Our latest “Unsung Heroes” features a gentleman who, these days can be seen dashing hither and thither around the Coventry infield and dog track, yellow flag in hand, ever watchful for drivers in trouble. Some of you, like me, may recognize Graham Shaw as a former mechanic for Brian Powles (ex-154) but his involvement in the sport goes a lot deeper than that, as I discovered when researching this article. I have reproduced my questions and Graham’s answers pretty much word for word – he certainly brought back more than a few memories for me of drivers and tracks long gone and I hope you find his responses as fascinating as I did, regardless of how long you have been a stock car racing fan.
According to your Stoxnet profile you have been around the sport since 1969. Being from Nottingham, I imagine you had heard of Long Eaton – how did you initially get involved in stock car racing?
I began watching at Belle Vue in 1969. At the time I lived in a place called Royton, between Oldham and Rochdale. The Rochdale track opened in 1970, only about 3 miles away which was handy. My Dad also began taking us to Nelson. Then White City opened in 1972. As a child I often used to cycle to Rochdale to Stu Smith’s garage. He would let us in to look at his car. When I passed my driving test in June 1974 I was able to borrow my Dad’s car at weekends to go and watch the racing. However one weekend he didn’t want me to use his car to go to Aycliffe as he was changing it the following week and didn’t want the extra miles on it (over the next 1000 miles). So on the Saturday night after, I think, Nelson, I asked Stuart if I could have a lift to Aycliffe the next day. After that I began to travel with the 391 team on a regular basis and began helping out at meetings and in the garage. I then went to college in Nottingham in Sept 1975, going the day after the opening Hartlepool meeting. I managed to get my Dad to collect me the following weekend for the Belle Vue World Final.
I went to the October Long Eaton meeting on the bus. Stuart asked me how I was getting back; I told him I wasn’t sure! He suggested asking Brian Powles for a lift, which I did. Brian asked where I was going, so after I had told him his answer was “one of my mechanics lives near there, he’ll give you a lift back.” On the way back they asked what I was doing on the Sunday, when I said “nothing” they offered me a lift to Northampton. I then continued to travel with Brian to meetings, if Stuart was there I helped him, if not I helped Brian. This continued for the first part of 1976 until Brian retired early in the season. I was still able to get a lift to some meetings with him, and began to help build the car which he raced in 1977/1978. When Stuart raced the Belle Vue/Bristol double meeting on Easter Monday 1976 my Dad and I took the Gertie car to Belle Vue. Dad also took Gertie to Nelson the day of the Long Eaton Semi Final meeting in 1976 in case we got damage to the Dodo. In the holidays I went home to Royton and travelled with the 391 team. In early 1978 I had decided to stay in the Nottingham area and therefore just mechaniced for Brian.
I remember you as a mechanic for Brian Powles, former superstar driver from Cotgrave, Nottingham who raced from 1970 to 1985 and was an accomplished car and engine builder and probably one of the best drivers never to win the world championship. Can you tell us anything about those times – there were more tracks and more meetings in those days, was it hard work combining a day job with wielding the spanners on the 154 car?
I enjoyed my time mechanicing for both Stuart and Brian. Cars were less technical in those days. We were racing a lot more meetings in those days. I think in 1981 we raced at about 80 meetings, whereas Stuart and Frankie raced at about 100 meetings. In those days there were meetings every Saturday and Sunday, plus midweek meetings at Sheffield on a Monday, Bradford Wednesdays, then Thursday before settling on a Friday, Skegness first raced with midweek meetings on Tuesday, then Wednesdays, then Sunday evenings. With Brian we would work on the car Wednesday and Thursday evening, and finish off Saturday afternoon before going racing, unless we had a lot of damage when we fitted in extra nights. Sunday mornings were spent washing the car, repairing any damage before leaving for the meeting, we did at times have some long/ late Saturday nights in the garage to repair damage, with both Stuart and Brian.
One Saturday evening with Brian we came home from Belle Vue, took out the engine and rebuilt our spare, then went and raced at Brafield, gaining 2 2nd places and a 4th. We were all short of sleep that night. Sunday meetings didn’t start until 3pm in those days and the roads were quieter. I usually managed to get to the midweek meetings, when I went with Brian to Reading for the 1st meeting there were only Brian myself and June, his wife, on the bus, for the second meeting Brian, me and one other helper. The downside of midweek meetings was returning late and having to get up for work next morning. After the first ever Blackburn meeting I got home about 3am and had to be up at 7am. Occasionally after a Sunday meeting we had a few repairs to do when we got home, so we could race at Sheffield on the Monday night. I remember one Sunday coming home from Brands with Stuart, we had stopped in London for a drink, along with John Hillam and, I think, Harry Smith. I did sleep on the way home, but got in bed about 5am, I was due at work at 6am, was woken by my Dad just before 6am and arrived about 10 minutes late. When I went to the garage in the afternoon Stuart couldn’t believe I’d been to work. We were often eating our fish and chips at midnight after a Sheffield meeting. At the time it wasn’t too hard combining a day job with wielding the spanners, but I don’t think it would be easy now as the Teaching job has changed so much, I doubt I’d have the time to help work on the car in the evenings.
In the close season of 1980/1981 we laid down 4 chassis. We completed 3 cars, 1 for Brent Savage, 1 for Dennis Knight plus ours. The 4th one was eventually raced several years later by Ray Williams.
Talking of day jobs I seem to remember you are (or were) a mathematics teacher – did this skill ever come into its own working on the cars?
I still am a Maths Teacher, but do Supply work these days, I don’t think this ever helped working on the stock car.
You told me you acted as a mechanic for a few other drivers – can I ask which ones? Did you mechanic for Brian’s son Stuart when he raced?
I originally mechaniced for Stuart Smith. When Brian packed up in 1982 we had the 471 Bobby Burns car at the garage which I virtually looked after on my own, but it was too much for one person. Bobby would arrive at the garage after lunch on the Saturday and we would go racing, only the two of us on the bus so he had to drive there and back as well as race. After that I helped Mick Stecko for a bit, but only at the tracks, I often drove the lorry home after the meeting, I was with him when he nearly won the Dash for the Cash at the Bradford WF meeting. Then I helped Mike Close at the tracks for a while, stopping when I got married in 1987. I didn’t help Stuart Powles. I do remember he used to sit on my knee to load the car in the bus after the meetings! I also remember Andy Smith as a baby.
You are now a flag marshal at Coventry Stadium – was this a way of getting back into the sport or have you always been around and I just haven’t seen you?
I’d not been involved since I stopped helping Mike. Marshalling was a way of getting back into the sport, though I had kept spectating, but mainly only at Coventry. I went to the odd meeting at other tracks, but haven’t missed a WF since 1970. I saw a post on Stoxnet asking if any people were interested in joining the Coventry team as Flag Marshals, so replied to it and went from there. When Startrax transferred the 2 meetings from Belle Vue in 2010 I helped out with those meetings, then when they began to promote their meetings at Coventry I became part of their team, but only at Coventry. They then asked me to give it a try working on the centre, so I’ve been Assistant Clerk of Course for them now for a few seasons.
Like first aid officers, without flag marshals there would be no racing – can you describe the routine before each meeting? Is there a pre-meeting briefing by the steward or clerk of the course to ensure things run as smoothly as possible? I noticed at the last Coventry you were helping out on the pit gate during the 5-lap driver tests, then wielding the flags on the centre for the first race having already set up the fire extinguishers etc on turn three so I imagine you need to be flexible and turn your hand to a number of jobs over the course of a meeting.
Yes it’s a team effort. I normally try to arrive by 15:30 then it’s a case of helping where needed. It may be setting up the trophy table, helping park cars in the pits, chasing up drivers for scrutineering. But we are flexible and help as required. If I do have time I like to walk round the pits and chat to people I know. We have a pre-meeting briefing before the meeting starts from Simon (Bennion), the Clerk of Course. Recently I have been on the centre for some non F1 races to help out. When we’ve had the Micro F2’s this season I’ve helped with those as Starter. When I first started as a Flag Marshal Stuart Smith asked me what job I was doing. When I told him he said “never work on the centre, it’s too dangerous!” You certainly have to be aware of what is happening around you. The other job you’ve probably noticed is that we check the driver’s seat belts and helmet straps are fastened before each race.
Moving on to the actual marshalling aspect (and I apologize if this seems a bit mundane) I was wondering if marshals are in radio contact with the steward or C.o.C or do you take your cue from the starter when a yellow or red flag situation occurs? Obviously, if a driver hits the fence on your “patch” you are first on the scene to check and assess his condition and I have noticed that getting a driver’s attention, short of poking him/her with the flag can be difficult! Does this present a problem when deciding whether to raise the yellow flag to halt a race – being on the safe side of the fence I have heard the moans when a good race is interrupted by a caution but driver safety is paramount? Have you ever been berated by a driver or fan for stopping a race?
No the Flag Marshals aren’t in radio contact. We have to take our cue from the Starter to go to waved yellow or red flags, but the traffic lights also help in that aspect. When you check a driver if they give us the “thumbs down” that is when we raise the yellow flags to get the attention of the CoC and Steward. If I see a driver trying to start the engine I know he is OK, even without the thumbs up. If there is debris on the track, especially on the racing line, we raise our flags to notify the CoC. I’ve never been berated for stopping a race, fans don’t always know the reason why, especially if it is stopped and a driver then drives off. In the WF for example Mat Newson stopped in front of me on the racing line. I could see him trying to start the engine, but it wouldn’t fire up, so he gave the thumbs down. I then raised my flag and we stopped the race. As the cars were slowing he then got the car started and drove off.
Thinking back to the World Final, is communicating with Netherlands drivers a problem from a marshalling point of view? I suspect not, given that most Dutch drivers and fans speak better English than a good many Brits!
No it wasn’t an issue, their English is certainly better than my Dutch.
Talking of the safe side of the fence, my brother Ant is one of the Coventry track photographers and is normally on the dog track on turns three and four. I have seen the state he and his cameras are in at the end of a particularly dusty or wet meeting – goggles are a given for marshals as is hi-viz gear – do you use any other safety equipment (either mandatory or personal preference) given your vulnerable position between track and catch fence and have you ever had any close calls?
No I just wear goggles, plus a cap to try and keep my hair a bit clean. Waterproofs when it is raining or very muddy. I have a pair of gloves I can use if necessary to pick up hot items such as exhausts or disc brakes. Personally I’ve never had any close calls on the outside, but I’m told a V8 got a bit close last Saturday.
I am thinking here of incidents at Coventry this year when cars have gone into/through/over the fence. I heard one of the marshals was reconsidering his position (i.e. whether to stay a flag marshal) after the 446/318 crash on turn three earlier this year as it was just getting too wild. Presumably you are covered by the promoter’s insurance should the unthinkable occur. Do you have any advice for people wanting to become flag marshals?
If people want to become a Flag Marshal at Coventry have a word with Simon or Jeremy and see if they need any extra people. If they do then perhaps come to a meeting and shadow one of us for the day to see if you like it before committing yourself. I’m sure other promotions would also welcome people who are interested.
Is there anything you would like to add (anecdotes etc, your views on the drivers and racing today compared to as it was during your time with the 154 team) please feel free. I would imagine you do not actually get to see a lot of the actual racing as a marshal, being constantly on the look-out for incidents etc, but do you have any favourite drivers, past or present. Do you even get to any other tracks apart from Coventry?
The cars seem a lot more technical these days, using scales to set up the corner weights etc. I think it was easier as so many more parts are fabricated these days, making some repairs more complicated. I remember coming home from Nelson one night with Stuart with a bent rear axle. We set to work cutting the axle, then straightening it and welding it up. It was fine the next day. In the mid 70’s we tended to use the axles and springs straight off the LD vans, attaching them to the chassis with the LD spring hangers and using the LD shock absorbers so repairs were much easier. I know some people could build a new car from scratch in about a week. It takes much longer now.
Brian only had one car, Saturday night was usually shale and Sunday afternoon tarmac. All we would do was alter the tracking and change the tyres to “baldies”. The night before the Bradford 1981 WF we raced at Long Eaton. One fan came up to us during the meeting and said “I see your racing your spare car tonight.” He seemed surprised when we said we only had the one car. He asked what would happen if we got damage. We told him we would have a busy night repairing it! Fortunately we only had a little bit of work to do.
Stuart used to have the slogan “The Living Legend “on his car. One fan came to us and asked, seriously, “What is a leg end?”
When we first raced at Baarlo in May 1978 we went with Frankie Wainman, with our car on a trailer behind his bus. I remember the customs tasting my Vimto to make sure it wasn’t alcohol. I also remember they made us open the back of the bus to have a look, saw the amount of wheels stacked around the car and promptly said we could close it.
Both Stuart and Brian kindly let me use their garages to do work on my own car. In fact I once had a leaking petrol tank, which Stuart kindly repaired for me. After draining it and removing it we filled it with water before he welded it.
One Rochdale meeting I’d gone in my car, I drove Wilf Blundell to Stuart’s garage so he could weld something up and then continue racing at the meeting. When I first began watching Stu Smith was my favourite. The car stood out due to the presentation, he also won the final at my first meeting, plus he was local to where I lived. Reg Graham’s wife was a teacher at my school. I don’t have a particular favourite these days.
Dad was a driving instructor, when he worked for the BSM he gave Doug Cronshaw a few lesson prior to his test.
When marshalling it is harder to follow the racing as you are constantly checking the track in front and behind you. It does vary a bit depending on where you are standing. It is even harder from the centre of the track.
Graham added a few extra snippets…
The cars have certainly changed a lot since I began watching. In 1969 a large variety of engines were being used, Jaguar, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Ford and Buick spring to mind. The appearance of many cars left a lot to be desired. A few stood out such as Tony Leicester and Stu Smith. Now most cars are presented very well, with super sign writing jobs (or vinyl). Drivers changed from drum brakes to disc brakes and from leaf springs to the current coil springs. Wings have been added. Also safety has improved a lot. I remember when they made it compulsory to put a mesh in the windscreen. If you look at pictures of Stu Smith in Gertie and the Dodo look how low the side of the car is, you can see his knee above the side of the car, which was only 1” box section. Brian always made the sides strong after he had his injury at Long Eaton in 1971. Now all are 2” tube, I believe, plus fully plated. Look at the clothing the drivers now wear compared to then. Cotton overalls were used, there are pictures of drivers racing in shirt sleeves. Drivers seats are much better. In those days all tracks were post and wire fences. At one stage the drivers refused to race at Hednesford due to lots of damage to cars and some getting injured. Now many don’t like racing at post and rope venues.
I would like to express my sincere thanks to Graham for taking the time to answer my questions and providing some fascinating information. I too remember the year the mesh windscreen rule came in – Ian Russell (ex-38) wrapped a piece of chicken wire around the roll cage pillars on his ex-391 car, complying with the spirit if not the letter of the new regulation!
Interviewed by: Mick Jenkins