Today I want to talk about commitment.
People often ask what it takes to be a race car driver. What is the cost?
The cost is everything you have, my friend. You are talking about a sport that can potentially take your life, so what does it take?
What have you got?
The cost of motorsport hasn't changed since World War Two. It needs all the money you have, and what you don't have you need to make up for with hard work and sacrifice.
I cant remember not wanting to race cars. My dad was a race car driver. Special saloons in the 70's Rallycross in the 80's Production car racing in the 90's. He started his racing career at Goodwood Race Circuit. He would pinch the family saloon, a Ford Cortina GT, remove the bumpers and tape up the lights and go racing.
In shoestring terms, he had one. But that was all.
Moving on a few of decades from sliding Fords finest four-door around the West Sussex airfield, a little Kelvin Hassell was looking to start his racing career. A competitive Kart outfit in those days was about £2000. I didn't have £2000. Or £1000. Or £500. Then, my dear old nan did the only decent thing and popped her clogs, allowing me to afford my first Kart.
Now, the MSA would have you believe that Karting is a cheap sport. And I guess it is, if you're comparing it to Touring Cars or the British GT Championship. But In the real world where people have jobs and kids go to school on public busses, it isn't. A season in the Super One Series cost over £10,000. And that was in a brown caravan towed behind a Ford Granada. Minimal testing. Two chassis, (one was a welded up jobbie that I had crashed previously, a "break glass in case of emergency" kind of affair) Two TKM engines, built by 15 year old me. Three carburettors, also built by 15 year old me. One set of wet tyres, one set of slicks and a lot of stuff we made ourselves.
As soon as I turned 16, I was packed off to race school to learn how to drive cars. After that, I did every scholarship I could to try and win a regular drive in anything. I ran Formula Fords, Vauxhall Juniors, Karts, even Renault 5 Turbos. Everywhere I went I was the fastest, yet no one gave me a drive. I was so frustrated. I started to believe that these scholarship people had already chosen their driver and that the competition was merely a way for them to pay for it. One time I was even told, "We're not giving you the drive because you're basically a pro looking for a free ride." It was massively disheartening.
When I turned 17, I made two important decisions. One was that I would train to be a motor mechanic like my father, against the wishes of many people. Including my father. I didn't want to wait until I could afford to race, so I needed to learn about cars so I could sort them out myself. My cousins and I were all around about the same age and one was notably better off than the rest of us. When he got himself a really nice car, my granddad stepped up to see that the rest of us also had a bit to spend on a car. It was the age of Max Power magazine and my cousins all wanted the latest hot hatch fashions of XR3s and Nova GSis, but not me. In the back of Car and Car Conversions magazine (hands up if you remember the ol' Triple C!) I had spotted a Vauxhall Chevette with Cibie spot lights and a roll cage. I also had a mate called Ray Deacon who was a wiz in a rally car regardless of which seat he plonked his knowledgeable arse in. He also just happened to be "in-between rally cars" at the time. We agreed that he would pay the entry fees and I would provide the car and the driving. It wasn't racing door handle to door handle, but at least I would be driving competitively.
I had some of the best times in my driving career chasing down Escorts and Minis in the twisty white roads of Sussex. Never mind that you couldn't open the windows with the doors closed. Don't worry that you couldn't hold a conversation over the Janspeed exhaust. Forget that you need to re-jet the Webber every Mot. Who cares about getting up an hour earlier to sit warming the engine before you could drive anywhere. And while teaching a girl to put on a six-point harness guarantees you a trip to second base, there is a limit to how far you can take it with a roll-cage and with no back seat. The car was totally impractical for College, work, socialising - in fact, anything that didn't involve driving sideways between trees at 100 mph. But when you need to compete, you make sacrifices. You make a commitment.
The company coffers filled a bit more when one of our customers committed to a new race car. This had the added benefit of his old car coming up for sale. I found myself racing a very standard XR2 in a championship for heavily modified Ford cars. This taught me how to come last a lot. But I was on a race track. I was learning. And it was the most important thing to me in the world. The Chevette had inevitably gone the way of all rally cars. I had replaced it with a V6 Cortina Estate that had no exhaust and no shock absorbers to speak of, but it did have a tow ball and had only cost me £100. I couldn't use it for rallying but it would make an emergency tow vehicle/ bed in a pinch, if I needed it for the XR2.
The following year, dad found an Escort Cosworth rolling shell very cheap and wanted me to make myself a nice comfortable road car. I cant even begin to explain the wrongness about owning a fast car and not racing it. If you don't understand the sheer colossal amount of wrongness with something so terribly wrong as not racing a fast car, there is something wrong with you. Also you should probably leave now, this blog is not for people like you.
I blagged some engine components and got building. I got a couple of sponsorship deals out of some of my suppliers. I worked all night every night, often sleeping at the workshop. I built the #13 Escort Cosworth. It was a really good car. I miss it dearly. It gave me a fastest lap at pretty much every track in the country. Lots of wins. It was expensive though. When my dad decided that the company couldn't help my racing anymore, I knew I couldn't afford to race a Cosworth. Father and I fell out. But, even with no job, no race car and nowhere to live. It never ever occurred to me that I wouldn't race again. Didn't even cross my mind.
I got a job at a local garage and immediately started looking for somewhere to race. I'd missed out on the Eurocar explosion of the 90s and ASCAR was the only other thing I really wanted to race. It was already was prohibitively expensive.
I should point out that my introduction to racing was Wednesday nights at Arlington Stadium in Eastbourne, watching the oval track gladiators of the Superstox in a mesmerising blur of speed, tyre smoke and twisted metal. I love Stock Cars. I love all the oval track racing. Burt Reynolds had taught me about NASCAR through the medium of film, with the box office flop Stroker Ace. I knew stock cars at every level. The idea of us having a NASCAR series in the UK had really got my attention.
Fortunately there was a new series starting out of Arena Essex called Baby Grand Racing. These little NASCAR replicas (now called MASCAR) were fast, fun and, most importantly, I could rent one.
Now with a proper job, mother decided that it would be a good time to get me on the property ladder. She gave me the deposit to get my first flat and with it my first mortgage. As fun as working 9 to 5 and having a massive debt is, I never really felt comfortable with the idea. It did, however turn out to be a good thing.
It was whilst racing at Lydden Hill in the Baby Grand that I first laid eyes on CAMSO V8. The Belgian series for NASCAR type stock cars had made its annual visit across the channel to the Kent venue from its home track of Warneton. They were big, noisy and very fast. I took down the phone number of Roots V8 Racing from one of the cars and went on to win the Baby Grand final, which made introducing myself to Tony Roots considerably easier.
Tony invited me to Warneton to test a car. I went, it was amazing, I knew straight away that I needed one of these cars. This was going to be expensive. The cheapest car I could get was Tony's old #77 car at £15000. I didn't have £15000. I didn't have £5000. I didn't have £1000. But I did have a flat.
It took longer than I wanted it to, which, as anyone that tries to sell property will tell you, is normal. I had just enough equity to buy the Stock Car and good enough friends to sofa-surf on account of making myself homeless again. I rented a garage at Warneton where I stored the car until I was ready to work on it, then I would sleep in the garage when I stayed in Belgium. Which ended up being most of the time. The series was small, but I needed it to be successful, having pretty much gambled any chance I ever had of a normal life to go racing in it. I promoted the hell out of it, getting it regular coverage in motorsport publications thanks to the friends I've made in motorsport over the years. It was hard. I can even remember going over to Warneton once without enough money for fuel, Hoping that we could do a deal with someone when I got there. And we did. I'd managed to meet people that would become some of the closest friends I'll ever have. I think this happens to a lot of people that go racing. There is no family like your racing family.
Tony saw the work I was putting in and helped me out (took pity on me) by putting me to work in the race school there. He also moved me out of the garage and into his camper. My car was made out of second hand bits off of his car. He did everything he could to keep me on track, and the parties we had off the track were outrageous too! The best years of my life were had with those people I met, because of buying that race car and I will never ever regret it.
We talked about growing the series more. I put together a group of people to help us direct the media to the series. P.R guru Melissa, my long suffering girlfriend of the time. Sam from Race Car Engineering and my long time friend and sometime sponsor Chris. We secured some top coverage for the sport, Tony bought us a TV deal and the ELMS as it had become looked pretty unstoppable. Then Tony started to get ill. He'd survived Cancer before and we thought he had it licked, but he didn't. He offered me everything I needed to carry on racing, but I didn't want to do it without him. We'd seen the birth of the new half mile oval at Venray. But he was not going to get to race on it. The greatest time of my life led me straight to the darkest time of my life. Perhaps the only time I didn't want to get in a race car.
Its a two way street.
You may not want to race but you have to. There are other people that need you to. I'd been talking to a production company across the pond who were making a show about Late Model drivers. I was making preparations to go to the opening race at the new Venray track in Holland in one of Tony's spare cars when the phone rang; Can you come to North Carolina next week? Yes.
The production company were doing a show called Big Time. It would be a reality TV show where Late Model racers would compete against each other in driving tasks to win a drive in ARCA. But before that happens, they need to make sure we can drive a Stock Car. They took us to Rockingham and set us loose on the Little Rock oval in ARCA cars. We weren't allowed to know any of this, until we arrived at The Rock. Myself, and the 30 odd other Late Model drivers attending the "audition" could not believe it. So, at Budweiser's expense I hacked round in an ARCA car all that afternoon, with Chad McCumbee on the two-way. You know him; Plays Dale Junior in the film "3". I was amazed and thankful for the opportunity, and I only wished Tony was around so I could tell someone.
They discussed at length, a way that I could stay there until filming started, and whether they could budget for that. Eventually though, they had to send me home. I didn't mind though, I'd had an amazing time and now I had to go to Venray for the race I should have been doing with Tony.
I left Late Model racing for good not long after. I drove Sprint Cars, which is probably the weirdest thing I've ever driven. I went back to the states to race a Modified. I raced Legends. And in it all, I got to working with my dad again. AHM is up and running! We have a fleet of classic cars and we even rebuilt the Cortina that he raced at Goodwood all those years ago. He's racing it now! I even join him on the long distance stuff now and again.
But the ovals always call me back. Last year I went to Mat Newson and spent more than I could really afford on racing in the BriSCA F1 Championship. I want to do a lot more BriSCA F1 next year. I've evicted myself and moved into the workshop in preparation. Hell, I'm hardly ever home anyway, have you seen the BriSCA schedule? I saw a post on Twitter a while ago asking why a racing driver would say they are going to do something before the finances are in place.
You can do it, you just need to want it bad enough.
This season I'm buying my own F1 from MNR. Not sure how, but I'll see you at the track! =D
***All the crap you see written here is Kelvin's opinion and not that of his associates, race team or marketing partners.***