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Monday, March 4, 2024

A Day at The Races – But Not as You Know it….

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By The Highlands Times feature write Iain C. Munro

The Highland Times was invited to enjoy some time out away from the north for a day at the races in bonnie Fife.

The ‘races’ in this instance was motor racing – not at the usual circuits like Cowdenbeath or Knockhill but at the  Lochgelly Raceway motorsports complex where the owners describe you’ll enjoy ‘high adrenaline action with thrills and spills; Stock Car, Hot Rod & Banger Racing Events’.

It didn’t disappoint.

Our host for the day was Inverness racing driver (2.0 Hot Rod class) Ryan Dunbar and his support team.

During the week, Ryan runs RD MOT and Repair Centre in the city’s Carse area but at the weekends, he takes part in the European selection of this class of motor sport.

If your memories of ‘hot rods’ are like THT’s – old American cars adapted for street racing, then think again.

At Lochgelly, these are purpose built racing cars that look something like you’d see on the road but in fact bear more resemblance to a British Touring car than anything you’ll see on the A9.

Our day starts in the late morning with the three hour drive from Inverness.

First stop is at the Newtonmore Grill.

This wonderful combination of a UK truck stop and American diner sits beside the ‘old’ A9 to the south of the village and dishes up a varied menu to cater for all tastes.

It also has plenty of parking which is important as the clientele includes not only truckers, but others like Ryan heading north or south for motor racing.

Taking a look at what we’re travelling in, it makes sense to stop in somewhere with plenty space.

The main vehicle is a van with the racing car being hitched behind in a fully enclosed purpose built trailer.

The van and trailer also have all the tools needed for trackside maintenance so all in all, it’s a fairly ‘big rig’ on the road.

Today’s support team is Ryan’s good friend – travelling in a car – along with both their families, comprising primary school aged kids.

This time round, the mums have opted to stay at home but all four kids are in the car looking forward to a day out at the races.

Suitable fuelled by a Newtonmore brunch we head south, with a quick stop at Perth to top up the tanks and then on to the Lochgelly Raceway.

Situated in the Fife countryside, it’s a single oval track that to the uninitiated, looks a bit like a mini NASCAR circuit, or a large go-kart track.

It is surrounded by worryingly capable looking Armco barriers (three high….) and between the spectator areas and the track, an even larger fence.

Maybe there’s more to this than just the racing.

The pit area looks like a large car park but is soon filled with the cars, karts and many support vehicles along with the unmistakeable noise of motorsports and the smell of oil and petrol.

Also in abundance are the friends, families and others who make up this committed community of motor racing enthusiasts.

The place is a soon hive activity as the vehicles go through their final preparation before the practice laps that start today in the mid afternoon.

Ryan has a new car for this season so much of today’s work will be setting it up properly for future races, working out how best to handle it on the track  and also seeing what other tweaks will have to be done on the coming weeks.

It’s also all about the tyres in the 2.0 Hot Rod class.

The rules state that a driver can only introduce one new tyre per race (all the cars race on the same type and size of tyres) which means that over the season a collection of tyres is built up for the team to choose from.

Today, though, Ryan has chosen to put four new tyres on which means he has to start at the back of the grid.

I remember an F1 fan trying to explain to me once that ‘it’s all about the tyres’.

It seems it’s exactly the same on a Saturday afternoon in Fife.

As you would imagine, the practice laps allow the drivers and teams to make any final adjustments to their vehicles before the racing gets underway at 5.30pm.

These sessions were also a great excuse for the THT to get out of the way of the support team (which by this time had been joined by other who were happy to help with the set up of the new car) and see what the other classes of racing were like.

On entering the arena, the first impression is the investment that the owners of the raceway, Hardie Race Promotions, have put in to the facility.

Terraced seating and standing areas, a covered grandstand, a fast food outlet at one end with a cafe at the other and across from us in the stand, terraced parking that allows spectators to drive in and watch from their cars.

At the business end – the track – the centre grassed/parking area has a pace car, some officials and an ominously large looking industrial forklift truck, more of which later.

This afternoon’s racing schedule includes Ninja Karts (lethally fast go karts driven by under 10s), Junior production (teenagers too young to drive on the road), 1300 Stock cars for the more serious and B2B Bangers.

Most, including the 2.0 Hot Rods, are ‘non contact’, which as at best loosely adhered to, but the B2B bangers are in the ‘just go for it’ bracket where anything goes.

From an entertainment perspective, this is a mix of serious racing combined with an attempt to give the spectators a more gladiatorial experience by allowing deliberate contact in the B2B class ( a.k.a. trying to destroy your opponents) as an appeasement if there are no accidents in the ‘big’ races.

It’s both incredibly noisy and intoxicatingly addictive at the same time.

Back in the pit area, there’s a lull before the racing begins and is an opportunity to have a chat with some of the other participants.

The car parked next to us belongs to a father and son team who, like Ryan, have a garage business.

Dad’s being doing this for decades and his son is today’s driver.

On preparing the car for the weekend, he explains that it’s mainly done ‘between MOTs and in the evening’.

He also gives a nod to the support he receives from his family in terms of the time that he and his dad spend doing what an outsider would see some sort of busman’s holiday.

But for him and the others, it clear that it’s all about 20, fourteen or so seconds, laps in three races on a Saturday night.

This is what they’re here for.

Ryan’s first race is successful as he gets to grip with the car.

At the end, he and the team return to the pits and like the TV, a swarm of mechanics and others check the cars – wheel nuts and tyre pressures and critical – but there are also more serious adjustments.

By now, we’ve also been joined by another northern race driver who works with Ryan on the car prep.

Dropped off by his family on the way back from a family holiday he joins the team for a discussion on suspension settings before the front end is all readjusted before race two.

The second race passes without incident but Ryan’s lap time has improved.

The adjustments are working and another competitor blows his engine up trying the keep up with Ryan round the corners.

This leads to oil and water on the track which is swiftly dealt with by throwing sand on the issue.

The large forklift truck unceremoniously removes the car but helpfully takes it right back to its spot in the pit lane so that it can be trailered home and fixed for next week.

In between the 2.0 Hot Rod heats and final, the other races take place.

Cars hit each other (unintentionally and otherwise), some can’t cope with the pressure and break down blowing engines, gear boxes and diffs (that’s a critical bit in the middle of the back axle) and the B2B gang do their very best to destroy everyone else in their race.

The forklift truck is kept very busy but no-one seems to mind.

Back in the pits, the father and son team decide that their car has to be rebuilt in part before the final.

By this time, the daylight is fading and the hi-mast lighting comes on.

It envelopes the whole facility strange ghostly feel that gives and impression of what Le Mans 24 Hour race pits must be like during the night.

Notwithstanding the poor light, the car next door has its whole rear end rebuilt in about 45 minutes.

If you or I had to get this done at a garage, it would probably be deemed a write off or at least take a couple of days.

These folk really know what they’re doing.

I again leave the team in peace and return to the track to watch the Junior Production race that’s on just before Ryan’s third race of the day – the 2.0 Hot Rod final.

The Junior Production class is fascinating – young teens of both sexes driving what look like mainly souped up Vauxhall Corsas at speeds and with precision that would defy most.

They’ll have started in karts and progressed to this before heading into the adult categories.

They (and the Ninja Kids) are the reason why this is a bona fide family day out.

The families of those racing can mix with drivers of all ages from six years old and up in an atmosphere where, while the racing is taken really seriously, the pit area support is both like a big family and world class in every sense of the word.

As the Juniors get towards the end of the race, the only really serious incident of the day takes place.

A car breaks down on the middle of the track and before the officials can stop the race another driver runs directly into the back of it at full speed.

A hush falls over the stadium, everything stops, the medics are on hand but thankfully everyone is OK.

The fork truck does its duty and the race resumes.

A man next to me comments ‘kids die in this you know’ in a very matter of fact way and it just reminds us that while everything is done to make this as safe as possible, at the end of the day, these are very fast cars being driven to the edge by committed drivers, so accidents are bound to happen.

The 2.0 Hot Rod final is upon us and Ryan’s team have tweaked the car again.

He goes on to drive exceptionally well and from the first heat to the final takes almost half a second off his best lap time.

The race is completed, he’s no longer at the back of the grid and the car is undamaged and ready to go the next time.

It’s been a real success and the team are delighted.

We head off home to Inverness where the chat in the van is all about past glories and failures but mainly the next race and how the car can be improved.

After a late burger on the road, the kids are all asleep in the support car and we all make it back safely by midnight.

It was a privilege to be invited to be a member of this dedicated fraternity, even if it was just for a day.

These drivers, of all ages and sexes, do it for the love of their sport and the support and enthusiasm of the whole community was evident from start to finish.

So when you’re next having your car serviced at RD MOT and Repair Centre, be assured that your vehicle is being worked on by people who dedicate their whole life to the pursuit of making cars better to drive and more fun for all.

I think I’ll be joining them again……

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