There are certain things you don’t need to think twice about, like Scarlett Johansson offering you a drink at a bar. Needless to say I didn’t need a second invite when Leo offered me a chance to go to Mondello “For a bit of craic. Oh, and bring your overalls!”
Bring your overalls? I’d agreed to it before I’d even thought about it. I dug most of my race gear out of the attic. Boots and overalls were sorted, but without a helmet and HANS device, I was about to be forced into a massive U-Turn. I stopped racing after some heavy crashes. I’d put a lot of work into upper body training to get off painkillers but when it came down to getting back in a race car, no HANS, no drive! I knew the Sheanes had them because they needed them up North so I got on the phone to Enda O’Connor. Sorry if I’m bursting a bubble here, but as much as he likes to wind people up, Enda is the first person to help out when you’re stuck. He did just that. Of course he wanted to know if it was a comeback. He wasn’t the only one. “It’s just a test. I’m only doing it for an article” I’m not sure who I was trying to convince. Enda or myself.
I’ve never been so nervous in my life.
This season the Supercars are back, with ASK Racing and even as a novice you can step into them. Jamie Chadwick did exactly that this season to gain signatures for her licence before heading over and winning the British GT4 Championship with Beechdean Motorsport in an Aston Martin, becoming the youngest ever champion and first ever female champion in the process.
I love the Supercars. I might as well come out and say it now. 2.0 Litre. 6 speed sequential gearbox. 240BHP. Front engined. Rear wheel drive. If you’re looking for fun in a racecar there is no better class. I stepped into the class after a soul destroying Formula Renault campaign back in 03/04. Thinking it was going to be easier! How naïve was I? Not only was the class ultra-competitive but it was very apparent it was kill or be killed. Even if you qualified at the front your biggest problem was going to be racing a car that had been damaged on the first lap, sometimes by your teammate. It was eye-opening. I’ll never forget sitting in Motorsport Ireland at the end of my 2nd season. Sat at the back of the room with Rod McGovern as they decided to split the title between Noel Dunne and Brendan Donegan. Myself and Rod got “Joint 3rd” For me, this wasn’t racing. It came to a head at Knockhill the following year. I was quick but I’d made a bad call. Fog was down and the track was greasy. By the time I came in for wets in qualifying, the damage was done. I was starting behind the other Crozier team cars. I’d already had comings together with David and it was ruining my season. We’d had words. It changed nothing. Off the line he dived across the track to try and block me off. I didn’t lift. His race came to an end stuck in the bank at the right of the circuit. It was the lowest I ever felt getting out of a car. That was our last season running with Crozier in the Supercars.
That said, I loved the Supercars. When I won in Mondello I did a donut in front of the stands and then did donuts in the paddock with the mechanics in the car. They were mega bits of kit. Those celebratory donuts cost me a new diff. So yeah, a lot of memories hit me like a wall as I pulled up to Mondello.
I spoke to Alan Kessie about the cars as soon as I arrived. “Barney” you couldn’t miss parked out the front. That was the quickest one, he said. Plenty of castor on the front and set up higher on the rear for outright pace in
qualifying. Sounded great, but then I caught sight of Peter Barrable’s Championship winning car out of the corner of my eye. Less castor and a bit lower on the back, but that means the car is more stable and better over a race distance. More forgiving. Reality hit me. Here was a chance to drive the car that won the championship, but would also allow my rusty driving skills to make a mistake without chucking us both at the scenery. Two birds. One stone. “It’s still on wets, take it easy. You won’t need 2nd until you find some pace!” About three laps in I started using second. They waved me in straight away. I did two more sessions in Barrable’s car on slicks before I decided to come in.
I asked if Alan Kessie would put a watch on the cars. He repeatedly laughed at me. It wasn’t that kind of day. So I sat out a couple of sessions. Partly to take on fluids and Peanut M&Ms, partly because I fancied having a look at how the others were doing. This was different. It was Supercars but it felt more like Formula Sheane. These were guys who did it for the love of the sport more than anything else. I spoke to Alan, Vinny O’Reilly, John Cardoo. All they wanted to do was chat cars and have the craic. Ask a question about setup and you didn’t get a guarded answer. It was great. Myself, John Kenny, John Morris, Nicole Drought & Bernadette Sheridan had a run in any car we wanted. Barney was binned a few times. I may have made the right call.
After lunch I decided I better stop hogging Barrable’s car and go and do some back to back testing. From here on in I’d put onboard cameras in to get some footage. Seeing as we had no stop watches in use it would also give me a chance to time myself when I got home. What?
John Morris was getting out of Kessie’s TCar. This was the one to have. The same power as the front running Supercars with a lighter Duratec engine in it vs the Zetec that was in the Supercar. John Morris raved about it. He loved the H pattern gearbox over the Sequential one in the Supercar.
I couldn’t drive it. I’m not sure the onboard footage was much use either. This was the Supercar I remembered from my first year driving them. I didn’t adjust anything in any of the cars. So in that respect it was a lucky dip. I couldn’t heel and toe in Kessie’s car so in the immortal words of Cole Trickle, “her ass was all over the place”. On top of that there was a vibration in the pedal which meant trail braking wasn’t really an option. I fought with it and I think I lost. When I got out Kessie told me he’d warped the disc in the morning doing some passenger runs. I managed a 63.8 second lap
Next up I drove Vinny’s T Car. It handled as well as Barrable’s Supercar but it hadn’t the grunt of either of the other two. I managed a 64 second lap.
Time was running out. I’d get one last run in Barrable’s car to do a few laps. I didn’t matter that my arms were starting to cramp up, this time it felt like a better car. Possibly because Kessie’s car had put manners on me. Possibly because I was too tired to try and muscle the car around the track.
These guys are mad. Having an open test day and letting rusty drivers like me out in the Championship winning car. It’ll never catch on, but there I was. Knackered and using the gears I’d seen Seán Doyle use from his YouTube onboard footage. It needed 2nd gear to get to the apex with any kind of speed carried and it needed 4th before the right hander in the esses to take the liveliness out of the rear. I wasn’t getting it 100%. I drove across the country at 3a. That’s half a second gone where I needed to commit to trail braking. I was too late turning across the esses. Game over. That was where the time was but I wasn’t about to bin the car that had just won the title. So I came in. I looked at the times when I got home. 62.2. 61.9. Enough to put me 3rd on the grid at the start of the year. On old tyres. I haven’t driven a racecar in 6 years. I wanted to get back in straight away and chase down the extra second. I guarantee if you got into one you’d feel the same.
Kessie’s got some cars available I hear…..
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