Where there's a Willesden there's a way

Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Doafw at the races

"And they're off!", screamed the tinny blue trumpet into my ear, "These two talented drivers racing head here at Silverstone, nose to nose on the back of the same flat-bed truck. It's synchronised recovery, ladies and gentlemen."

As the announcer bled his joke and my eardrums dry, a battered, souped up Peugoet 206 landed on the tarmac, and a cloud of blue smoke and noise engulfed a line of ancient rocket-shaped formula one cars, that I just managed to jump clear of. The smell of petrol, frying burgers and dozens of people I would hate to encounter on a driving lesson further overwhelmed my senses. As a person with a healthy fear of both cars and car enthusiasts,what was I doing in the centre of Silverstone racing track, in what looked like Britain's biggest and meanest service station? I was only looking for a sandwich.

Mr Fusion's birthday and Karting had brought us to Silverstone, and with my back and credit card having taken an impressive battering in recent days, I was looking for omens to encourage me to sit it out. The first was the unexpectedly heavy traffic on the M-Something on the way there. The second was the unusually intense young man with a walkie-talkie, who pointed at me as I entered the shabby two-storey portacabin at the side of the, admittedly improvised, Karting track. Pointing his antenna towards my knee, he said "Right, you're going to be number 13, you'd better get changed now." I eyed the khaki wet-weather gear suspiciously.

"Actually, I was just going to spectate if that's OK." He gave me the look I'm fairly used to by now, and I walked out to introduce myself and find a suitable spot on from sidelines to carp. It didn’t last.

Fry had generously offered me a lift to the track, and stuck in traffic we took the opportunity to go through his CD collection thoroughly and to discuss the admittedly low standard of driving around us. I prayed it would be better once we got to the track. Anxiety was setting in almost as much as hunger, and Fry was more enthusiastic to get in a cart than I was to eat sandwiches. Watching another service station fly past, I imagined a paradise packed with deep-fill sandwiches and accessible cashpoints. By that stage, I would almost have settled for a Burger King. I saw a Wild Bean Café up ahead, which was definitely looking accessible. I remembered their toasted pizza wrap, and my stomach whimpered sadly.

“Do you fancy stopping there? Just for a sec?”

“No.” he said. If my stomach was a dog it would have chosen that moment to lie disarmingly on its back and urinate on the floor. Instead, it just made a groaning noise and tried to fall in on itself, impeded by the single Polo mint I’d had all day. Maybe breakfast would have been a good idea after all.

I was replaying this memory as the first heat kicked off. The car at the front rounded a bend, closely followed by the one behind it. It rounded another, and my attention began to wane again.

”Any idea where I can get some food?” I asked, um, someone. They seemed to be chewing.

”Thhrryy uph sere” they said, through a mouthful of crumbs pointing to the top of the portacabin. I ascended to the stairs, to a “Spectators Gallery” which brought back uncomfortable memories of a prison “Visitors’ Lounge”. The forbiddingly named Control Room was shut, and after a few attempts I managed to get their attention.

“Do you know where I can get some food? Preferably a sandwich. Or maybe some cake?”

“Yeah, go down there, go straight ahead and tweet tweet tweet tweet.” My attention was certainly wavering.

“Right”, I said, uncertainly. Straight ahead and then go….?”

“Tweet tweet to the pit lane.” he said, in the voice reserved for ‘If you fall in the Thames you’ve gone too far.”

I nodded, and set off. There was some limited activity on the track, mostly concealed behind cavernous and empty grandstands. I found a tunnel, that looked optimistic. A small kid sat on the edge of the ramp throwing pebbles down below. I picked up a can. He stopped.

The first thing that struck me about the centre of the raceway were the little metal trumpets. Looking like something out of a cartoon, I half expected them to pulsate comically as the announcer spoke. Which was all the time. As inane commentaries filled the air, so too did the smell of frying Meat. No particular meat. Just generic Meat, clumped together with what might have been onions from numerous burger/hot dog bars. All I could think about was food, but I wasn’t quite that hungry. The car park around the pit lane was looking like the encampment in Independence Day, as crowds of men struggled to bring their dusty, tired creations back to life. Most of them at least started off as cars, but were by now transformed into battered hulks surrounded by clouds of blue smoke, ugly reinforcing steel bolts sticking out from the cockpits and the drivers’ ears. Lines of flatbed trucks unloaded a constant stream of broken cars, to be hurriedly fixed up by squadrons of enthusiasts before being dispatched onto the track in preparation for being smashed up again.

There was no sign of this sandwich though. Despite looking like a massive service station, my sandwich and my cashpoint were looking pretty elusive. Unexpectedly the tarmac gave way to flower beds and trees, giving me some much needed shade and oxygen. I could hear a fountain in the distance, assuming I held my noise and looked in the right direction, the chaos of the yard was far behind me. Hoping to blag my way into the Motor Racing Establishment, I edged through a turnstile, but there was no way I was going to get any further.

Eventually, perched on the only piece of grass within the perimeter track, I found what could just about pass for a café. It looked as if it had been stolen away from the rest of the service station, but as I stepped in, the sheer volume of oily bearded men and racing games assured me I was still in a race track. I imagined it was hell on race days, but today, with all the serving hatches closed and a glut of formica tables, it was merely purgatory. So I sat down in the lazy afternoon sun, ignored the handful of wasps and petrolheads who hovered nearby, and enjoyed what was the best sandwich I’ve had in ages.

The route back to the race course was easier than I expected. The same parade of retired race cars blocked my path as they ambled noisily off the track, and I felt it was a sensible precaution to at least find a small tree to cower behind. But soon I was back at the Karting, and, stomach filled, I could finally take an interest in the finals. Borrowing Fry’s intimidatingly expensive-looking camera, I took my share of moody shots of the track dwarfed by the cavernous stands and similarly nonsensically huge sky, and then cam back down to earth in time to position myself for the action shot, preparing for the moment when Mr Fusion, the birthday boy and natural race winner would elegantly skirt the corner and claim victory.

Well, someone elegantly skirted the corner in my action shot. Sadly Mr Fusion came in third. But he clearly deserved to win. I backed off from the presentation when the bottle of perry came out, and then went off to a party to get drunk.

I still don’t understand motorsport. Had a great day out though.


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