There is something unique about the challenge that a 24 Hour race poses to the drivers (and their supporters). I have raced in about 6 of them over the years and, in spite of the very best plans to ensure that all drivers had enough rest, nothing compares to the feeling of complete and absolute fatigue mixed with elation when the chequered flag comes down.
My first 24 Hour, in France, taught me the meaning of the expression “dog-tired”. Racing in a fully sponsored team, we had the luxury of a Winnebago to call home for four days but on the Sunday afternoon, I could have fallen asleep on the pillion seat of a moving motorbike. My tired state was not only due to the racing but also thanks to an interesting journey to the circuit .
Having run race events at Daytona in Wood Lane, Shepherds Bush until 1 am, I popped home for a few hours sleep before my alarm woke me at 6 am so that I could return to Daytona to meet the team and climb aboard the Winnebago. Our driver threaded the very large motor home through the London traffic and we made our way down to Aldershot where we were picking up two more drivers. We duly pulled over in a lay-by where our team-mates were waiting, with their kit bags and a complete spare rear-axle wrapped in black bin liners. Our kart had gone ahead in a van the day before, but owner driver 24 Hour teams would usually take spare rear axles all prepared with sprockets brake discs and bearings to enable a fast axle swap if required in the race.
We headed on to Portsmouth where we were catching the 6 hour ferry crossing to Le Havre – with the aim we would all get a few hours sleep during the crossing. We made our way to our cabins and tried to get some kip.
Less than 15 minutes later there was a knock at the door of my cabin. I opened the door, half asleep, to find a man, in his fifties, wearing a sports jacket and a checked shirt, asking if could have a quick word with me. He then led me up to a VIP area on the ferry and sat me down with a cup of coffee, explained he was with “The Security Services” and proceeded to question me politely about my reasons for travelling and about my companions.
I explained about the 24 Hour Race and asked me what his interest was. His response was to tell me that our Winnebago, which had Irish number plates, had been spotted by an off-duty soldier in a lay-by near an Army base in Aldershot with “suspicious looking characters” loading what looked like a mortar wrapped in black plastic. As this was back in the early 90’s, there was heightened concern about IRA activity and consequently the security services had been mobilised to follow our 24 hour kart team onto the ferry!
I asked the very nice gentleman if he had really thought we were dissident republican terrorists and he said that he was pretty sure that we weren’t, hence him knocking on the door for a quiet word – rather than the door being kicked in by the six fully tooled-up SAS soldiers who were on standby in one of the neighbouring cabins! You will understand that I wasn’t able to get back to sleep for the remainder of the voyage – and not because of the cup of coffee.
We arrived in Le Havre and headed down to the Vehicle Deck to get back onto the Winnebago and discovered that the aforementioned SAS team had used their training to check the vehicle and our kit over. I am assuming that this happened before they decided on the best approach to talk to us – and am sure that the prevalence of Sparco Racesuits, boots and gloves and Arai Helmets helped prove our innocence.
The rest of the 24 Hour Race weekend was a lot less eventful. We didn’t make it onto the podium but we didn’t disgrace ourselves either and by the time we were safely back in London on the Monday afternoon, I had slept non-stop for 16 hours in the big double bed in the back of the motor-home.
We are looking forward to the next Daytona 24 Hour Race – this coming May Bank Holiday weekend and hope that the SAS won’t need to tool-up for the weekend!