At ViaRetro we’re advocates of using our cars, and what better way to treat your relic than putting it in an environment it was probably never designed for and seeing what falls off? Yes, it’s time to go on a Track Day!
October saw the end of the historic rally championship I compete in, and I have decided to put my BMW 2002 into storage over winter to liberate some space at home, so I was glad to have a last opportunity for some hooliganism by indulging in a track day. I´m going to store it in an EZE Box storage. I had originally planned to use my E36 Compact for the job but after cracking the sump whilst competing on the Isle of Mull the week before, I figured I’d used up all of my luck managing to patch it up and drive it back the billion miles home, and didn’t want my quality repair to let go suddenly and dump oil everywhere on track. The 02 was thereby cranked up and pointed south.
The destination was Curborough, a short sprint circuit near Lichfield and the track day organised by the Quantum Owners Club. Curborough developed from an outlying corner on the perimeter of the old RAF Lichfield airfield. Initially a Maintenance depot, the airfield became home to an Operation Training Unit during World War 2 and the large hangers still dominate the view from the surrounding lanes, themselves now dominated by the vast warehouse of a supermarket distribution centre. When peace time resumed the site became a breakers yard for surplus aircraft, and when that job was complete the airfield finally closed in 1958 and was sold by Air Ministry in 1962. The taxiways and spectacles of the Southern-most tip of the airfield were then developed into a sprint course and the first meeting took place in June 1963. If you visit today, it is very easy to imagine it is still 1963. There is no grand signage, very few buildings, no intrusive armco. It’s a key venue in British Sprinting but totally unspoiled, narrow, twisty and you’ll never run out of gears. The heart of the track is quite similar to an R-spring clip in shape and not that much larger in size as a lap is less than half a mile. That’s still enough space to get well up in third gear and run out of brakes for the hairpin however. A perfect place for an old car with short gearing then.
Considering I have never owned a trailer and have spent years competing all over the country and even into Europe with little more than a roll of tank tape and an RAC recovery card, I can’t really explain why I had it in my mind to pack for every eventuality and insist we took a separate support car to hold all my gear. Trolley jack, spare wheels, spill kit, full set of tools, various tarps. It was only when I was told to put the axle stands back that I reigned it in a bit. Maybe it’s because I don’t normally do non-competitive motorsport, or maybe because I’m not a natural circuit driver but I was somewhat over-engineering this trip down the road for a gentle day out. To balance out any benefit of real preparation I did take two spare wheels but they were wearing tall forestry tyres as I didn’t have any more matching road tyres left. I couldn’t use a full set of gravel tyres because the D-Macks are a little wide and bend the front wing lip up in extremis, as I found in Grizedale forest a few weeks before. Good to go then…
Signing on and briefing were as relaxed as the venue, and with very little messing about we found ourselves in the queue for the first session. The day operated as an open pitlane (sans pits) and the procedure was to do three laps of the set route then come in and join the back of the queue again. As the queue was parallel to the main straight there was plenty of opportunity to stand on the bank and spectate, passing comment on driving standards and generally convincing yourself that you know better than everyone else. Only one car would be on the circuit at any one time and this was essential considering there is an open crossover in the middle and it’s perfectly possible to go the wrong way and loop back on yourself. The crossover allowed the prescribed route to be varied throughout the day and ensure a bit of variety. Whichever way, it’s easy to learn. From the start gate you are only a few car lengths from the first right hand hairpin, there follows a short straight and long right which tightens then switches back into a sharp 90 degree left. Then a long right again opening into a short straight which leads to a long right hairpin. This opens to the long straight and back to the first hairpin again. “Long” should be placed in a Curborough context here of course! It was immediately apparent that accuracy and finesse were the order of the day – but I don’t have much of either. What really stands out is the width of the road, really only as wide as a country lane for most of the circuit and a far cry from the expanses of the large circuits. This lends an intimate feel and increases the sensation of speed, whereas you can feel lost in space in a normal car at the likes of Donington.
Waiting for the start marshal to give the nod. Off the line with a boot full of revs and into second, the rear squirming as we power out of the short hairpin, taking third and keeping wide before rumbling over the kerb to apex the right hander. Hard on the brakes now and down into second, the weight shifting as we thread into the tight left and back on the throttle again to use all of the road gaining speed through the long right. Using all the tarmac I just see 6,000rpm before braking hard for the long hairpin, going in wide to come back and try to clip the apex as the weight loads up and the rear wheels start to spin again. Feeding in full throttle now on the exit line and letting it drift gently all the way to the edge of the road. A little adjustment and now straight, taking third gear halfway down before waiting to get on the brakes as late as possible, the nose diving down as we change back into second. Off the brakes and an armful of lock into the short hairpin again and another lap. As the day progressed the second half of the route reversed using the central crossover so the long right hairpin opens became a long leftt hairpin tightens, which caught a few people out as the thick black tyre marks going straight on into the grass testified. Tweaks during the day consisted of setting the unsuitable Continentals at 30psi (too wobbly), inflating to 35psi (no traction), then taking 8 seconds of air out each tyre on a “that’ll do” basis, as it was easier than checking the reading again. I also ate some sandwiches. I am unlikely to ever be employed as a Formula One mechanic.
Everything about Curborough seems frozen in time and it’s so much the better for it. Most of the attendees were in moderns but there were a few older cars. I suppose even an early MX-5 is nearly 30 years old now, but it’s maybe a little soon for ViaRetro so I’ll point out the MGB Roadster which was prepared for sprinting, the fixed timing strut on the front being the giveaway, usually used to break the timing beam but not required today with no timing in operation. Such club sprint cars are proof that low budget motorsport still exists and is certainly more forgiving on the car than some other branches of the sport. It provided a nice contrast to the Ferrari 360 that was also queuing in line. The Mk1 Golf seemed to go well, a battle scarred shell masking lots of proper bits, just like a budget racer should be. A smart Mini 1275GT circulated for a while until losing it’s brake fluid and the Lotus Excel lent some wedge glamour to proceedings. The Quantums were a little sparse in number but there were a few of the early 2+2 model which used Ford Fiesta XR2 donor cars. There’s an argument that these days the Fiesta may be more desirable in it’s original form but when re-bodied into a fibreglass Quantum shell they seemed nippy enough and offered the topless fun that a hatchback never can. I didn’t realise we were in the presence of Quantum rarity but the blue car sported the very early prototype front end with two 7 inch Mini headlamps in chrome bezels contrasting markedly with the very 80s body graphics and smoked rear lights from a Sierra. The production variant with the pop up lamps is a much better resolved design and looked relatively cohesive, certainly no worse than many mainstream manufacturers have concocted. Just a shame they are all front wheel drive as their Fiesta underpinnings dictate.
However, any uncharitable thoughts about kit cars had to be shelved when a stunning Porsche replica arrived in the form of a Martin & Walker Technic 550 Spyder. A beautifully finished fibreglass shell over a proper tubular chassis housed a 1679cc Porsche 914 flat 4. The attention to detail was excellent and very evocative of the original that is probably best known for being the car in which James Dean met his end in 1955. The driver of the Ford never saw Dean in his low slung silver car against the afternoon sun and it certainly hunkers down, low enough for one Mille Miglia competitor to sneak his under closed level crossing gates to save those vital minutes. Motionless under the darkening skies it looked every inch the UFO; you can only imagine the impact it must have had in 1953 when RAF Lichfield was still very much operational and pre-war cars were still normal daily transport. I don’t care if we’re looking at a replica here. It was superb. I can even forgive the yellow headlamps.
There comes a time on every track day when it’s better to quit whilst you’re ahead, but the final flag intervened instead and we left with just enough nearside tyre intact to get home. A quick run in a friend’s new generation Mini project underlined how pointy modern cars are compared to the 02, but it still impresses me how competent it is for a car designed in the mid-sixties, and it was great fun to match a classic car and a classic venue. There’s no pressure to impress on a track day or push to the last fraction of a second (unless you can’t help yourself), so it’s a great way to explore the limits of your car in relative safety or test that latest modification. Whilst I can’t give up the addition of competition, I’m going to make a point of going back again. The discreet little Curburgring sticker isn’t just for show.
Photographs by the author and courtesy where credited of Bostin Photography.