which saw me slowly drift off the back of the group to find myself in no man’s land with no one to play with. Nevermind, though, I had come 7th in my very first go at proper car racing and set my fastest time yet at 2min 18.4. I couldn’t wait for round 2 that afternoon to get myself in that mix of cars fighting for 4th place.

The saying goes that good things come to those who wait. And perhaps I was too eager for race 2 to arrive because it ended in tears. Following the same procedure of pre race checks, spending a good amount of time in the car before the race and wishing all the drivers well, I lined up for race 2 on the other side of the grid this time, having managed the 7th fastest time in race 1 (which is how the grid is determined).

This time I paid sharp attention to the lights, as they flashed on and off I got underway promptly, keeping up with the chap ahead this time round. I soon found myself quite close, thinking I may even have a look at passing him into the first turn. So I ducked out from the slip stream and looked up only to see a stationary car in my path. Yanking hard on the wheel back across the track I was inches too late as the rear wheel of my car clipped my competitor, tearing it clean off and sending debris flying across the circuit. I came to rest with the nose of my car kissing the pit wall. The race was red flagged (stopped, in other words) so that the marshalls could clear the circuit of the mess, our two cars and my now shattered ego.

But that’s racing, you have good days and bad days. I just had to remember back to our 9 hour kart race, where at 8 hours 45 minutes into the race our engine packed up as I circulated in the dark around Zwartkops kart circuit. Or two events prior where I had a massive shunt at iDube in KZN that required bush-craft-engineering just to get the wheels pointed straight so we could keep going.

So I now have the task of repairing my battered Locost 7 before our next outing at Phakisa in the Free State on 24 April. It’ll be a steep learning curve but no doubt time well spent getting into the dirtier side of racing on a budget, as I’m sure there’ll come another time when repairs are needed.

My first race weekend was the most rude awakening in what trials come with this sport but the fact that I absolutely cannot wait to get back out there just proves to me that I’m in the right place. Join me again after the 24th for part 2 of my eight race season.