Looking Back And Forward – by Steve Botham

It was suggested sometime ago that I did a few words for F1Stockcars.com, Ailsa and Steve gave me a reminder so after a month or so of no racing its time to crank the keyboard up.

Stockcar racing has been a big part of my life for over 30 years, it is something that is very much part of me, I have ‘gown up’ in the sport and I often wonder what other supporters get out of going to meetings. Let’s face it, it’s more than just about racing it’s a social thing too. The racing we witness today is very different from what it was when I started; it has changed dramatically certainly over the last 10 years. I don’t consider the racing to be any worse, just different. I’m not one of those with rose tinted spectacles thinking the old days were better. Views expressed like that are unfair on (and of little interest) to the younger supporters, so I just prefer the term ‘different’.

My own early interest in racing started when I was a youngster taken to Mallory Park or other venues to watch circuit racing. Whilst other kids seemed to grovel around and play in the sand or just generally run about, I was the sad little individual who actually stood and watched the cars racing. My first stockcar meeting was Long Eaton Good Friday 1967, the meeting I can remember little about other than a car getting almost completely rammed through the fence. Many years later I learned that was Stuart Smith (391), later to become, ‘The Living Legend’, who was then a blue top, (I remembered the car was blue). Then that was it for stockcars, my life was circuit racing up until 1974 when I went again to Long Eaton to watch F1 stockcars. No idea what I was going to see, but I was blown away by it. I never realised they used American engines. At about this time Chevrolet Camereo’s and Ford mustangs were doing a lot of winning on race tracks, I loved the sound of those engines and of course the Formula 5000 series was big news, (these were basically F1 GP style racing cars fitted with American V8’s), I had been travelling all over the place watching the F5000 series, yet here on my doorstep I could watch and more importantly hear those same big American motors. The needle went in that night at Long Eaton and I have been a junkie ever since. I still have a passing interest in circuit racing but stockcars are where my real passion is. Circuit racing tends to be a little exclusive where stockcars allow greater access and allows its followers to be much closer involved. This I feel is the most prized asset our sport has, its accessibility, contact with the drivers, contact with the promoters and officials, it does not happen at major circuits.

I have been very privileged over the years to be able to develop to journalistic and photographic interests with the sport. The photography came first but soon I had been encouraged to write a few words for one of the magazines, once they found I could sling a few sentences together they would not let me stop! There is always a need for people who can write about the sport, especially those who will do it for nothing! Which is where I started, first with ‘Stockcar Supporter’, local Supporters Club newsletters; right through to local and national newspapers. Sometimes I even got paid, most of the time, I did it for the sport, (still do). There is one thing bothering me slightly about this aspect of the sport today. The lack of new younger writers, (we have no shortage of people who can take pictures. Most of the people who write for the magazines and programmes etc have done it for ‘donkeys years’ many are coming up to or have reached pension age, (OK I’m still a middle age grumpy bloke!….its my job now…. I have reached ‘that age’ I tell my wife…. I’m supposed to be grumpy!). New blood is hard to find. I don’t doubt the writing skills are there but it’s just finding the people who can express themselves on paper.

The age problem affects all jobs; it seems on the safe side of the fence. Chief Steward Steve Abbott is constantly pointing out the race control that at some tracks it looks like the cast from ‘Last of the Summer Wine’! There are reasons for this perhaps, people want to do the job but don’t know how to go about contacting the right people to start. The promoters always need people to help out but don’t expect to be paid to start with. At least until they get to know you, there is an element that you have to earn trust and when you begin to be seen as a valuable asset you may sometimes get your admission covered (yes some of the people do pay to work, even I do at some tracks… that’s the way it is). Flag marshals, lap scorers, (transponders are not as reliable as we would like) are all jobs done by near volunteers, (well you would not do a ‘proper job’ for the wages that are paid). Which leads me to another point; new spectators how do we get them?

In the early part of this epic, I mentioned how I came into the sport, your own story might be similar but the biggest percentage of people who become supporters are brought along by there parents. If your parents are already supporters the chances are you will have been bought up in the sport, but what we need is new families coming in and that is tough. There is much to recommend our sport, its colourful, loud, action packed and accessible. The thing that worries me is that the youngsters I come across today will quite happily watch motor sport on TV, but to stand out in the cold and wet, well that simply does not register on their radar. There is much optimism regarding the forthcoming BBC series, I really hope it does attract people; it could be the best thing that happened to our sport. But, lets not forget though it has been televised before, all be it sporadically, over the years (think European Championships, live on TV in the 80’s, various Noel Edmunds shows, and even cable TV toyed with us filming many meetings for a couple of years, non of these had a major impact on crowd levels. Today we have diverse entertainment opportunities competing for the customer’s attention and money. We need to make sure we get some of the action but it is so difficult. Advertising costs a fortune and there is no guarantee it works, one promoter I recall went down the road of blanket advertising and ‘kids go fee’ and threw in a ‘soap star’ as an added attraction, sure the stadium was packed but he hardly made a killing when the overall cost was taken into account. Sure he managed to get the people there once, the problem was and still remains how do you keep them coming back, you cannot just keep throwing money at it. The thing was at the meetings I’m thinking about (Sheffield in the late 90’s), the Stadium was packed to the rafters with families, which was fine. The children seemed to be more captivated by Reliant Robins racing than anything else; the promoter was doing his bit, although his major priority on the day seemed to be selling sweets and air horns. This was fine but had the effect of putting off regular supporters, who turn up week in week out and I wonder just how many of those families tempted into the stadium on that perhaps one occasion went back, successive meetings without the added attractions did not draw the same level of crowd. Eventually Sheffield nearly disappeared from the fixture list until rescued by Steve Rees and the Startrax team who still keep the faith to this day.

So we have established I have been around the sport for quite a while and have witnessed it change over the years. So what have been the biggest changes? Without doubt one of the biggest changes witnessed have been the cars themselves, which have become ever more sophisticated. No more are they hastily assembled from bits and pieces scavenged from defunct road vehicles, they have become complete racing machines. Gone are the days you could run an F1 stockcar from parts secured from the local scrap yard. I’m sometimes asked what has been the biggest change to the actual racing has been. Without hesitation I reply ‘tyres’. Once the drivers moved away from using what were effectively 1950’s technology road tyres to using what are bespoke oval racing tyres it opened up all manner of performance gains. Years back it did not matter what power your engine had it was not possible to transmit all that power to the track through a Dunlop cross ply (or an Avon). Once tyres provided grip this directed attention to suspension, out went aged leaf springs in came coils, brakes went from drum brakes to discs. To aid cornering, which used to use such technology as a blob of grease on the disc, brake bias valves came in. Power steering became the norm; change ratio gearboxes came in quick succession, with each performance development the cars went faster. It is true to say that car handling improved through these changes too, so much so that it has come to the stage that no serious team seems to be able function without resource to a set of corner weight scales. All this to me was part of the natural development and evolution; as road cars have developed by leaps and bounds over the years, so have stockcars. Another major factor in enabling the cars to go faster are the absence of on track debris and markers. Not so long ago the infield was marked out by barrels, these over the course of the race inevitably were hit by cars an many finished on the actual ‘racing line’ providing a launch pad for the unwary or unlucky that happened across them. True they provided a spectacle as cars were launched, but even as it was muted to get rid of them the cars were already going really too fast to have this kind of flotsam on the track. Look at the change today in attitudes to items on the track, that have say, fallen off cars… yes something really had to change there. All this development brings with it other concerns. For some time there have been mutterings in some circles that was perhaps coming to the time now we need to seriously look at controlling the speeds the cars are reaching particularly on tarmac. This goes totally against the concept of a formula which has built a following based on the unlimited power premise. Yet the fact remains we are still racing at the same tracks we have raced at for a number of years, the same type of fence etc, yet the cars are going so much faster. So just how do you bring down the speeds without distracting from the spectacle? Come on, don’t be shy lets have your thoughts!

Some of the above may give the impression that I have fears for the future of our sport. This is not the case; I actually think we are better equipped to develop as a sport than we were a few years back. With control of matters behind the scenes being run by just one organisation, (The Oval Racing Council International – ORCi), certainly the aspects of safety and the rules of have been tidied up. This was needed due to the threats of an ever more litigious society we live in. The fact that each Promotion now has a unified ‘code of practice’ to work to, puts us in good shape. At least someone had the vision to get things sorted before the Heath & Safety ‘fascists’ and ‘job-worth’s’ really got their teeth into the sport. Many people, my self included, grow increasingly irritated of the constant intrusion into our lives of aspects of H&S; sometimes it all seems a bit of a joke, rules seemingly thought up by some zealot with more authority than brain power. A joke it may seem, but it is a really serious issue, make no mistake the H&S side of things is by far a bigger threat to any sport (not just ours) than perhaps even the ravages of financial recession. It is perhaps an issue many supporters have never considered. Why should they? “Local councils, Safety organisations,….pah! All we want to do is watch some racing!” Yes we all really wish we could be left alone to decide in our own minds what we deem as safe as most of us are educated people and can decide for ourselves if something we are doing is risky. We don’t need someone armed with a clipboard and a reflective coat, who sit on some committee to decide for us. But, it is a fact that to ensure insurance cover and all that goes with it, to enable stadiums to host events; we cannot simply, ‘just carry on the way we have done.’ Things have to be done correctly and businesses like, recorded, documented and communicated, who does what, where responsibilities lie. All has to be officially detailed and written down. All this involves considerable effort and cost again. Like I said it’s something many will not have considered. It is no longer the case for promotions to just open up the stadium gates and collect the money; there is much more to it than that. Just who would be a promoter today? Now that would be a good start for one of my future columns…

Steve Botham © 2010 for F1stockcars.com

Read Steve’s colum in STOXWORLD

Steve Botham - Photo: Paul Tully

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