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By Sara Rowland – Ontario, Canada 

Car details: TVR Vixen S2 chassis number LVX 1442/4

Race-built to 1969 specifications

Last year I took the three-day April 2017 Spring Fling with Brack Driving Concepts, at Shannonville, Ontario with the intention of becoming a vintage/historic race car driver. I was driving my everyday road car, a 2005 Nissan Sentra 1.8 with over 400,000kms on the clock. Rather to my surprise I was the only female on the course. I had thought by 2017 there would be more females entering the sport.

On Day 1 of the course I was anxious, but determined to try to make the most of it. Whether I ended up racing or not it would be useful experience. First I went out to drive circles and 180-degree turns out on a skid pan, which was not entirely successful as I could not see the painted lines – well, there were no painted lines as they had all been worn away by big transport trucks! I think really though, the instructors just wanted to see that the car was drive-able. Then there was a lot of racing theory in the class room for the rest of the day.

Day 2 was under instruction on the short pro-track formation with my patient and encouraging instructor, Chris. Under Chris’s expert guidance, by 11am I had improved from 50km/h to 80km/h entering turn 1 and 2 and was beginning to explore my limits. Which were mostly psychological in that I really didn’t think my little car would stay on the track at the speeds and angles I was being instructed to drive – but it did. Tires chirping and everything.

The final Day 3 was full track, under instruction and then I was out driving on my own. Then a few rolling starts under instruction, altogether as a group. Somewhere in all that there was also a 3-hour written exam, open book. To my joy, and not a little surprise, I passed and subject to a satisfactory medical and application fee I could now get my race license and start vintage car racing!

But I still knew nothing about driving my future race car, a TVR Vixen, at high speeds. So my husband, Mark, took me to a race track near Niagara, for a track day in early summer.

I got into the TVR feeling quite sick from fear and discovered I have significant claustrophobia. Getting into the tiny space between roll cage side impact bar and the lid was one thing. The tight racing seat that was about 2cm too narrow for my hips, the balaclava, then the helmet, then my spectacles, and finally the HANS neck device was almost too much for me and I began to feel panic. There is no passenger seat, that space is filled with parts of the car’s dry sump plumbing, so I was on my own. Calming myself with breathing exercises I nervously tried to pull away from our paddock space into the access lane. I stalled the engine. I tried again. Stalled it. Tried again. Stalled it. So I told Mark I was going to try to just drive it the other direction away from the hullabaloo of other cars and took a drive around the rear of the paddock where it was quiet. After a hesitant start I did the entire circuit of the paddock in first gear. So then Mark told me to try again and to change gear. The gear change is experienced as a very short and sharp jolt and clearly heard “thunk” between each of the four gears and it takes some getting used to after the languid travel of the gear lever in a regular manual car like the Nissan. So I took a couple of tentative turns around the open space at the back of the paddock in second gear.

Time was ticking on, it was well after noon before I started on the track. After a few circuits at road-driving speeds I came in, parked up and let my brain process things.  Another participant took me out as a passenger in his Lotus Elise so I could become a bit more familiar with the track. I made another excuse to break for lunch (I was too nervous to eat before) and then finally after some cajoling and self-talking I went out a few more times in the Vixen and gradually increased my speed and practiced different lines and apexes, and changing gear.

In July I apprehensively applied to enter my first race with Mark as my pit crew. It was the Peter Jackson Trophy race weekend at Shannonville, and I chose to enter because it was familiar territory. I had the confidence of knowing the track and still hearing Chris’s words in my mind.

My goals were simple. I wanted to get round safely, not interfere with others who were more competitive than I, and learn. The first outing was practice. On the straight of ¼ mile I went for a gear change from third to fourth and fluffed it. The oil pressure warning light came on which was my cue to stop immediately, but the car was already cruising without power. Oh no, I had destroyed the engine or something, and the weekend had barely even started. Whatever was Mark going to say? I was in big trouble now, I felt sure of that! I pulled to the left and switched off all the pumps and pre-ignition, before the rescue crew pushed me off into the paddock that was conveniently right there. Mark examined around the car, got into the car and fiddled around for a bit before firing her up and driving away. Puzzled, I waited until he returned.

“What was it?”

“Oh, you just missed a gear and stalled the engine.”

Stalled it? At maybe 100 miles an hour on a straight, how is that even possible?

So out for qualifying I went. I was too scared to change gear into fourth and did the entire thing in third gear, which is still capable of pulling over 100 mph. Of course, I was gridded last, based on that performance, which was precisely where I wanted to be.

Then I had my first race, with pace car and rolling start, which was quite fun. But I didn’t try too hard and I still didn’t try for fourth gear. I didn’t care to, I just wanted to get round and finish in one piece. I stayed out of everyone’s way, held my line, and got forced to try some corners on a line I had never tried before. Mark was delighted when I returned to the paddock and I was feeling pretty happy with myself.

The next day, two more races. Now I would try for fourth gear. In the final race I had the exact same problem as on the practice run, stalling the engine mid-straight. But now I knew what had happened and what I had to do so I took the escape lane at the end of the straight as I slowed to a stop, then went through the re-starting process, and negotiated the recovery lane to re-enter the race track when safe. The race finished with a little rain that slowed me down, mainly because I discovered there were no windscreen wipers and I could not see!

After the final race we were all directed off track to the presentation of awards near the main grandstand, and I was shocked beyond belief when my name was called as the winner of my class! How did that happen? Convinced at first it was a joke, I received my award with incredulity. How could I have won? I was last! Well, vintage and historic car racing is unlike most other forms of racing, because cars of different marques, different speeds, different engine sizes, different everything except age, race together, but in fact there is a whole series of races within a race. You are only really competing against others in the same class as you, and you chose which class to be in based on your expected lap times. I soon learned, well, it was basically a race of attrition and I won because I was the last one in my class still driving at the end. All the other entrants in my class either did not start, or had a mechanical issue on track and did not finish, or decided to go home early. Being awarded points for competing and finishing each race I had won fair and square per the rules of VARAC and its driver championship. What a feather in my new baseball cap that was!

My next outings were not until September. In the meantime Mark bought and fitted a new race seat for me that was 2cm wider, and much more comfortable. The first outing in September was the Indian Summer event at the dreaded Canadian Tire Mosport track near Bowmanville. I had read about this track, and knew it had seen some spectacular crashes. Even at the June 2017 VARAC Grand Prix, the drivers of vintage Formula 1 cars that had been brought over from the UK as a crowd pleaser were coming in asking how the heck does anyone drive that up-and-down and round-about track? Mark assured me it was among his favourite tracks as there are lots of fast sections between the turns and the altitude changes and bumps make for some interesting challenges. I knew it was going to be a handful.

Saturday brought beautiful sunshine and a chance to see the track while waiting my turn, as the GTs, F1600s and Classics were out practicing. What I saw brought tears to my eyes. There was no way I was going out there! It was crazy! Blind crests on a turn, and extremely fast corners. I felt sick and my nerves were not helped by my husband’s well-intentioned advice on how I should approach and drive each turn. Quietly I prepared myself for the practice session, and as I got myself strapped into the harness I looked up ahead to the track between turns 1 and 2 and saw a huge puff of dust – and a wheel flying off high into the yonder. Oh great. I later learned one of the F1600 cars had come a cropper and hit the dirt off the track, dug in, then spun across the track to smash into the wall on the other side somehow missing anyone else – but losing a wheel and near-destroying the car in the process. The driver escaped with some severe bruising and a crushed ego.

Feeling terrified I slowly prepared myself and nervously drove to the start, well after everyone else had already got onto the track. Just like with every time before, once I got out on the track there was no time to feel claustrophobic or be filled with terror, as I had to focus on where I am going, where everyone else is, and all the while hawkishly looking for and memorizing locations of the volunteer flag workers. My first big uh oh moment was at turns 5a/b, a hairpin known as Moss Corner. After turn 4, a left-hand steep descent, 5a is a sharp rise, turn sharp right in the middle of the rise, then a very short recovery section before entering into 5b, an over-tightened right-hand exit that is more than 90 degrees around, before turn 6 a left bend into the straight. When I got to 5b I thought there is no way I’m getting around there without a three point turn! I soon learned slamming into second gear on entering 5a goes a lot better. It is certainly a challenge to drive Moss Corner smoothly – and without losing massive amounts of momentum. I don’t really know if there is a best way to drive it, but I have found a line that I like.

In qualifying I concentrated on practicing gear changes and smooth transitions up and down, and continued with that into race 1. With a pace car leading to a rolling start, I was at the back of the grid again and feeling the adrenalin as the other cars whizzed off from me into the distance for a fast disappearance around turn 1. I was often alongside or just behind a 1966 Formula Ford open wheel car so I watched wherever that went and copied some of the same lines the next time round, just for fun. Much to my surprise, going out scared and terrified and chasing the rabbit of the open wheel car seemed to bring out the best in me and I achieved my best lap time for the season, of 2:01! It is a 2.5 mile (4km) circuit so I was averaging well over 70 mph, which I thought was not bad for a beginner in a car as old as I am. Any faster and I might bump out into the next class up, as 2:00 minutes is the cut-off or shortest lap time for the class I am in!

I tried to achieve the 2:01 lap time on my next races the next day, but didn’t manage it. Maybe the track and the weather – which was still glorious, but getting quite hot – just wasn’t right. Mark says it is better to drive without trying hard and just let the track come to you. In between races, at lunch time, one of the track workers drove over and said he had been concerned for me as I was being lapped by the fastest cars at Moss Corner – which happened more than once over the weekend – but wanted to say I had handled it very well. Hearing this from a seasoned observer was a nice little boost to my confidence. I knew when I was about to get mobbed by the faster cars – I was watching my mirrors carefully and the flag workers were excellent about showing me a blue flag as well – and when I was being lapped I usually stayed wide on the turn to give the approaching pack some space to get past. But sometimes I was mid-field and I had cars whizzing around on both the outside and inside. But I can truthfully say I did not panic. Being fired up on adrenalin and fear, my mind was very much focused on my driving, my lines, the flags, my mirrors, my reactions and my anticipating the next few seconds – so there was no room for panic to creep in. It was simply too busy for that!

I finished every race, coming in last. And I won my class. Again! There were other entries in my class but they didn’t make it around to finish in all the races. So I had another trip to the winners’ podium! This was getting a little embarrassing! But oh, so satisfying.

So buoyed up by my experience so far I entered the final event of the season, a Celebration of Motorsport, which was held two weeks later and again at the Mosport track. To stand a chance of a trophy in the VARAC drivers’ championship I had to enter and do well in three events in the year, and this would be my third and last-possible event. The Celebration was just a one day event on the Saturday. The racing on the Sunday would count for the 2018 season, so we agreed Mark would enter on the Sunday, and I would race on the Saturday before heading home to the farm. Practice and qualifying were combined in one outing, and then I had just one race. Sadly, both outings were marred by unfortunate events for other cars and I finished the practice/qualifying under a full course black flag and the race ended under a full course double yellow caution behind the safety car. But while the safety car was out there was always the prospect of a re-start – and I was now second in line! That would have been an exciting moment as the green flag went up and everyone else whizzed past me! So every time the pack approached the start I was nervously looking to see if the green flag appeared. But it didn’t happen. So my rookie race season came to an end, and in November I learned I am the VARAC Champion of Class VH6 for 2017!

Want to see some of Sara’s racing experiences? There are several cockpit-view videos available to view under TheLotus7Racer on Youtube.