Neil Fletcher Racing
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– Rebuilding my Mexico Part 7.
First Event - Drumhorc Hillclimb.
Last month I finished off the car at 4-30 in the morning on Saturday 5th May with my first event only a few hours later. It seemed as though my head had only just hit the pillow when the alarm went off at 7-30. After a hurried breakfast I went out to pack a few essentials into my service van - the Freelander, and then give the car a quick wash to remove the last few months dust. It was only while washing the car that I noticed that I’d forgotten a rather important bit of kit, the “timing strut”. This is a matt black strip of metal about 2” x 10” which is attached to the front of the car to activate the timing beams used in sprints and hillclimbs. There were a few moments of panic until I found the one I had made years before. Luckily enough it was still in a box in the garage loft and it was only a matter of bolting it to the front towing eye and I was ready to go. As it was only two miles to the venue of the hillclimb, I drove the car there to get some more mileage under her belt. Even though it was still quite early in the morning there was already quite a queue of cars ready for scrutineering. Both the hillclimb itself and the main paddock area consisted of a stretch of public road closed off for the occasion; in the case of the paddock the line of competition cars and service vans stretched out for well over half a mile. One scrutineer was starting at the back of the line of cars while his young assistant, who turned out to be his daughter, was starting at the front. Luckily for me some of my friends from the club had parked their competition cars in a field close to the start line, I joined them with my car, then got one of them to give me a lift back home to collect the Freelander.
Once back at our makeshift paddock I gave the car the once over, checking tyre pressures, fluid levels etc. By this time the young scrutineer who had started at the front of the queue had worked her way back as far as the gateway into our field. With a little friendly chat I persuaded her into our little paddock to give our cars the once over. Everything went smoothly, well a clean and tidy car helps and I soon had my precious scrutiny ticket. Once I had obtained this I was able to go to the “Signing On” caravan and complete the rest of the documentation. With the paperwork completed and all monies paid I had some free time before the first of the two practice runs at 11am. Most people spend this time walking the hill and looking at lines round various bends etc, but every day for the past couple of weeks I had been making a detour up this hill on my way home from work and therefore felt that a walk up it would not really make that much difference. I spent the intervening time chatting with various people around the paddock, some of whom I hadn’t seen since I had last done any hillclimbing six or seven years previously. Needless to say there was a lot of talk about “The Mexico” and whether this was really the same car that I had used in my first hillclimbs almost 15 years previously. Many people were quite surprised that I had done such a good job in rebuilding what was in truth a rather ropey old car and there was a great sense of achievement in the fact that I had eventually got the car back into shape and was about to do my first competitive event in quite some time.
In no time at all the paddock marshals were starting to get the cars lined up for the first run up the hill, I went up to the start line to watch the first few cars as the start procedure had changed a little since I had last done a hillclimb, there were now red and green lights instead of a marshal to signal the cars to start. Cars would roll up to the start line after having warmed their tyres, then two marshals would slowly push the car the last few inches until the timing strut on the front of the car broke the timing beam, both red and green lights would then come on. Then the marshals would very slowly roll the car back a little until the green light went out, leaving just the red light lit – too far back and the red one would go out as well and the procedure would begin again. The driver then sat blipping the throttle until the red light flicked out and the green came on again, he would then be able to “take off” in his own time. This flicking from red to green was done remotely by a marshal stationed at the mid point of the hill who would release the next car once the preceding one had past his station.
I walked back to our little paddock, climbed into the car and fired her up to warm the engine etc. I gingerly drove out of the field (racing slicks don’t give much grip on grass) and joined the queue of cars heading for the start line, I buckled my harnesses, I pulled on my fireproof balaclava, I zipped up my racing suit, I pulled on and strapped my helmet, finally I pulled on my gloves – I was ready. By now the preceding car was sitting on the start line, I stopped about 10 yards back. As he left the line I realized that the new fangled start lights must have been giving bother as there was now a marshal at the start line, and he had reverted to the old style of hand signals, the “thumbs up”. I was now really concentrating on what I was doing, holding the car lightly on the handbrake (flyoff handbrakes are a great tool), I selected first gear, I blipped the throttle three or four times, building the revs on each blip, finally I floored the throttle and stepped off the clutch launching the car forward in a fury of noise as the revs soared and the madly spinning tyres scrabbled for grip, just as suddenly I jumped on the brakes bringing everything to an abrupt stop. With the tyres and brakes suitably warmed I rolled the last couple of yards to the start line.
The marshals pushed the car into position, this was the quiet before the storm, the concentration was intense, I no longer saw the spectators around me, only the start marshal and the road ahead, this tunnel effect of my vision was heightened by the tall trees shading the start area, in mere seconds I would be quite literally bursting into that sunshine ahead. I selected first gear, checked the fuel pump was on, checked the handbrake was off, checked the start marshal, checked the road ahead – a 300 yard straight to a T-junction, a mixture of adrenalin and nervous energy made me check again, 1st gear, fuel pump, handbrake, start marshal, the road ahead, all the time I was slowly blipping the throttle to keep the engine clear, then came the “thumbs up”. My concentration was totally on the road ahead, my right hand gripped the steering wheel as if trying to break it, my left was pushing the gearstick ever harder into 1st, now I revved the engine in anger, once, twice, three times, then I floored it. As I stepped off the clutch, the car was launched forward in a crescendo of noise, burning rubber and flying pebbles, with the wheels still spinning I grabbed second gear. Feathering the throttle momentarily allowed the tyres to purchase a better grip on the black ribbon of tar, then hard on the accelerator again, I grabbed third gear just as the car burst out into that sunshine, the revs now climbed more slowly until I grabbed fourth as the noise rose, the T-junction left loomed – no time for fifth as I positioned the car towards the righthand verge, onto the brakes, down to third, into second and turn for the apex, the revs rose so quickly I had to grab for third as I hit the apex, I wasn’t even using all the road, I had misjudged the corner, I could have carried more speed into the corner. There followed a slight left, slight right combination, they could almost be straight lined except each was over a brow and into a dip, ready to catch the unwary, throwing the car slightly off balance, by now I was up into fourth again, the next sharp righthander was where the hill really started with a vengeance, I dropped into third and kept the boot hard in, this corner then opened up into what could almost be termed a straight, halfway up it I grabbed fourth again, almost immediately I was into a long lefthander, lifting slightly I kept a tight line to the inside of the corner, there was a house and walls etc on the outside, protected by large round straw bales. This corner tightened considerably to exit onto a short straight where it was hard onto the brakes and frantically down a couple of gears for another T-junction and a really sharp turn right, then up another sharp rise, up into third gear as I crested the rise. The steepest part of the hill was now past, as the ground levelled there was another sharp turn off to the left, hard on the brakes, second gear and a slight drift of the tail on the exit, there followed a fast right, left, right combination between a couple of houses and farmyards. Then suddenly I was at the summit and into the final wicked and very deceptive lefthander, many a car had come a cropper here, now it was a very short downhill blast over the finishing line, then onto the brakes and turn into the parking area – a gravel farmyard. I swung the car round and came to a halt, I sat quietly in the car for a minute or so letting the engine idle and my own heart rate slow down. I hadn’t been going absolutely flat out but still the adrenalin rush up that mile long hill had been fantastic.
By the time I had gathered my thoughts the next couple of cars had come screaming up the hill, I cut the engine and clambered out, rather than join the others guys immediately, I dandered round the car trying to analyse that 50 second blast up the hill. Hillclimbing is so fast and furious and over so quickly that I find it hard to get any feeling as to how the car is handling but surprisingly the car had felt fine with no major dramas. I say surprisingly because during the last couple of weeks the car had really been thrown together, various things still needed setup properly, things like the tracking, the brake bias, the 5-linked rear end etc.
Once half the competitors had ascended the hill they were taken back down in convoy to the paddock area and the rest of the competitors went up the hill. This would be the format the event would follow over two practice and then two timed runs. Those of us who had made the climb in the first bunch then spent the intervening time until our next run checking over our cars, checking fluid levels, tyre pressures, or even just going about enjoying the craic and catching up on all the gossip. I seemed to spend most of this time explaining to people that yes this really was the same car that I had used for eleven or twelve years, and yes it was the same car that I had last competed in almost five years ago, and yes most of the intervening period had been spent rebuilding her, and yes I hoped to still be competing in her in another 15 years, as my wife, Carmel, always says I was really in my element when talking about my cars.
In no time at all it was time for our second practice run. As I sat on the start line I was determined to put in a greater effort this time, I would be braking later, keeping the boot in longer, I hoped. All went well until about halfway up the hill, there was a long lefthander which tightened into a short straight followed by a T-junction turn sharp right. After the first run I had decided that I could keep the boot flat to the boards in fourth going into this corner, and not lift slightly as I had done previously. This actually worked marvellously well until I exited the corner onto the short straight, I was going faster, the straight seemed shorter and suddenly I was bombing into the T-junction, I stood on the brakes, the back end locked up and snapped right, off the brakes and back on, the back end snapped left – the bias was all wrong. I just wasn’t making the corner, its surprising how much your mind takes in when the car is sailing sideways off the road, there was a wide grass verge, taped off to keep spectators out, then a fence with gateposts protected by large round straw bales. By the time the front nearside wing hit the bales most of the speed had been scrubbed off. A true hillclimb competitor would then have waited until the marshals held out the red flags to stop the event and then got out and inspected the damage, but not me. Oh no, I’m a rallyman, through and through, without a seconds hesitation I rammed the car into reverse, rocketed back a couple of yards, slammed her into first and shot off across the grass, back wheels spinning, rear end slewing sideways, straw and tape trailing from the car, bumping back onto the black stuff and away on up the hill to loud cheers from the appreciative spectators.
I coasted to a halt in the top parking area, to say that I got out of the car and walked round to inspect the damage with a little trepidation would be a massive understatement. I had visions of a bent wing and possibly damaged front panel, but no, lady luck must have been smiling on MK1’s that day. My aluminium timing strut was bent back under the anti rollbar and the spotlight at that side was pointing skyward like a search light but that was it apart from tufts of grass and trailing tape. I pulled off grass and tape, gave the spotlight a little twist and tried to straighten the timing strut, it was still a bit bendy but it would still serve its purpose. It really was a lucky escape; I would have got no end of slagging from my mates if I’d pranged the car on her first event after such a rebuild especially as it was my local event! Even with this slight off, my time was a little faster on this run than it had been on the first. Once back down at the bottom of the hill it was time for a dinner break before the two timed runs in the afternoon. During the lunch break my mum appeared round with my two eldest girls, Rebecca and Laura. After looking round some of the cars they went off to watch the first of the timed runs from a vantage point overlooking “my corner”, later on that evening my mum was fit to tell me that the girls were fascinated by how much my car “wiggled it’s bum” going up hill out of that particular corner.
I had taken things fairly steady for the first timed run and had got a respectable time posted on the time sheets, by the time the fourth and final run of the day came round I was really enjoying myself, trouble was I played to the gallery a little too much on this last run, really throwing the car sideways into the corners and generally ended up being a little slower. When the final times were posted I ended up 7th in my class out of 12 competitors, there would be no trophy this time round but I was still overjoyed to have the first event under my belt with no real dramas and the car had performed amazingly well all day. Rather than go off to the pub for the prizing giving I stayed behind and helped my club mates clear up after the event, while doing this I did notice a lot of long black skid marks leading up to “my corner”, I wasn’t the only one to get into a little trouble there.
Later that evening when I finally got home, and as Carmel would say – “had come down off that cloud”, we sat down to discuss AVO Day. For some months I had mentioned taking the car and the family over to the show. I don’t think Carmel really believed that I would ever get the car ready in time, and in truth she wasn’t ready yet and I still needed to rebuild my trailer which had got into rather bad shape, but at least now we could make some definite plans for June. On that note I shall sign off until the next issue of Havoc.
All the best.
377F - Twin Cam
FMX 800J - RS1600
JIJ 9975 – Mexico
FIA 6386 – Mexico
Membership No. 1472
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