Neil Fletcher Racing

HAVOC Article No 10.

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Hi Mike,

    Itís been well over a year since I last wrote, I think at that time we were near the end of our 1997 rally season, I thought Iíd better drop you a few lines and tell you what Iíve been doing since, or rather ďnotĒ been doing as you will see later.

    At the end of my last letter I told you all about the new "state of the art" Baby Atlas that I had just fitted to the Mexico, as you may recall I had a lot of hassle getting all the bits that I required for the axle and only got it all fitted the night before our next championship event in Dungannon. The next evening we headed off not really knowing how the car would go or if the axle would stay in one piece. After going through scrutiny and sorting out the paper work we headed off to do the measured mile, this was the first real drive I had in the car with the new axle and rear suspension. The first thing I noticed was how quiet the diff was; the 4:7 in our old English Axle was rather worn and therefore noisy but the new crown wheel and pinion made no noise whatsoever. The next thing I noticed was how much more acceleration the 5:1 diff gave us; there was a much more noticeable kick in the small of the back when I floored the throttle. Of course it's always the same when you do some major work to the car: every little noise you hear seems to be a new noise that wasn't there before and you convince yourself that bits and pieces are falling off.

When we finally started the rally proper I was quite impressed with how the handling of the car seemed to have improved, gone was the understeer which was sometimes noticeable and this was replaced with much more controllable oversteer on demand, i.e. plant the throttle and I could get a lovely sideways drift on and could hold it with no effort whatsoever. I don't know if this was because of the harder rear springs or whether it had more to do with how the Z F diff works or maybe it was just a combination of both. I wish I could say that everything went as well that night as the car went, but after the long summer break John's navigation skills were a little bit rusty and two missed controls and a wrong approach to another cost us 75 of our total of 87 penalties and dropped us from 2nd to 8th overall.   Of course a result like this did nothing whatsoever for our Northern Ireland championship title aspirations, we were now lying about seventh or eighth and with only a couple more championship events to go we would need a couple of really good results to improve our position, maybe we could just scrape into the top three. We had also been leading the Dungannon club championship, and while we were still leading it with one round to go, we couldn't afford another slip up like this. A couple of days later I gave the back suspension a complete spanner check, to ensure that nothing had worked loose but everything was in order.

There was meant to be a small club event run three weeks later in the Mourne mountains, but for some reason this event was cancelled and the next thing I did was a test day run at Kirkistown Racetrack by the R S Owners Club. Now this was real fun because there was no pressure of competition and I could really go out and enjoy myself, this mainly consisted of seeing how far sideways I could get the Mexico without spinning it and then seeing how long I could hold this drift for. I think I must have done about 50 or 60 laps, I lost count of how many times I spun the car, anyway I wouldnít own up to ďlosing itĒ, would I? I even got presented with a small plaque for being ďEntertainer of the DayĒ, all this for £30, now thatís what I call a good dayís ďcraicĒ.

The following weekend we had a championship event in South Armagh. I was working night shift that week so I went to bed for a few hours on Friday morning. I got up shortly after dinner time to get the car ready for the event that night. I tried to start her to drive her into the garage to give her the once over. She wouldn't start, it seemed as if there was a flat or dud battery but with two batteries in the boot I couldn't be sure which one was at fault. I got the battery charger and connected it to each one in turn to see which one was taking the most charge, reckoning that it would be the dud. I set the charger for auto start and tried the engine again, still no luck. I then took the battery out of our tractor and connected it up as well, I also removed the plugs as I reckoned they would be fouled up by now. After drying and replacing them I started the engine but it wouldn't run very cleanly. By this time I had decided that maybe both batteries were at fault so I removed them and installed the battery from the tractor. I also asked Carmel, my wife, to go into Banbridge and get a new battery. After checking over everything else about the car I installed the new battery, now she would start without any problem but still wasn't running cleanly. To try and cure this I switched over to the spare coil and this seemed to cure the problem.

That evening John and I set off for South Armagh and everything went well until we were about to make our way to the first control of the night. Once again the car wouldn't start but this time it sounded worse as the starter didn't seem to be trying to turn at all. We got a push start and off we set on what was to turn out to be a very wet night. There was a lot of standing water about and on one or two occasions the car almost cut out but I was fit to keep her going by pressing a button I have installed to give the coil a boost of 24 volts (useful for starting a hot engine). Apart from this we had a really good run in the first half of the event. At the halfway halt John reckoned that there was a good possibility that we were leading or at least lying in the top three. I'm sure you know the saying, pride before a fall, well, two miles after the restart we made a blunder and lost about 10 minutes, we also lost a few more minutes in the next section but then had a fairly good run until two sections from the end. As I came down to a major T-junction John shouted to take the small road on our right just before the main road. As I was almost past it I ripped on the handbrake to try to make the turn but instead ended up going backwards towards the main road and in the process stalling the car.

 We came to a halt at the junction with the main road and as it was uphill into the road we needed to go, we decided to push the car along the main road to get her started. Unfortunately it was fairly flat which didnít help things. John said if we headed right it was if anything slightly downhill. I disagreed, saying the other direction was, if anything downhill. No, John said, definitely not, its uphill. So we pushed the car in the direction John indicated. Now what with one thing and another my rally car is never easy to push at the best of times but this time we really struggled. We managed to get a little speed up and I hopped in, stuck her in gear and let the clutch out. She just came to an immediate halt. We tried another couple of times but we just couldnít get up enough speed to made the engine turn over more that once or twice. After about ten minutes of this we were both knackered, we were so fed up we just lay down on the road dead beat and guess what, the car started to roll slowly backward herself. We had been pushing up a slight hill all the time; needless to say I lost no time in telling John what I thought of his judgement of uphill or downhill. We got in front of the car and started to push, with great ease, I jumped in, stuck her in reverse and the engine started almost as soon as I let the clutch out. Great, I was all ready to go again but by this time I think John was more than a little pissed off, with me, with the car, with the route instructions, with this rally and with navigation rallying in general. I have a feeling that this was the moment when he decided that this was his last year of it, then as he got into the car she stalled. For John this really put the cap on it, it took me about 10 seconds to discover that in all the jumping in and out my knee must have hit the switch for the fuel pumps and knocked them off, I flicked it on and we gave her another push and got her started again. By now John was completely fed up, I just thought it was great craic. He got in the car and told me just to head for the finish, it was at this moment that he told me of his decision of a few minutes earlier, at that time I thought it was just a spur of the moment thing and he would change his mind. Over the next few weeks I discovered that unfortunately it was not to be.

    Our final championship event of the year (maybe our final one, full stop) was one run by the Ulster Automobile Club a couple of weeks later. For a change we had a very quiet and uneventful run into fourth place, which left us finishing eighth in the championship. Once again I tried to get John to change his mind about giving up but our poor showing of the past year along with the fact that he had been offered a seat co-driving in the N.I. Stage Rally Championship (all expenses paid) the following year sealed it for him.

A few weeks later John's own motor club ran a small navigation event near my home and needless to say we went off to compete in this. Unfortunately in the week leading up to this event it never stopped raining and when we got to the start of the event the organizers told us that they would have to cancel most of the second half, as it was in a fairly low lying area near a major river and many of the roads were flooded. Various wags, myself included, suggested at the driversí briefing that maybe we could do the first half twice, making pace notes on the first run. All these suggestions were to no avail, we would just do a shortened rally.  Because of this we had fewer controls to plot at the start and more time to pore over the maps to try to figure out where we would be going. By the time we were ready to start we thought that we had figured out at least two if not three of the sections. All the instructions seemed fairly straightforward and we had little difficulty with them.

Because we were having a fairly easy run we reckoned that everyone else was doing the same. After the finish we headed for the bar to get some refreshment, both liquid and something more substantial - stew. After about 20 minutes one of the results team came over to us and showed John our time card, there was no time or marshalís signature beside one control but we knew we had been there or we wouldn't have got the instructions for the next section. The only thing we could do was wait for that particular marshal to return to the finish and hope that our time would be recorded on his checksheet. As it turned out we had been leading at the time and there was a lot of banter about whether or not we would get 30 penalties for missing a control. I was particularly miffed because I'm always telling John to check his timecard since often marshals forget to sign it or record the time in the wrong place. As things turned out we had a lucky break this time, the marshal had everything recorded on the checksheet and we ended up winning the event by a couple of minutes. John was especially pleased as this event was one that he always wanted to win and now that he had decided to retire we had finally done it.

A week later with the rally car never having been off the trailer we headed off for what was to be our last event together. Being a small club event we expected it to be fairly straightforward and the first couple of sections were indeed easy and we were cruising along with no great need for speed. Things then really tightened up over the next few sections, the route instructions got a lot more difficult, as difficult as some championship events in fact, and the roads or in some cases lanes got a lot tighter and slipperier what with all the rain, mud, leaves etc. We reckoned we were having a fairly good if somewhat tough run in the first half, having caught some of the crews who had started in front of us. All that changed after the petrol halt, we sat for a long time - it seemed like hours but was only two minutes, at the first junction in the next section trying to figure out where we were meant to go. Then two sections later we missed a fairly major loop and didn't discover our mistake until we were almost at the end of the section and couldn't go back without going back through a control. Visiting this a second time would have given us almost as many penalties as maybe having missed a control on that loop so we just decided to head for the next time control. The last three or four sections were all fairly short and used some very tight roads and lanes, never giving us a chance to relax but we reckoned we had gone particularly well over these sections. Heading for the finish we knew we had blown it with those two mistakes but with it being our last event together neither of us really gave a toss as apart from that we had really enjoyed the event. Imagine our delight when the results were put up and we had won the event by a fairly healthy margin, the loop we missed hadnít had a control on it, but thatís the way it goes. At the prizegiving afterwards I said it was a very long time since I had had to make a speech two weekends running.

    John has stuck to his decision to retire even though I have tried to persuade him to return to no avail. This fact along with my decision to replace my old Range Rover with a brand spanking new Freelander (a fortieth birthday present to myself, Iíve never had a new car before) and one or two other commitments led to my decision (or was it really my wifeís decision) to take a year off and maybe do a major rebuild on the Mexico. Well one year has led into a second and still no rebuild or no return, if fact all Iíve done in the intervening 15 months have been a few RS Test Days etc, luckily they donít mind that my car is a bit tatty. The only chance Iíve had to keep my hand in so to speak has been playing Colin McRae Rally on the computer, with a real good set of pedals and steering wheel itís as near to the real thing as Iíve seen and the carís a lot easier fixed. I still tell John every now and then that as soon as he decides to return Iíll have the car ready and if it does ever happen Iíll be sure to let you know, until we meet at AVO Day,

All the best.

Neil Fletcher.

XTW 377F - Twin Cam
FMX 800J - RS1600
JIJ 9975 Ė Mexico
FIA 6386 Ė Mexico
Membership No. 1472

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